North America and the Cape Horn Route

Abstract of an article of the same title written by Captain Harold D. Huycke, Secretary and Treasurer of the North American Section of the A. I. C. H.
Prepared by Rear Admiral (Ret.) Roberto Benavente, President of the Chilean Section of the A. I. C. H.
Translated by Thos. E. Waggaman, III Extraordinary Member of the Chilean Section.

Sovereing of the seasThe route of the Windjammers and steamships joining the Pacific ports of the US with her Atlantic ports and Europe required rounding Cape Horn. This was the only maritime route passing the Americas prior to the opening of the Panama Canal.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 created a stampede of traffic from the New England ports to California. Per Dr. John Lyman, an eminent American Maritime Historian, in 1849 777 ships departed from Atlantic ports for San Francisco, all via the Cape Horn route. In effect this migration from the Eastern States to California was one of the largest migrations in modern history.

Dr. Lyman has estimated that some 10,000 ships rounded Cape Horn bound for San Francisco during the period 1850 – 1920; all contributing to the population and economies of the Pacific States. And in reverse, the this Westward migration spawned the salmon, timber and grain industries of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, which rapidly became important sources of raw materials and food for the population centers of the Atlantic States and Europe.

Following the Civil War shipbuilding in New England and the Canadian Maritimes became a major industry, producing oceangoing ships capable of doubling Cape Horn in either direction.

Flying CloudThe Canadian ships – often seen on the Cape Horn Route – were employed principally in the grain and timber trade. The shipowners of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec added to their wooden fleets iron and steel ships from British yards. They continued to operate sailing fleets until the First World War, when the majority of these ships were sold to foreign countries. Many experienced Canadian captains, boatswains and sailors moved over to the US sailing ships still operating. The names of distinguished Canadian Captains such as Richard Quick, John Collins Amberman, Adelbert F. McKay and Dan McDonald deserve to be remembered.

In 1914 two things occurred which had great effects on the sailing fleets of Canada and the US: the inauguration of the Panama Canal and the start of World War I. The commerce raiders and submarines of the German Fleet sank French, Norwegian and Canadian sailing ships, considerably reducing the fleets of these countries. And on the other side, the enormous sailing fleet of Germany – consisting of 132 oceangoing vessels – disappeared from the world’s oceans through internment in neutral countries, capture or blockade.

The last west bound rounding of the Cape by a US windjammer was the Edward Sewall, she sailed from Philadelphia loaded with coal bound for Seattle in 1913 - 1914. Rounding the cape, that is passing from 50 S Latitude to 50 S Latitude took two months, the vessel encountering bad weather conditions at the Cape.

The time and distance savings of using the Panama Canal route were obvious. Nevertheless in 1917 the French 4 masted bark Champigny rounded the Cape westbound loaded with Welsh coal. This made her the last sailing ship to load coal for San Francisco via the Cape.

As the First World War ended, traffic around the Cape lessened. It was limited principally to the transport of lumber from the Pacific Coast to South Africa, the transport of grain from Australia to Europe, and the transport of Chilean nitrate destined for European ports.

The Second World War restored to active duty four US, and two Canadian windjammers, which transported   lumber to South Africa. The old four-masted schooner Vigilant was renamed City of Alberni in 1940. She made two voyages from Canada to Australia hauling lumber. On her next voyage she attempted to transport  lumber again, this time to South Africa, but the stormy seas of the Horn forced her to turn back to Valparaiso for emergency repairs. The ship and the wood were sold and the crew returned home from Valparaiso in 1943. City of Alberni continued navigating under the Chilean Flag with the name Condor (Buque Velero). Her history will be related on another occasion.

BalcluthaThese sailing ships marked the last of the tradition of the commercial "Cape Horn Windjammers" in North America. Nevertheless there are six large steel or iron-hulled sailing vessels preserved in the United States as ship museums. In Honolulu is Falls of Clyde, in San Francisco is Balclutha, in San Diego is the Wavertree. All of these ships have rounded Cape Horn and are destined to preserve the history of the brilliant era of the "Cape Horners"; before they were made obsolete by steamships and the Panama Canal.

In the decade between 1920 and 1930 a group of old sailors, in the majority British, founded the Cutty Sark Club in Winnipeg, Canada. In 1932 another group of Canadian mariners from British Columbia founded the Thermopylae Club. Each club had the goal of protecting and preserving the nautical history of British and Canadian sail. Their clubs, named after two of the most famous "China Clippers", gave honor to the commerce in tea made possible by these vessels.

Thermopylae sank in 1907 and Cutty Sark was acquired by a Portuguese shipowner who renamed her Ferreira. Later she was acquired by a Briton who, after 25 years of work, restored her to in her original condition as a typical example of the last China Clippers. Today she is displayed in drydock for viewing by the public at the museum of Greenwich, outside of London; where she is a great tourist attraction.

The Canadian clubs worked to keep alive the traditions of navigation under sail among the retired sailors who had founded them. They kept on by dedicating themselves to the creation of models of sailing ships, and with social events among their members.

In 1965 a group of retired German sailors who were naturalized Americans founded a new club, the Square Rigger Club, in San Francisco. The impulse for the foundation of this club was a three day visit by Captain Roberto Miethe to San Francisco. He had been one of the best known square rigger captains in Germany and Chile, and the last captain of the famous Potosi of the Flying ‘P Line, which rounded Cape Horn numerous times. This ship was interned in Valparaiso in 1914, and was later given to France as war reparations. Finally she was acquired by the Chilean firm Gonzalez, Soffia y Cia who changed her name to Flora. She worked transporting cargo of Chilean nitrate to Hamburg and returned loaded with coal from Cardiff. On her first and last trip, fire in the cargo hold obliged the crew to abandon her off the Atlantic coast of Argentina, where she sank.

S/V Archbald RusselThe Clubs referred to above have dissolved with time and the decease of their members. Their files and libraries were donated to different maritime museums in the United States and Canada.

The Amicale Internationale des Capitaines au Long-Course Cap Horniers, known as the AMICALE, or in English, the "Cape Horners", invited the Canadian and American groups of retired sailors to join their organization which was accomplished in 1993; thereby creating the American Section of the AICH. Currently that Section includes three categories of members: ordinary, extraordinary and sympathizers. With only one exception, all of these Canadians and Americans have participated in the commercial navigation of a sailing vessel.

The old ships are no longer. The sailors who drove them so hard from Europe, Africa and the Americas to round the Horn are very few. However the tradition is maintained in the maritime museums, in societies of nautical history, and on the pages of books which record with nostalgia this long run around the continent via the feared Cape Horn.

Old Ships Image Gallery

Valparaiso, March 2.000