Part 2 – Capsize at Cape Horn

This is Part 2 of the harrowing story of Canadian sailor Derek Hatfield rounding Cape Horn during the 2002/03 Around Alone race – you can read Part 1 here

Fearing that he was going to pile up on the shores of Chile after seeing what he thought was Cape Horn to starboard, when it should have been on his port side, Derek Hatfield finally managed to balance his boat and engage his autopilot so that he could head below to check the chart. It turned out that what he had seen was the the lighthouse on remote Diego Ramirez, an island group west of Cape Horn. The mass of land and the tiny island at its tip, Cape Horn, was still ahead of him, and firmly to port. He had survived what he thought would be an unavoidable wrecking, but his troubles were far from over.

Huddled below Derek could hear the scream of wind as it ripped through his rigging and the pounding of waves and wash against the flimsy sides of his small boat. The laptop screen flickered but the chart was clear; Cape Horn, just a speck on his radar, was 30 miles ahead and right where it should be. Derek could not stay below for long as the seas were still building and 60 foot swells were starting to crest and break. The expanse of the deep Southern Ocean was tripping over itself as the continental shelf slowed the waves ahead allowing those behind to catch up and pile up. He was in very dangerous waters in the teeth of a full gale.

Cape Horn

Cape Horn on a quiet day

Cape Horn is not to be taken lightly. The souls of thousands of sailors lie scattered on the rocky shores, brave men and women who had sought to round what locals call the “uttermost part of the planet”, and failed. A chart of the area is littered with wrecks. The history and mystery of the Cape Horn legend was upmost in Hatfield’s mind as he approached the corner. He knew that he needed to get safely around and into the relative lee of the Andes Mountains before he could leave the helm and get some rest. His 40-foot boat, Spirit of Canada, was managing things well enough, but the conditions were soon to get worse. The wind was on the rise.

By the time Derek was abeam of Cape Horn the wind was approaching hurricane force and the massive swells were cresting with many of them breaking. He lashed the helm for a few seconds to duck below to send those of us back at Race Headquarters a quick email stating that he was right at Cape Horn and that while things were bad, they were still manageable. From the warmth of our office 10,000 miles away, all we could do was hope and pray.

Derek said later that he heard the wave before he actually saw it, a breaking swell roaring up from behind. He felt the stern rise at it had done many times before and he was sure that he was in for a long surf, but something told him that this wave was different. The stern rose and the bow buried; Spirit of Canada staggered as the speed dropped and suddenly, in a split second, the boat was over. It had pitchpoled. As he was flying through the air Derek suddenly remembered that he had forgotten to clip himself on after he returned to the deck. He was free falling, along with the boat. Moments later it crash landed on top of him.

“I felt the pressure of the boat as it hit the water forcing me under the waves,” Derek told me later. “The boat was right on top of me and I was being forced deeper and deeper. I heard the mast explode. It was a muffled roar but I knew exactly what it was. The carbon fiber was tearing apart. I was trapped under the boat and sure that I was going to drown.”

What happened next proved the existence of mermaids. His boat, now completely upside down and on top of him, suddenly righted itself. The lead bulb on the bottom of the keel acted as a counter weight and the boat flipped back upright scooping Derek with it and dumping him unceremoniously in the cockpit. He was back on board, his boat upright, but he was far from safe.

“Below was a mess as you can imagine,” Derek said in his very understated manner. “There was a lot of water and stuff everywhere. Then I noticed a small fire had broken out on the electrical panel. The water had shorted things and the wires were on fire. The boat was on fire.” Working in a daze Derek managed to extinguish the flames and, miraculously, start his engine. By this time he had drifted well past Cape Horn into the lee of land where the seas were becoming more manageable and with the engine at high revs he was able to motor into calmer waters.

Monument at Cape Horn in memory for all those who lost their lives trying to get around.

Twelve hours later Derek and Spirit of Canada had made it to the Beagle Channel, a narrow, blustery strip of water that parallels the Straits of Magellan, 300 miles to its south. He was able to make slow, but steady progress up the Beagle and finally, exhausted, tied up in Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world.

His story was harrowing for sure, but out of it came an outpouring of support and generosity. In the Around Alone race that year was a lovely English girl by the name of Emma Richards. Her sponsor, Andrew Pindar, in an extremely generous gesture funded the build of a new mast. A few weeks later Spirit of Canada was re-rigged and sailing. Derek finished the leg, and the race.

At the time of this writing Derek is on his third lap of the planet, alone. He is in a tight race for second place at the end of a long leg from New Zealand, around Cape Horn, to Uruguay. This time he made it around the “uttermost” cape without incident. In a short video posted on the Facebook Fan Page you can see the Horn in the background on a lovely Cape Horn afternoon. As Derek said, that box has been ticked.

For a video of Derek Hatfield rounding Cape Horn a few days ago please go to the Course for Adventure Facebook page here

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