Cape Horn Demystified

25 Aug

Some expressed surprise that I listed Cape Horn among my Top Ten Cruising Destinations a few weeks ago, so here I will include more about this legendary cape, the "Everest of Cruising." Make no mistake, the Horn can be every bit as deadly as it's always been: the difference is the knowledge and excellent weather forecasting we have today.

The Horn is at 56 degrees south, and sticks right out into the endless march of big winds and giant waves that circle the earth, unobstructed, in the Southern Ocean. And a shoal area extends about sixty miles south of the Horn. The sailors of old probably didn't know about the shoal, and could have saved themselves a lot of grief by giving the Horn a sixty-mile berth:

When the big winds and waves hit this shoal, very bad things happen to boats that happen to be there.  "God pity a yacht in the Drake right now," was uttered by the French sailor rafted up to me in the Beagle Channel when a particularly nasty storm blew through.

Here is what the weather was like during my first rounding of the Horn on Condesa:

Not exactly "reducing men to tears and ships to splinters." One terrible wave almost made me spill my champagne. You'll also notice that this photo looks strikingly similar to picture of me scrolling across the top of this website: Where else do you want your picture taken as a sailor?

The reason we had such an easy time of it is that we waited for the right weather forecast for four days before heading round.

I've read that "rounding the Horn" is considered to be passing through 50 degrees on either side of the Horn. In order to be a member of the International Association of Cape Horners one must do this as part of a 3000 mile uninterrupted passage. This would preclude one from stocking up on a selection of fine Argentine Malbecs and eating succulent Fuegian lamb in Ushuaia, and seeing all kinds of amazing scenery, so I doubt the wisdom of this.

The Chilean outpost at the Horn, manned by a friendly family. In calm conditions one can anchor and pay them a visit:

So back to that excellent weather reporting. The Chilean weather faxes are excellent, as are GRIB files. Some boats even supplement this with SkyEye, or another means of getting pictures directly from satellites. In short, you'd really have to have your head in the sand not to know when a big blow was coming through the Drake Passage.

Here is what most of the boats do when a big blow is coming:

They tie themselves to the Micalvi, the sunken ship that houses the southernmost yacht club in the world, at Puerto Williams, Chile. And then they tie themselves to some of the big trees that lie across from the Micalvi, and then they sit by the fire in the Micalvi bar and drink pisco sours until the fear goes away:

Here is what it looked like in the Beagle Channel during that particular blow:

They were clocking it at 70 in the Beagle Channel, gusts over 100 at the Horn. Over 100 knots! Again, "God pity the yacht in the Drake right now."

So once the reports are looking a little more promising, off you go to the Horn. This place, Puerto Toro, is the last inhabited stop on the way:

After Puerto Toro, there's a bit of an open water hop to get across Nassau Bay. I turned back once trying to get across Nassau Bay, but once you're across, you're into the Wollaston Islands, which are full of secure little hidey-holes:

This one, Caleta Maxwell, at Isla Hermite, is just 13 miles from the Horn:

These photos can be slightly misleading, because most cameras aren't waterproof, so pictures tend to get taken in nice weather. Even when it's not blowing up down there, it tends to drizzle. Here is the view looking south from Isla Hermite to the Horn. The Horn itself is blocked out, but the top of Isla Hornos is visible:

Just in case you thought it was all fun and games, here are a couple shots from my second rounding, actually passing, when it was blowing a gale and snowing:


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