January 22, 2010 – Isla Herschel, Chile
By Herb McCormick
It is a place of maritime lore and legend, celebrated in verse and song. The dot on the exclamation point that is South America, it’s the southernmost speck of land associated with the continent, an island unto itself at the southern terminus of the fabled Tierra del Fuego archipelago: South, south, south. It’s been called the Mt. Everest of Sailing, and the list of sailors who’ve sailed long and hard to gaze upon it’s angular edifice is storied and select, and includes such names as Sir Francis Drake, Charles Darwin, Joshua Slocum, Vito Dumas, Bernard Moitessier, Robin Knox-Johnston, and yes, Mark Schrader. It’s the speck on the chart of the vast Southern Ocean at 55º 58’ 47”S by 067º 16’ 18”W, on a hardscrabble slab of rock called Isla Hornes in the Hermite Islands group. It is the one-and-only, the legendary Cape Horn.
And today, Ocean Watch set sail for it.
Just one day after arriving in Puerto Williams, Chile, following an eventful passage from the Falkland Islands – and with two new crewmembers joining the team, Sailors for the Sea founder David Rockefeller, Jr. and fellow co-founder/SFS boardmember David Treadway – the 64-foot cutter set forth on one of the most significant legs of the entire expedition Around the Americas, namely, the rounding of Cape Horn. The crew had arrived with plans to wait for an ideal weather window, but as it turned out, it was a brief pause. David Thoreson is our onboard meteorologist and had been tracking the weather for more than a week. Here’s what he saw:
“As Ocean Watch arrived in Puerto Williams, there appeared to be two small weather windows existing to head south to Cape Horn in northwesterly gales. This has been apparent now for the last few days but the problem then becomes, ‘What next?’
“This question develops because of the tremendous west to east directional air flow and this week is no exception with gales forecasted for four of the six days. Using the gale from the WNW to leave Puerto Williams and head south to an anchorage close to the Isla de la Hornos positions us close enough to then take advantage of a directional change or decrease in pressure.
“Tomorrow afternoon (Saturday) brings a forecasted wind of WNW 10-15 knots on both the east and west sides of the Horn. This is the weather window to take our shot before the south and westerly gales kick right back in overnight.”
In other words, the window was open.
Augustine “Doonie” Edwards and John Kenyon, the skipper and captain, respectively, of the grand, 80-foot ketch, Gloriana, seconded David T’s take on the situation. Doonie, a longtime friend of DR’s, and his sailing master, John, have been plying these waters aboard the Chilean-flagged Swan for decades, and when they confirmed that the window was open, skipper Mark Schrader decided that the time to sail for the Horn was now.
The evening before, on Thursday night, was a big one on Ocean Watch, as we were boarded by a gang of bandanna-clad Chilean pirates known as the Brotherhood of the Coast. Our brothers in the sea were armed with food and drink, and after a merry old time of it, we repaired to Gloriana for a sumptuous dinner. Gloriana, also bound for Cape Horn, set out early this morning, and Ocean Watch followed about an hour later.
We were chasing history.
The first European sailors to lay eyes on the Horn may well have been Drake and his crew. In the fall of 1578, in the course of his epic circumnavigation, Drake sailed through the Strait of Magellan and into the Pacific Ocean. Before he got very far, a vicious northerly filled in and Drake was blown southwards, towards Antarctica. South of Tierra del Fuego, he realized that the archipelago was not another continent, the belief at the time, but a group of islands – including Isla Hornos – bordering an open sea. That open expanse of water between the Horn and Antarctica is today known as Drake Passage, an enduring epitaph for his troubles.
It was almost forty years later, in January of 1616, that the Dutch merchant mariner Willem Schouten set out for the South Atlantic in search of a new route to the Far East. Schouten commanded two ships, the Eendracht and the Hoorn, the latter of which was named for the town from which the voyage began, and which was shipwrecked en route. Eendracht carried forth by herself, and in late January, almost 394 years to the day to the arrival of Ocean Watch, Schouten found what he’d been looking for. This excerpt from the ship’s log tells the story:
“In the evening 25 January 1616 the winde was South West, and that night wee went South with great waves or billowes out of the southwest, and very blew water, whereby wee judged, and held for certaine that…it was the great South Sea, whereat we were exceeding glad to thinke that wee had discovered a way, which until that time, was unknowne to men, as afterward wee found it to be true.
“On 29 January 1616 we saw land againe lying north west and north northwest from us, which was the land that lay South from the straights of Magelan which reacheth Southward, all high hillie lande covered over with snow, ending with a sharpe point which wee called Kaap Hoorn (Cape Horn)…”
For scores of years afterwards, especially through the Great Age of Sail from the 1700s to the early 1900s, Cape Horn was a significant waypoint on the well-traveled clipper routes, for the grand square-riggers that carried much of the world’s trade. The hard men who drove those ships were called Cape Horners, and the last thing they needed to know how to do was swim. For if they went overboard, especially in the gargantuan seas and relentless westerly winds that spin unimpeded around the bottom of the globe, no one was going to risk their own lives turning around to get them.
