By Marilyn Diggs
June 25, 2007
My Chilean Patagonia cruise on the Mare Australis had surpassed all my expectations. We had trekked the glaciers, seen ice slabs disengage and slide into monster fjords, and been almost close enough to hug Magellanic penguins and sea lions. Our inflatable zodiacs had navigated through iceberg-ridden waters on adventures we would someday tell our grandchildren. Even the November weather had cooperated with just random snow flurries and some overcast skies. For me, only one anticipation remained: to step foot on the southernmost island in South America, Cape Horn.
The captain had told us four days earlier when we began our expedition from Punta Arenas, Chile, that landing on Cape Horn depended entirely upon the weather and sea currents. The last three expeditions had not been lucky. It would only take place if Neptune was kind and the captain felt sure of our safety. This would be determined 30 minutes before the scheduled embarkment.
Strong westerlies, hazardous currents, rogue waves and violent seas have hindered ships since the Cape, known as the sailors’ graveyard, was first chartered. In 1577 Sir Francis Drake circumnavigating the world passed through the Strait of Magellan but a storm blew him south of Tierra del Fuego. In 1616 Dutch navigators leaving from Hoorn followed Drakes’ course in search of an alternative route to the Far East. They discovered what they thought to be a cape and named it Kaap Hoorn. Only in 1624 the Horn was revealed to be an island, not a peninsula. From the 1700s to early 1900s it was part of the clipper ship routes which carried much of the world’s trade. Over 800 ships met their doom attempting to round the Cape and now there we were, heading for the most dangerous ship passage in the world.
The night of our proximity to Cape Horn was different than the others. Up until then we had navigated in protected channels. It was smooth sailing as we passed through the Strait of Magellan and the calm Beagle Channel. Now we were heading southwest, to open sea. That night the boat rocked in restless waters. The bathroom door swung open and banged against the our cabin wall. My book and papers slid to the floor. I looked out the window; all black. I tried to doze back to sleep despite the pitching.
At 6:00 a.m. my alarm clock rang and my cabin mate and I immediately looked out the window at the jutting pointed rock under a grey sky. An uninviting, charcoal island with a white frothing skirt loomed before us.
The 120 multinational passengers divided into groups according to their mother tongue and waited for the verdict at different stations. We English speakers milled around in the top lounge in waterproof britches, rubber boots, down parkas, gloves, wool hats and bright orange life vests. People talked in muffled voices, anticipating the important announcement. Several of the crew had taken a zodiac to the Cape Horn to verify landing conditions.
At 6:45 the word came – yes, we could go. I murmured to my friend, Houston, we have a lift off!” Smiling faces scurried through the corridors of the ship. No time to lose. We made our way to the back of the ship and entered single-filed into the zodiacs according to special instructions given the night before. Hand extended to crew member, step, step, sit and slide. Choppy, freezing salt water splashed against the rubber boat. The grey metallic sky made the ocean look black and foreboding. In 20 minutes the motorboat bounced and heaved to the island.
Two of the young crew men in skin-diving suits in frigid sea water up to their waists, pulled the bobbing zodiac to a board, the improvised landing dock against the rocks. Angry waves slammed against the rocks as one by one the passengers disembarked. Slide to the front, swing legs over the side, up you go, onto the plank. Next, we climbed 180 wooden stairs against a sheer cliff to reach the treeless, tundra-covered summit. A sign made of a tree trunk slab supported by two posts read, “Armada de Chile. Cabo de Hornos. Alcaldia de mar,” (mayoralty of the sea). My almost numb fingers must have clicked a dozen photos of my colleagues by that sign, a trophy for making the climb. The fierce wind at the top of the rock island, got even angrier as the morning wore on. Average winds blow 19 mph (30 kph) but squalls can reach over 62mph (100kph). What can you expect being only 400 miles (650km) from Antarctica? We knew our visit would be brief, so no one tarried.
The misty winds made the wooden planks that formed the path slippery. We followed them to a point of divergence. To the left, a lone lighthouse, a ranger’s station and a one-room chapel; to the right, a distant hill with a monument to shipwrecked sailors. First, I headed to the station to buy a US$4 postcard stamped from the southernmost post office in the world. Bless the young couple who man that station. I climbed the spiral staircase in the lighthouse for a peek at the ocean. A protected Chilean flag flew nearby, while another one exposed to the elements was a mere rag, ripped by unpatriotic gales. Inside a wooden cabin-like chapel was an encased uniform from the Chilean naval academy, a souvenir from its first landing on the island in 1916.
The winds increased and the temperature decreased since our landing 30 minutes earlier. Time to visit the bronze sculpture with a cut out of an albatross – the memorial to the mariners who lost their lives crossing Cape Horn. It is said that this huge bird carries the souls of shipwrecked sailors to heaven. From the knoll, I looked down to where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet and wondered how many drowning sailors went to Dave Jones’ locker from this very point. I snapped some photos and it was time to return. The descent warmed us somewhat, but the waves were now white-capped and the organizers waved frantically for us to hurry. The ride back to the ship was wet and wild. Icy salt water splashed against my sunglasses and stung my wind-burned face as the bucking zodiac raced home. So much for waterproof pants. Now the cold wet sea spray was almost unbearable. Despite the winds, the passengers made it back in record time. After a shower to take off the chill, we were in the breakfast room for a hearty, well-deserved breakfast. Spirits were high; the adventure had been invigorating. It was 8:45 a.m.
Traditionally when a sailor rounded “The Horn” he was entitled to wear a gold loop earring in his left ear, the one which had faced the Horn in a typical eastbound passage. He also had permission to dine with one foot on the table. I happily settled for my certificate signed by the ship’s captain, which I regard with pride and a sense of accomplishment.
For more information: Cruceros Australis – www.australis.com
(Photos taken by Patty McCrary)
Marilyn Diggs is an American living in Brazil for over twenty years. She is a freelance writer, artist, lecturer and author of nine books – two about Brazilian art history. As an art reporter and travel writer she has two monthly columns in Sunday News, Brazil’s English language newspaper that circulates in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. She has written for the Miami Herald and Museum International , a UNESCO publication. Marilyn has a degree in Latin American Studies and is often contracted by intercultural training services to give talks on expat challenges. www.mdiggs.com
Previous articles by Marilyn:
Around Brazil: Hang-Gliding Over Rio
Around Brazil: Sailing in Paraty
Santiago: Gateway to the Chilean Experience
The Enchanting Easter Island
Nature and Nurturing in Chile’s Lake Region
Chilean Patagonia: Going to the Ends of the Earth
Around Brazil: Adventure in the Pantanal and Bonito Part 2
Around Brazil: Adventure in the Pantanal and Bonito Part 1
Spending the Night in the Lost City of the Incas – Machu Picchu
Brazil: Happy Moonlit Trails To You
Brazil: Paradise Found – Fernando de Noronha“