Cape Horn island (Dutch: About this sound Kaap Hoorn, Spanish: Cabo de
Hornos; named after the city of Hoorn in the Netherlands) is the
southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile.
Cape Horn is widely considered to be the most southerly point of South
America, and marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage; for many
years it was a major milestone on the clipper route, by which sailing ships
carried trade around the world. However, the waters around the cape are
particularly hazardous, owing to strong winds, large waves, strong currents
and icebergs; these dangers have made it notorious as a sailors' graveyard.
The need for ships to round the Cape Horn was greatly reduced by the opening
of the Panama Canal in 1914. However, sailing around the Horn is widely
regarded as one of the major challenges in yachting. Thus, a few
recreational sailors continue to sail this route, sometimes as part of a
circumnavigation of the globe, and almost all of these choosing routes
through the canals to the north of the actual Cape (though many take a
detour through the islands and anchor to wait for fair weather to actually
visit Horn Island or even sail around it to replicate a rounding of this
historic point). Several prominent ocean yacht races, notably the Volvo
Ocean Race, the VELUX5OCEANS and the Vendée Globe, sail around the world via
the Horn, and speed records for round-the-world sailing follow the same
Geography and Ecology
Cape Horn is the southernmost point of land associated with South America;
it is located at 55°58′47″S 067°16′18″W, on isla Hornes in the Hermite
Islands group, at the southern end of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. It
marks the north edge of the Drake Passage, the strait between South America
and Antarctica. The dividing line between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans
runs along the meridian of Cape Horn, from Tierra del Fuego to the Southern
Ocean. It is located in Cabo de Hornos National Park.
Cape Horn was originally given the Dutch name "Kaap Hoorn", in honor of the
Dutch city of Hoorn; in a typical example of false friends, the Hoorn became
known in English as "Cape Horn", and in Spanish as "Cabo de Hornos" (which
literally means "Cape of Ovens"). It is commonly known to sailors simply as
The cape lies within Chilean territorial waters, and the Chilean Navy
maintains a station on Hoorn Island, consisting of a residence, utility
building, chapel, and lighthouse, A short distance from the main station is
a memorial, including a large sculpture featuring the silhouette of an
albatross, in honor of the sailors who died while attempting to "round the
However, the Chilean Navy station, including the lighthouse and the memorial
are not located on Cape Horn itself (which is very difficult to access
either by land or sea), but on another land point about one mile
east-northeast. On the real Cape Horn there is a 4 m (13 ft) fiberglass
light tower with a focal plane of 40 m (131 ft) and a range of about 21 km
(13 mi). This is the authentic Cape Horn lighthouse.
The terrain is entirely treeless, although quite lush owing to the frequent
precipitation. Cape Horn is the southern limit of the range of the
The climate in the region is generally cool, owing to the southern latitude.
There are no weather stations in the group of islands including Cape Horn;
however, a study in 1882–1883 found an annual rainfall of 1,357 millimeters
(53.42 in), with an average annual temperature of 5.2 °C (41.4 °F). Winds
were reported to average 30 kilometers per hour (19 mph), with squalls of
over 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph) occurring in all seasons.
Contemporary weather records for Ushuaia, 146 kilometers (91 mi) north, show
that summer (January–February) average temperatures range from highs of 14
°C (57 °F) to lows of 5 °C (42 °F); in winter (July), average temperatures
range from 4 °C (40 °F) to −2 °C (29 °F). Cloud cover is generally high,
with averages from 5.2 eighths in May and July to 6.4 eighths in December
and January. Precipitation is high throughout the year: the weather station
on the nearby Diego Ramirez Islands, 109 kilometers (68 mi) south-west in
the Drake Passage, shows the greatest rainfall in March, averaging 137.4
millimeters (5.41 in); while October, which has the least rainfall, still
averages 93.7 millimeters (3.69 in). Wind conditions are generally severe,
particularly in winter. In summer, the wind at Cape Horn is gale force up to
5% of the time, with generally good visibility; however, in winter, gale
force winds occur up to 30% of the time, often with poor visibility.
