The fifties and the furious: Rounding the Cape Horn

When Erwin and I decided to choose a honeymoon destination, we opted for an adventurous one something we would still be able to suavely do in our thirties and nothing says adventure more than South America.

As I have mentioned previously on my End of the world  article, we decided to book the Horn Cruise with Royal Caribbean starting in Buenos Aires/Argentina to Montevideo/Uruguay then Punta del Este/Uruguay, Puerto Madryn/Argentina, Cape Horn/Chile(cruising), Ushuaia/Argentina, Punta Arenas/Chile, Strait of Magellan/Chile(cruising) Chilean Fjords (Cruising), Puerto Montt (Chile), Valparaíso(Chile). You know well by now that I left a piece of my heart in Ushuaia which was without any doubt my favorite part of the whole cruise.

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A piece of my heart

Now Cape Horn comes second for incomparable reasons. Bear in mind that it is one of those few iconic destinations that attracts adventure-seekers from around the world.

Having said that,”adventurous” now seems like an inappropriate word to choose when describing our sailing trip around the Horn. In fact it doesn’t give it enough justice especially when the status of such a trip is almost mythical.

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Called the Mount Everest of sailing, it was named after the city of Hoorn in the Netherlands. Located at the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile on the small Hornos Island, Cape Horn marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage and marks where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide, often in confrontation.

For decades it was a major milestone route on which sailing ships carried trade around the world. As ships got larger, they could not navigate the Magellan Strait and had to risk “rounding the Horn”: the waters around Cape Horn are particularly hazardous, owing to strong winds, large waves, strong currents and Icebergs. These dangers have made it’s Cape infamous as a “sailors graveyard”. Over the past four hundred years the Horn’s cold, turbulent waters have claimed more than one thousand ships and fifteen thousand lives making the Horn notorious as perhaps the most dangerous ship passage in the world.

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The winds of the 50th parallel southern latitudes (Cape Horn is at55° 58′ 47″S) known as the “furious fifties” are ***wait for it*** legendary. The prevailing winds in latitudes below 40° south can blow from west to east around the world almost uninterrupted by land, giving rise to the “roaring forties” and the even more wild “furious fifties” and “screaming sixties”. These winds are hazardous enough that ships traveling east would tend to stay in the northern part of the forties ( not far below 40° south latitude); however, rounding Cape Horn requires ships to press south to 56° south latitude, well into the zone of fiercest winds. Squeezed by the Andes and the Antarctic peninsula, they give rise to equally frightening waves. Add to this recipe a few icebergs, and you’ve got yourself a very dramatic and frightening place to be in.

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Deep in the fifties we were!

Because of all those nerve-racking factors mentioned above, the probability of getting around the Horn is usually very low: we have been told that only 20% of the ships and sailing boats are able to achieve it successfully and that is exactly what makes it a bucket list destination.

I don’t think we have thought about those frightening facts before we sailed. We just went through with it armed with our sea sickness pills which by the way worked magically (Gravol). We knew the odds and we’re mentally reassured by a possible change of plan or detour in case of high waves. We had confidence that a respected commercial cruise companies like Royal Caribbean would not venture into this trajectory if they were not sure they could manoeuvre other roads and passages in worst scenarios weather conditions. In fact, the two cruises which took place before our sailing dates had to change trajectory for safety purposes: we heard from the crew that on one of those trips they’ve had waves which were up to 18 meters which meant in other terms that it was dangerous to continue to Cape Horn. That’s why, the Captain had to change his course, take the Magellan Straits and go straight to Ushuaia where he docked for two days.

I definitely wouldn’t have mind staying in Ushuaia for two nights but lucky for us, we were one of those 20%. My dreamy side likes to believe that both Erwin and I’s sailing DNA were an unrecognisable force: I have the Phoenician ones, Erwin has the Dutch. Both our ancestors ruled the seas and in some farfetched way, so did our genetic molecules. I am consciously aware that we were not the captain of the ship and our role was nonexistent when it came to the actual act of sailing around the Horn but maybe just maybe those molecules we are both made of formed a similar badass energy to the Cape Horn one which somehow forced the Gods of Sea to make our passage around it pretty smooth….or maybe not!

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Now comes the fun part, the part you need to know before deciding to go around the Cape Horn. What makes it a bucket list destination is not the esthetic of it but the achievement that comes along with it. It is not the most beautiful place on Earth, and is definitely not an amazing natural wonder when you compare it to Ushuaia for instance. If the location was anywhere else in the world, it would have not been relevant: it is just a small mountain island with a very bad climate. Most of the times, the skies are grey, the winds are very strong, and the temperatures are very low.

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Barely able to stand still on the deck because of the strong winds

What makes rounding the Horn a very appealing destination to worldwide adventurers is this mixed feeling of mortality, uncertainty, excitement, fear, triumph and self-consciousness, alongside the risks and the hazards, the fierce and demanding reputation of the Horn.

It is not skydiving, or swimming with the sharks, but I assure you it is as life-affirming. After all you will have the chance to become one of those few who were able to round the most dangerous ship passage in the world, and if that doesn’t get you that tiptoeing-the-cliff-edge buzz shooting around your body, than I don’t know what will.