Cape Horn to Starboard

Getting there wasn't really much fun, but sunshine and the funs'l made for a resounding rounding

Lin.jpg

Lin, stripped to her sweater in the balmy conditions, furls the mainsail while Taleisin slats her way past Cape Horn under her nylon drifter.Larry Pardey

Hey, Lin, Wake Up! Larry’s voice breaks into my storm-tossed dream. "You wanted this chance. Come and grab it." My body and mind take several moments to coordinate sensory information; then I realize my dream wasn’t far off the mark. We really were trying to bash our way past Cape Horn and into the Pacific. But now, instead of the body-jarring crash and lurch of a hard-driven sailboat fighting to windward against storm-force southwesterly winds, I barely feel any movement at all. Instead of dark of night and howl of wind, I see streams of glorious sunlight pouring through the open hatch and hear rambunctious terns. Had I dreamed the snow flurries and frequent squalls? I climb clear of the thick sleeping bag, grab my jeans, and pull two sweaters over the thermal inners I’d slept in.

All around me are signs we’d been sailing hard. Every device we’d installed to keep gear securely inside lockers and under floorboards is fastened. Sponges sprout around the edges of dishes and spice jars, a sure sign Larry has been in to quiet rattles as I slept. On the cabin sole, out of the path of traffic, half a dozen stray items have joined the basket of fruit and cheese I kept handy to snack on because it’s been too rough to cook.

"Were you serious about flying the nylon drifter at the Horn?" Larry says. "You’ve got your chance. This light air can’t last long. Let’s grab it."

I don’t waste a second. I’m out the companionway, gloves between my teeth, watch cap only half on as Larry pulls the drifter bag from the lazarette. He laughs as I spin around and almost miss the most significant landmark of our lives together. Then he reaches out to hug me while he points, "There she is--Cape Horn to starboard."

I'm awestruck, afraid to say a word. Then I grab the sail, and wordlessly, using the familiar routines of 37 years of sailing together, we get it flying in an eight-knot southeasterly breeze that belies the reputation of this southernmost cape, where a quarter of the time winds blow at Force 8 to 12 and three-quarters of all reported winds are westerly.
I search out our cameras and a bag of confetti I've sneaked on board. Windvane set, we cavort about, throwing brightly colored bits of paper into the air to watch them drift slowly downwind toward the sparkling, sun-lit cliffs eight miles to the north. Photos snapped, I say, "OK, now we have truly flown our nylon sail as we sailed west past each of the world's great southern capes. Time to get it down, before we blow it out."

"Why take it down?" Larry asks. "Barometer’s steady. It’s keeping us moving. We need every bit of speed we can get to beat this east-going current."

Despite the near-freezing temperatures on deck, I can't stay below for the next 10 hours while Taleisin moves sedately westward over the graveyard of thousands of far less fortunate sailors. I throw chunks of bread to the albatross that glide around us and laugh at their clumsy landings, their forwardness as they paddle right up to Taleisin's side and peer into the cockpit for more tidbits. As I look at them, their massive hooked beaks, their elegant long wings, I recall once reading that each bird is said to bear the soul of a Cape Horn sailor whose body lies beneath these icy waters.

I wonder what those professional seamen would have made of the fears that I’d harbored for the past two years, the fears I still have as the southerly breeze freshens and we douse our drifter and set the working jib and staysail to leave the Horn astern and charge into the Pacific.

A Dream Long Harbored
I came to realize that Larry always planned to "double the Horn"--to sail east to west against the prevailing winds from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

In 1977, when we were in Malta preparing five-ton Seraffyn for the rough weather of the Red Sea, Larry said, "Next boat we build, no cockpit to fill with seas. Then we could take it anywhere, even round the Horn."

I should have linked the clues, but it was almost four years before the next one popped up. "Yes, I want those two extra keel bolts," Larry said as I helped him line up his long drill so the 17th and 18th bolts went straight and true through the bronze floors, teak keel timber, and lead. "You can call it overbuilding. I call it insurance to make her strong enough for anything, even Cape Horn."

After three and a half years of boatbuilding, then 15,000 miles of Pacific voyaging, Larry convinced me to sail south of Tasmania, ostensibly as the logical route to Western Australia. With careful weather planning and patience, we found February gave us breezes light enough to fly our nylon drifter past Maatsuyker Island, and I ignored the next clue. "Do you realize we’re only 700 miles north of the latitude of Cape Horn?" Larry said as we passed westward into the Indian Ocean.

