The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


Around the Three Capes

         Cape Agulhas  34 50' South  20  01' East
         Cape Leeuwin  34 22' South  115 08' East
         Cape Horn     55 59' South  67  16' West

       During the first part of this day (Wednesday) the wind
       was light, but after noon it came on fresh, and we furled
       the royals. We still kept the studding-sails out, and the
       captain said he should go around with them, if he could.
       Just before eight o'clock (then about sun-down, in that
       latitude), the cry of "All hands ahoy!" was sounded down
       the fore scuttle and the after hatchway, and hurrying
       upon deck, we found a large black cloud rolling on
       toward us from the south-west, and blackening the whole
         "Here comes Cape Horn!" said the chief mate; and
       we had hardly time to haul down and clew up, before
       it was upon us.
         In a few moments, a heavier sea was raised than I
       had ever seen before, and as it was directly ahead, the
       little brig, which was no better than a bathing machine,
       plunged into it, and all the forward part of her was
       under water; the sea pouring in through the bow ports
       and hawse-hole and over the knight-heads, threatening to
       wash everything overboard. In the lee scuppers it was up
       to a man's waist.

  This incident, described by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., in Two Years
Before the Mast, on a voyage aboard the small brig Pilgrim in the
1830s, communicates the awe and reverence sailors had for "Cape
Stiff" in the days when iron men in wooden ships had few choices of
routes if they wanted to sail from one ocean to another.
  Slocum originally intended to sail east from Gibraltar through the

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Mediterranean, and the 92-mile long Suez Canal which was in
operation; but when he was warned against pirates (and was actually
chased by them off Morocco), he turned downhill, across the Atlan-
tic again to Brazil, then south and through Magellan Strait. Old
newspaper files in Buenos Aires indicate that he had also intended to
sail around Cape Horn. Whether this was just interview talk for the
benefit of reporters, or he changed his mind again to take the strait
route, is unknown. He had a difficult time in the strait, due to
violent winds and currents and harassment by a native band of
renegades led by a half-breed outlaw; and the first time he attempted
to make an offing into the Pacific, he was blown back down toward
the Horn on the outside and nearly wrecked in the Milky Way.
  The rest of Slocum's voyage, however, generally followed the trade
route, with a loop down around the Cape of Good Hope (the
southernmost tip of Africa being actually Cape Agulhas ) . Voss
started from the west coast of North America and, while he doubled
Hope, too, he didn't complete his circumnavigation in Tilikum, and
thus was not faced with the Horn.
  The later circumnavigators, with the new Panama Canal opened,
established the pattern that became pretty much standard for voyages
around the world in small vessels, and remains so today. This route is
via the Panama Canal, then slanting down into the northeast trades
to the Marquesas, often with a detour to the Galapagos Islands on
the way. The Marquesas are the first taste of the true South Sea
atmosphere that most voyagers experience. From here, most of them
sail down through the Tuamotus to Tahiti for a long stop.
  From Tahiti, the route lies westward to Bora Bora, or up to Samoa
and the Fijis, thence to New Guinea, through Torres Strait and the
Arafura Sea, across the Indian Ocean via Keeling-Cocos, Rodriguez,
Mauritius, and Reunion, to Africa. Robinson, Long, and many others
made the long, hot beat up the Red Sea to Suez and through the
canal into the Mediterranean. Others sailed to the hospitable port of
Durban, South Africa, to get prepared for the hard 900 miles around
Hope to Cape Town; after which they made the long passage across
the Atlantic via St. Helena, Ascension, and the West Indies. This
southern route could only be made in the summer months, usually
November and December. In winter, the voyagers usually took the
Suez Canal.
  With the closing of the Suez Canal in 1967, all voyagers had to go
around Cape of Good Hope. There was no other choice, unless one
wanted to ship one's yacht overland from a Persian Gulf port.

     ~ 401 ~

  The route then became strictly a trade wind route west-about,
except for the unpleasantness at the tip of Africa. Hundreds of yachts
have made this circumnavigation. From Europe, they would sail to
Gibraltar or to Vigo, then down to the Canaries where dozens of
yachts might be rendezvoused at the same time to wait out the
hurricane season in the Caribbean; then came the easy Atlantic
passage, the leisurely weeks in the West Indies, and on to Panama.
After the canal transit, a minor ordeal, they then followed the classic
route to the South Pacific, and so on around.
  By this route, it was reaching or running all the way, and few
passages were longer than thirty days. Moreover, most of the world's
bad weather could thus be avoided.
  It was Conor O'Brien, the Irish rebel, who circumnavigated first
from east to west, south of the three principal capes Leeuwin,
Horn, and Agulhas or Good Hope. He sailed down the Atlantic to
Cape Town, then to Durban, and down into the Roaring Forties,
past the remote rocks of Amsterdam and St. Paul, down past Cape
Leeuwin on the southwest horn of Australia, across the Australian
bight to Melbourne; thence across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand.
  Too late for his mountain-climbing appointment in New Zealand,
he wandered a bit about the islands, then took off for home via Cape
Horn, the Falkland Islands from which he made a detour to the Ant-
arctic aboard a supply vessel and up the Atlantic, stopping once in
Brazil and again in the Azores.
  What O'Brien had actually done was sail the old wool and grain
clipper route from the British Isles to Australia and return. In his
day, some of these old clippers were still in use. In fact, a few re-
mained in service up to the outbreak of World War II. Anticipat-
ing Chichester by half a century, O'Brien had made a thorough study
of old clipper ship logs.
  It was a rough passage, most of the way in the high southern
latitudes, subjected to frequent storms and to enormous seas which
often overwhelmed even the largest and sturdiest ships. From Europe,
a ship sailed from 50N to 50S and back again, while also going
from 0 longitude to 180 and back again. A stop was usually made
at Cape Town, which had been a strategic port for commerce be-
tween the East and the West for 300 years or more.
  Leaving Cape Town, an offing was made to pick up the westerlies,
after which the tall ships roared on down across the Indian Ocean to
Australia. Amsterdam and St. Paul were about halfway across. These

