The Once Dreaded Cape Horn


Cape Horn is one of the world’s most dangerous places to sail in – making every sailor approach it with rapt attention, and be prepared for ‘things’ to happen. Yes, the weather can be atrocious at this tip of the South American continent. One thing that makes a sailing area dangerous is unpredictable weather changes coupled with large tidal currents, shallows, and rocky shores that afford no sheltered bays or places to hide in bad weather. The current here is extremely swift, and rogue waves in this area have sunk ships in a matter of seconds, with no trace.

A Tanker Navigating Cape Horn


Long before Ken Barnes Jr. tried to sail around Cape Horn, the roaring winds and savage seas in the abyss off the tip of South America brought fear to even the most experienced seamen. Through the centuries, hundreds of vessels have been swallowed where the Atlantic meets the Pacific, a watery graveyard where deep low-pressure systems power gale-force winds, 100-foot-high rogue waves and summertime blizzards.

The ‘Southern Ocean’ has been notorious for strong winds and big seas, and the fact that there is both a narrowing and shallowing between the southern tip of South America and northern edge of Antarctica only makes this worse. In the 1830s, Richard Henry Dana Jr. kept a diary of his harrowing trip from Boston to California as a sailor on the Pilgrim, which got tossed around Cape Horn like a rubber duck in a washing machine.

“Hurrying upon deck, we found a large black cloud rolling on toward us from the south-west, and blackening the whole heavens. ‘Here comes Cape Horn!’ said the chief mate; and we had hardly time to haul down and clew up, before it was upon us. In a few moments, a heavier sea was raised than I had ever seen before…. At the same time sleet and hail were driving with all fury against us,” wrote Henry.

There are an estimated 800 shipwrecks near Cape Horn. The one above was carrying a shipment of bibles when it ran aground.

What a Sailor Needs to Watch for at Cape Horn

It is not always stormy, and people have passed the Cape Horn in very calm conditions. Sailing around Cape Horn is not routine, so seafarers need to keep a close eye on the weather conditions and do their best to avoid problems.

In a well found ocean going vessel, with a strong and capable crew, and navigating properly, there should be no problems passaging west to east (with the prevailing winds). Even going against the prevailing (east-west) can be achieved, although the seamen need to plan the voyage with precision (more likely to have to wait for suitable conditions).

Current Scenario

People and goods headed for the California Gold Rush turned Cape Horn into a crowded shipping lane where captains feared bumping into one another. The Panama Canal made the passageway an anachronism. In the 1920s, four men rounded the cape in a 42-footer, generally regarded as the first small boat to accomplish the feat.

Today, Cape Horn has returned to its roots as a magnet for adventure seekers. Some hit the buffet on cruise ships while visiting waters that were once the purview of explorers. Some race yachts through its jaws. Others seek to conquer Cape Horn for the same reason climbers scale Mt. Everest.

“This place that terrified our ancestors who had to go there is now a place of adventure sailing,” said Dallas Murphy, author of ‘Rounding the Horn’, which chronicles the cape’s history. Like Everest, the cape and the surrounding ocean can be deadly unpredictable.

Several factors combine to make the passage around Cape Horn one of the most hazardous shipping routes in the world.

Reference, Note of Caution

With over 800 shipwrecks and 10,000 lost lives between 1870 and 1914 before the completion of the Panama Canal, the Drake Passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica became well-known as the most treacherous ocean waters on the planet.

The region is notorious for monster storms with winds gusting routinely over 100 mph, fueled by the merger of warm and cold ocean currents of the South Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and the temperature gradient from the Antarctic ice sheet to the south.

Cape Horn lies near 56 degrees south latitude; a place where, when trouble arrives, there is little one can do but pray. There’s an old maritime saying: “Below 40 degrees latitude, there is no law. Below 50 degrees, there is no God.”

Sea News Feature, January 30