An email last week partly about Cape Horn caused me to dig up the above photo of a curly haired young man which was taken on November 2, 1974 and later used on the dust jacket—you may remember those—of STORM PASSAGE, and the entry in that book for December 12, 1975.
December 12, 1975 55 days out of San Diego
AT 5:00 A.M., we were 70 miles due south of Cape Horn. Those are the finest words I have ever written. How many times my thoughts have sailed here while I stood on Point Loma or walked along Mission Beach and now I have, too.
To say we rounded the Horn would be presumptuous and inaccurate. We merely continued to be blown ahead of a gale, which came up suddenly after midnight.
Ashore, I had imagined I would have a glass of my best brandy and pour one for the sea; but I felt no desire to honor in victory the gods I steadfastly denied in defeat. Now as always, the sea is indifferent to me. And in the event, I did not even want a drink myself. It was a day not for contemplation, but survival.
There was one inescapable debt, though, and that was to Bach. The “Little Fugue in G Minor” was finally heard, a small but triumphant sound at 57° South.
The Horn has lived up to its reputation, making me glad I gave Horn Island a wide berth. It is an overwhelming storm. By dawn the wind was blowing above fifty knots and, of course, had ripped the mainsail, which I repaired but did not attempt the by-then-impossible task of resetting.
The waves were no higher than others I have known, averaging about 20 feet—which is quite high enough, thank you—but there were two sets of them: one coming from the southwest, driven before the wind; the other from the northwest, rebounding off the land. Both sets were breaking.
For the first time, I tied myself in the cockpit during daylight hours, leaving only sufficient slack in the lines so I could move to steer. Countless waves broke over the cockpit. Without being tied securely, I would have been washed away dozens of times.
Egregious was rolled onto her beam ends regularly, and in those cross seas sometimes she would go over to port, sometimes to starboard. Even though it was not in operation, the servo-rudder for the self-steering remained in the water and as we surfed down some of the larger waves, a rooster tail rose from it, as from a hydroplane. The strain on the tiller was immense, often forcing me to brace myself with my legs and use both hands to keep us on course. There was no time to look back and see on which quarter the next dangerous wave loomed, but after a while I could tell by feel and sound. And though I caught only momentary glimpses of them as they swooped across my field of vision, even in the very strongest wind albatrosses and petrels soared about as usual. At such moments you know that no matter how well you adapt, they belong here and you do not. Determination, skill, and luck give you nothing more than a temporary dispensation to trespass.
Throughout what became a very long, fatiguing day, I steered. To have left the tiller even momentarily would have been impossible. Finally, at 7:00 p.m., the wind decreased to 30 knots, and stiff and cold and tired and hungry, I stumbled into the cabin.
Since then I have cooked my victory banquet of stew, gone back on deck and set the storm jib, and written this. My hands and feet are frostbitten, and a glance in the mirror just revealed dead skin dangling from my ears in bloody strips.
The first man to sail around the world alone—an American, Joshua Slocum, before the turn of the century—went through the Straits of Magellan. As far as I know, I am the first of my countrymen to pass the Horn alone. But now that I have survived the day, I can believe that even if I were not the first, the struggle would be worthwhile and that the day should have been as it was. A smashed hand, frostbite, piercing cold, fatigue are all made endurable. The water I bailed from the bilge into the Atlantic this morning came from the Pacific last night. Cape Horn, which a year ago seemed so impossibly remote, is behind us.
I believe I have run that here before, but long enough ago that you have probably forgotten.
Cape Horn is not always like that. If I remember correctly from the old Pilot Charts, even in the stormiest of months there is gale strength wind only about a third of the time, which is a lot, but means that two out of every three days are not gales.
The second time I rounded the Horn, in late January or early February of 1992 on a passage with Jill in RESURGAM from Auckland, New Zealand to Punta del Este, Uruguay, the wind died as we passed onto the continental shelf and the ocean was glassy, though not smooth. RESURGAM was helplessly tossed around on left over waves and for one of the few times ever I turned on the diesel at sea and we slowly powered toward Horn Island visible twenty miles to the northeast. As we neared, the wind came up again, now at twenty knots directly ahead of us. I wrote: 'Sometimes Pavarotti has laryngitis; sometimes Cape Horn is just another place.'
I have recorded two videos titled ‘The end of being’ made on the last full day of GANNET’s circumnavigation. I immodestly recommend them.
As you can see in the photo the mainsail is set. In a few seconds when I release the line in my left hand, the being part of my life begins.
I fly to Hilton Head on Monday. Actually I fly to Savannah and Uber or taxi to Hilton Head. My ticket non-stop to Savannah cost $80. A ticket with one stop to Hilton Head is more than $400. I am packed. I am not taking much with me, only a few heavier clothes. Two duffle bags of clothes that were on GANNET are already in the condo. I will be staying indefinitely. Certainly until after January 1.
Here is Hilton Head's annual weather.
Let's see. Would you rather spend the winter in Hilton Head or Chicago? Take your time.
Carol and I have voted. Even without the virus, I hate standing in lines. We received confirmation emails that our mail in ballots have been received. In Illinois they will not be counted until election day.
I have been downloading a new GRIB each morning. The track of the low that earlier was forecast to cross South Florida has moved farther east each day and is now shown crossing the east end of Cuba and then heading NNE well offshore. I am curious to learn what it actually does and to what, if any degree, long range forecasts can be trusted.