Cape Horn: Where continents collide

To mark the 400th anniversary of its discovery, a boat-load of intrepid travellers brave treacherous seas to land on Cape Horn, at the southernmost tip of South America

By James Draven
Published 26 Jan 2016, 08:00 GMT, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 10:27 BST
Pia Glacier.

Pia Glacier.

Photograph by James Draven

At 6.40am, I don my lifejacket — a garment so frequently worn on this trip that, rather than being stowed in the usual overhead compartment, it hangs in my wardrobe next to my shirts — and clamber into Beagle, the first rigid inflatable boat (RIB) of the day to ferry passengers from the expedition cruise ship, Stella Australis, to Cape Horn.

At nearly 56 degrees, south Cape Horn is the southernmost point of Hornos Island, on the tip of Chile's Tierra del Fuego archipelago. It marks the spot where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide and is all that separates the Americas and Antarctica. Rounding it means passing through Drake's Passage, the yachtsman's Everest.

There's an old sailor's saying that goes: "Below 40 degrees south there's no law; below 50 degrees south there's no God", but despite the howling gales common to these latitudes, the waters are uncharacteristically calm this morning. Although a bracing breeze whips hair around faces, the RIB's passengers are as silent as dawn commuters as we speed over to bleak, windswept Hornos Island to meet the lighthouse keeper at the end of the world… until, that is, fellow passenger Joe pipes up.

"I'm following in the footsteps of my great-great-great-grandfather," he tells me, swelling with pride. "He was a deck hand in exchange for passage from San Francisco to Boston, via Cape Horn. Actually," he adds as I check the fastenings on my life jacket again, "there was this one guy who wasn't doing his fair share, but still taking up room and eating the provisions so my great-great-great-grandfather threw him overboard in Drake's Passage during the night." He doesn't sound that great to me, but Joe's broad grin and dancing eyebrows suggests he takes the idea of having a murderer for an ancestor with a good deal more humour than I would.

A pizzeria owner from Iowa, and a sixth-generation American, Joe has helped his wife, Karen, celebrate her 40th birthday by giving her the huge rock she now wears on her finger, and this cruise around Cape Horn ­— unaware that this iconic rock is about to celebrate a similar a milestone, tenfold. Friday, 29 January 2016 marks 400 years since Dutch sailor Willem Schouten made the first recorded voyage through Drake's Passage, naming Cape Horn, after his hometown of Hoorn, in the process.

While its discovery can be traced in history books, there's a more primordial past on constant display in Patagonia. A clear morning on the top deck reveals snow-capped mountains, ancient glaciers and labyrinthine fjords plied by curious Magellanic penguins. The world's southernmost forest is here, populated by the same mistletoe- and beech-clad trees found in New Zealand, and also fossilised in Antarctica — relics of the Gondwana supercontinent. Landscapes that predate the Yámana people who first inhabited this place, and the passing expeditions of Sir Francis Drake, Charles Darwin… and Joe's great-great-great-grandfather, swabbing decks to earn his keep.

Joe could afford to pay for his ticket, which bought him not only a warm cabin his ancestor would have likely killed for, and a visit to the wheelhouse, but also a bridge across a yawning abyss of family history.

Joe, Karen and I are also together on the last RIB back to the ship. The wind has picked up considerably, and the adventurous and nervous alike giggle as we power through waves that breach our boat. Only the eyes betray who's excited and who's terrified. Joe looks giddy with glee. I check my lifejacket is secure again; then I glance at Karen's too.


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