It isn't everyone's cup of tea, but today it's ours. We're right down at the gale-washed tip of South America, about 30 miles north of Cape Horn, heading west by southwest for Peninsula Hardy, a particularly rugged arm of the octopus-shaped Isla Hoste.
Since the wind is blowing from precisely the same direction, our course is going to be one long, miserable, bow-pounding beat. Between stints on the wheel, there's not much to do but settle in and try to find the rhythm of it. Around the galley table, Graham Rice, 35, flips through Yachting World magazine, paying particular attention to the classifieds; someday, he says, he'd like to go into the sailboat-charter business himself. Meanwhile his younger half-brother, Gordon, 19, hunkers down for a multihour chess match with Dave Fernie, 25, while Dave's dad, Richard, climbs up the companionway to spell his old friend John.
It's like that all day long: up, down, steer, reef, trim, soup, zip, puke. There's not much talking, no evident father-son bonding. But slowly we claw our way up to windward. About two in the afternoon, we tack off the north coast of Isla Grevy. Novak points out the kelpy anchorage where, one day back in the mids, the American yachtsman Hal Roth tried to secure his boat, Whisper. A knot squall came in from the west and tossed the foot sloop onto the rocks, severely holing her.
Roth, his wife, a friend, and the photographer he'd hired to record his rounding-the-Horn experience spent nine days living under a sail before a Chilean patrol boat picked them up. Novak's commentary on Roth's calamity is brief and dismissive. At dusk, a bit of clear sky shows itself on the western horizon, and though we don't see the sun directly, it illuminates a toothlike cordillera to the north, on Isla Navarino.
I get entranced watching the squadrons of black-browed albatross as they dip and glide off the bow of the boat. Everybody spills out on deck as we approach the high, dark silhouette of Peninsula Hardy.
There's a different mood on board now. The grim determination of the morning is gone, replaced by a quiet, sailorly satisfaction. All of us, I suspect, are feeling the same thing.
We don't want this to be too easy. It's actually a small island, the southernmost of the myriad islands, islets, and rocks that constitute the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. One does not, therefore, need to "round the Horn" to get from the South Atlantic to the South Pacific. When Magellan made his pioneering passage in , he relied on a channel miles to the north, and so did the next four men to sail around the world.
As far as they knew, there was no passage south of the Strait of Magellan. In , Willem Schouten, an entrepreneurial Dutchman hoping to circumvent the Dutch East India Company's "monopoly" on the Strait of Magellan, sailed south along the coast of Tierra del Fuego in search of an alternate route to the Pacific. The turning point was a four-mile-long island whose southern aspect rose up to form a vaguely menacing promontory 1, feet high. Schouten named it after his home port of Hoorn, near Amsterdam. In time, as ships grew larger and less maneuverable, bold navigators began to favor the great seaway to the south over the tight, rock-strewn confines of the Strait.
That meant sailing into the heart of the Screaming 50s, the high latitudes of the Southern Ocean.
Such vessels could rarely "point" efficiently upwind. Only then, hundreds of miles north, could a ship be considered safely around. There was poetry in those names, but unspeakable horror as well. The death tolls were sometimes fantastic. The San Telmo , with on board, last seen on September 2, The O'Higgins , , souls Seventy-five of the map's icons were lined up in neat rows south of Cape Horn, like headstones in a graveyard.
Often the precise location of a ship's demise was not known; those 75 were simply lost at sea. There were many ways it could happen. The result: horrendous ship-breaking seas. If a vessel's sails were blown away, she might turn broadside, roll, and fill like a bathtub. Or, after weeks of battling the waves, her seams might open so extensively that no amount of pumping could keep her afloat.
But the sailor's greatest fear was the rugged lee shore that stretches for some miles northwest of Cape Horn.
Driven up against it in a storm, no ship stood a chance. Nevertheless, by the midth century, the waters off Cape Horn were bustling. In , the first year of the California Gold Rush, ships doubled the Horn.
