A sailor follows his dream
Around the Horn
On 4 Feb. 2009, we sailed west across the Cape Horn meridian, 67 degrees 16 minutes west longitude, which divides the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Our sailboat, Kekilistrion, a 12-meter, 12-metric-ton ferrous cement cutter, easily navigated using only the main and jib.
For me this cruise began 55 years ago in Valparaíso, Chile, where I was born. As a teenager, I read maritime histories and sea novels about the discovery and history of Cape Horn that cemented the place in my imagination. Vessels would head to Valparaíso for cargo, supplies and repairs after doubling the “terrible” cape. For these reasons and more, sailing Cape Horn earned a place on my “bucket list” of things to do before I die.
Last year, my friend Axel jumped at the chance to take part in this adventure. Axel has contacts in Ushuaia, an Argentine port in the Beagle Channel where you can rent sailboats for trips to Antarctica, Cape Horn and the glaciers.
Axel and I flew from Sarasota, Fla., to Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, where we met the rest of the crew: Elodie, a young woman from Paris; Daniel, an older sailor from Brittany; and Olivier, our French-born captain who now lives in Ushuaia.
We departed Ushuaia for Puerto Williams, a Chilean town on Isla Navarino 28 miles east of us on the Beagle Channel’s southern shore. For most of the trip, we could see both sides of the well-marked channel.
During the 5-hour passage, we saw albatrosses, giant petrels, steamer ducks, dolphins and other wildlife. The temperature was 45 degrees Fahrenheit with 15- to 30-knot variable winds, 40-knot gusts and light rains.
That night we stayed in Puerto Williams. Home to a Chilean naval base, small-scale fishing, forestry, ranching and other industries, the area also caters to passing yachts.
Flying the USPS ensign and the Annapolis and Sarasota squadron burgees, we departed Puerto Williams early the next morning for Puerto Toro on Navarino Island’s east side.
After a pleasant 6-hour sail, we passed Snipe Islet at 1335 and entered Picton Pass about 20 minutes later. The wind slowed a little east of Navarino Island.
With twilight at 2300, we had plenty of time to visit Puerto Toro. Busy during the winter, the small town was desolate this time of year.
At 0810, we departed Puerto Toro for Maxwell Cove in the Wollaston Archipelago. After navigating south through Picton Pass, we continued southwest between Navarino and Lennox islands through the Goree Pass, which led us to Nassau Bay.
We expected a difficult sail with 20 miles of open water exposed to the “furious fifties,” harsh winds found between 50 degrees and 60 degrees south latitude. Fortunately, the weather was relatively calm during our silent and gray—though luminous—southward passage.
Several pods of dolphins came rushing from the southeast to check out the boat. Those acrobats performed all kinds of stunts before disappearing the way they came.
Albatrosses floated freely overhead. As we approached, they took off, some by walking over the water. They slowly circled overhead before coming to rest in the water some distance away.
Looking east, we could see the dark profiles of islands, and to the south the cold, silver water stretched to the horizon. Two hours later, the high mountains of Wollaston Island appeared.
We sailed straight to Gretton Bay and continued southwest through the Washington Channel between Bayly and Wollaston islands. We entered Franklin Bay, where we could see False Cape Horn to the west. Continuing southeast, we arrived at Maxwell Cove at 1925.
We anchored stern to Maxwell Island’s beautiful, green east side. We used more than 100 yards of chain running from the bow and two 125-plus-yard polypropylene lines tied to two trees wide apart—classic anchoring protection against the “williwaws,” the 80-knot winds that gust down from the mountains.
Later two 32-foot sloops arrived and rafted to starboard. The Watta carried three Swiss people in their late twenties who were sailing around the world. Aboard Nanoq, a retired Swede was sailing alone around the world. We turned in early after a memorable dinner of lamb stew. Tomorrow we would depart for Cape Horn.
I woke up early in anticipation. The day was windy with low, fast clouds and light rain.
We departed at 0930. Waiting nearby, our new friends aboard Watta planned to follow us to the cape and afterward to León Cove, where we would disembark to visit the island.
After entering San Francisco Bay, we followed a southeast course. On our port side, we passed near dark, desolate Hall Island. To starboard, we saw the profile of Hermite Island and the immense South Pacific beyond.
In the Drake Passage, we saw big 6- to 13-foot-high rollers approach from the Pacific. At 1105, we passed the west corner of Hornos Island and changed course.
The wind increased to 25 knots with 40-knot gusts, which helped our heavy boat move over the rollers. Being lifted as if by elevator over the crest of one roller, we got an impressive view only to plunge into the trough a moment later, losing sight of Watta south of us.
We passed the Cape Horn meridian at 1142 to cries of joy and handshakes all around.
After taking many photos, we continued east, running parallel to Hornos Island’s southern side, while we admired its rocky, dark and tempestuous shoreline. Overwhelmed by the imposing island, no one spoke as we recalled its terrifying history and tried to memorize its geography. Despite the sound of the wind and water, I heard only silence as the vastness of the silver ocean deepened my appreciation of that desolate, lonely and fearsome region.
After a while, signs of civilization, including a Chilean flag, the Cape Horn Memorial (featuring a sculpture of an albatross) and a lighthouse appeared atop the island’s hills. At the island’s eastern end, we headed north to find León Cove. Taking advantage of improving weather, we landed at León Cove and visited the island.
An “Alcaldía de Mar,” or administrative subdivision of the Chilean Navy, Cape Horn has a modern lighthouse and offices that monitor area traffic while providing communication and information services.
Burgees of vessels that have visited the island adorn the walls on the lighthouse’s first floor. The collection now includes the USPS ensign and the Annapolis and Sarasota squadron burgees.
A small chapel sits beside the lighthouse building, and the Cape Horn Memorial, a monument to all sailors who have lost their lives trying to round the cape, is nearby.
We walked around for an hour before the wind changed, forcing us to return to the boat to sail back to Puerto Williams and the glaciers of Beagle Channel.