Cape Horn, Chile – “Rounding the Horn”
The highlight of our trip around South America in terms of historical significance was sailing around Cape Horn. This rocky point on Hornos Island, part of the Tiera del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile, is where many seafarers perished in an attempt to cross these rough waters. The treacherous pass was the route from Europe to the far east and many ships went down trying to navigate around the Cape. The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 enabled ships to bypass this route and changed maritime history. Cape Horn marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage, the straights between South America and Shetland Island of Antarctica. The Cape was originally named Kaap Hoorn by a Dutch merchant and explorer, after the city of Hoorn in the Netherlands. The Cape is the most southern point of South America (granted, it’s an island in the archipelago and not on mainland) and the point where the Atlantic meets the Pacific ocean.
Travelling this route aboard a luxurious cruise ship is nothing like what the explorers and navigators of the past had to endure in their small vessels and I wonder what they might think if they could see how we sail today on these large floating resorts. Cruise ships are not the only ones sailing around the Horn. It is a challenge sport sailors crave and trans-Atlantic race boats continue to sail this route to this day.
Once we left the Falklands, the south Atlantic was getting noticeably rough and we experienced waves about 8-10 feet. Spray from the waves splashed all the way up to our balcony on deck 10. The big solid ship was rocking a bit, making us realize that we are still a ship at sea but nothing impeded the excitement of the travel. Early afternoon we entered Chilean waters and begun making the approach towards Cape Horn.
The water was quite rough on our approach and the Captain was not sure he would be able to circle the island as we had hoped but as we got closer it calmed enough for him to bring the ship close to the eastern side of Cape Horn and we could see the famous lighthouse and the research outpost beside it. We were very lucky because the Captain determined the conditions were good and he was able to take the ship around the north side of the island to the western side and come around the southern tip and I believe it was the only time this season the ship managed to fully circle the Horn. We of course were thrilled with the experience. As we passed the island to the south the ship was as close to the island as it can be, only 1 nautical mile from shore. We viewed everything from a top deck bundled up in newly purchased jackets and tukes as it was windy and rather cold. I kept thinking of all the small ships that the explorers sailed and could not even begin to comprehend the rough conditions they experienced in this unforgiving place.
Near the lighthouse there is a memorial for sailors who perished while attempting to round the horn. The memorial was inaugurated in 1992 by a Chilean Association of Cape horn. A 7 meter high monument was designed by Chilean sculptor Jose Balcells Eyquem and constructed by the chilean Navy as it has to withstand 200 km/h winds which are common in this area. The sculpture depicts a silhouette of an albatross spreading its wings. A poem written by Sara Vial, a poet and writer from Valparaiso who wrote this in 1992, is engraved on a marble slab nearby:
I am the albatross that awaits you
at the end of the world.
I am the forgotten soul of the dead mariners
who passed Cape Horn
from all the seas of the world.
But they did not die
in the furious waves.
Today they soar on my wings
in the last crack
of the Antarctic winds.
Cape Horn sits at a latitude of 56º South. The expression “rounding the horn” traditionally means sailing from latitude 50ºS on the east side to latitude 50ºS on the west side of South America, known as the benchmark latitudes for rounding the Horn. The expressions “roaring 40s”, “furious 50s” and “screaming 60s” refers to latitudes and take on a special meaning one you have seen first hand the hazardous condition of these waters. There is a seafarer’s saying that “below 40ºS there is no law, below 50ºS there is no God”.
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 100 feet high.
So, we did it, we “rounded the Horn”, albeit safely and in modern luxury.
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. Almost.
It was special to “round the Horn” and my next goal now is to set foot on the island, see the Albatross monument and lighthouse up close, visit the research cente and gaze at the ocean from there. I’ll have to do that en route to Antarctica on the next adventure to this magnificent area.
The sirens are calling.