Rounding The Horn!
Source: (Photo by Yves Forestier/Sygma via Getty Images)
At 55°58′ S, 67°16′ W sits a lonely promontory of stone seemingly at the very edge of the world. Cape Horn, the rocky southern headland at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego of South America, has been a watchword of terror, danger, and triumph against the odds to sailors for centuries.
A Westward Way to the Pacific
During the Age of Discovery between the 14th and 17th centuries, European explorers set out on voyages, claiming lands, finding new trade routes, and establishing overseas empires. One of the most sought after trade routes were to find an all-water route west across the Atlantic Ocean to the East Indies. This was found first by the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 when he led his fleet through a series of channels between the South American mainland and the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. This waterway was named after him as the Strait of Magellan.
The problem was that the Strait of Magellan was narrow, had erratic winds, and was a danger to navigation. A much better solution, from a navigator’s point of view, was to find an open ocean course like the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. However, none had particularly gone looking for it. Even the English privateer, Sir Francis Drake, during his circumnavigation of the globe (1577-1580) chose to use the Strait. Interestingly, when he had emerged in the Pacific, he was blown south of Tierra del Fuego where he guessed there was an open sea.
This open way was officially found on January 31, 1616, when two Dutch explorers, Jacques Le Maire, and Willem Corneliszoon Schouten when seeking a way to circumvent the Strait of Magellan came to what they called Cape Hoorn. The weather was cold and the winds contrary to their direction. They tacked about the Cape in hail and heavy seas before finally emerging into the Pacific Ocean.
The Raw Power of the Southern Ocean
The actual location of Cape Horn is the south tip of Horn Island (Isla Hornos). This point, which aside from the more southerly Diego Ramírez Islands some 65 miles offshore, is to most people’s mind the extreme southern point of South America. Between it and the nearest point considered a part of Antarctica (Livingston Island) is some 500 miles of open ocean called Drake’s Passage, named after the privateer.
The Southern Ocean which circles Antarctica is exceedingly rough. This is mostly due to the southern circumpolar current which runs around Antarctica and is unstopped by any landmass. This current collides with raw power into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As a result, the region about Cape Horn is famous for its heavy seas and high winds. This coupled with snow and ice, makes Cape Horn so dangerous. A mariner’s saying referred to the dangers of sailing at such southern latitudes was, “Below 40 South there is no law, below 50 South there is no God." Likewise, common nicknames for these latitudes were the “Roaring 40s” and the “Furious 50s” and the “Screaming 60s.”
A Trade Route
Cape Horn was subsequently used as a trade route more often than the Strait, particularly by the famous clipper ships of the 19th century. Sailing ships could spend days, weeks, or months tacking against the persistent and powerful east-west winds that blew there.
Captain William Bligh of HMS Bounty on his voyage to Tahiti in 1788 spent about a month trying to sail from east to west around Cape Horn. He failed and was forced to sail the longer, eastern route via the Cape of Good Hope.
Rounding the Horn came to be seen as a rite of passage for mariners.
The Terror of the Horn
Since it became a common passage for mariners there have been at least 800 of shipwrecks off Cape Horn and an estimated 10,000 lives lost in the passage. The worst year was in 1905 when 53 of 130 sailing vessels trying to round the horn from east to west were lost.
The shock of rounding the Horn was considerable to new mariners such as Richard Henry Dana who recorded his experiences in the 1840 sea classic, Two Years Before the Mast. He wrote:
Just before eight o’clock… the cry of “All hands ahoy!” was sounded… and hurrying upon deck, we found a large black cloud rolling on toward us from the south-west, and blackening the whole heavens. “Here comes Cape Horn!” said the chief mate; and we had hardly time to haul down and clew up before it was upon us. In a few moments, a heavier sea was raised than I had ever seen before, and as it was directly ahead the little brig… plunged into it, and all the forward part of her was under water; the sea pouring in through the bow-ports and hawse-hole and over the knightheads, threatening to wash everything overboard. ... We sprang aloft and double reefed the topsails, and furled all the other sails, and made all snug. But this would not do; the brig was laboring and straining against the head sea, and the gale was growing worse and worse. At the same time, sleet and hail were driving with all fury against us.
Cape Horn Today
The economic need to round the Horn mostly ended in 1914 with the opening of the Panama Canal thus ending a unique epoch in the annals of maritime history. It should be said, that nowadays many ships do still round the Horn, either sailors who want the ultimate challenge, tourist cruises, or commercial ships that are too big to fit in the Panama Canal.
Truly to appreciate the raw danger of Cape Horn is to visit it. While there, if you get ashore you can visit a 1992 sculpture by José Balcells dedicated to the lost mariners. The sculpture, which is the silhouette of an albatross in flight has a plaque nearby with a poem in Spanish by Sarah Vial. The following translation was from Princeton University:
I am the albatross that waits for you
at the end of the world.
I am the forgotten souls of dead mariners
who passed Cape Horn
from all the oceans of the earth.
But they did not die
in the furious waves.
Today they sail on my wings
in the last crack
of Antarctic winds.