In the following years, we sailed past Cape Leeuwin and the Cape of Good Hope, encountering stormy weather to reach them but nylon-drifter weather as each cape lay on our beam. When we turned north toward Europe after 12 years of voyaging on Taleisin, I relaxed. I hadn't heard Cape Horn mentioned in three years. Then, in Norway, Larry came back from chatting with a local sailor who'd been hoarding charts of Patagonia.

"He gave them to me. Fun to look at. Might be an interesting way to go home. Done Panama," Larry commented nonchalantly. "Sure," I said, snappily. "Go find yourself another crew and do it. Panama is fine with me."

A year later, he came across a copy of John Kretschmer’s book, Cape Horn to Starboard (1986; International Marine Publishers, Camden, Maine). "He did it in a 32-foot Contessa, only half the weight of ours," Larry said. "Kretschmer says he didn’t have a lot of sailing experience at the time. He got lucky with the weather. We could, too. Let’s give it a try." As we explored for three seasons the U.S. East Coast from Maine to Virginia, I talked of the glamour of Carnival in Trinidad and of diving in the San Blas islands near Panama, hoping to lure him back to reason.

Then I broke our cardinal rule. Instead of keeping our plans to myself, I asked Monica Collins (née McCants) if she might consider crewing with Larry if he really wanted to go ahead with his Cape Horn caper. A sail designer and racing skipper, Monica had been captain of the first all-women team to do a major ocean race, the Transpac, and the only woman on the 80-foot Challenger in the Whitbread Round the World Race. "Cut the crap," Monica said. "Great boat. You've got lots of experience. You can do it." Listening to this woman, who was almost young enough to be my daughter, I knew I had to give it a try.
"Larry, I'll back you up on three conditions," I said. "First, we take it on as a serious expedition. We go over every single inch of this boat and upgrade everything we can think of. Second, we don't tell anyone we're trying to do it. That way, if we change our minds, no one will say we failed. Finally, if it is just too hard, if I begin to feel we're risking the boat, we turn and run for the Falklands and on to Africa." His warm hug and firm assurances didn't overcome my inner knowledge that I, with my overactive imagination (read "fear") and lack of real physical strength, was the weak link in his plan, and that if I asked him to turn and run, I'd always feel, as Monica would have put it, that I'd wimped out.

To determine our schedule, we studied pilot charts, the Admiralty Ocean Passages for the World, and such old sailing-ship routers as the Sailing Directions for the Ethiopic or South Atlantic Ocean 1882, Ninth Edition, by Alexander George Findlay, FRGS, with addenda to 1899.

Two periods showed slightly more favorable winds. For March and April, the pilot charts indicated a 20- to 24-percent chance of Force 7 to Force 12 westerly winds (right on the nose), but storms near Cape Horn tended to be of shorter duration than in other months. In July and August, the charts said, storms blew 23 to 26 percent of the time and lasted longer, but almost 15 percent of all winds came from the south or southeast. The long, dark nights and the below-freezing temperatures of the southern winter left us little choice. We felt we had to be approaching Cape Horn by March.

Estrecho de le Maire presented the first major hurdle. "The tidal streams create a rough, cross-breaking sea which is impassable by boats and even dangerous to vessels of considerable size," states the dour British Admiralty pilot book. The Atlantic tide book showed a neap tide with only a four-meter rise and fall at Tierra del Fuego between February 19 and 22 instead of the 11 meters of spring tides. That date became the central focus of our life as we prepared Taleisin to sail across the Atlantic from Virginia to the Azores, there to join the classic southbound sailing-ship route to avoid hurricanes and headwinds. This 8,000-mile voyage would bring us to Mar del Plata, Argentina, our final provisioning port before the big one.

We wanted to save every spare day we could for final preparations. For the first time in 35 years of voyaging, we’d spent more time at sea than in harbor, stopping only at four carefully chosen reprovisioning ports (Bermuda; Azores; Cape Verde; Buzios, Brazil) for four days each. We arrived with six weeks in which to reinforce our sails, paint the bottom, and inspect every inch of the boat from masthead to rudder pintles. We watched the Argentine economy collapse around us and saw our warm Latin friends lose their hard-earned savings, then their jobs, and finally their hope. The currency steadily lost value until we found we were provisioning for one-third of the cost we’d anticipated. The devaluation also meant shops had few imported goods, and even the customs offices closed down, making it difficult to obtain engine parts, electronics components, and sophisticated sailing gear. We blessed the simplicity of our engineless boat.

