Luis E. Montenegro S.
On the 22nd of October 1990, two experienced American sailors Richard Wilson and Steve Pettengilt set sail from San Francisco towards Boston via Cape Horn, on board the modern sailing vessel "Great American". Their intention was to beat the sailing vessel record set in 1853 for navigation between these two ports. One month later 100 miles West of Cape Horn on a route scarcely used for commercial navigation, they overturned in storms with waves to 11 metres and winds reaching speeds over sixty knots.
The seamen were successfully rescued from the hull of the overturned vessel by the container ship "New Zealand Pacific". Valparaiso Radio of the Chilean Navy co-ordinated the rescue using the "AMVER" vessel emergency communication system created by the United States Coast Guard to determine availability of potential rescue vessels, and to synchronise the actual rescue.
These brave mariners of "Great American" challenged a record of 140 years standing in an exciting adventure of modern day sailing, on a vessel equipped with all that modern naval technology has to offer in relation to shipbuilding, navigation and telecommunication; and failed. It becomes interesting to find out more concerning those who originally set this record.
The story goes back to the times of the Californian gold fever, which turned the quiet and sleepy town of San Francisco into a bustling port in less than two years. During the period April 1847 to April 1848, only two ships had entered San Francisco Bay; two years later in 1849, approximately 775 sailing ships set out for San Francisco from the American Atlantic ports. During this time some 91,400 passengers from different parts of the world disembarked at San Francisco.
The prospect of becoming rich in the goldfields was very attractive to many of the officers and crewmen who came in on these ships, as a result of this a great number of sailing ships were abandoned as the crew went off to the mines. Many of these ships became hulks and were transformed into hotels, stores, hospitals and even prisons.
In 1848, California was practically uninhabited and was unable to provide the needs for such a population explosion. Many of the recent arrivals having amounts of gold in their pouches, were on the brink of starvation. The need for supplies in California and passage to rapidly transport passengers from the East to the West side of the country grew to such an extent that it brought the Californian "Clippers". Of which, between 1850 and 1854 one hundred and sixty were built, the majority being launched in or near New York and Boston.
These magnificent sailing ships, the fastest of their kind, sailed with the intention of obtaining commercial supremacy over the sea and while reaching for this goal set many speed records for sailing ships, of which some have still not been broken. Even steam ships took some years to beat these passage times.
The first Clipper Competition around Cape Horn took place in 1850, with seven vessels taking part and large amounts of money riding on the outcome. The vessel "Samuel Russel" took 109 days to reach San Francisco from New York, shortening the existing record by eleven days, and creating a sensation that was hard to overcome.
However, a short period after, another one of these clippers, the "Sea Witch" literally flew the distance in 97 days from Sandy Hook, lowering the record by another twelve days. This crossing left the entire world in awe.This record remains unbroken today by a ship of her tonnage. A remarkable aspect of this voyage which makes it even more outstanding is that "Sea Witch" rounded Cape Horn in winter; when vessels are usually confronted with headwinds South and North until they reach latitude 35 degrees South on the Western side of South America. Furthermore the registers show that during this period a clipper setting sail from New York or Boston, on average, would take 159 days to reach San Francisco.
In 1853, in the month of February, three first class clippers were in San Francisco Bay at almost the same time, preparing themselves for the journey back to New England. Two of them, the "Contest" and the "Trade Wind" were built by two different shipyards in New York, and the third one, the "Northern Light" was built in Boston. There was much controversy surrounding these ships and the quality of their builders, which led to a improvised race between them.
Captain Freeman Hatch, of the "Northern Light" set out from San Francisco on the 13th of March 1853; 38 days later he had already rounded Cape Horn, day 52 he was outside Rio de Janeiro and finally brought Boston Light in sight on the 29th of May. Northern Light reached her destination in 76 days and 5 hours, while the "Contest" arrived within 79 days and the "Trade Wind" reached New York within 84 days. With this, the "Northern Light" set a new record, which also set a new record for a days run, managing 355 miles in 24 hours, is an average speed of 14,8 knots. That under any circumstances is impressive for a 1,021 ton sail ship with a length of 171 ft. and a width of 36 ft. (approximately 52 and 11 metres)
It is said that the vessels Logs reflect, while rounding the legendary Cape Horn and passing near the "Contest", Captain Hatch sent a message informing them that, "he felt he had to depart from their side since he could no longer restrain his horse", obviously referring to the splendid performance of his vessel.
Whether this story is true or not, the fact is that until this very day the extraordinary and lucky performance of the "Northern Light" has not been bettered; no other sailing vessel has been able to beat the time between San Francisco and Boston via Cape Horn.
Thus, the challenge remains open to other daring mariners, with a spirit of adventure and with all of todays technological advances: to try and break the record of "Northern Light". This was set by the tough mariners of a century and a half ago, they were brave and true Cape Horners, ancestors of the proud fellows who continue the tradition today.