By Ann Evans, Nordhavn 63 Ithaka
We left Puerto Williams on Sunday, January 3, 2016. Having checked the weather charts, it looked like we’d have a reasonable weather window Monday morning, with a low pressure system arriving again Monday afternoon.
Once we left Beagle Canal, the islands became more stark, the vegetation stunted and challenged by the much-feared winds of the region.
Instead of taking a couple of days to get to our anchorage “base”, we pushed through and arrived at Caleta Martial around 10:30 pm (55* 49.251 S/67* 17.457 N in 44’). I do have a rule to try and avoid making passage in difficult waters at night. But here it gets “darkish” after 11 pm! And even then, it’s not completely dark, so entering a bay is pretty easy—just have to watch for kelp beds—thick growths of beefy kelp that cannot only foul your propeller, they also indicate shallow areas which of course have even more dire consequences.
The fierce ocean conditions challenge the best of sailors in these waters. The Horn is the highest latitude, other than Antarctica. The Horn is 56° S, whereas the southern tip of Africa is 35° S, and New Zealand reaches 47° S. At this extreme southern latitude, the strong winds of the Southern Ocean blow from west to east around the world, uninterrupted by land. The wind conditions are further exacerbated at the Horn by the funneling effect of the Andes and the Antarctic Peninsula, which channel the winds into the Drake Passage, the area between South America and Antarctica. And just south of the Horn, the water shallows up, making the waves shorter and steeper, adding to the notoriety of “rogue waves” in this region. Ice can also be a hazard in this high latitude area.
Why did the explorers want to come into such a storm ridden area?
Politics and profits! In the 1500s, the Dutch earned huge profits from handling trade from Eastern goods. But in 1522, King Charles of Spain began the Inquisition, torturing and beheading prominent citizens in Hoorn (southern Dutch region); this did not endear the Spanish to the Dutch. And then in 1581, Spain annexed Portugal, ending Dutch access to Eastern trade. Now they would have to go get their own spices, coffee, silks, etc. Isaac Le Maire from Hoorn decided to fund exploration of an alternate route to the west. Magellan Strait was, of course, controlled by the Spaniards. He funded two small ships, the Unity and the Hoorn, with the best equipment and crew that could be found. They set out on their secret voyage in June 1615. When they arrived in 1616 at Patagonia, they set out to clean the hulls of barnacles and marine growth which slows a ship’s progress. This was done by hauling the ship near the high tide line, letting the tide go out, and then burning off the growth. However, disaster struck when the flames took over and completely consumed the Hoorn.
Both crews continued south on the Unity, captained by Willem Schouten, carefully plotting their way south, until they ultimately found the passage around the tip of South America. (prior to this time, many believed that South America merged into the Southern Continent which included the land masses we today call Antarctica and Australia). It was 400 years ago this month that these bold, determined mariners named it Kaap Hoorn. In English we call it Cape Horn. And in Spanish, Cabo de Hornos (literally, “Cape of Ovens”).
But, imagine the early sailors in relatively small, bulky ships with towering masts attempting to round the Horn, bow into the winds. They sometimes spent months a more trying to beat their way west. The route around Cape Horn became a major trade route, until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. Over the years, hundreds of ships sank trying to make this difficult passage, beset by raging storms or striking uncharted rocks.
In our times, we have the huge advantage being able to monitor and predict weather patterns, as well as having all those wonderful satellites circling the earth that send us our GPS positions so we truly know where we are. The mariners of old relied on stars to determine their location, and in a stormy area like the Horn, the stars were not often visible. So, many ships were lost by inaccurately interpreting the position, resulting in their turning too early into dangerous waters peppered with rocks and small islands.
And so as Ithaka lay at anchor in Caleta Martial, we pulled up GRIB (weather) charts and wind predictions. We saw that early the next morning, westerly winds would be around 25 knots, increasing mid-afternoon to 40 to 45 knots.
We rose at 4:30 am on Monday, January 4, 2016 to “get going while the going was good!” Leaving Caleta Martial, we turned south and soon got our first glimpse of the towering pinnacle from its north side. It reaches up in a triangular formation with sharp edges and great authority.
Turning to starboard, we rounded the west end of Isla Hornos, then turning east to pass on the south side of Isla Hornos. As expected the winds were coming from the west (on our stern), racing down the channel at 30 knots with 40 knot gusts, building 8 foot swells that sweep under our hull. For the Horn, it is still relatively calm.
And then, there She is! At 08:10 we pass in front of the great peak. Proud and defiant, and Horn stands tall, as if surveying all who pass by her.
Ready to document the moment, we slow down the ship for photo ops in front of the Horn. We wanted to make a sign—but who has poster board on a boat?? And then it was obvious what to use: a fuel pad! We have a huge stack of absorbent pads for fuel spills…just the right thing for a Cape Horn photo on a boat!
There is a small bay on the NE side of the island where visitors can anchor, climb up a million stairs, and then go visit the lighthouse, the chapel and the albatross monument. Not everyone lands here—often the conditions are too difficult to do so. The bay is totally clogged with heavy kelp, so we anchored on the edge of it, as 25 to 30 knot winds pushed the ship downwind hard. We trust our anchor, so we tossed our small inflatable dinghy off the stern, got out the electric motor, and told Belle she was in charge of making sure the boat didn’t drag!
The Armada official and his family live here for one year at a time. We brought a signed burgee to post up with memorabilia left by other visiting mariners, along with some souvenirs for the keeper and his family (yes, Christine, your fame now extends to the southernmost lighthouse in the world!). And, they have a special stamp they put in your passport which is pretty cool!
We walked out to the bluff where a huge steel sculpture has a cut-out of an albatross, dedicated to all the mariners lost at sea while rounding the Horn. The wind has now really kicked up…I have to strategically maintain a strong stance as I walk in order to not be blown off the walkway! I’m glad right now that we are not making our way along in the Drake Passage. At the base of the monument there is a poem by Chilean Sara Vial which (translated) reads:
I am the albatross that waits for you
At the end of the world.
I am the forgotten souls of dead mariners
Who passed Cape Horn
From all the oceans of the earth.
But they did not die in the furious waves.
Today they said on my winds toward eternity,
In the last crack of Antarctic winds.
The depth of history and bravery here is momentous.
We return to the ship, happy to find that our awesome anchor has held tight! The winds have now increased significantly—we timed our passage perfectly. The weather over the next several days is declining considerably, so we decide to make our way back to Isla Lennox, about 4 hours from Puerto Williams. Crossing Bahía Nassau is not much fun—40 knot winds creating large waves that we angle across 15 nm of pounding waters.
We drop anchor in shallow waters, in front of an Armada station on the east side of Isla Lennox (55* 17.691 S/66*50.034W in 14.8’). The wind is whipping around us, but the fetch is small (the distance the wind travels over open water) and so the waves are not large. And, since our anchor holds firm and our stabilizers counteract the swell, we stay for a couple of days to wait for better weather before we venture out into Canal Beagle.
A great experience, and I am ever so grateful for GPS, worldwide weather reports, and a robust ship that carries us safely on our adventures!