My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America, is the most famous place for sailors – even amongst non-sailors. The mountainous seas, the near endless storms, the scores of lost ships and drowned sailors; this is a legendary place well respected even feared by all those who go to sea in boats (or ships). But what is it like really? What are the islands? Who lives there, if anyone? Dallas Murphy has written a wonderful book about Cape Horn that is both an engrossing story and packed with facts, anecdotes and a sense of history.
Rounding the Horn, A Story of Discovery and adventure by Dallas Murphy. Published in paperback by Phoenix in 2005.
“The myth and legend of Cape Horn – the sea stories – are rooted in the conditions. Extreme weather is the antagonist. However, if it were limited to that, to man-against-nature stories, Cape Horn would have remained an alluring geographical curiosity, thrilling to the sea-struck, but useless. Rounding the Horn had historical significance because of this geographical accident: From the Arctic Circle all the way to the sub-Antarctic, there was no natural break in the continental coastlines of North and South America (the Panama Canal was both unnatural and recent) through which you might sail big ships – except the Drake Passage.
“Cape Horn is the southernmost point on the southernmost island in a string of islands that stretches northward seventy-five miles to the south shore of Tierra del Fuego. This – the Fuegian Archipelago – was a range of high alpine mountains before the ice sheet moved in to decapitate them. Then when the ice melted some seven to ten thousand years ago, the resulting rise in sea level inundated the mountains, turning them into islands. And humans arrived soon after the ice retreated.”
The Yahgan, the people who inhabited the region when the first whitemen arrived in their “cloud canoes”, have all but gone now. The second-to-last full-blooded Yaghan, Emelinda Acuña, died in 2005. The last full-blooded Yahgan is “Abuela” . She is also the last native speaker of the Yahgan language.
Traditionally, the Yahgan “found enough prey – seals, finfish, sea birds, and shellfish – to keep them alive if they were willing to live as marine nomads in this harsh, demanding environment.” This is a place where blizzards can blow on the summer solstice and sixty-knot storms can go on for weeks. The typical weather is cold, windy and wet. “The Yahgan went naked down by the Horn, and Europeans were astounded. Their nakedness was a conscious adaptation, and, naked, they survived for eons, but they couldn’t survive a century of contact with whites.”
What is so enjoyable about Murphy’s book is that he is a sailor who knows first-hand what he is talking about, rather than a writer, no matter how excellent, who doesn’t really understand the attractions, dangers and challenges. He surveys the whole panoply of stories and aspects of this barren, bleak land and seas – the geography and botany and wildlife, as well as the stories of the Yahgan as individuals, and the seafarers.
This is not a “sailors’ book” but a good read for anyone with a ditty bag of curiosity about this patch of the globe that few of us are likely to visit. Ideal material for the armchair traveller or the sailor relaxing down below when storm bound.