Cape Horn & the sea of fear

Extracted and adapted from the website:
February 2003.
[spanish version]

"One sight of such a coast is enough to make a landsman dream for a week about shipwrecks, peril and death." Charles Darwin, 1834

It became customary in the Twenties to plunder rather than assist vessels shipwrecked at the end of the world.

Our ship has left Antartica and is preparing to cross Drake Passage, the crossways where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet face to face. Little by little we go leaving behind us the blocks of floating ice. Penguins, whales and cormorants stop their play pretending to chase us. We submerge in the world’s most savage waters.

The wind blows West-Northeast at a speed of 54 knots (27 meters per second). The atmospheric pressure is 763 millibars. The air temperature is four degrees and that of the water barely two. Visibility is hardly beyond six miles. The waves come over the ship’s deck and make its inner structure creak like the hinges of an old door. The rigging is rigid and the masts vibrate. Things are not much better within the ship – "If you need to get around do so on your knees, don’t be ashamed" –the Captain suggests. Eating is impossible: the food runs off the dishes and glasses must be held. It is impossible to read: eyes dance between the lines, head and feet strike rhythmically against the ends of the bunk, and it is necessary to dig in elbows to keep in place. One can only feel one’s stomach heave and see how life rolls about.

The Pacific and the Atlantic, the two largest oceans on the planet, crash violently in a solitary place hidden away at the southernmost tip of the American continent. In this sinister landscape, storms sweep away the good weather. Mountainous seas, the height of a five-story building, may darken the sun. Unrestrained winds, blowing in all directions, are capable of dismasting a sailing ship. Ice islands adrift, hundreds and thousands of meters in size, capable of destroying the hull of any ship, are a floating threat. In these unruly waters, where the Antarctic ocean is engendered, the cold would paralyze the heart of a shipwrecked survivor in less than five minutes. Only phantoms are able to survive in this salty, watery hell: They say that albatrosses crossing the gray skies are the reincarnated souls of thousands of seamen drowned in the area in the last four hundred years.

A black ram with a legendary name is an eternal witness of this fascinating natural phenomenon: Cape Horn. The nightmare of all seamen, and the dream of irresponsible travelers and suicidal adventurers, it is spoken of in a hushed voice in all ports worldwide. They tell that whoever has not navigated these waters is not an authentic seaman; and that those who have roamed through its labyrinth of waves will never forget.

At no other place at sea have so many keels been broken, so many lives been cut short, and so many legends been born, as Cape Horn. Discoverers, whalers, missionaries, seal hunters, traders, scientists, dealers, pirates... They have all felt their hearts tremble and their stomachs contract. That black rock with a sinister profile, surrounded by fear inspiring glaciers, has been witness to the growth and agony of maritime strength and to the rise and fall of empires. That black rock, molded, fissured and corroded by the storms, has seen sailing ships, schooners and brigantines become toys in the hands of the waves.

The years have gone by and this black rock continues in its firm position at the end of the world. Centuries have passed and the modern seaman encounters the same hell as before. The scenery is the same, but the players in the drama – let us not deceive ourselves – confront nature under far more favorable conditions than before. Ships are now more solid, faster, easier to handle... and they are equipped with the most up-to-date instruments: radar, echo sounder, radio... A pilot in the previous century would have sold his soul to the devil for a GPS (Global Positioning System), an apparatus the size of a cellular phone and the price of a pair of shoes which, connected with three satellites, gives the exact position with a maximum margin of error of one hundred meters.

Two days after escaping from the ice crystal desert, we approach Cape Horn, austral end of Chile. With a heavy sea, it is easy to imagine how the old ships suffered, how their sails filled until they tore and how the ship’s lookouts were gutted against the deck or disappeared forever in the flying foam from the waves. Fear remains alive here, at a latitude of 55º 59’ S and longitude of 67º 12’ W from the Greenwich meridian. If we look at the globe and follow the line of parallels, we find it 1,300 miles south of Cape of Good Hope, at the extreme S end of Africa, and 600 miles below the latitude of Stewart island, New Zealand: Right in the middle of nowhere.

