Drake Passage - Cape Horn - sailing into the Beagle Channel
A day of wanderers, a day for ocean wanderers
Royals and Wandering albatrosses glide and soar around the ship. With their long and narrow wings stretched. The Royals can be seen here flying from their nesting grounds all the way around half of the world in New Zealand. The Wanderers use these waters just south of the Horn, coming here for food from the several sub-Antarctic islands where they breed. They are in the middle of their foraging voyages.
The Europa, another ocean wanderer well known around the Tall Ship fleet. She is closing up to the end of her long trip that brought her from Montevideo to Tierra del Fuego in Patagonia, passing by the Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica. Today she spreads almost all her canvas to the good winds she came across sailing at the northern end of the Drake Passage, close to Cape Horn, and then, at the lee of the Wollaston archipelago and getting into the Beagle Channel. Another 180nm of great sailing lay behind in her last 24 hours.
And she races her way. 9, 10 even 11kn for a short time can be seen in the speed meter. Fair Southwesterlies still blow at a good 20 to 25kn. She races them on the cloudy and overcast day, through the haze, mist, drizzle, and rain. The winds had brought her quickly here from the last southern lands she had seen in the South Shetland Islands. During the night she slows her way dropping sails as she approaches a good anchorage in the Beagle Channel. But before that, in the late afternoon, veiled by the low clouds, Cape Horn appears as a shade on the horizon at her starboard side.
For many, and not knowing exactly why, its name has the sound of a mythical, legendary place, a symbol for a classical or a daring seaman. A romanticized ideal that often acts as a magnet for some, not actually being aware of what the true nature of the Horn is, or simply what the art of sailing involves.
There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better no worse. All the symbolism people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.
Ernest Hemingway. “The old man and the sea”
Beyond the name, beyond the legend. That’s when you know why The Horn holds such a bad reputation and demands its well-earned respect:
When you know about the ship, her sails, and her network of ropes.
When you know the ocean currents and atmospheric circulation that affect the area.
When you know its history, the first sailors rounding it and finding a southern passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The rough trade route they had to sail by between the Americas and Europe when the ships battled its waters on every trip for an unknown and unplanned period of time or even the uncertainty of success.
Here, often an innocuous-looking summer Low coming out of the Southern Ocean or passing by from the Pacific to the Atlantic transforms into the most dangerous of storms, what the old square-rigger sailors of the 19th century used to call a Cape Horn snorter.
The same men who worked, lived, and sometimes died in the harsh deep-sea sailing ships, when day after day, week after week during any season of the year endured the swells and winds battering off the Horn. “The Cape Horn Breed”
Why has the Horn got such an infamous reputation? Anyone reading about the storm winds and waves near Cape Horn must wonder why they should be so much more fearsome there than in the rest of the world.
Off the Horn there are gales of Force 8 or more on one day in four in the spring and one day in eight in the summer. Winds have a lazy nature in that they refuse to climb over a mountain range if they can sweep past the end of it. South America has one of the greatest mountain ranges of the world, the Andes, which blocks the westerlies along a front of 1200 miles from 35ºS down to Cape Horn. All this powerful wind is crowding through Drake’s Strait. The normal westerlies pouring through this gap are interfered with by the turbulent, vicious little cyclones rolling off the Andes.
As for the waves, the prevailing westerlies set up a current flowing eastwards round the world .
This great ocean river is forced to pass between South America and the South Shetland Islands.
There is another factor which greatly increases the turbulence. The bottom of the ocean shelves between the Horn and the Shetland Islands induces the huge seas to break.
Francis Chichester 1966. “Along the Clipper Way”