After a week, we returned to Puerto Williams to clear Chilean customs and wait out a three-day low-pressure system, then set off for Cape Horn. We sailed down the Channel, past the famous wreck of the ship Logos, Picton Island, Lennox Island, and into Bahia Nassau and the island group near Cape Horn. We arrived as night fell, and Miles did some truly impressive navigation as he threaded us through a tight and completely unmarked channel between two islands in the pitch black. Most of the charts of this region are still based on Fitzroy’s surveys and they don’t synch up with modern GPS. As a result, mud maps and handmade annotations conveying local knowledge are invaluable. (After Rudi, my navigation watch partner, and I had carefully entered East Seno Pia, a cove with a slightly tricky entrance from the Beagle Channel, we watched the chart plotter with a mixture of disbelief and relief as our GPS showed Pelagic Australis passing 100 yards behind our current position, and directly across a treacherous moraine!)
I woke at dawn on May 31, wildly excited. This was the day when we would finally round Cape Horn. The sunrise was spectacular and as we left the shelter of the islands, the seas began rolling in a long and high but gentle swell. The infamous Cape Horn continued to deliver nothing more than low gray skies and long swells throughout the morning, but none of us doubted our luck. A look around the high hills and rocky coasts dropping away behind us, the long view out across the Drake Passage, toward the coast of Antarctica, fewer than 400 miles away… the seas where the Atlantic and Pacific meet, and the South American landmass has completely abandoned its duty as a crucial windbreak. You could just feel the careless power of the sea, a moody tyrant caught in a rare good mood.
As that famous view came into focus on the horizon, a hush descended on the boat. It wasn’t abrupt or dramatic, but it was very real…each of us looking in awe at a long-sought goal and turning inward to reflect on what had brought us here. There is a very mournful quality to the place—it’s almost impossible to know the history and not see that massive headland as a kind of monolithic gravestone for all the sailors that never lived to tell the story. Here is where the sea took them. Cape Horn marks the spot.
And then, with the first tip of the bottle into the drink—giving Neptune, Poseidon, Cape Horn, and all those souls their due— we, the living, celebrated: We had sailed around Cape Horn.
Look for another feature on the second part of Mary South’s voyage aboard Pelagic Australis, through the Strait of Le Maire to the Falkland Islands and on to Buenos Aires, in a future issue.