Many stories are told of hazardous journeys "around the Horn," most
describing fierce storms. In sea chanteys and other songs, "Cape Horn" is
frequently rhymed with "never been born."
Cape Horn is part of the Commune of Cabo de Hornos, whose capital is Puerto
Williams; this in turn is part of Antártica Chilena Province, whose capital
is also Puerto Williams. The area is part of the Magallanes y la Antártica
Chilena Region of Chile.
Puerto Toro, a few miles south of Puerto Williams, is the closest town to
the cape, and the southernmost town in the world.
There are a number of potential sailing routes around the tip of South
America. The Strait of Magellan, between the mainland and Tierra del Fuego,
is a major — although narrow — passage, which was in use for trade well
before the Horn was discovered; the Beagle Channel, between Tierra del Fuego
and Isla Navarino, offers a potential, though difficult route; and there are
various passages around the Wollaston and Hermite Islands to the north of
All of these, however, are notorious for treacherous williwaw winds, which
can strike a vessel with little or no warning; given the narrowness of these
routes, there is a significant risk of then being driven onto the rocks. The
open waters of the Drake Passage, south of Cape Horn, provide by far the
widest route, at about 800 kilometers (500 mi) wide; this passage offers
ample sea room for maneuvering as winds change, and is the route used by
most ships and sailboats, despite the possibility of extreme wave conditions
Several factors combine to make the passage around Cape Horn one of the most
hazardous shipping routes in the world: the fierce sailing conditions
prevalent in the Southern Ocean generally; the geography of the passage
south of the Horn; and the extreme southern latitude of the Horn, at 56°
south. (For comparison, Cape Agulhas at the southern tip of Africa is at 35°
south; Stewart Island/Rakiura at the south end of New Zealand is 47° south.)
The prevailing winds in latitudes below 40° south can blow from west to east
around the world almost uninterrupted by land, giving rise to the "roaring
forties" and the even more wild "furious fifties" and "screaming sixties".
These winds are hazardous enough in themselves that ships traveling east
would tend to stay in the northern part of the forties (i.e. not far below
40° south latitude); however, rounding Cape Horn requires ships to press
south to 56° south latitude, well into the zone of fiercest winds. These
winds are further exacerbated at the Horn by the funneling effect of the
Andes and the Antarctic Peninsula, which channel the winds into the
relatively narrow Drake Passage.
The strong winds of the Southern Ocean give rise to correspondingly large
waves; these waves can attain enormous size as they roll around the Southern
Ocean, free of any interruption from land. At the Horn, however, these waves
encounter an area of shallow water to the south of the Horn, which has the
effect of making the waves shorter and steeper, greatly increasing the
hazard to ships. If the strong eastward current through the Drake Passage
encounters an opposing east wind, this can have the effect of further
building up the waves. In addition to these "normal" waves, the area west of
the Horn is particularly notorious for rogue waves, which can attain heights
of up to 30 meters (100 ft).
The prevailing winds and currents create particular problems for vessels
attempting to round the Horn against them, i.e. from east to west. Although
this affects all vessels to some extent, it was a particularly serious
problem for traditional sailing ships, which could make very little headway
against the wind at the best of times; modern sailing boats are
significantly more efficient to windward and can more reliably make a
westward passage of the Horn, as they do in the Global Challenge race.
Ice is a hazard to sailors venturing far below 40° south. Although the ice
limit dips south around the horn, icebergs are a significant hazard for
vessels in the area. In the South Pacific in February (summer in Southern
Hemisphere), icebergs are generally confined to below 50° south; but in
August the iceberg hazard can extend north of 40° south. Even in February,
though, the Horn is well below the latitude of the iceberg limit. These
hazards have made the Horn notorious as perhaps the most dangerous ship
passage in the world; many ships were wrecked, and many sailors died,
attempting to round the Cape.