For several centuries the so-called "Rounding of the Cruel Cape" under sail was considered the highest laurels for any seaman, businessman or sportsman, soldier or whaler. In addition, Cape Horner clubs were born, where those who had conquered the myth were grouped in a peculiar chivalric order. Today anyone may rent a sailing boat – or purchase a ticket on one of the numerous charters frequenting the area – and indulge himself knowing that the only risk he runs is being unable to keep his food down.

But let us not deceive ourselves, because even with a clear sky it is not easy to visit Horn Island, the southernmost of the Hermite islands. Large round boulders, covered in moss and seaweed, are strewn on the sea shore, and the wind hits from North to West. The waves appear to crouch awaiting any slip on the part of the traveler to steal his soul. A monument - built by the Chilean Brotherhood of Captains of Cape Horn - has been placed there in memory of lost seamen, with a poem by Sara Vial: "I am the albatross that awaits you 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."

On leaving Cape Horn heading for Puerto Williams, Chile, the weather goes crazy. In the following 100 miles three different weather reports may be received: At the beginning, there are over 40 knot winds, the waves rise over three meters high and there is sleet. Off Nassau bay, the wind speed drops to 30 knots, with waves a meter high. In the Beagle Channel the wind blows at 15 knots and the sea is almost calm. The mischievous network of channels of Tierra del Fuego manages to tame the sea.

In a tavern in Punta Arenas, very near the port, some old sea wolves meet on a Thursday. They drink rum and beer, remember the good old days, grieve for good comrades and sing old sea shanties. Sebastian first rounded Cape Horn when he was 17 years old. Now, "half a century plus a year later", his facial muscles grow taut, he closes his eyes slightly and recalls his sailing days in a whisper: "The first time I rounded Cape Horn I was helpless. My only thought was to hold on with tooth and nail to lines and timbers. Since then I have rounded the wretched Cape at least half a hundred times; but truthfully, I cannot understand other people. If not obliged to do so for survival, to feed my family and not end up as a drunk lying in a gutter, I would never have navigated round that wretched place again. It is the kingdom of Satan."

Charles Darwin was not a seaman, but during his voyage on the BEAGLE he understood those who gambled their lives among the waves perfectly. " Most seamen – in my opinion – would not really care very much for the sea if they hadn’t been forced to do so by necessity, by dreams of glory when very young, and by force of habit when old, all of which constitutes the only link of attraction."

In 1616, when Spain’s reign over the seas had weakened, a Dutch captain called Willem Cornelius Schouten – on the verge of his fiftieth year – navigated through virgin waters in the southern seas. He was accompanied on board the UNITY by a handful of young men, wearing leather capes greased with sea lion fat and heavy hand knitted woolen jackets. They were seeking a new route to the Pacific to avoid the restrictions in the East Indies. It was summertime, the short night of 29th January, when Schouten wrote in his diary: "We encountered high seas coming from the South West. The water was also a bluish color so we judged that to the right, South West of us, there was a large and deep sea and presumed that undoubtedly it was the Great Southern Sea and that we had discovered a passage which until then had been concealed and unknown... Here we stood up to a great quantity of rain, hailstorms and a wind so variable that frequently we had to turn around and sail here and there according to the circumstances, as although it was mid Summer cold spells followed one another with great storms from the South West... We shall call this Cape Hoorn, the name of our good city Hoorn". Schouten was the first person to tame the Horn. Thousands followed after him. They tell that they are all entitled to three things forbidden to other mortals: to urinate into the wind, to keep their caps on in the presence of a king, and to wear an earring: Old legends which conceal the real dramas of the sea, such as that old mariners, spendthrifts, wasters and troublemakers when their feet touched land, had to wear gold earrings as an investment. Only thus could they ensure that they would always have something left to pay for a decent burial if they died in a brawl.

Today times have changed, but Nature remains the same. The tip of America continues to shake with rage.