The first “yachtsman” to sail these waters was the crusty solo sailor Joshua Slocum, who was the first man to sail around the world alone and visited Tierra del Fuego – where he famously scattered carpet tacks across his deck to dissuade the natives from boarding – in 1895. But it’s unclear if Slocum actually rounded Cape Horn.
There is no doubt, however, about Conor O’Brien, who successfully negotiated Cape Horn aboard his 42-foot Saoirse in the early 1920s. The great Argentine navigator, Vito Dumas, was the first man to sail around the world alone via the Horn, in 1942; British legend Robin Knox-Johnston was the first to accomplish the feat without stopping when he won the deadly Golden Globe Race in the late 1960s. No one ever did a better job of romanticizing the place than Frenchman Bernard Moitissier, who rounded it twice and wrote a pair of books about the experience that inspired generations of young French adventurers to follow in his seaboots. Our own Mark Schrader was the first American to circle the planet via the five great southern capes – including you know which – in 1982.
Today, he had plenty of company: a crew of eight, our biggest since leaving Seattle last May.
When we dropped our mooring off Puerto Williams, after clearing customs and registering our itinerary with the Chilean Armada, the plan was to sail roughly ninety miles south to a small island just north of Isla Hornos called Isla Herschel. On the northwest flank of Herschel, off an enclosed body of water called Bahia Arquistade, is a protected anchorage called Caleta Martial.
There was good breeze pumping down the narrow Beagle Channel, the boundaries of which were lined by a string of rolling mountains whose caps were patched with snow. DR said the Channel and the peaks reminded him of Juneau, Alaska, and he was right. It was windy, perhaps 25-knots, but out of the right direction, funneling over Ocean Watch’s transom. But it was about to get windier.
Isla Navarino is the major island in this section of the archipelago, and before too long
Ocean Watch slid inside Isla Picton and through a pair of passes, Paso Picton and Paso Goree. By now the breeze was starting to pump into the mid-30s, with gusts to 40-knots. Sailing under staysail alone, Ocean Watch was making good progress, but soon even the tiny headsail was too much, and the skipper called for a change down to the storm staysail. Dolphins frolicked in the bow wave, albatrosses spun and twirled, and groups of Magellanic penguins popped up alongside to pay their respects.
But it was about to get windier still.
Out from the lee of Navarino and into the expansive bay called Bahia Nassau, the breeze really started to pipe, locked into the high 30s with gusts well above 40-knots. Ocean Watch plowed through wave after wave and and gray water continuously swept her decks, but she’s proven to us time and again in our travels that she revels in such conditions, and every time she was drenched in a torrent of ocean, she just shook herself off and kept right on going.
It was wet and wild, but appropriate, too. Sailing to Cape Horn isn’t supposed to be easy.
But then it got more difficult.
As we neared the islands they appeared out of the mist and rain, as one small weather cell after another raked the seas…and, of course, Ocean Watch. Powerful puffs of wind screamed down the faces of the jagged islands – williwaws – whipping the water into a marbled, streaky, frothy tempest, and sometimes even spinning up small, isolated, funnels, just to keep things interesting. Between breaks in the squalls, low rainbows cascaded along the horizon, disappearing when the rain made its encore. It was now gusting into the 50s, perhaps even the 60s, certainly the most wind we’ve seen in 18,000 miles of sailing. Now it was too much for even the storm staysail. Down it came, with water cascading over the foredeck.
Then, finally, we slipped into Bahia Arquistada, and there just ahead, was Gloriana, riding on two anchors, still and steady, pretty as a picture.
There was an empty Navy mooring nearby and Dave Logan skillfully nestled Ocean Watch alongside it so we could run a pair of thick lines through the pad eye. Suddenly it was over: shelter from the storm. Cape Horn was less than ten miles south.
In his excellent book, Rounding the Horn, writer Dallas Murphy captured something of the sense of what we’re feeling today aboard Ocean Watch:
“All mariners since Magellan have recognized that when their bows crossed the Fortieth Parallel, they were entering an ocean entirely different from all the rest,” writes Murphy. “Everything was exaggerated, accelerated in the ‘Roaring Forties’ and the ‘Screaming Fifties.’ Big wind came on harder, faster, than any other oceans…
“Even the look of the Southern Ocean was different from the rest, gray, grim, death colors. But there were also those explosions of light when for a time, the low murk parted and shafts of splendid brightness shone on the white crests like a hint of hope, and sometimes multiple rainbows arced across the horizon, intersecting. The fatigue, pain and danger were all magnified, but so, too, was the magnificence of this ocean, its wildness. With each degree of south latitude, through the forties into the fifties, down to the Horn at nearly 56 South and beyond, the conditions inevitably worsened. Cape Horn sailors had a saying for it:
“Below 40 South there is no law,
“Below 50 South, there is no god.”
This afternoon, however, tucked behind an island at the end of the planet and at the doorstep of Cape Horn, there was Ocean Watch.
- Herb McCormick with photographs by David Thoreson
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