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French-owned rocks were a haven for whalers and sealers and for
shipwrecked sailors.
  Cape Leeuwin is actually not the southernmost tip of Australia.
West Cape Howe is in a higher latitude. But Leeuwin was usually
the first landfall after the long Indian Ocean passage. Ships went into
Perth, or on around to Adelaide or Melbourne, passing through Bass
Strait. From Australia, the fast ships sailed across the Tasman Sea,
south of New Zealand's South Island, and thence eastward just north
of the Antarctic ice, and around the Horn to the Falklands.
  Actually an island, called "Horn Island," Cape Horn is like the
broken tip of a spear thrust at the solid ice of the Antarctic. It is one
of a maze of islands in the Tierra del Fuego region. Between the
Horn and Palmerland, there is a wild bit of water called Drake
Passage, where the ocean is relatively shallow and subject to sudden
changes; where enormous swells rolling eastward with a fetch of
thousands of miles meet opposing currents and build up into vicious
confused seas. Even in the summer season of November, December,
and January, it is a cold forbidding place with fog, rain, snow, and
changeable winds. In the winter season, as the old sailors knew, it was
sheer hell. In these months, few ships tried to go from east to west
  A Dutch ship, the Eendracht, which sailed from Hoorn, Holland
in 1615, with a supporting vessel, the Hoorn, was the first recorded
ship to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific below Horn Island. The
two ships belonged to a company which hoped to compete with the
Dutch East India Company by finding a new route.
  The Hoorn was accidentally lost on the Patagonia coast, but the
Eendracht, carrying the whole party, continued down and around,
passing through the strait they named for the head of the company,
Isaac Le Maire, sailing from the latitude of the Strait of Magellan to
the opposite entrance, in twenty-seven days. The ship continued on
to Juan Fernandez and then to the Dutch East Indies where the ship
was confiscated by authorities. The Smeetons, centuries later, made
the same passage in twenty-six days.
  Sir Francis Drake, on his foray into the Pacific a quarter century
earlier, had seen this passage, but had not doubled the Horn. He had
gone through the strait, then been blown east in a storm, before
recovering and continuing up the Pacific an episode repeated by
Captain Joshua Slocum on the Spray centuries later. But it was Drake
who determined there was a passage here.

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  During the next 350 years, the Horn passage became the standard
route of the sailing ships of all maritime nations bound on expedi-
tions of exploration, commerce, privateering, and whaling. Among the
earliest were the sealers who poked into Antarctic waters, including
the 17-year-old master of the 47-foot Hero out of Stonington, Con-
necticut, Nat Palmer, who in November 1820 claimed to have discov-
ered the Antarctic continent. This was the route of the Yankee
whalers, the China clippers, and the scientific ships such as H. M. S.
Beagle, which carried the young naturalist, Charles Darwin. The first
trading ships to California and the Northwest coast for hides, tallow,
and furs took this route, as did the earliest gold seekers. When steam
propelled vessels became practical, they invariably took the Magellan
Strait passage, instead of rounding the Horn.
  Slocum, during his passage through the strait in the middle 1890s,
reported on the frequent steamer traffic, and on grafFiti left on the
rock cliffs along the way by passing ships that had to anchor fre-
quently on account of adverse currents and violent williwaws.
  With the settlement of Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific
Islands came the great wool and grain windjammers from England
down the Atlantic, around Good Hope, roaring across the Indian
Ocean and south of Leeuwin to Sydney and Melbourne. Other tall
ships, such as the one Irving Johnson sailed on as a boy, departed
Hamburg, sailed down and around the Horn and up to Chile and
Peru for cargoes of nitrates.
  All this activity in the Roaring Forties nearly came to an end
with the opening of the Suez Canal, and later the Panama Canal,
along with the modern steam and motorship. Only a few wind-
jammers continued to haul grain, wool, and nitrates. For years these
southern waters were left to the anonymous whaling and scientific
voyages, and the occasional unrecorded lone adventurer such as
J. M. Crenston, who sailed the 40-foot cutter Tocca from New
Bedford to San Francisco in 1849, a voyage of 13,000 miles in 226
days. After Slocum, who did not double the Horn, came George
Blyth and Peter Arapakis of Australia on Pandora, a copy of the
Spray. Sailing east-about, they rounded the Horn on January 16,
1911, in a violent storm that rolled them over and dismasted the
  The first known yachtsman to circumnavigate via a]l three capes was
the puckish Irishman, Conor O'Brien, on Saoirse in 1923-1925, east-
about, making the whole adventure sound like a piece of cake.
  Al Hansen, on the 36-foot Norwegian Mary Jane, called at Buenos

