For centuries the most dreaded sea passage in the world was Cape Horn. The Horn is a prominent headland on Hornos Island, the southernmost island of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chili where the Pacific, the Southern Ocean, and the Atlantic converge.
In 1520 Ferdinand Magellan, the great navigator who was the first to circumnavigate the globe (sort of) accidentally, discovered a meandering narrow passage through the archipelago which bears his name. The passage is treacherous but is 250 miles shorter than the more southerly route around the Horn. The passage around the Horn was discovered in 1526 and was the preferred one as the broader seas allowed for more maneuvering.
Ships were often driven back after many days at sea only to end up going around Africa, which was much further losing as much as six months if they were heading for Asia or the eastern Pacific. Rounding the Horn was the only practical way west until the Panama Canal opened in 1914. Captain Bligh’s HMS Bounty of mutiny fame attempted this passage heading for Tahiti, but in 31 days only made 85 miles and was forced to go the long way around, losing several months in time and reputation.
The current and winds were against you if you were heading west, and this route threatened ships in all seasons with icebergs, gigantic waves, fierce winds, and bottom ripping rocks. Many mariners made repeated voyages and never even saw the Horn due to dense fogs.
Trade was in one direction until the mid 1800s with goods and people going west to San Francisco and nothing much besides cow hides coming back. Because the West Coast of the Americas was so sparsely settled, there was very little ship traffic through this ship graveyard until 1848. Then all of a sudden everyone wanted to come to California. On January 24, 1848 gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, and it led to the greatest relocation of people since the Crusades.
Most came from the east coast of America and Europe, taking one of three paths to the gold fields. There was the nearly two year trip across the Great Plains of America. This was the way families came and although Indians were a very small threat, getting lost in the desert and high rates of cholera were challenges. And everyone knows the story of the Donner Party.
The quickest way was to take a steamer from New York or Baltimore and in just a few days end up in Panama. The 22 mile crossing on foot and in canoes was dangerous because of malaria, deadly snakes, brigands and a lack of reliable transport on the Pacific side. But a quick journey could be made in six weeks.
Most folks came by sea around the Horn, and this took from four months to never—if your ship floundered. It was generally a reliable way to go but was still incredibly miserable. Balling one’s way into 50 knot winds screaming over the bow was no picnic. The latitudes there are called the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties and the Shrieking Sixties.
Arriving in San Francisco, the crews nearly all jumped ship and headed for the Sierras to strike it rich. As many as 1,200 ships rotted and sank at anchor from 1848 to 1850 in San Francisco Bay, and because they were close to the shore, some smart operators filled the hulks with sand and made real estate where the water had been. This is the financial district of San Francisco today. You remember San Francisco; it was once a thriving metropolis.
Nearly a thousand ships and some 10,000 voyagers are known to have perished attempting to round the Horn. The actual number is probably far higher. Customarily sailors who wore a single gold hoop earring were veterans of the passage.
As California developed a thriving economy the ships stopped sinking in the harbor and farm goods, minerals and lumber were shipped east as far as Europe. Redwood was particularly prized as it was a premier building material.
Pacific trade (as well as the Chinese tea and Opium trades) spawned the era of clipper ships. These were the largest ships built to date. And they were fast. The Flying Cloud was a clipper that set the record between New York and San Francisco in 1854 of 89 days 8 hours. This held until a yacht named Maserati beat it in 2013.
One of the finest documentaries I have ever seen is this one where you see one of the last trips round the Horn by a fully rigged clipper. The narrator shot it in 1929 as a home movie on his first voyage and it stars himself and a captain who had made 56 trips round. Another key player is the captain’s ferocious dog, who was trained to bite the last seaman in line so you didn’t want to be last. The film is narrated by the filmmaker 50 years after the trip and it is pure seafaring poetry. The sailors encountered some of the legendary terrible weather with 100 mph winds and 70 foot seas.
The ship is named the Peking and was for many years at NYC’s South Street Seaport but has since moved to its hometown of Hamburg. The vessel is 370 feet long with an acre of sail, 350 control lines and 32 sails. It was the biggest, baddest sailing ship of the 20th century.
Today, racing yachts are nearly the only traffic around the Horn. From the Vendée Globe, with crews racing nonstop round the world with their ultramodern machines to sailors skippering single-handed—attempting ever more specific new records including the youngest to go around the world; the youngest without stopping; the oldest in the biggest boat and another in the smallest boat and on and on.
I hold the record for the most number of times not sailing round the Horn. You can look it up.