Cape Horn to Starboard

After a long, hot, difficult slog southward, the Around the Americas crew tackles the legendary South American headland-from the wrong direction. A feature from our June 2010 issue

July 6, 2010

cape horn to starboard 368

Off West Falkland island, where we enjoyed one of the more dramatic sunsets of the entire expedition, we made a brief overnight stop before setting sail for Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. David Thoreson

There’s no question that the epic promontory called Cabo de Hornos-Cape Horn, the steep slab of rock on a windswept island off the tip of South America-had been on our minds for a while. When skipper Mark Schrader conceived of a voyage Around the Americas to raise awareness about ocean health and conservation, and began to think hard about the route of the voyage, he worked backward from a rounding of the Horn at the height of the Southern Hemisphere summer. Now, on a spooky January morning before a rare 20-knot southeasterly breeze, the crew aboard our 64-foot cutter, Ocean Watch, had the legendary cape, shrouded in mist, square in their sights.

Nearly eight months earlier, we’d left Seattle and set sail first for Alaska, then eastward above the Arctic Circle and through the Northwest Passage. After a challenging voyage down the eastern seaboards of North America and South America, in keeping with our clockwise circumnavigation of the continents, we angled in toward Cape Horn from the east. Most yachts, of course, approach from the west, ahead of the prevailing Southern Ocean breeze. But we never seem to do things the easy way.

We’d dreamed of this moment on countless occasions, fantasizing endlessly about how it might unfold. For my part, all the scenarios featured big wind and heavy seas. Never, in my wildest flights of imagination, did a spinnaker come into play.


So when Mark gave the call to “get the chute ready,” first mate Dave Logan and I instantly swapped “He’s got to be kidding” looks. And even as we rigged the sheets and guys and hoisted the sail aloft, cocooned in its sock, the notion remained highly surreal. It wasn’t until we actually raised the sock to the masthead and, with a loud snap of sail cloth, sheeted the huge asymmetric kite home-emblazoned with a dramatic representation of the two continents that now lay directly north of us-that the fact of the matter became clear.

Yes, we were flying a spinnaker off Cape Horn.

Man, it’d taken some doing to get there.


Following our successful east-to-west transit of the Northwest Passage and a spin through the Canadian Maritimes (see “Ice Capades,” January 2010), we enjoyed a tour of the Atlantic seaboard, with stops in Boston, New York City, Charleston, South Carolina, and Miami. The 900-mile passage that followed, from South Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico, was fast and uneventful. Then, on November 8, we pointed the boat south and set out on what was meant to be the single longest leg of the entire trip, a 3,500-nautical-mile voyage to Rio de Janeiro.

That’s when things got dicey. Unfortunately, for the most part, we had no one to blame but ourselves. Much later, we received a bit of tongue-in-cheek advice from a seasoned passagemaking friend with the “proper” sailing instructions for a jaunt from the Caribbean to Rio: “Head directly for the Canary Islands. When you see them, turn right.” Let’s just say we decided to, ahem, cut the corner. In essence, we set what was basically a rhumb-line course from the islands to Cabo Calcanhar, the Brazilian cape at the very tip of the country’s extreme eastern bulge. And then we paid the consequences.

In our defense, we’d heard from several extremely reliable sources that a southerly countercurrent coursing at up to three knots ran parallel to the well-known and established current off Brazil that flows northward up the coast. That’s what we went searching for. We never found it.


Instead, we plowed straight into the teeth of nasty headwinds, miserable seaways, and foul current while accompanied day after day by searing heat. Because the decks were continuously swept by waves and spray, we couldn’t open ports or hatches, and the temperatures below became nearly unbearable. For six straight weeks, the thermometer in the main cabin topped 90 F; we roasted a turkey on Thanksgiving Day and probably could’ve done so without the oven.

Our misery was compounded by the fact that we weren’t making much progress-on many days, our 24-hour runs were less than 100 miles-but in the process, we were burning a lot of diesel. We made an unscheduled but absolutely necessary fuel stop in Cayenne, French Guiana-Logan dubbed the brown waters, rich with sediment from the nearby outflow of the Amazon, the Cappuccino River-where we met several local French sailors, all of whom expressed pity and dismay at our prospects and plight.

Six days later, tacking endlessly into fierce currents but still going nowhere fast, we pulled into the industrial Brazilian port of São Luis to again top up the tanks. The trip log registered 1,200 nautical miles “sailed” since leaving Cayenne, though the true point-to-point mileage accrued was just 720 nautical miles. We were now south of the equator, but our southing had come to a halt. To make our way around the endless coastline of Brazil, we needed to keep rolling east.