Our persistence paid off. After eight months, during which we sailed through the calms of the Azores High; the Sahara-dust-laden northeast trades; the squally confusion of the doldrums; the storm-tossed waters off Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil; past the black cigar-shaped clouds of the Uruguayan pamperos; and between the storms of the roaring 40s, on February 21, Taleisin and her well-rested crew lay hove to in a 30-knot northwesterly at 54 degrees 29 minutes south, 64 degrees 46 minutes west. Surrounded by thousands of black-backed albatross, we were only 10 miles north of Le Maire strait. Sunshine highlighted the hard-edges of the cumulus clouds, and the barometer began climbing from its low of 976 millibars as we waited so we could follow the advice of the Admiralty pilot book: "In order to avoid the race and a foul tidal stream, vessels should arrive . . . at the beginning of the south-going stream, one hour after high water at Bahía Buen Suceso."

The amazing vista of spiky, cloud-draped mountains on Isla de los Estados (Staten Island) to port brought back the words of Galileo Ferraresi, an Italian sailing instructor and noted mountain climber we’d met in the Azores. "Cape Horn is the Mount Everest of sailing," he’d told us. "Other mountains are technically more difficult to ascend. What’s hard about Everest is getting to the final base camp with all your supplies and yourself in good condition so you have the stamina for the actual assault on the summit with enough left over to safely descend once you’ve made it there."

Cape Horn lay only 120 miles to the southwest; I felt we’d made base camp.

"Larry," I said, "We’ll sail through the strait on tomorrow’s tide, then I’m willing to spend as much time as we need getting around the cape. Let’s give it three or four tries and if we don’t do it now, we’ll work into the Beagle canal and lay up there and try it again in midwinter. But I’m going to get this boat around that frigging point one way or another."

Even when we got shoved back out of Le Maire strait for the second time by a screaming southerly that turned the world white around us, my determination held. It took two and a half days and three frontal systems to bash our way past the overfalls and currents of the strait. We spent the next three days earning our master's degree in working a small boat to windward in extreme conditions as we tried to make the next 90 miles against a two-knot current. Three times we watched the barometer drop from 1025 to less than 980 millibars, once falling as low as 970 millibars. Screaming southwesterly hailstorms would blow for two hours to become zephyr-like northerlies for an hour, then swing to a steady 45-knot southerly for the next hour or two. I apologized for having laughed when Larry purchased the tiny scrap of bright orange Dacron I called our toys'l, when that 40-square-foot, flat-cut sail teamed with our triple-reefed main kept Taleisin driving at five knots into square, 20-foot seas. We doused even that tiny sail for the worst of the squalls that howled in at regular intervals.

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| In stark contrast to their benign cape-rounding-weather, the Pardeys found themselves later hove to while the wind blew a steady 50 knots for two days.* * *|

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Strangely, we both came to enjoy the battle, feeling close to those sailors who in years past had to fight these same conditions on ships far less weatherly, less handy than ours. We worked to buoy each other’s spirits with a joke, a hug, a food treat. Then, on the sixth day, I used our solar-charged handheld VHF radio to ask a 250-foot Argentine fishing vessel for a weather forecast. Its Norwegian captain quizzed me carefully: "Are you feeling good about your boat? Do you have enough food? Hope so, because these winds will grow stronger for another five days at least."

That afternoon, we ran out of propane. We hove to while Larry assessed the situation. "Valve on the new tank is leaking." Though we had an extra tank to back up the two that normally provided six to eight weeks of cooking, we were now depending on the oven to back up our kerosene cabin heater. We were already crowded by bags of wet clothes, and, we agreed, we could run short of heat. The clouds cleared to reveal Isla Nueva at the entrance to the Canal Beagle, clearly visible 20 miles to our north. With Cape Horn only 40 miles to the south, we eased sheets to turn and reach toward shelter. Attempt Number One was behind us.

The confines of the canal, with its rocks, reefs, thick kelp beds, few fully protected anchorages, and screaming williwaws interspersed with drifting calms, was more intimidating, more dangerous, and more challenging than the open waters we’d left. The history-soaked wilds of southern Argentina, the magnificent Estancia Harberton, the tiny Chilean military outpost at Puerto Williams, and the intrepid sailors we met, made our monthlong, propane-forced diversion one of the highlights of our cruising life.

