Rounding Cape Horn, One Of The Most Dangerous Places On Earth
(55.98° S, 67.27° W)
Cape Horn, Tierre del Fuego, Chile
Historically renowned as the most dangerous shipping route in the world the Drake Passage is infamous for having claimed many sailors’ lives. It is said that those who meet their end circumnavigating Cape Horn return as an Albatross, the impressive sea bird that soars above the ocean waves in this area with a giant wingspan of up to 11.5ft. A wingspan larger than other any bird species. I spotted many Albatross from the Captain’s bridge as we approached the cape. It is here that the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern oceans meet. The waters here are notorious as one of the roughest, with rogue waves of up to 30 metres. There is no sizeable land anywhere around the world at the latitudes of the Drake Passage allowing prevailing winds to blow the Antarctic Circumpolar Current uninterrupted at about 600 times the flow of the Amazon River. Icebergs are also still a significant hazard for vessels in the area especially in the Antarctic winter.
In the past, the passage around Cape Horn was an important trade route. Sailing vessels could take weeks just to round the Horn by square rigger. Today, much commercial traffic motors through the Panama Canal, but rounding Cape Horn is still considered a major accomplishment by today’s sailors and competitive racing still happens here including the Volvo Ocean Race, the VELUX 5 Oceans, and the Vendée Globe.
The Drake Passage is named after Englishman, Sir Francis Drake after his last remaining ship was blown here from the Strait of Magellan, in the 16th Century. The Spanish know this area as Mar de Hoces after Spanish navigator Francisco de Hoces, whose ship was also blown into this area about 50 years earlier in the same century. The first recorded voyage through the passage was captained by the Dutch navigator Willem Schouten in 1616, naming Cape Horn in the process.
The Drake passage is considered the shortest crossing from Antarctica to any other piece of land so this is the route that cruise ships visiting Antarctica take. The journey is expected to be unpredictable and brutal. Unlike most of the ships that are violently tossed around like a tin can in these tempestuous seas, our voyage was calm. Our ship sailed smoothly in the ‘Drake Lake’ against a gentle swell with little wind. We were going to be lucky enough to anchor and set foot on Cape Horn, a treat not often afforded to most tourists who cruise these oceans on Antarctic expeditions.
On land we clambered up a rickety wooden staircase to the top of Cape Horn. The steps and banister often broken in parts and overgrown with moss and wild vegetation. At the top, our path was mapped out by a raised wooden boardwalk that cut through the lush and boggy landscape. It lead us to a small wooden chapel, a Chilean Coastguard station complete with residence, a memorial monument paying homage those who have perished trying to cross the deadly seas and a great Albatross sculpture. The climate was cool with heavy cloud cover above. The views from the island down to the rocky coves and shoreline below were magnificent. High amounts of rainfall is common here and after an hour or so a squall began to approach in the distance. With that we hastily retreated to the safety of our ship.
Next stop the Beagle Channel, the South American frontier city of Ushuaia where we had come from 10 days before.