In his original routing plan, Mark had budgeted 24 days for the San Juan-to-Rio de Janeiro leg of the voyage, a timetable that proved to be wildly optimistic. On December 6, almost a month since gazing upon the receding shores of Puerto Rico, we finally rounded Cabo Calcanhar, at the eastern edge of Brazil. Alas, Rio was still 1,200 nautical miles away. But it was cause for celebration, anyway. We could finally, at long last, really turn south.

At that juncture, not only did our heading change. So did our luck.

After yet another brief pit stop for diesel in the coastal city of Natal-officially the easternmost waypoint on our lap of the Americas-we had a blessedly smooth romp down to Rio. We weren’t particularly excited about the layover in the massive metropolis, but from our centrally located berth at the clean, secure Marina de Gloria, we had a very pleasant visit and charged our figurative batteries after the harsh slog southward. From there we had a couple of straightforward legs to the affluent resort cities of Punta del Este, Uruguay, where we spent Christmas, and Mar del Plata, Argentina, where we took in the New Year.

That brought us to the doorstep of the Roaring 40s and the Furious 50s. At long last, we could begin to seriously consider Cape Horn.

Twelve hours after we set forth from Mar del Plata, just a few miles shy of the 40th parallel, the sky to the west darkened. We’d been tracking a low-pressure system spinning across Patagonia, so we knew what was coming. Soon enough, the dramatic, cigar-shaped cold front was upon us. It was a dozen shades of gray, swirling and alive, scary and imposing. At first it seemed to suck every last bit of air out of the atmosphere, but nature abhors a vacuum, and suddenly the chilled southwesterly wind blew in with a vengeance. Before the long night was over, we found ourselves jousting with a shrieking gale gusting to nearly 50 knots and wicked, storm-tossed seas.

It was a harsh, appropriate greeting to the well-named Roaring 40s, but an expected one, as well. What was surprising about the blow was its relatively gentle aftermath: some 600 miles of pure, wonderful sailing.
When all the planets are in alignment, as we’d discovered during our summer above the Arctic Circle, voyaging in the high latitudes can be an addictive experience. And so it was during our dash through what Logan would come to describe as the “Fantastic 40s.” For once the front had barreled out to sea, it was replaced by a massive high-pressure system easing off the coast of Patagonia, with lovely blue skies overhead and a pleasant northwesterly breeze filling in from astern. Conditions couldn’t possibly have been sweeter.

On top of all that, after a long, fallow spell with very few sightings of any sort, the wildlife returned. We saw orcas and humpbacks, dolphins and basking sharks, but what stopped us cold, mile after mile, day after day, were the majestic albatross. They’re the most magnificent of all the seabirds, and we saw several different species, but the ones that left the most indelible impressions were the grand wandering albatross, their enormous wingspans practically locked in place while they soared between the wavelets with efficient, sparing effort. If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, send me back as a big, bold albatross, a creature born for the high seas if ever there was one.

After that first rude night, the run through the 40s was so enjoyable that 50 degrees south, and our next port of call-Stanley, in the Falkland Islands-practically snuck up on us. We spent a week in the Falklands, awestruck, in turns, by the stark, arresting landscape, the ever-changing weather, the sheer variety and numbers of penguins and other birds, and, especially, the welcoming, engaging Falkland Islanders. By January 18, however, it was getting to be high summer in the high southern seas. That meant it was high time to set sail for the Horn.

First, we needed to cross some 300 nautical miles of open ocean to reach the rugged archipelago of islands and channels known as Tierra del Fuego, off the southern flank of South America. The southernmost of these isles, of course, is Isla Hornos, the home of the famous landmark. At this point, the thought of it dominated every waking moment.

After a final night at anchor off West Falkland Island, we laid a course for Isla de los Estados, or Staten Island, a desolate, godforsaken collection of craggy, saw-toothed peaks separated from the relative safety of the Canal Beagle by a treacherous, 16-nautical-mile-long strait, the Estrecho de Le Maire. We’d been scanning the weather maps with obsessive urgency for days, and we knew that we were racing a significant front swooping in from the north. The question was, who’d get to the Beagle first?

After a couple of tense days of sailing, the outcome became clear. The storm won, but Ocean Watch was a close second. The first real Patagonian williwaws-powerful puffs rocketing down the steep peaks lining the waterways-nailed us about halfway across the Estrecho de Le Maire, but we were entering the mouth of the Beagle when the worst of the tightly wound, 991-millibar low swept past, accompanied by gusts in excess of 50 knots. We bailed for the shelter of a nearby cove, but the system was moving fast, and just a few hours later, with the anchor firmly set, we enjoyed one of the prettier sunsets of the entire trip. But notice had been served, and it prepared us well for the days ahead: Things happen with extreme quickness at 55 degrees south.

