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Sailing and surviving Cape Horn

By Todd Jarrell
The Savvy Traveler

Editor's note: The Savvy Traveler is produced by Minnesota Public Radio and features firsthand experiences and observations of travelers around the globe.

Europa with studding sails set, running in the South Pacific.
Europa with studding sails set, running in the South Pacific.

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(The Savvy Traveler) -- There are a few places that have earned legendary reputations for putting up resistance to mankind. One spot that has challenged survival is Cape Horn. Before building the Panama Canal, rounding the tip of South America was cause for great fear by the sailors who carried the world's cargos from the Pacific to the Atlantic. At least 800 vessels have been lost to the Horn.

Todd Jarrell signed on as crew for a trip around the notorious Cape Horn. The ship Europa plunged deep into the South Pacific, heading for the Cape and then home to The Hague, Netherlands -- a 40,000-mile, 2-year voyage. Their trip was a heady mix of expectation and apprehension to honor the departed sailors -- and to live to tell about it.

Todd Jarrell: Sailing ships, by and large, no longer do Cape Horn. It is the deepest continental point south -- only 500 miles off Antarctica. Here, the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans collide, and frozen polar storms rage without mercy. At least 800 vessels have been lost to the Horn, and the construction of the only alternative route, the Panama Canal, cost the lives of 30,000 men. This was deemed a "reasonable" investment. This crew's individual modus for challenging the Horn ranged from the love of deep-water sailing to "trophy-travel" bragging rights. But all appreciate the bald fact that we sail headlong into harm's way.

Sailor on the ship: Are you ready on the halyard? Ready on the halyard. Is that sheet tight? Haul away on the halyard!

Todd: Crossing the equator, we've capsized the hemispheres, burying the North Star beneath Europa's spooling wake. Orion the Hunter, upside down now, appears more like "Orion the Cheerleader." Across the Tropic of Capricorn and through the Roaring Forties, we enter the Furious Fifties latitudes, nearing the reaches farthest from land on the planet.

Except for a one-day stop at Easter Island, there have been no signs of civilization since San Diego. In 9 weeks, we have seen no boats, no lights or even a jet's vapor trail. Plunging toward Cape Horn, we are mindful of the old sailors saying: "Below 40 degrees, there is no law; below 50 degrees, there is no God."

Sailor (hoisting the sail): OK, everybody ready? And up, and up, and up. OK, Hold!

Todd: Some weird acceleration is taking place. The lines of longitude tighten their net here before pursing around the Pole to the south. On the equator, each degree of longitude equals 60 miles; here, it is half that distance and the minutes of degree on the GPS seem to fly. Even the sun seems impatient. All night, there is a glow to the south and full-on daytime lights our work well before 4 a.m. We spy penguins swimming -- representatives of Antarctica. The Last Continent is now only a week's sail away. Dolphins find us, weaving through our bow wave, and seabirds, like a mobile spinning from our main mast, wheel about us night and day.

Sailor Jeff Klaas: And we're about, what is it, 60 miles off the Cape? Sixty-eight miles off the cape? We're getting closer. OK, I'd like to, at this time, propose a moment of silence for the sailors that have not quite made the full trip. So, in commemoration of that one moment...

Todd: Cape Horn nears as Europa enters the Drake Passage and a moment of silence is proposed to honor the 10,000 souls who were lost here. Fire, shifted cargo, freak waves, violent storms and icebergs all take their toll. Registries list the ships, but only loved ones recall the names of those who perished with them. One can scarcely imagine the fear, anguish and anger with which they died. These waters seem salted with their tears.

At 11:00, we are abreast of the Horn. The silhouette looms, appropriately dark and mysterious, but with its two beacons twinkling above the moon-glossed sea, it is hardly as brooding as its reputation.

Rob Duncan waited years to fulfill this dream. Proffering his diamond stud earring into the sea, he replaces it with the gold hoop of the Cape Horn sailor, a tradition started when seamen wore the gold hoop to pay for a decent burial if lost at sea and washed ashore.

Rob Duncan: Have you looked in the mirror?

Todd: Not bad. Pretty sweet.

Rob: Thank you.

Todd: According to Rob's research, this passage ensures him certain other benefits in the sailing world.

Rob: Now, I get to eat with my feet up on the table. I get to urinate to windward and spit to windward, and all the other privileges -- and wear the gold hoop. Excellent.

Todd: Further, he declares that, traditionally, a sailor of 10 times around the Horn is entitled to red tattoos on the forehead, thus promising the bearer drink at shore-side pubs for his natural lifetime.

(sound: foreign language spoken)

Todd: The Chilean Navy hails us with congratulations, and soon, Cape Horn is a hulking milestone in our wake to the west. In 10 weeks, we have sailed one-quarter distance around the globe, north to south -- over 7,000 miles at 5 miles per hour.

Our satisfaction is certain, but there is no sense of finality: The ship needs us as much as ever and we have yet another week's sail to the Falkland Islands. At midnight, the starboard watch clumps off their bunks, the port watch takes the deck, the helm is relieved, and lookouts are posted. Every square sail is set. The dark crests push us along and life continues as normal.

I notice the midnight entry in the ship's log. Though written in Dutch, it is quite clear in describing the mood tonight on board our bark Europa. It states simply, "Alles Wel."

The Savvy Traveler ® is produced by Minnesota Public Radio
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