There are two places on this planet that consistently bring grown men to their knees. They are places where men drop equally from exhilaration, exhaustion, and frustration. The first is Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world. The other lies at the southernmost tip of South America: Cape Horn. Two words that have for centuries served to inspire and strike fear into the hearts of sailors, and for good reason. Cape Horn is the sailor’s Everest, with its attendant risks and rewards, and many hundreds of sailors have perished in their quest to round what some refer to as the “uttermost cape.”
For me it has always been a beacon of inspiration, a place steeped in history and mystery. Cape Horn is like no other sailing landfall. It’s geographically remote, located below 56 degrees south, and it’s visually striking, with steep cliffs constantly pounded by relentless Southern Ocean waves. The water has carved deep striations in the hard granite, forming giant organ pipes where seabirds nest and damp spray mingles with the souls of sailors who have lost their lives in those turbulent waters.
I have been thinking about Cape Horn quite a bit recently. My friend Brad van Liew just rounded it a couple of days ago. He is racing solo in the Velux 5 Oceans and this is his third time past that great cape. This is, however the first time he has actually seen land. His rounding was spectacular as the Southern Ocean was unusually sunny for a short period just as he approached the Horn and Brad was close enough in to see the land clearly. It must have been a remarkable and thrilling day for him as it will be for those following close behind.
In third place in the Velux Race is Canadian Derek Hatfield, also an old friend. A few years back I wrote a book for Derek. Unfortunately it was never published but it is still a great story. Derek was capsized at Cape Horn eight years ago. It’s an amazing story of survival and desperation which I will recount in my next blog.
I too have had my fair share of issues at Cape Horn. In 1981 we approached the Horn in a full gale trying desperately to round with a spinnaker up. Yes, the owner of the boat was back in Alaska and we were pushing our luck but it wasn’t to be. A severe gust laid us over and ripped the spinnaker to shreds. We should have learned our lesson but we were young and dumb. As we neared land the wind increased to over 60 knots and the seas, tripping over the continental shelf, got dangerously steep. We were drinking champagne and yahoooing it up taking photos and soaking in the experience just at the time when we should have been paying more attention.
We had picked up a new crewmember in New Zealand who had not had the chance to be on the helm, but wanted a photo of himself with the great cape in the background. He took the wheel, smiled for the camera and turned the wheel the wrong way. Over we went. The mast hit the water while we dangled at the ends of our life harnesses. Three times the boat came back upright and three times we went over again, each time lurching closer in toward land. Finally, thankfully, the sails ripped and the boat came back upright. We were all accounted for, shaken, chastened and a bit wiser. We had survived.
As Brad was rounding the Cape he mused about all the people that had lost their lives in that very spot. The sailors of old who struggled upwind in driving gales to ply the trade routes from Europe to the Far East. Many ships went down right at the cape. We almost went down but that day the gods of sailors past were looking out for us.
Bernard Moitessier, the venerable French sailor summed it up best: “A great cape, for us, can’t be expressed in longitude and latitude only. A great cape has a soul, with very soft, very violent shadows and colors.A soul as smooth as a child’s, as hard as a criminal’s. And that is why we go.”
For a slideshow of the Cape Horn rounding and capsize please click here.
To read the complete story about rounding Cape Horn you can download a pdf here.