Posted by: Rob Viens | December 26, 2012

Rounding the Horn for Christmas

On the 21st the Beagle left Good Success Bay and by Christmas Eve the crew “rounded the horn” – passing the southern tip of the Americas – Cape Horn. Most of the days leading up to the 24th describe the weather and the progress of the ship. This may seem routine, but it is worth noting that less than 50 years earlier, Captain Bligh tried to sail the Bounty around the Horn. It took him 31 days to travel 85 miles, and in the end, the weather was so bad, he turned around and sailed all the around the world to get to the Pacific Ocean. Darwin’s  journey started much more calmly:

“We doubled Cape Good Success, then the wind fell light & it became misty. — So calm a sea & atmosphere would have surprised those who think that this is the region where winds & waters never cease fighting.” (Dec 21)

“In the morning watch it freshened into a fine Easterly wind. — which is about as lucky & rare an event as getting a prize ticket in a lottery. We soon closed in with the Barnevelts; & running past Cape Deceit with its stony peaks, about 3 oclock doubled the old-weather-beaten Cape Horn. — The evening was calm & bright & we enjoyed a fine view of the surrounding isles. — The height of the hills varies from 7 or 800 to 1700, & together they form a grand irregular chain.” (Dec 22)

By the evening of the 22nd, their fortunes had changed:

“Cape Horn however demanded his tribute & by night sent us a gale right in our teeth.” (Dec 22)

“With close-reefed sail the Beagle made good weather of it; & much to her credit fell nothing to leeward.” (Dec 23)

Cape Horn (by Nikolay Murenets via the International Association of Cape Horners)

Cape Horn

But at last the Beagle sailed alongside Cape Horn and Darwin described it in all it’s misty glory:

“In the morning of the 24th Cape Horn was on our weather bow. — We now saw this notorious point in its proper form, veiled in a mist & its dim outline surrounded by a storm of wind & water: Great black clouds were rolling across the sky & squalls of rain & hail swept by us with very great violence: so that the Captain determined to run into Wigwam cove. — This harbor is a quiet little basin behind Cape Spencer & not far from Cape Horn. — And here we are in quite smooth water; & the only thing which reminds us of the gale which is blowing outside. — is the heavy puffs or Whyllywaws, which every 5 minutes come over the mountains, as if they would blow us out of the water.” (Dec 24)

Map of Tierra del Fuego showing details of Cape Horn (modified from Google Maps with inset from Wikipedia Commons). Notice that the cape is actually located on the tip of a small island (Hornos Is.) located in a small group of islands know as the Hermit Islands.

Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn

After the “discovery” of the Straits of Magellan (in 1520), ships traveling between the Atlantic to the Pacific used the straits to get from one ocean to another (not that there were that many on the 16th century). However, there are at least two reports from the 15oo’s that suggest that Cape Horn (or some nearby land) was spotted by early explorers.  The first was in 1525 when Francisco de Hoces was blown off course and reported spotting “Land’s End”.  The second was when Sir Frances Drake, after passing through the straits into the Pacific in 1578, was blown southeastward by a storm into what is now called “Drakes Passage”, south of Cape Horn.

But it was not until the early 1600’s, when use of the straits were controlled by the Dutch East India Company, that other routes were sought out.  It was an expedition from the Netherlands, out of the city of Hoorn, that “discovered” the cape in 1616.  And the name – Cape Horn – is a modified version of the original name – Kaap Hoorn – named after the city from which the “discoverers” came.  About 10 years later (in 1624) it was discovered that the cape was actually on an island and not part of the continent. But it would take another 200 years for explorers to cross the 400 miles of ocean south of the cape to “discover” the continent of Antarctica – a testament to the rough seas of Drakes Passage (assuming Bligh’s experience was not enough to convince you of that!)

Sailing around Cape Horn soon became the major route for shipping, and remained so until the Panama Canal opened in the earth 20th century.  But, in those few centuries, the rough seas took their toll on many a ship.

By Christmas Eve the Beagle was safely anchored in Wigwam Cove, just west of the cape (I believe on Hermit Island on the map above).

PS – Apparently, to technically “round the Horn”, one has to travel from 50°S latitude in the Atlantic to 50°S in the Pacific (or vice versa).  So I am using a little artistic license here… (RJV)

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