The next morning, we motored up the Beagle to the tiny village of Puerto Williams, the southern base of operations for the Chilean navy. The navy patrols these waters with vigilance that borders on the fanatical and monitors the daily movement of all vessels in the area. There, we filed our sailing plan and picked up two new crewmembers, David Rockefeller Jr. and David Treadway, the co-founders of Sailors for the Sea, one of the major backers of the expedition. Two other sailors had already joined Ocean Watch’s permanent four-man team for the Horn leg: Sailors for the Sea board member Ned Cabot and Horacio Rosell, an old sailing mate of ours from Argentina.

The original intention had been to regroup in Puerto Williams for a couple of days, then set out for the Horn, some 90 nautical miles to the south. But photographer David Thoreson, who doubles as our onboard weatherman, realized that a narrow window had opened. A series of nasty westerly gales were lining up to the west and bearing down on Tierra del Fuego. If we hesitated, we might wait for a week, maybe longer. So, less than 12 hours after arriving in Puerto Williams, we were southbound for Cape Horn.

David Thoreson| |On the voyage south to get to Cape Horn, we were raked by gale-force conditions topping 50 knots.|

In many ways, it was the wildest day of the entire voyage. A 25-knot northwesterly began to build, and as we sailed into the open bay called Bahía Nassau, it was pumping into the 40s. Then it got really windy. As we neared the group of islands north of Isla Hornos, Ocean Watch was raked by one whistling squall after another. Powerful blasts of air screamed down the faces of the jagged islets, whipping the water into a marbled, frothy tempest and sometimes even spinning up small, isolated funnels. It gusted into the 50s, then the 60s, certainly the most wind we’d seen in the entire journey.

At Cape Horn itself on that afternoon, the lighthouse keeper recorded a gust of 105 knots, a little morsel of bleak intelligence that we didn’t hear about, thankfully, until much later.

We spent a mostly sleepless night at a tenuous anchorage on Isla Herschel. When conditions the next day abated slightly in the late afternoon, we motored to nearby Isla Wollaston and hunkered down for a second evening at anchor. At 0500 the following day, January 24, we awoke to an amazing development: The waters in the cove were flat and still, and the fresh breeze was filling in from, of all places, the east.

In a word, it was perfect. And we were ideally situated, thankfully, to take full advantage of these conditions.
It was dank, gray, and chilly, and the top end of the island-the famous edifice of the Horn-was shrouded in a foreboding cloak of cloud, fog, and mist.

“Well,” said Thoreson, “it looks like a Cape Horn day.” He was right.

We sailed around the backside of Hornos under triple-reefed main and staysail. Suddenly, we were around the bend; we could see the lighthouse and the big monument on the high hill. Holy smokes, there was Cape Horn! Albatross by the dozen soared overhead. We cracked a couple of beers, poured a tot in the sea in homage to King Neptune, and another on the deck of stout, sturdy Ocean Watch. I’d be less than frank if I failed to mention that the spray of the sea wasn’t the only salty thing most of us were blinking out of our eyes.
In a moment of inspiration, Logan went below and switched on the watermaker, without letting it fully flush out beforehand. “It’ll be a little briny,” he said. “We’ll all have a little Cape Horn water coursing through our veins.”

That may be true, but as sailors, the thing that we’ll always remember is flying that spinnaker off Cape Horn. We all retrieved our cameras and tried to capture the image of the map of South America on the logo with the tip of South America there before us. A squall appeared on the horizon, and we doused the sail quickly, laughing at the outlandishness of the whole thing, like teenagers out past curfew. Surely we’d gotten away with something, but what a souvenir.

Then, for the first time in months, we swung the wheel and were headed north.

Almost 10 years ago, I sailed around Cape Horn on a magazine assignment, but I’d boarded the boat in Punta Arenas, Chile, and avoided logging the hard miles to get there. It didn’t feel fair. I hadn’t earned it. In my journal, my final entry to that episode was brief: “Unfinished business.”

This time, aboard Ocean Watch, in almost eight full months of voyaging, we’d put the Northwest Passage, the doldrums, and 18,300 nautical miles behind us. At 56 degrees south, after the Aleutian Islands, Zenith Point at the far reaches of North America, and the bulge of Brazil, we’d reached the westernmost, northernmost, easternmost, and now the southernmost points of our expedition Around the Americas. Personally, and for the project, rounding the Horn was a huge milestone. It was time to start heading home.

That Cape Horn business, after all, had finally been taken care of.

Herb McCormick is a Cruising World editor at large.


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