Domesticating the Demon – Rounding the Horn

By Andrea Granahan

Just the name used to strike dread into sailors’ hearts – Cape Horn. It has taken untold lives and terrorized those that made it around the infamous passage.

Richard Henry Dana wrote about his experience in his famous book, Two Years Before the Mast.

“…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, which was no better than a bathing machine, plunged into it, and all the forward part of her was under water; the sea pouring in …threatening to wash everything overboard.”

On our ship it was just beginning to get light. Stewards appeared on the eleventh story deck with its wrap-around views, wheeling in carts with coffee urns which they set up with trays of pastries for us early risers. Some of us had binoculars, and we sat in the padded chairs we had set our alarms before dawn to claim, staring ahead through the mist.

Suddenly we saw it. That great peak, shaped, oddly enough, like Diamond Head on Oahu Island. But this monster did not preside over tropical waters. This was the dreaded Cape Horn that looms large in sea shanties and sailors’ lore. It is the end of all habitable land at that end of our planet, where the Andes plunge into the sea, where two mighty oceans come together in a titan’s clash.

Cape Horn at the southernmost limit of habitable land.

Magellan tried to find the end of the annoyingly huge continent that stood between the Old World and the Spice Islands in 1520. He never did, but he did discover the Magellan Straits that winds its way through the archipelago at the foot of South America. Even getting that far cost him – of the 237 men that set out on the expedition, only 18 made it safely back to Spain (Magellan wasn’t one of them).

Some of them fell victim to the Williwaws, the wind phenomenon peculiar to those latitudes. Cold air builds up behind steep slopes then suddenly spills over the top of a mountain and falls into the sea at hurricane speeds, like an invisible iceberg, making a temporary dent in the water and a great splash. Woe to any boat that is not securely tied up at both ends below a Williwaw. Williwaws notwithstanding, in later years the straits served and still serve as a safer passage for steamships than the vicious Horn. Of course, now, the Panama Canal provides safer, even pedestrian, passage.

In 1525 another Spanish explorer, Francisco de Hoces,  may or may not have been the first to see the Horn. Sir Frances Drake claimed to have reached the end of land and seen open ocean – the historical jury is still out on it. The story is the dapper, red-bearded privateer climbed up the banks and crawled his way through the gales to reach the end for bragging rights, as he came back and told his men, “I have been the farthest south of any  man yet known .” Historians all have to agree he did make it around South America and enter the Pacific where he ravaged the Spanish towns and treasure ships. The sea passage south of the Horn is still called Drake’s Pass.

But it took the Dutch to really use it for trade purposes and to name it. By the early 1600s the Dutch East India Company had claimed a monopoly on the Straits of Magellan. William Schouten, master of the ship Hoorn, named for his hometown, determined to break the monopoly by bypassing the straits and finding another passage that sailors’ gossip had bragged about since Drake. They called the treacherous point Cape Hoorn, which the English later shortened to Cape Horn.

During California’s Gold Rush, the Horn saw a lot of traffic.  Later, around the turn of the 20th century, large steel square rigged sailing ships were specially constructed for heavy hauling around the Horn. Coal and nitrate were the usual freights.

The last tallship to make the passage was the Pamir in 1949.

The Pamir, a German tallship – the last to sail around the Horn.

Before that in 1905 a square rigged ship, the British Isles, tried for 71 days to get round the Horn before she made it. She was one of the two largest three-masted ships ever built and was made for hauling heavy loads. She was full of coal when she tried to round the Horn. By the time they made it, the vessel was a wreck, four men had died, one lost a leg, and many others had suffered permanent injuries. A young sailor, William Jones, wrote of that terrifying passage in a book called The Cape Horn Breed. That same year the Susanna took 91 days to make the trip. No one recorded what must have been that horrific passage. In that terrible winter of 1905 of the 200 or so ships to leave for the Horn, 55 went missing.

The fastest rounding was accomplished with a windjammer, the Priwall, in five days and fourteen hours in 1938. No one has ever broken that record, although some have tried. Generally it took two weeks or more. Some chatted about the statistics as we drew closer to the landmark.

