Like many Sailnet readers I have been avidly following the progress of the Volvo Ocean Race. In fact, the fleet has just sailed into my home waters here in South Florida; the tumultuous Southern Ocean is a distant memory; theyíre entering the homestretch. I tend to consider the race in terms of latitude and longitude, Iím more interested in where the fleet is in general than which boat is in the leadójust finishing the race is an impressive feat. But there is one set of coordinates that always gets my attention: roughly 56 degrees South and 67 degrees West. When race leader illbruck
sped around Cape Horn on February 10, I felt a familiar pang. Not that I have ever raced on a Volvo boat, or even want to, but itís the Horn you see, the Call of the Horn. John Masefield called it, "a wild call and a clear call that cannot be denied."
Eighteen years ago I cut my teeth rounding the Horn, the hard way, or some say, the wrong way. Ours was in some ways a quaint voyage, quixotic really. We sailed a little Contessa 32 from New York to San Francisco in the wake of the Clipper Ships. We were anything but a crack Volvo crew and we established no records worth mentioning without asterisks. Just the same, when you casually drop that, yes, youíve been around the Horn, rightly or wrongly others take your sea stories more seriously.
Cape Horn, old Cape Stiff, what is it about the place that makes it both a headland and a metaphor? Why is it such a challenge to sail around Cape Horn and why does it continue to stir the hearts of so many sailors? Indeed, there are enough crazy souls out there that several charter sailboats successfully operate from a bottom of the world base in Ushuaia, Argentina. Well, like any piece of real estate, it starts with location.
Perched at the faraway tip of South America, Cape Horn is the end of the road when comes to continental land masses, the only thing south of the horn is the great white expanse of Antarctica. Cape Horn is actually the grizzled edge of an island, the southern face of a rocky archipelago stretching below Tierra del Fuego. The region is cold and windswept, and thatís being charitable. There is nothing west of Cape Horn to impede the windís furyójust uninterrupted ocean for thousands of miles. The prevailing westerlies have revealing nicknames defined by their latitudes, the Roaring Forties, and down around the Horn, the Furious Fifties. Day after day these fierce winds funnel between Cape Horn and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula three hundred miles south, creating a tempestuous strait named after its accidental discoverer, Sir Francis Drake. Add a mixture of strong currents, poor visibility, and incessant gales and you have the perfect recipe for adventure sailing.
Sailing around Cape Horn from east to west, like Drake and other early explorers did, is a different kettle of fish. I was young, immortal, and not particularly bright when I launched our expedition. We had convinced Strohís Brewery of Detroit, MI, to sponsor us and our nominal objective was to reach San Francisco in 120 sailing days, the average time of a gold rush era clipper ship. This route implied that we would Ďdouble the Horní a curious phrase left over from the sailing ship era. Doubling the Horn entails sailing nonstop from a point above the 50th parallel in the Atlantic, down around the Horn and back to a point above the 50th parallel in the Pacific. Only this near 1,000-mile passage was considered a genuine Cape Horn rounding and according to legendary author and seaman, Alan Villiers, "nothing else counted as a rounding, for the eastward passage before westerly gales was reckoned no rounding at all." The lyrics from the old sea chantey say it best:
"From 50 south to 50 south you wonít grow fat and lazy boys,
For the winds that howl around Cape Horn, will surely drive you crazy boys,"
I confess, the details of that long ago voyage blur, but the vision of Cape Horn is etched in my mindís hard drive. It was a gray, ugly morning when Cape Horn hove into view off the starboard bow. I hadnít planned to round the Horn so closely, but Neptune had other plans, we passed just two miles south of the storied headland. It wasnít beautiful Ė it was humbling. I wrote in my book, ĎCape Horn to Starboard,í "Iíll never forget the sight of the Horn. Itís a brazen, rocky point that has defied erosion and juts a craggy chin into the cold blue sea, dividing the two great oceans of our planet." My shipmate, Ty Techera, and I didnít whoop or holler; I think we were both quietly terrified and simply anxious to gain sea room in the Pacific. After months of struggling to reach Mecca, we wanted to put it astern as quickly as possible. Incidentally, we managed to double the Horn in 11 Ĺ days, which is still one of the fastest yachting times ever.