The Treacherous Cape Horn

18th March 2015

Cape Horn is often regarded as the most notorious rock in the world when it comes to the world of sailing. Located at the southern-most tip of South America, below the Chilean and Argentinian borders and Isla Herschel, lies a landmark which has become synonymous with sailors. This horn like rock structure depicts a history of sailors who would struggle through unparalleled weather conditions to reach Australia.

Sailors Grave

Star Clippers

In September 1578, Sir Francis Drake passed through the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific Ocean before encountering a storm that pushed the vessel towards Tierra del Fuego, southern Chile. Sir Francis Drake’s discovery of open water to the south of Southern America went unnoticed until the Dutch East India Company gained a monopoly over the Straits of Magellan.

At this point, ships were forced to travel around the southern tip of South America and into treacherous latitude regarded as “The Screaming Fifties”. These conditions were considered the worst on earth due to the low pressures that form over Antarctica – resulting in strong waves and fierce winds. Combine these conditions with poor visibility and it’s easy to comprehend how many lives may have been lost around Cape Horn.

An exclusive club was established for those who had rounded Cape Horn in a commercial sailing vessel without an engine. It was dubbed the “Amicale Internationale des Captaines au Long-Cours Cap Horniers” and at one time consisted of over 2,000 members. Ships without an engine no longer opt to sail around Cape Horn and the last to successfully do so was over 650 years ago. It is unlikely a genuine Cape Horner is still alive today and this ultimately resulted in the group being dissolved in 2003.

Panama and Suez Canals

Trade Route

The opening of the Panama (1914) and Suez (1869) Canals helped trade considerably and enhanced the level of safety on trade routes. The Panama Canal allowed travellers to cut through the American continent, whilst the Suez Canal provided an alternative to sailing all the way around Africa. Considering the original trade route travelled from UK, around the southern tip of Africa and onto Australia before sailing around Cape Horn; this made a sailor’s life considerably easier.

Despite the opening of these canals, Cape Horn is still widely renowned as the fastest sailing route in the world and has seen an increase in tourism thanks to expedition sails to the Antarctic. Due to the treacherous sailing conditions, it has been regarded as the Mount Everest of sailing. The record for the fastest time for a wind-sail commercial ship to sail from 50 degrees south in the Atlantic to 50 degrees south in the Pacific was set in 1938 and took five days and 14 hours.

Star Clippers cruise ships of the 21st century are very different to the commercial wind sailing ships that were prominent of the 20th and 19th centuries. Whilst it is impossible to guarantee totally calm waters, the routes and itineraries around the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, Caribbean and Cuba provide tranquil destinations with golden beaches and turquoise waters.