Each day we checked the weather information, waiting for a break between closely packed low-pressure systems. On March 11, 2002, bundled up like a teddy bear against the near-freezing temperatures and a 50-knot southerly wind, I walked into the capitan del puerto’s office at Puerto Williams to see a weatherfax printout. It showed a potential three- or four-day high-pressure gap between this storm and the next two lows bunched together 800 miles to the west. If we could arrange port clearance, buy final provisions, and sail the 90 miles out through the Canal Beagle and back to our inbound track, we’d find southeast winds in which to round the Horn.

"Got to go tomorrow at first light," Larry said as we computed the tides. "In fact, I’d like to leave at 0400, before the tide turns."

"This storm isn’t going to ease off before tomorrow night," I said.

"It’ll be on the beam for the first 40 miles. After that, until we get south of the cape, the Wallastons will be only 15 miles upwind. They’ll break the seas down. If we wait, we’ll have to fight headwinds all the way down. Might be too light to beat the east-going current. It was over two knots the last time."

As the survivors from the previous night’s send-off party cast off our lines and wished us a fine farewell, a full gale drove snow flurries and hailstones across our deck.

Never have we set sail in conditions that felt less favorable. Never have I been more impressed with Larry's determination and stamina. For 16 hours he hand steered Taleisin through rock-strewn channels, urging her through short, steep seas as squalls swept down through mountain gullies, short-tacking right to the edges of kelp beds, calling down to me, "How close can we go? Any rocks in this kelp? Can I take this lift?" He drove with all the intensity of his days as a racing skipper while I plotted our position and handed up hot drinks and baked potatoes to warm his hands. Every hour or so I'd come on deck to helm while he went below to warm up and relieve himself. "Boy, do I envy your plumbing," he joked when he came back after searching through four layers of clothes to reach his. "At least you don't have to grab yourself with icy-cold hands!"

By dark we’d sailed clear of the brutal wave-swept rocks and desolate islands of Bahía Nassau. When I’d come below for my second off watch, winds had dropped to 30 knots, and Cape Horn lay less than 15 miles to windward. Despite the predictions, I hadn’t really believed we’d have light, fair winds for our rounding. Then Larry woke me.

"March 13, 2002, 1600: Cape Horn aft of the starboard beam," I wrote in our log. It had taken years for Larry to infect me with his dream. Now I’d felt the fever and the wonders of fulfilling it. As we sailed gently past this sleeping monster and into the Pacific, I also felt a tremendous sense of relief. Though we had 1,000 miles of potentially storm-tossed seas ahead, I realized I’d wake each and every morning of my life knowing I no longer had to sail around Cape Horn.

After the Cape
Our fair winds continued for five and a half days, during which we sailed due west for 250 miles, then northwest-by-west for 370 more, always keeping 120 to 140 miles off the Chilean coast even though these favorable winds tempted us to take the rhumb-line course to get north faster. In addition to the cold, heavy cloud was our main challenge. But with patience, Larry got shots of the sun most days. We found our real Cape Horn storm 20 miles after we crossed 50 degrees south. For two and a half days we lay hove to under trysail while northwest winds blew a steady 50 knots, screaming higher in gusts. We lost 40 miles to the southeast, and as we had only 100 miles between us and the rocks of Chile, as soon as the wind eased, we reached due west to regain our offing.

Fourteen hours later, the next storm roared in from the northwest and, according to later reports, by midnight was blowing steadily above Force 12. It was the first time we had to reef our storm trysail. Though we did ship some solid water, we never felt threatened. Taleisin, the wonderful little ship Lyle Hess designed, brought us through with only five broken drinking glasses and a broken windvane frame, a gear failure Larry blames on his own heavy-handedness when he was shortening down the vane's Dacron cover during the worst of the storm. In the break between the two storms, an 86-foot British ketch sailed out of Canal Trinidad and was 90 miles east of us during the second one. Later, in Puerto Montt, we met her skipper. "Fifty knots is OK," he said. "But 70--that's just too much!"

Lin and Larry Pardey left Taleisin in Puerto Montt and flew to New Zealand, where they're working in their small boatyard, Mickey Mouse Marine, to earn the wherewithal for their next adventure.