Part 1 – Close encounter at Cape Horn

There is a heck of a fight going on for second place in the Velux 5 Oceans race. This morning, after more than 6,000 miles of racing, my friend Derek Hatfield and Polish sailor Zbigniew Gutkowski were dead even, both having 526 miles to go to the finish in Uruguay. It has always amazed me that after such long periods at sea that boats can be so close together as they converge on the finish.

Derek is now safely around Cape Horn so I am not going to jinx anything by writing this. Eight years ago he capsized at Cape Horn in the most spectacular fashion and the story should be part of sailing legend. Unfortunately the book that I wrote for him was never published and so this incredible narrative remains mostly untold. Since this is a fairly long story I am going to tell it in two parts, both equally incredible. Here is essentially what happened; Part 1.

Derek Hatfield

Derek Hatfield aboard Spirit of Canada - photo www.billyblack.com

Derek was sailing his tiny (40-foot) boat, Spirit of Canada around the world in the Around Alone race. I was doing communications for the event and in touch with the sailors as they girdled the globe. He had returned to New Zealand to fix his engine a few days after the third leg of the race started, and so was all alone trailing the fleet as he approached Cape Horn. Exhausted, and with a full gale brewing, Derek was forced to hand steer the boat as the seas picked up and the wild wind howled through his rigging. Tired, disorientated and barely hanging on to a thread of sanity he suddenly saw a lighthouse beam on his starboard side. Cape Horn, that iconic landmark, was to be left to port. How on earth could it be that the light was now on starboard? Frantic, Derek tried to alter his course to pass the light to port but it was all but impossible given the harsh conditions. In the back of his mind he knew that he had been making good progress but despite his fast speed he shouldn’t have been that close to the Horn. There are strong currents in that area and, forced to hand steer, he had not checked his chart in a while but even so he could not believe how quickly he had come up on land. Mostly though, he was exhausted and numb to the conditions.

Try and imagine what it was like on his tiny boat. The seas, as they trip over the continental shelf, suddenly become incredibly steep. The wind, as it funnels between the Andes mountains in southern Chile and the peaks in Antarctica, increases dramatically and without warning. You have been awake for days with only a few moments of snatched sleep and you are wet, cold and thoroughly exhausted. Then, when you least expect it, the beam of light you expect to see off to port is suddenly on your starboard side. It simply can’t be so but your mind has been playing tricks with your brain since the race started. Could this just be an illusion?

Derek and Patianne

A kiss is never sweeter - photo www.billyblack.com

It’s impossible to pass Cape Horn to starboard unless you are coming from the other direction, so fearing the worst Derek assumed that he would be washed up on the rocky shores of Chile. He was unable to alter course and turning back into teeth of a full-on Southern Ocean gale was not an option. He braced himself preparing for the inevitable. Derek told me later that he was sure that he was going to wash up on land and knew that he would not survive the night. He would join the thousands of sailors whose souls remain entangled in the legend that is Cape Horn.

The light got closer, it’s beam piercing the dark night sky reflecting on the sleet and snow. Visibility was severely reduced but the beams on lighthouses are incredibly powerful and this one was so close that he could see the light cast shadows on his sails. Mysteriously, and almost incredibly, he could not make out an outline of land ahead of him. Without a moon the sea and sky blurred into one hazy, wind swept outline. Had Derek been below he would have seen that there was no land ahead of him. What he was seeing instead was the lighthouse on Diego Ramirez, a tiny group of islands to the south and west of Cape Horn. The light got closer until it was abeam of him and to his utter confusion Derek and Spirit of Canada passed safely by the light to starboard without hitting anything.

Diego Ramirez

The tiny island group of Diego Ramirez on a quiet day.

But his troubles were not over yet. He had passed Diego Ramirez but Cape Horn and an increasing gale were still ahead.

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