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Articles Blog

Cape Horn

Karyn Planett

You’ve sailed a long way, lad. What lies before you now, hovering on the horizon in a rolling grey mist, is one of this great earth’s most iconic landmarks. Cape Horn, it is, and it heralds the furthest southern point in the whole of South America*. A rugged strip of scrabblerock headland lashed by jackhammer waves and stinging winds, it stands as a beacon to those who’ve journeyed far, from sea to sea, to make this epic rounding. And by making this rounding of the fierce Tierra del Fuego archipelago you stand among the storied few who’ve dared chart such a course. You’ve added another patch to your maritime uniform, the one that sports the badges of distant lands. Let it be known now, lad, that you’ve well and truly sailed to the ends of the earth.             

Those Who Came Before Us       

Of course, indigenous Fuegians inhabited this part of the world for a long, long time. But, as far as sightings by Europeans, it was first spotted, possibly, in 1525 by Francisco de Hoces whose ship San Lesmes was in the area because it had been blown wildly off course. Some 53 years later, Sir Francis Drake did successfully sail through the Strait of Magellan from the Atlantic to the Pacific but was then caught in a raging storm that forced his vessel far south. Upon spotting Tierra del Fuego, he believed it to be an island and not another undiscovered continent to the south. Remember, this was all uncharted territory. 

Charles Darwin was here in 1832 aboard The Beagle during his five-year voyage where he gathered data and prepared his thoughts for the Origin Of Species. He penned the following… 

“We closed in with the Barnevelts, and running past Cape Deceit with its stony peaks, about three o’clock doubled the weather beaten Cape Horn. The evening was calm and bright, and we enjoyed a fine view of the surrounding isles. Cape Horn, however, demanded his tribute, and before night sent us a gale of wind fiercely in our teeth. We stood out to seas, and on the second day again made the land, when we saw on our weather-bow this notorious promontory in its proper form – veiled in a mist, and its dim outline surrounded by a storm of wind and water.”

Pathway to the Pacific       

Man is driven by commerce. Trade dictates the routes. Cape Horn was a necessary obstacle from the 18th to the beginning of the 20th centuries for vessels whose cargo holds were laden with such things as Australian grain and wool. Asian products rounded the Horn, as well. So, too, pioneers seeking passage to the west coast of America, many as prospectors hoping to strike gold in the California hills. 

Though full details are often in dispute, HMS Bounty (of mutiny fame) succeeded in covering only 85 miles over a period of 31 storm-tossed days, before aborting its rounding of the Cape. And those hardships were even before the mutiny of 1759. 

What did signal the end to much of this maritime torture was the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 and the completion of the railroads that finally connected the east with the west coasts of America. Goods and people were now able to travel between the two without accepting the dangers of rounding the Horn.

Coming Ashore 

This landscape is punctuated by so few manmade objects. Among them though is a small lighthouse, two actually, and a most impressive sculpture. Its paired panels, slightly separated from each other, when viewed at a certain point silhouette the outline of an albatross. This impressive work was created in 1992 by José Balcells, a Chilean, to pay tribute to the many seamen who perished in their attempts to “round the Horn.” 

Some Traditions 

It’s been said that some sailors believe, upon rounding the Horn, they may celebrate this accomplishment by wearing a gold hoop earring in their left ear. Lore goes on to recount that those same sailors are then able to rest one foot upon the table while dining. They are only entitled to rest both feet on the table if they have also successfully rounded the Cape of Good Hope off the southern tip of Africa. 

Tradition aside, it is truly bad form to eat with either foot on the table! The earring is OK.