In 1525 the vessel San Lesmes commanded by Francisco de Hoces, member of the
Loaísa Expedition, was blown south by a gale in front of the Atlantic end of
Magellan Strait and reached 56° S where they thought to see Land's End.
In September 1578, Sir Francis Drake, in the course of his circumnavigation
of the world, passed through the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific Ocean.
Before he could continue his voyage north his ships encountered a storm, and
were blown well to the south of Tierra del Fuego. The expanse of open water
they encountered led Drake to guess that far from being another continent,
as previously believed, Tierra del Fuego was an island with open sea to its
south. This discovery went unused for some time, as ships continued to use
the known passage through the Strait of Magellan.
By the early 1600s the Dutch East India Company was given a monopoly on all
Dutch trade via the Straits of Magellan and the Cape of Good Hope, the only
known routes at the time to the Far East. To search for an alternate route
and one to the unknown Terra Australis, Isaac Le Maire, a wealthy Amsterdam
merchant and Willem Schouten, a ship's master of Hoorn, contributed in equal
shares to the enterprise, with additional financial support from merchants
of Hoorn. Jacob Le Maire, Isaac's son, went on the journey as "chief
Marchant and principal factor," in charge of trading aspects of the endeavor
The two ships that departed Holland at the beginning of June 1615 were the
Eendracht of 360 tons with Schouten and Le Maire aboard, and the Hoorn of
110 tons, of which Schouten's brother Johan was master. It was Eendracht
then, with the crew of the recently wrecked Hoorn aboard, that passed
through the Le Maire Strait and Schouten and Le Maire made their great
"In the evening 25 January 1616 the winde was South West, and that night
wee went South with great waves or billowes out of the southwest, and very
blew water, whereby wee judged, and held for certaine that ... it was the
great South Sea, whereat we were exceeding glad to thinke that wee had
discovered a way, which until that time, was unknowne to men, as afterward
wee found it to be true."
"... on 29 January 1616 we saw land againe lying north west and north
northwest from us, which was the land that lay South from the straights of
Magellan which reacheth Southward, all high hillie lande covered over with
snow, ending with a sharpe point which wee called Cape Horne [Kaap Hoorn] ..
At the time it was discovered, the Horn was believed to be the southernmost
point of Tierra del Fuego; the unpredictable violence of weather and sea
conditions in the Drake Passage made exploration difficult, and it was only
in 1624 that the Horn was discovered to be an island. It is a telling
testament to the difficulty of conditions there that Antarctica, only 650
kilometers (400 mi) away across the Drake Passage, was discovered as
recently as 1820, despite the passage having been used as a major shipping
route for 200 years.
From the 1700s to the early 1900s, Cape Horn was a part of the clipper
routes which carried much of the world's trade. Clipper ships sailed round
the Horn carrying wool, grain, and gold from Australia back to Europe; much
trade was carried around the Horn between Europe and the Far East; and trade
and passenger ships traveled between the coasts of the United States via the
Horn. The Horn exacted a heavy toll from shipping, however, owing to the
extremely hazardous combination of conditions there.
The only facilities in the vicinity able to service or supply a ship, or
provide medical care, were in the Falkland Islands. The businesses there
were so notorious for price-gouging that damaged ships were sometimes
abandoned at Port Stanley.
While most companies switched to steamers and later used the Panama Canal,
German steel-hulled sailing ships like the Flying P-Liners were designed
since the 1890s to withstand the weather conditions around the Horn, as they
specialized in the South American nitrate trade and later the Australian
grain trade. None of them were lost around the Horn, but some, like the
mighty Preußen, were victims of collisions in the busy English Channel.
Traditionally, a sailor who had rounded the Horn was entitled to wear a gold
loop earring — in the left ear, the one which had faced the Horn in a
typical eastbound passage — and to dine with one foot on the table; a sailor
who had also rounded the Cape of Good Hope could place both feet on the
table. A sailor who had sailed around Cape Horn was also able to brag by
showing off his tattoo of a full-rigged ship.