   ~ 404 ~

Aires in the early 1930s, visited with Vito Dumas, and then departed
in midwinter to double the Horn, alone except for a cat and dog.
They reached Ancud, Chile, safely in 100 days, but later were
wrecked and lost.
  In the early part of World War II, Vito Dumas, a restless middle-
aged Argentine of Italian ancestry, departed on Legh II for a circum-
navigation via the three capes in the Roaring Forties, becoming the
first to do so singlehanded and in these high latitudes.
  He was followed by the great Australian singlehander, Bill Nance,
one of the boldest and most competent, but least-known circumnavi-
gators, on the tiny 25-foot Cardinal Vertue, in 1963-1965.
  The 1960s saw a spurt of sailing voyages along the old clipper
route, including Bernard Moitessier's dual circumnavigation and the
ventures of Francis Chichester and Alec Rose, all climaxed by the
Sunday Times Golden Globe Race which saw Robin Knox-Johnston
make the first solo nonstop circumnavigation south of the capes, and
the first trimaran circumnavigation, by Commander Tetley. It also
saw Bill King capsize off Good Hope. (On a later voyage he was
to be attacked by a whale off Leeuwin.)
  In 1966, the Griffiths on the 52-foot ferro-cement Awahnee II, did
it on their second circumnavigation (and on a third circumnavigation
in 1971, circled the Antarctic in the Screaming Sixties) .
  Since 1967, all circumnavigations have had to double the Cape of
Good Hope (Agulhas), with the Suez Canal closed. There would
seem to be no good reason remaining for challenging the violent and
unfriendly tip of South America. But this region has always held a
fascination for yachtsmen and explorers. The famed artist, Rockwell
Kent, with a companion bought a converted lifeboat in Punta Arenas
and sailed among the islands and passages for weeks in the 1920s.
The Griffiths, after rounding the Horn in a snow squall, turned into
Beagle Channel and passed Edward Allcard's Sea Wanderer on the
way. The Smeetons made two attempts at the Horn in the 1950s and
capsized both times. A third attempt in the 1960s, west-about, was
successful. The three Australians, Des Kearns, Andy Whall, and Bill
Nance's brother, Bob (who was also with the Smeetons on their last
voyage) did it from west to east, by ducking into the channels at
times for safety. Bill Watson, on a voyage with Freedom from New
Zealand, driven into the Horn by a southwest gale, took refuge in a
cove in the lee of Horn Island, after having all but abandoned
himself and his 40-foot vessel to the gods. The following year, he
explored Horn Island in a canoe.

  ~ 405 ~

  Warwick Tompkins sailed with his family in the 85-foot pilot
schooner Wanderbird from 50S to 50S in 28 days back in 1936.
Major H. W. Tilman, the mountain climber and explorer, in the cutter
Mischief, explored all the Patagonia channels, and even sailed down
to the Shetlands and Antarctica, wherever his curiosity drove him. In
the early 1950s, Marcel Bardiaux doubled the Horn in midwinter,
after twice capsizing, then found shelter inside before continuing on
up the Chilean coast. In the middle 1960s, Dr. David Lewis and his
family, aboard the catamaran Rehu Moana, spent six weeks among
the channels of Patagonia, then followed Bardiaux's route up the
Chilean coast. It was Lewis's former yacht, Cardinal Vertue, inci-
dentally, that carried Bill Nance on his solo circumnavigation via the
  Even the famed South Africa racing yacht, Stormvogel, a light-
displacement 73-footer, on her way to a race in 1967, on New Year's
Eve rounded the Horn from west to east and landed on Horn Island
for some sunbathing. She then rounded it from east to west, in order
to claim she had doubled the Horn twice. The second time, she ran
into a violent southwest gale and had to fight her way to safety in the
  Nowadays, the region is a busy place. Punta Arenas is a city of
25,000 or more. Even remote Ushuaia has three or four thousand
people, as does Port William. The Argentine and Chilean navies
have charted and patrol these waters regularly. There is much traffic
between the mainland and the Antarctic Peninsula where permanent
scientific stations are located. The islands of Patagonia are also well-
settled with sheep and cattle raisers of many nationalities. Fishing
fleets, which now range the world's oceans for their catches, frequent
the region. The giant super-tankers which cannot use the canals,
must now take the southern routes again.
  Like Leeuwin and Good Hope, civilization has come to Cape
Horn, and instead of the terror of the sailing vessel and the circum-
navigator, it has become just another yachting region.

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- end Appendix - (Chapter 42) Around 3 Capes

To Appendix - (Chapter 43) - Anatomy of a Dream Boat.

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