At the tip of South America the land is fragmented as if a large upheaval has picked up the continent and dropped it, smashing the narrow, pointed end at the bottom into thousands of small pieces. One of the smallest is right at the very bottom. It measures only 6 kilometers in length and is just over 3 kilometers wide, but it's one of the most well known islands in the world. The island of Cape Horn.
During the dark hours of Saturday night, 03:30 GMT Sunday to be precise, Brian THOMPSON and his crew on Doha 2006
became the first of the Oryx Quest yachts to round the famous landmark. The wind had moderated a little and the speeds had dropped from consistently being in the mid-twenties, to a more sedate 12 knots as the massive Qatari catamaran cruised stately past, the second time for the big cat, the first time for some of the crew on board.
Cape Horn is a high, windswept island crouching low in the water as if ducking to avoid the worst of the gales that whip through the sparse scrub that is all that is left of the vegetation on the island. A few trees all lean dramatically to the east, permanently disfigured by the constant prevailing westerly winds. The side of the island are steep and striated from centuries of ice cold Southern Ocean seas crashing headlong into the land. Bird life abounds as albatross, petrel and penguins use the remote, rugged landscape as their personal playground. It's not always rough at Cape Horn, and on days between cold fronts the wind moderates and sometimes dies away completely. On those occasions you can pick up a mooring buoy, left there specifically for the purpose, and row ashore. A nice wooden boardwalk allows you to walk above the sphagnum bog that would otherwise suck at your shoes and make the climb from the waters edge to the lighthouse almost impossible. Instead you can stroll leisurely, enjoying the panorama that lies at your feet. To the north the magnificent Andes Mountains rear up 10,000 feet, their peaks permanently covered in snow. To the south is the legendary Southern Ocean, millions of square miles of endlessly undulating water filled with the hopes, fears and heartbreak of centuries of sailing. The waters around Cape Horn are littered with wrecks, each with their own particular story and each, in their own time, leaving broken hearts back in Europe when the families of the dead finally gave up hope waiting for the ship to sail in over the horizon.
If you follow the boardwalk to the top you arrive at the famous light house which is manned year round by two Chileans who sleep in an adjacent hut. They usually welcome visitors and will offer a drink of Mate, a pungent tea that tastes and resembles a combination of horse manure and marijuana. It's actually quite good, especially if you sit in the sun outside the hut and know that you are enjoying life at what's become known as 'the uttermost part of the earth.' From the lighthouse, where you can buy postcards and have them postmarked, it's a short walk to the magnificent monument dedicated to the lives of sailors lost at sea. As you approach the steel structure it looks like a mass of pointed bits of steel, but suddenly, when the angle is just right, the outline of an albatross is clearly defined. It's a stunning sight and a pointed reminder that the great wandering albatross carry the souls of departed sailors.
For the sailors in the Oryx Quest it's a different matter altogether. Their view is from the water where the only sign of life you see is a faint beam piercing the black night should you round in darkness. The flashing light, and all it symbolizes, sends tingles down the spine of any offshore sailor for they know they have reached, as Paul LARSEN put it so eloquently, 'a place in yachting where the bottom of the earth feels like the top of the mountain.
' A sailors Everest. It's precise coordinates are 56.01S 67.15W, yet numbers on a chart do not do justice to this mightiest of all capes. Cape Horn is much more than a simple turning mark in a race course. The feeling you get when you round is one of immense accomplishment. It's also a place of contemplation as you think about the loss of life, as well as the heroic roundings of some of sailings most accomplished sailors. When you round the Horn you are joining a unique fraternity.
Later today Brian THOMPSON and his crew will see daylight break on one of the most spectacular coastlines in the world. The fjords and rugged mountains are no longer home to the Fuegan Indians who lived and fished there a century ago. They were same Indians that Charles DARWIN came upon when he paid a visit on the HMS Beagle. Upon discovering the semi-naked inhabitants and studying them, he pronounced them the original 'godless nation' and they became key in his theory of evolution. Instead the team on Doha 2006 will enjoy the scenery as they head for the Strait of Le Maire, a relatively narrow passage between Isla de los Estados and the mainland of South America a hundred miles to the northeast. It's tricky sailing as a strong current rips through the gap, but once through Thompson and his team will point the bows of the boats north for the first time in four weeks, and head for the turning mark off Uruguay. In addition to being an amazing mark of the course, Cape Horn is also the symbolic halfway point in the race; four weeks out and around four weeks to get back to Doha and the finish of the Oryx Quest 2005.
Tony BULLIMORE on Daedalus has decided to reduce sail and head west to avoid a hurricane in the South Pacific. This just in from Tony. 'We received an email from Lee Bruce, our Weather Router, to tell us a massive storm, known as Hurrican Percy, is moving from the Pacific, towards the Southern Ocean, but more important, the present course we were steering, would put us right into the centre of this weather system, by the 7th February. We would then have winds of 50 kts, gusting 60 / 70 kts, with massive, out of control seas.' Not good news for the boat, and what could have been a new experience for most of the crew, would have been hard going - not really on, it really should be avoided.