Cape Horn, the ultimate test
Fear and curiosity, a dream or a nightmare. All sailors have a relationship with Cape Horn.
Cape Horn, even the name sounds scary. The cliff is located on Hornos, one of the rugged islands where South America reach down and into the Southern Ocean. The archipelago is called Land of fire, but the climate is by no means hot. The northernmost islands in Antarctica, the South Shetland Islands, are only 800 kilometers away.
Until the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, ships had to sail south of South America to get between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Here in the far south, winds blowing from west to east dominate, called "The roaring forties" and a little further south, "The furious fifties".
- The furious fifties are a belt of weather systems, new low pressures, that constantly passes by, says captain Marcus Seidl.
Apart from the southern tip of South America, there are no large areas of land that affect the wind here in the south, it blows continuously in a circle around the entire globe north of Antarctica, and is often very strong. The wind sets up strong currents and large waves, and you risk hitting larger and smaller icebergs. Scary.
- The area was most notorious with those who were to sail from east to west, towards the weather systems. They could spend several weeks getting around the little point called Cape Horn, getting from the Atlantic Ocean and into the Pacific Ocean, says Captain Marcus Seidl.
The rounding of Cape Horn was notorious, and not without reason. During the sailing ship era, accidents were common.
- They simply sailed too hard, and were blown ashore, or sank in severe storms. The ships had been in out at sea for a very long time, and some ran out of provisions and disease broke out on board. And every time something happened at Cape Horn, the newspapers ran elaborate stories, says Seidl.
Drama at Cape Horn was also a favorite motif among the marine painters. The image below of a shipwreck with the Horn in the background is a typical example.
The Drake Passage
The sea area between Cape Horn and Antarctica is called Drake Passage after the British explorer Francis Drake. During his circumnavigation of the globe, he was blown south from the Land of Fire during a storm in 1578. One of his ships sank and all on board perished, but the Golden Hind with Drake on board survived. The incident proved that there was open sea south of South America, an important discovery.
Cape Horn is named after the Dutch city of Hoorn. The cliff got its name in 1616, when a ship deliberately sailed south of the cliff for the first time. Since then the Drake passage became the preferred route between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.
The ships do not have to sail all the way down into the open sea in the Drake Passage to get past South America. It is possible to sneak between the islands of the Land of Fire. Two of the routes have been named, the Beagle Channel just north of the Cape itself, and the Strait of Magellan between the archipelago and the mainland, a little further north. It was through the Strait of Magellan that Drake sailed when the storm hit his ships.
But the wind is strong between the islands as well, and it can pick up very fast. The straits are narrow, so if you have a solid ship, it is safer to round Cape Horn, than to take the risk of blowing ashore between the islands.
- The heyday of sailing ships around Cape Horn was in the period between 1890 and 1920. Then large ships with cargo sailed from Europe to Asia. These ships were built as we are, and could withstand harsh weather, says Seidl.
Statsraad Lehmkuhl will sail both through the Strait of Magellan and around Cape Horn. Why? Seidl smiles.
- We could have taken the Panama Canal, and we could have sailed through the Strait of Magellan and up along Patagonia, without rounding Cape Horn. But all sailors dream of sailing around Cape Horn on board a tall ship at least once, and since we are this close, we do it.
The ship arrived in Punta Arenas inside the Strait of Magellan on March 22. After a few days at the quay, the ship left March 26, and planned to sail into the Pacific Ocean via Cook Bay, where the Beagle channel ends in the west. Then head east, past Cape Horn, and in between the islands to the small town of Ushuaía.
Change of plan
The plan was altered in the last minute. Captain Seidl explains.
- Our status as a foreign naval vessel requires us to follow an alternative sailing route. The new route will take us eastwards through the Beagle Channel before we sail southwards in the Atlantic Ocean towards Cape Horn. As the saying goes, there is always something positive in everything and this unexpected change in plans will take us through the beautiful Patagonian landscape and give us the opportunity to pass Cape Horn twice, once from East to West and then from West to East on our return to Ushuaia.
Ushuaía is located in the Beagle Channel, and is and is Argentine and not Chilean as Punta Arenas, although the town is further east.
The crew and fellow sailors who mustered in Newport disembark here, and new ones come on board. Then the Statsraad Lehmkuhl makes another trip around Cape Horn. West in the Beagle Channel, out to sea, then east past Cape Horn again, and back to Ushuaia.
- The passage between the islands should be very beautiful, says Seidl, who even though he has sailed all his life also will round Cape Horn for his first time now.
The southern tip of South America extends almost down to Antarctica. A map of the seabed shows that the area between is an underwater mountain range, where some of the peaks form an arc of small islands. The mountain range has been named the Scotia Arc, and the area is very vulnerable due to climate change.
On board Statsraad Lehmkuhl, scientists from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Norway discussed the plan for how to protect the environment here, the Southern Ocean Action Plan (SOAP). Their conclusion is that the changes are happening so quickly that there is a need for a new strategy, which takes better account of the local challenges in the area.
The results of the work on board Statsraad Lehmkuhl will now be published in a research article, which will make it easier find solutions.
The weather is what concerns both Seidl and the rest of the sailors now.
- We expect changing weather. We are in an area where the weather systems constantly move in from the west and into where we are going out to sea, and then the systems moves with us towards Cape Horn. The weather forecasts indicates that there will be wind on and off all the time. We hope for not too much wind, and for good visibility so that we can see Cape Horn. To round Cape Horn and say that you have seen it, is a little more fun than not seeing anything.
Statsraad Lehmkuhl will leave Punta Arenas on Saturday 26 March for the first tour around Cape Horn. If the weather forecast made the day before they set out is correct, they can look forward to a nice ride.
First northerly winds that take them out to sea, and then a gale from the west and southwest the following days. Perfect for a solid ship like Statsraad Lehmkuhl. It will be cloudy and rain a little at times, but it will not get soaking wet.
In the video below, Seidl and members of his crew share their thoughts on challenging Cape Horn.