The Priwall, a windjammer, holds the world speed record for rounding the Horn. It was built by the same company that built the Pamir.

“We are exceedingly fortunate,” a ship’s officer told us over the loudspeaker from the bridge. “We are seeing the smiling face of the Horn today.”

While the skies were gray, the seas were relatively smooth, just long slow swells. There were white caps from the wind, but even though it was kind today, not stirring up mighty waves. I was still glad we were not on a sailing ship. I felt secure on our great, motor driven ship.

“In the next few moments the bow will be in one ocean and the stern will be in another,” said the officer. “However, fortunately we are still joined,” he added chuckling.

There were no trees, but lots of moss and grass covered the promontory. Then came the announcement that because the weather was cooperative, the captain of our ship planned to circumnavigate the Horn so we would see it from all sides before we headed off into the Atlantic.

As we came into the lee side we poured on deck to take photos and gawk at the island. Soon we could see the residence of the Chilean naval officer and his family stationed on what must be one of the loneliest places on earth. The family tends the lighthouse, a weather station, a chapel, and greets any visitors. Small Antarctic expedition boats sometimes stop there. We finally got close enough to see the beautiful memorial the Chileans have erected there.

The stunning Chilean monument to those who died rounding the Horn.

Seven meters high, the metal diamond shape features a cutout figure of an albatross – the traditional spiritual guardian of the souls of sailors drowned at sea. The memorial honors all those who lost their lives rounding the Horn. It was dedicated in 1992. The Chilean poet  Sara Vial from the port of Valparaiso wrote a poem that is carved there. The officer read it to us.

I, the albatross that awaits at the end of the world…
I am the forgotten soul of the sailors lost,
rounding Cape Horn from all the seas of the world.
But die they did not in the fierce waves,
for today towards eternity, in my wings they soar,
in the last crevice of the Antarctic winds.

Everyone grew very quiet as we passed the memorial, our thoughts reaching into the terrible past of the Horn.

These days there is little traffic around the Horn. The occasional cruise ship, such as ours, goes by. Indeed, the biggest attraction to boarding this ship for me, an unapologetic romantic, was a chance to round the Horn. Sometimes Antarctic cruises and expeditions pass, or even stop. Yachts sometimes try it, don’t always make it. There are some insane yacht races to circumnavigate the globe every few years that include rounding the Horn. The albatross cares for the spirits of some of those blue water sailors. Local fishermen are too smart to chance its unpredictable ways.

In the 1980s Argentina’s military government, looking for some conquest to distract their unhappy citizens from the “Dirty War” they were waging against their political opponents, made threatening noises about taking over the Horn. He who controls it, controls the vital air space above it. The Chileans responded by sending their navy and land mining it. So the Argentine dictators turned to the Falklands instead with disastrous results for the country and their government.

Nowadays, things are more peaceful and Argentina has a more benign government. The biggest danger at the Horn island itself is that one of the officer’s children or a visitor might accidentally step on a mine, so they have been fenced off. We could see the fences. The fences are easily removable should Argentine dictators rise again.

In tallship days when sailors rounded the Horn they were entitled to put a small golden ring in their left ears and could put both feet on the mess table as well as sport a tallship tattoo. We were awarded printed certificates. Some ships “baptize” their passengers with a bucket of water from the mixed oceans at the Horn. I was just as glad ours didn’t. Even in summer the Horn is chilly. My ears were pierced already and I had no interest in tattoos. Still I felt strange – as if a part of me had indeed been marked – it had to be in my heart.

At last we were past the Horn and we could see that wave-torn, wind-scarred, brave marker of the seas fade into the mist behind us. We still had almost six degrees of latitude to pass before we reached 50 degrees and had officially rounded the Horn, but as I saw that wild outpost of land vanish in the distance I felt very privileged, like a great milestone had been crossed, and also, I felt as if a part of me had been left behind with the sailors’ albatross – yes, it had to be a piece of my heart.

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