One particular historic attempt to round the Horn, that of HMS Bounty in
1788, has been immortalized in history due to the subsequent Mutiny on the
Bounty. This abortive Horn voyage has also been portrayed (with various
historic accuracy) in three major motion pictures about Captain William
Bligh's mission to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to Jamaica. The
mutiny occurred in the South Pacific during the voyage to the West Indies.
The transcontinental railroads in North America, as well as the Panama Canal
that opened in 1914 in Central America, led to the gradual decrease in use
of the Horn for trade. As steamships replaced sailing ships, Flying P-Liner
Pamir became the last commercial sailing ship to round Cape Horn laden with
cargo, carrying grain from Port Victoria, Australia to Falmouth, England in
Many modern tankers are too wide to fit through the Panama Canal, as are a
few passenger ships and several aircraft carriers. But there are no regular
commercial routes around the Horn, and modern ships are rarely seen.
Recreational and sport sailing
Despite the opening of the Suez and Panama Canals, the Horn remains part of
the fastest sailing route around the world, and so the growth in
recreational long-distance sailing has brought about a revival of sailing
via the Horn. Owing to the remoteness of the location and the hazards there,
a rounding of Cape Horn is widely considered to be the yachting equivalent
of climbing Mount Everest, and so many sailors seek it out for its own sake.
Joshua Slocum was the first single-handed yachtsman to successfully pass
this way (in 1895) although in the end, extreme weather forced him to use
some of the inshore routes between the channels and islands and it is
believed he did not actually pass outside the Horn proper. If one had to go
by strict definitions, the first small boat to sail around outside Cape Horn
was the 42-foot (13 m) yacht Saoirse, sailed by Connor O'Brien with three
friends, who rounded it during a circumnavigation of the world between 1923
and 1925. In 1934, the Norwegian Al Hansen was the first to round Cape Horn
single-handed from east to west — the "wrong way" — in his boat Mary Jane,
but was subsequently wrecked on the coast of Chile. The first person to
successfully circumnavigate the world single-handed via Cape Horn was Vito
Dumas, who made the voyage in 1942 in his 33-foot (10 m) ketch Lehg II; a
number of other sailors have since followed him. Including Webb Chiles
aboard "EGREGIOUS" who in December 1975 became the first American to round
Cape Horn single-handed.
Today, there are several major yacht races held regularly along the old
clipper route via Cape Horn. The first of these was the Sunday Times Golden
Globe Race, which was a single-handed race; this inspired the present-day
Around Alone race, which circumnavigates with stops, and the Vendée Globe,
which is non-stop. Both of these are single-handed races, and are held every
four years. The Volvo Ocean Race is a crewed race with stops which sails the
clipper route every four years. Its origins lie in the Whitbread Round the
World Yacht Race first competed in 1973-4. The Jules Verne Trophy is a prize
for the fastest circumnavigation of the world by any type of yacht, with no
restrictions on the size of the crew (no assistance, non-stop). Finally, the
Global Challenge race goes around the world the "wrong way", from east to
west, which involves rounding Cape Horn against the prevailing winds and
The Horn remains a major hazard for recreational sailors, however. A classic
case is that of Miles and Beryl Smeeton, who attempted to round the Horn in
their yacht Tzu Hang. Hit by a rogue wave when approaching the Horn, the
boat pitchpoled (i.e. somersaulted end-over-end). Although they survived,
and were able to make repairs in Talcahuano, Chile, they attempted the
passage again, only to be rolled over, and dismasted for a second time, by
another rogue wave, which again they miraculously survived.
Rounding the Horn, under sail, on a non-stop passage of more than 3,000
miles passing through the Latitude of 50 degrees South both East and West of
Cape Horn grants sailors eligibility to apply for membership of the
exclusive International Association of Cape Horners; a redoubtable
organization whose origins lie amongst those who rounded the Horn as
professional seamen serving upon the tall ships of the Clipper era. There
are no exceptions to the strict joining criteria whose membership now
includes members of crews from several notable Round the World Yacht races
and others who have shared the same unique experience - the 'Mount Everest'
of ocean sailing.
