Cape Horn Fever

Published on March 13th, 2015

by Molly Mulhern
“A journey round Cape Horn was a trip to the ultimate classroom of the sea; the graduate was a deepwater sailor.” – Hal Roth, Two Against Cape Horn

I imagine it is like waiting at base camp of Mt. Everest at the start of the climbing season: teams huddle in their tents, biding time, pushing aside the shadow of fear and excitement, filling the endless hours with gear prep or cards, or tea drinking. Only for these men and women their camp is a floating one, and their Everest is Cape Horn, thousands of miles away and yet never far from their minds.

The Volvo Ocean Race sailors are on cyclone hold before the start of Leg 5, Auckland to Itaji, Brazil. The last of the doublehanded Barcelona World Race fleet is just passing the Cape. Many of those just about to embark on a leg that rounds the world-famous cape have been reading and fantasizing and dreading the passage for as long as they have been sailors.

Understanding what the sea – in this case the Southern Ocean – can dish up is the mandatory first step for adequate preparation for one’s own passage around Cape Horn. Good sailors start by familiarization with how others have handled the challenge. One cardinal attribute separates successful bluewater sailors from others—preparedness. (And for any who doubt the need for thorough mental as well as vessel preparation, study the differences in preparation between the successful Amundsen journey to Antarctica versus the ill-prepared and fatal Scott attempt.)

Stories of the Cape started coming back in written form as early as 1740 with the ill-fated Anson squadron of the Royal Navy (immortalized in remarkable fashion by Patrick Obrien in The Unknown Shore). A hundred years later, in the pre-canal days, more Horn stories trickled back from the Tea Clippers and the Gold Rush Clippers—the forces of commerce led those captains and crew to reckon with the one place on the planet where the Southern Ocean funnels its winds along the backbone of a continent.

This was the route and it extracted its toil – thousands of sailors of that time perished around Cape Horn. Modern day sailors – Chichester, James, and Kretschmer – sought the Cape to beat the clipper’s records. Others tackle the Horn for their own reasons—and even today many don’t survive, despite the fact one needs a permit to round it and Chilean Navy’s constant surveillance. The ocean doesn’t care about permits.

Many of us will never round Cape Horn, but many of us read the Cape Horn accounts for our own reasons–entertainment or perhaps preparation for our own versions of Cape Horns, those challenges of the sailing life that we gravitate toward: our first singlehanded trip, or our first overnight, or maybe our first transoceanic crossing.

So to get us all in the Cape Horn Spirit I share the following Cape Horn bibliography. Get out your foulies, brew a pot of tea, and start reading.

The Top Books for Sailors
Two Against Cape Horn/Hal Roth (found in the Hal Roth Seafaring Trilogy). A journalist before he was a sailor, Hal Roth became obsessed with rounding the Horn. This is a well-paced and colorful account of his rounding aboard his 35-foot fiberglass foot sloop Whisper with his wife Margaret.

Once Is Enough/Miles Smeeton. Mile and Beryl Smeeton attempt one rounding and are pitchpoled; they retreat for repairs and try again, only to be pitcholed again. Remarkable account well told with diagrams and information re jurying rigging. John Guzzwell accompanied them on both attempts.

Cape Horn to Starboard/John Kretschmer. Kretschmer’s account of his doublehanded rounding aboard his Contessa 32 Gigi.

Cape Horn: The Logical Route/Bernard Moitessier. Classic.

A World of My Own/Robin Knox-Johnston. Classic.

Books By Singlehanders, or About Singlehanders Rounding Cape Horn
Alone Around the World: First Woman to Break Sir Francis Chichester’s Round the World Record/Naomi James (also published as At One with the Sea)

Around Alone/Emma Richards. Richards’ autobiography of her 2002 Around Alone journey.

Taking on the World/Ellen MacArthur. Autobiography of sailing career that includes two Cape roundings, one doublehanded and one singlehanded.

Coyote Lost at Sea/Julia Plant. Biography of Mike Plant that includes Southern Ocean descriptions.

Sea of Dreams/Adam Mayers. An account of Canadian Derek Hatfield’s voyage in the 2002 Around Alone.

Isabelle Autissier’s books….but all are in French….

Also of Interest
Alone Through the Roaring Forties/Vito Dumas

Flying Cloud/David Shaw

The Way of a Ship/Derek Lundy

Godforsaken Sea/Derek Lundy

Blue Horizons/Beth Leonard (one short entry about rounding Cape Horn, but much about cruising in that area)

19th Century Accounts
Two Years before the Mast/Richard Henri Dana

Sailing Alone Around the World/Joshua Slocum

“Rounding Cape Horn” from Herman Melville, White Jacket

The Anson Squadron—The Wager, Ship Wreck and Long Boat
Fictionalized Accounts
The Unknown Shore/Patrick O’Brian

Non-Fiction Accounts of the Anson Squadron
Lost Ships and Lonely Seas/Payne—see the chapters “The Wager Man-of-War,” and “The Wager’s Long Boats”

Soveriegn of the Seas by David Howarth

Life Under Sail/Frank Snyder—see the Chapter “Zeal: An Extraordinary Small-Boat Voyage, John Bulkeley and John Cummins”

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