From the National Geographic Explorer in South America
Nov 8, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer
“Rounding the Horn”: what an evocative phrase for any seafarer! The select band of mariners who crewed the tall ships plying an intercontinental trade in grain, wool, or guano—a trade that lasted into the twentieth century—had privileged status over all other sailors, for they had run the gauntlet of the infamous seas of the southern ocean where waves can build to tremendous proportions as winds blow uninterrupted by land around the globe. It was the Dutch mariner Jacob Le Maire who is credited with having rounded Cape Horn for the first time in 1616, naming the rocky outcrop after the name of his ship, which happened also to be named after the hometown in the Netherlands of his fellow fleet captain William Schouten. In doing so he also established that Tierra del Fuego was an island and not part of the great southern continent as Ferdinand Magellan had suspected. Sir Francis Drake—national hero to the English, pirate to Argentinians—succeeded in rounding the Horn in his 1577 voyage of circumnavigation braving thirty-foot swells and a southwesterly gale in Golden Hind, a square-rigged galleon of some 400 tons. Two hundred years later, Captain Bligh struggled against the prevailing headwinds for an entire month in Bounty before, to the great relief of his crew, turning about and allowing the westerlies to fill his sails and push her eastward to Tahiti. Captain Cook preceded Bligh, successfully, and Captain Fitzroy was to follow in his wake; a plaque marks the landing of Robert Fitzroy on the Cape on 19 April 1830 during Beagle’s first voyage.
Cape Horn has never been a place for the faint of heart. It has been described as a place that represents ultimate isolation and desolation. Here the seas are steely grey and the poor grassland more brown than green on these treeless rocky outcrops. Yet in the age of sail, before steam ships were more easily able to navigate the Magellan Strait and before the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, rounding the Horn was an economic necessity that nurtured pride born of adversity. In the words of the poet John Masefield: “Cape Horn that tramples beauty into wreck/ And crumples steel and smites the strong man dumb.” Cape Horn paid the respect it had earned as a cemetery of mariners, the scene of innumerable wrecks over the centuries.
Yet we sailed overnight from the Beagle Channel with the luck of Magellan, who famously fell to the deck on his knees and wept when he saw the wide ocean horizons open up before him having successfully navigated through the straits that now bear his mane. With a misnomer that has endured in his honor, he named these southern waters “pacific” which they are most certainly not. With falling winds overnight we arrived off the cape in calm seas. Our voyage has enabled us to transit both the Magellan and Beagle Straits before approaching Cape Horn, giving us unique insights into centuries of maritime history. Today we joined that select band of mariners who have “rounded the Horn” …and survived to tell the tale!