Literature and culture
Cape Horn has been an icon of sailing culture for centuries; it has featured
in sea shanties and in many books about sailing. One of the classic accounts
of a working ship in the age of sail is Two Years before the Mast, by
Richard Henry Dana, Jr., in which the author describes an arduous trip from
Boston to California via Cape Horn:
"Just before eight o'clock (then about sundown, in that latitude) the cry of
"All hands ahoy!" was sounded down the fore scuttle and the after hatchway,
and hurrying upon deck, we found a large black cloud rolling on toward us
from the south-west, and blackening the whole heavens."Here comes Cape Horn!
said the chief mate; and we had hardly time to haul down and clew up,
before it was upon us. In a few moments, a heavier sea was raised than I had
ever seen before, and as it was directly ahead, the little brig, which was
no better than a bathing machine, plunged into it, and all the forward part
of her was under water; the sea pouring in through the bow-ports and
hawse-hole and over the knightheads, threatening to wash everything
overboard. In the lee scuppers it was up to a man's waist. We sprang aloft
and double reefed the topsails, and furled all the other sails, and made all
snug. But this would not do; the brig was laboring and straining against the
head sea, and the gale was growing worse and worse. At the same time sleet
and hail were driving with all fury against us. We clewed down, and hauled
out the reef-tackles again, and close-reefed the fore-topsail, and furled
the main, and hove her to on the starboard tack. Here was an end to our fine
Charles Darwin, in The Voyage of the Beagle, a journal of the five-year
expedition upon which he based The Origin of Species, described his 1832
encounter with the Horn:
"... we closed in with the Barnevelts, and running past Cape Deceit with its
stony peaks, about three o'clock doubled the weather-beaten Cape Horn. The
evening was calm and bright, and we enjoyed a fine view of the surrounding
isles. Cape Horn, however, demanded his tribute, and before night sent us a
gale of wind directly in our teeth. We stood out to sea, and on the second
day again made the land, when we saw on our weather-bow this notorious
promontory in its proper form — veiled in a mist, and its dim outline
surrounded by a storm of wind and water. Great black clouds were rolling
across the heavens, and squalls of rain, with hail, swept by us with such
extreme violence, that the Captain determined to run into Wigwam Cove. This
is a snug little harbour, not far from Cape Horn; and here, at Christmas-eve
we anchored in smooth water."
Alan Villiers, a modern-day expert in traditional sailing ships, wrote many
books about traditional sailing, including By way of Cape Horn. More recent
sailors have taken on the Horn singly, such as Vito Dumas, who wrote Alone
Through The Roaring Forties based on his round-the-world voyage; or with
Bernard Moitessier made two significant voyages round the horn; once with
his wife Françoise, described in Cape Horn: The Logical Route, and once
single-handed. His book The Long Way tells the story of this latter voyage,
and of a peaceful night-time passage of the Horn: "The little cloud
underneath the moon has moved to the right. I look... there it is, so close,
less than 10 miles (16 km) away and right under the moon. And nothing
remains but the sky and the moon playing with the Horn. I look. I can hardly
believe it. So small and so huge. A hillock, pale and tender in the
moonlight; a colossal rock, hard as diamond."
And John Masefield wrote: "Cape Horn that tramples beauty into wreck / And
crumples steel and smites the strong man dumb"
A memorial presented in Robert FitzRoy's bicentenary (2005) commemorates his
landing on Cape Horn on 19 April 1830.
'Rounding the Horn'
Visiting Cabo de Hornos can be done on a day trip by helicopter or more arduously by charter power boat or sailboat - or by cruise ship. "Rounding the Horn" is traditionally understood to involve sailing from 50 degrees south on one coast to 50 degrees south on the other coast, the two benchmark latitudes of a Horn run, a considerably more difficult and time-consuming endeavor.