We have heard that Captains of cruise ships must take nine years of training and then earn huge salaries as they sail to all the world’s faraway places … why? Because there is a Cape Horn.
Cape Horn sits at the south tip of the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego and Tierra del Fuego sits of the south tip of South America. There isn’t a whole lot between Cape Horn and Antarctica. The Drake Passage around Cape Horn forms part of the Southern Ocean.
The Southern Ocean from about latitude 400 south to the Antarctic Circle has the strongest average winds found anywhere on earth because there is less land mass to slow them down; they just blow around the world almost uninterrupted by land. The latitudes between 400 south and 500 south have been dubbed the Roaring Forties because of these rowdy prevailing westerly winds. Add to these already rowdy winds, the funneling effect of the Andes and the Antarctic peninsula channeling the winds into the relatively narrow Drake Passage and we have rowdy winds of even greater intensity.
After the Roaring Forties come the even wilder Furious Fifties. Cape Horn sits at about 550 south. After the Furious Fifties? The Screaming Sixties. Strong winds create large waves, sometimes enormous waves, that roll around the Southern Ocean, never making landfall. When these waves meet the area of relatively shallow water just south of Cape Horn they apparently become shorter and steeper and this makes the waters even more hazardous. Then there are rogue waves which can reach heights of almost 100 feet. That’s a wall of water the size of a ten storey building.
Then for good measure there is the ice hazard when venturing below 40° south. In February—summer in the Southern Hemisphere—icebergs are generally not encountered above 50° south but this was December, just the beginning of their summer … where do the icebergs sit in December?
High winds, walls of water, strong currents, and icebergs – no wonder it’s been said, “Below 400, there is no law. Below 500, there is no God”.
With all this in mind we watched from the ship’s railing as we steered towards the Drake Passage.
Saturday, December 13
Happened to wake at 4.30 a.m. … took a photo through the port-hole and crawled back into bed. Finally up, 3 ½ hours later, it is 8C with moderate seas of 4 to 7 ½ foot swells. Landfall on starboard but don’t know what it is. The morning seas are very calm, some rolling swells but very smooth and not at all choppy.
So now we are venturing very far south to the underside of the globe. I emailed grandson Devan to tell him that I agreed with him—I am thankful for gravity, because here I am standing upside down on the bottom of the world.
We were scheduled to round the Cape about 6.30 p.m. At 4.30 many gathered on Deck for the ‘rounding the Cape’ ceremony, baptizing us as Honorary Fugeans. The Captain and his second in command, armed with two huge pails of cold sea water and a large ladle, doused those of us who presented ourselves pail-side.
Following that we took up post on the starboard side to watch the event unfold. We were enjoying it thoroughly but it did necessitate standing for over an hour in strong, gusty winds that could blow a body off-balance. We were turtlenecked, sweatshirted, vested, jacketed, gloved, hatted and hooded as we watched our approach to the islands of the archipelago, layered into the distance like an exercise in watercolour painting.
If I hadn’t been told the Cape was named for a Dutch ship, the Hoorn, that had gone down on an attempt at rounding the Horn 400 years ago, I would have thought it was named for the two horn-like rock formations that we saw as we came around. And as we came around the seas became rougher—winds whipping the waves into whitecaps, ship riding the swells, spray everywhere.
Then our ship quietly slipped back to the safety of the Beagle Channel.