It has taken me a few years to write about it and still I hesitate. An experience like this should be written about sparingly and whispered, lest I do not give it the reverence it deserves and I attract the attention of an angry God.
The desolate waters off Cape Horn (the Horn) churn off the rocky and wind-swept coast of Chile, near the tip of South America where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Oceans collide. Collide is an understatement. On good days, good sailing conditions are a relative concept. On bad days, good sailing may not be enough.
Sailors say that below the 50th latitude there is no God. I say that below the 50th latitude you find Him. The extreme southern latitude of the Horn is at 56°. At 56° latitude, there is no one to save you should your ship flounder. At 56° latitude, you are on your own.
Below the 40th latitude, eternal winds blow from west to east around the earth and without confinement. The icy oceans can be beautiful and calm one day and threatening and unpredictable the next, like the mercurial temper of a dangerous lover. Below the 50th latitude, the notorious “roaring forties” have become the “furious fifties,” responsible for some of the most dangerous cruising conditions in the world. Perhaps the deadliest winds lie near the 60th latitude. Near that latitude, hurricane-force winds can give birth to mountains of icy water that can crush the hulls of ships that are uninvited and don’t belong there.
What bothered me then — and what bothers me now — is the apparent lack of understanding by many cruise ship passengers of the risks inherent in such a journey. It is an illusion that nature can be controlled.
The journey around Cape Horn is said to have claimed the lives of 15,000 souls over the past 400 years. According to some, more than 1,000 ships have been lost there in that same period. Our technology may have changed over the past 400 years, but nature has not. Cruise lines cannot guarantee sailing conditions around the Horn — only seek to minimize sailing risks. Nor can they guarantee their passengers’ safety while on such a journey.
Perhaps most modern-day cruise ships make it around the Horn without incident. Perhaps not. But the seas south of the 40th latitude remain today as they have always been: Dangerous, unapologetic, impartial, and unforgiving. To sail the remote southern seas south of the 50th latitude is to put yourself at the mercy of primeval forces that bow to no one.
I’ve made the journey more than once, sailing in both directions. I have not earned bragging rights by sailors’ standards. I was a cruise ship passenger, not the master of my fate. I’ve experienced calm seas and sunny skies, and I have experienced the fury of the Southern Seas. It was the latter that awakened my sense of reason. I doubt I will ever tempt that particular Fate again.
During October and November 2015, I was a passenger on a well-appointed cruise ship with seasoned captain and crew. Christened in 2000, the ship weighed 63,000 tons and was 781 feet (238 meters) long — longer than the length of two U.S. football fields laid end-on-end.
We rounded the Horn sailing west to east during October-end 2015. We had experienced high seas, cold, stinging sleet, some ice flow, and we had altered our course to avoid approaching “rough weather.” Passengers had not been told of the severity of the monster storm that was overtaking us. No need. It overtook us with such fury that no explanation was necessary. The waves were unforgiving. The large ones exceeded 50 feet in height at times — exploding iron fists in sleet-woven gloves. They pounded unmercifully at our vessel. From inside, doors and windows were secured and roped off, some windows at waterline were reinforced with steel plates, access to public decks was denied, beverage and dining were discontinued, and passengers were asked to avoid unnecessary movement lest they should fall and be injured. From outside, the unearthly sounds of this hellish storm tested my courage.
The approximately 1,432 passengers and 615 crew on board were primarily seasoned mariners in good physical condition. From the start, this was never a journey suitable for passengers uncomfortable at sea, in poor physical condition, or prone to seasickness. Although we had hoped for calm seas, we understood the risks — at least on an intellectual level. Understanding a risk and experiencing it are two separate things entirely. We trusted our captain, crew, and ship to get us through. There was never any panic. Those who believed in God prayed. During the storm’s worst, those who did not believe in God prayed also.
There are no Coast Guard or other ships to come to the rescue during monster storms at the Horn. There are no safe harbors in which to seek refuge once gale and hurricane-force winds begin to blow, except for inland passage ways. Harbors close and ships must distance themselves from the jagged rocks that are the coastline. In the event a vessel flounders during hurricane winds there, it is sometimes not possible to safely abandon ship. A passenger’s and ship’s destiny is often one. Even assuming passengers could don their life vests and reach the life boats, crew acknowledged that life boats would likely be overturned, crushed or smashed to pieces in a storm like this one. Decks were unsafe with the precarious pitching of the ship, icy decks, furious winds, and deadly rogue waves. Certain death could follow being swept overboard into icy waters.
We had no choice but to ride out the storm — and everyone knew that. Prayers for our captain, crew and other passengers made the time pass with resolve. The hours moved more slowly than a master’s chess match, with our ship taking blow after blow — frequently shuttering like the hide of a horse when you lay your hand on it. Wind song resembled the primeval wails of childbirth, so labored was the sea that it felt like a living thing giving birth to things unearthly.
The defining moment came as I looked from my cabin window towards the bow, directly beneath the bridge. We were struck by a wave unlike any other. I saw it coming. The wave faced-off before our bow like a hooded cobra, then unleashed its attack. Its attack was savage. It came at us, hungry. The veracity of it as it poured over our bow jerked the ship forward and pushed down at our bow with such ferocity that I was thrown hard to the floor. Everything in my cabin that could be propelled forward was. Secured doors flew open and for one brief-moment I looked up to see the window of my cabin underwater. I held my breath. The window held. As the ship struggled, I could hear steel moan as the storm-worthiness of our vessel was decided. The ship shook violently, while the bow plunged ever deeper beneath the sea. Under the massive weight of the water, the ship seemed to momentarily hesitate – as if suspended between a watery grave below and life above. Decision made, God reached us up and our bow returned to the surface.
Within hours our ship had reached the inland passageway where we rode out the rest of the storm in relative safety. There were no serious physical injuries to crew or passengers, nor damage to the ship of which I am aware. Passengers in the storm’s wake kept primarily to themselves for a day or two. We went through the motions of normal, but perhaps with a renewed appreciation for life and reflection.
I think of Cape Horn and that storm occasionally, but I don’t like it when I do. I am grateful to the officers and crew of our ship because a less seasoned team may have met with a different outcome.
As for occasional passenger reviews that appear on social media conveying a sense of disappointment whenever a cruise around the Horn is calm and uneventful, I would offer this: Consider yourself blessed.
Photographs of waves during hurricane-force winds taken from the ship’s bridge off the coast of Cape Horn, Chile, South America, and shared by a crew member.
Posted April 1, 2017