The clippers were gone by the s, but windjammers, often built of and rigged with iron, continued to sail around the bottom of the Americas right up until the completion of the Panama Canal, in The Ditch marked the end of the Horn as a commercial trade route, though a few stubborn Finns continued to haul Chilean nitrates by sail right up until World War II.
Military ships still double Cape Horn, and so does the occasional supertanker too big to fit through the Canal.
Other than that, nobody really needs to sail around the Horn anymore. And yet they do. Aboard the Micalvi , an old naval vessel that serves as a sort of yacht club in Puerto Williams, the little navy town where we cleared into Chilean waters, we met an old Aussie pal of Novak's, Mike Wignall, who'd just sailed in from Bluff, New Zealand. When I asked him why he'd come via the Horn instead of heading directly for his destination of Valdivia, several hundred miles up the Chilean coast, he replied, "Aw, mate, you just kinda have to, don't you?
Calling the Horn "the sailor's Everest" may be overstating it a bit, but for ambitious mariners, rounding this small island has clearly become an important life-list experience. Which in part explains Ushuaia's growing charter-sailboat community. Not everyone agrees, of course. Fair enough, Captain. But the fact is that the Horn's baleful glare still beckons a certain kind of sailor, who for whatever reason needs to confront the uttermost parts of the earth and the power of the sea.
It probably always will. Somewhat unnervingly, Novak remains belowdecks, deducing our location from the green shapes floating on his radar screen and occasionally calling up course corrections to the helmsman. After dinner, John Rice reminds us why we're here: He spreads a broad chart across the galley table, passes out a few photocopies of sketches made by his great-grandfather, and, though we are all familiar with it by now, takes us through the story one more time. Edmund Stewart Rice was born in in Workington, a little town in northern England famous for producing mariners.
His father was a sea captain, as were two of his three brothers. So it was no surprise when, at age 33, Edmund was made the master of the River Boyne, a three-masted, foot iron windjammer. Eighty-three days later the ship cleared Cape Horn, and six days after that, on October 13, the crew noticed smoke and a strong smell of gas. Four hours later, Captain Rice logged the following entry: "1 pm smoke gaining, coming up the fore hatch in dense volumes, wind SW, hard gale increasing, deemed it advisable to batten down and run back to anchorage to E of Wollaston Island where we shall have smooth water.
Rice was unable to retrieve all of his charts. Today they soar on my wings towards eternity in the last crack of the Antarctic winds. Albatross in flight credit. The reason for the treacherous conditions are the fierce winds blowing in the Drake Passage from west to east with no land in sight to block or slow them down. These winds give rise to enormous waves but around the shallow waters of the Cape these waves become shorter and steeper creating major hazard to ships. When these westerly winds meet easterly winds in the Drake passage they build up the waves further.
In addition the Cape is also known for rogue waves that can be feet high. Once we left the Horn heading north towards Ushuaia winds were strong and the Captain asked for and received permission to sail through the narrow Mar del Sur Channel to get protection from the wind. This is not the usual route cruise ships take.
The passage was interesting with the shoreline so close you felt you could just walk off the ship and onto the land. I think we were on the phone briefly while you experienced this! I see why you were so exhilarated by the experience. What are the scientists researching there now? Can people go to the island? Hi Jade, yes, it was a special experience and I tried to connect with all three of you, glad I caught you. The research center is apparently a beautiful facility, I should add some info to the post.
They do socio-ecological research, meaning they study the cause and effect relations between natural environment and human activity. Yes, you can go on the island but you would have to reach it on a smaller vessel. I definitely plan to do it in the not too distant future.
Your email address will not be published. Before the Panama Canal was built, the strait became a busy shipping passage transporting people and goods to California. Although ships have come a long way since Sir Francis Drake turned tail, sailing around Cape Horn is still considered the Everest of yachting excursions.
Cape Horn marks the point at which the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet — which is what makes the passage so treacherous. Extreme low-pressure systems whirl across the sea, creating the dreaded williwaw winds. These gusts are sudden, unpredictable and frequent — and with bigger winds, come bigger waves. The headland is also home to stunning wildlife , scenery, and cultural heritage.