In 2011, British television presenter Paul Heiney set sail for the southern tip of South America as a way of rediscovering the “voice” of his lost son, Nicholas, a poet and avid tall-ship sailor who’d taken his own life at the age of 23. The 18,000-mile voyage in turn served as the basis for Heiney’s recently published book, One Wild Song. The following excerpt describes Heiney’s attempt to sail around Cape Horn at the midpoint of his voyage.
The heat was on when we got back to Micalvi, the derelict vessel that now serves as a kind of yacht club in the marina Puerto Williams in the Beagle Channel. The weather was as balmy as an English summer’s day, and we found Denis, who’d been watching my Victoria 38, Wild Song, while I’d been back in England, strolling the deck with his young son, neither wearing sweaters for what must be the first time in months, if not years. This is the sort of place where to turn off your heating is noteworthy, and to sweat is a rare sensation. “Often like this?” I asked, tongue-in-cheek. “About two days a year,” said Denis. “Sometimes three.”
The warmth of the wind interested me. Prevailing westerly weather in Tierra Del Fuego is fresh and chilly, but a warm wind must have its source elsewhere. I was trying to piece together a picture of what was happening; the weather was up to something. I glanced at the masthead and saw no scudding cloud; the wind was hardly robust enough to be felt on your cheek. It was from the northeast, I also noted, when the usual flow was from the west. Something was up.
At the forefront of my mind was the ambitious business of getting ourselves around Cape Horn. I refused to think of it as “rounding” the Horn for this is properly described as being a passage eastwards or westwards from the latitude 50 degrees south on one side of South America, to 50 degrees south on the other. It is not entirely clear how this definition came about, but the “Cape Horners” make the rules.
Sailors like me, on the other hand, who want to take a look at Cape Horn the easy way, are able to leave from Micalvi before breakfast and, under the right conditions, have sailed round the Horn before the next dawn and be well on our way back by lunchtime the next day. It almost falls into the day-trip kind of sailing. Quite rightly, the Cape Horners wanted to differentiate between the two kinds of “rounding.” So I had no plans in my mind of “rounding the Horn” but to sail “around it” was our honest intention—it is, after all, an island. It would be disrespectful, anyway, to make any great claim for my short sprint. I was aware of those thousands who had given their lives in the past to achieve it. The literature of the time overflows with tales that make your heart miss a beat with images of towering seas, exhausted crews, appalling food and whipping winds. All these horrors drip from the pages.
So Cape Horn I did not see as an attraction, rather a memorial to be visited with respect, and not merely gawped at.
But when should we go? We were not the only boat alongside Micalvi who had their eyes on this trophy. Several were keenly watching the weather forecast, but shaking their heads. “Not this week,” most agreed. A stout but small German steel yacht beside us had consulted the forecasts, written off the next seven days as a possibility and decided to go hillwalking instead. A boat skippered by a New Zealand lawyer was going to head off and see what they could make of it, but he wasn’t hopeful. In the interests of managing expectations, I told my crew that it was unlikely we would get round, but we would have a go.
As we clambered across the boats that evening after supper, heading for the bar, I glanced up at the masthead again, as was now becoming my habit, and saw the wind still light and from the east. Surely, this could not last. As I settled into my favorite seat by the Micalvi’s log burner, I glanced through a brass scuttle and saw how unusually still the waters of the Beagle Channel had become. Strange how such stillness can give rise to stirring thoughts. A plan was forming in my mind, and a somewhat risky one.
With the wind unchanged the following morning, like the grand old Duke of York I marched right up to the top of the hill to confront the Chilean navy with my plan, which they must approve before I was allowed to leave. It is largely a matter of routine, but routine matters more than most things round here. When I had satisfied them that I had 150 liters of diesel aboard and food for three weeks, the rubber stamp fell heavily on yet another lengthy document and I was free to sail for Cape Horn, with a warning that I must stick to the route they had outlined. The Chilean navy operate with such charm that it is difficult to begrudge them their paperwork, for they clearly enjoy it so much.
Although I had shared my plan with the authorities, I did not discuss it with the crew. Quite the reverse: I lied to them as to my intentions. I suggested we would “go and have a look” and “there’s not much chance, but we’ll see.” In fact, I told them we were heading for Puerto Toro that night, a convenient harbor at the eastern end of Navarino Island, and a good place to wait for the right weather. My abiding suspicion, however, was that the right weather was already upon us. For the moment, I decided to keep that thought to myself.
If you were God and wanted to create the nastiest little corner in the world, then you couldn’t do better than create Cape Horn. If you begin at the Horn and circle the world, you will arrive back where you started having crossed no landmass. The waves and currents created by the prevailing westerly wind, in turn created by the spinning of the earth, are well aware of this, and so the unstoppable rollers thunder around the globe at this latitude unimpeded. To make things worse, some 600 miles to the south of Cape Horn lies the Antarctic peninsula, which narrows their pathway causing waves and swells to heap upon each other as the leaders are slowed and the ones behind catch up. This causes dangerous confusion. To add even more spice to this recipe, the seabed south of Cape Horn rises, so the confusion is amplified in more than one plane. Then comes the relentless westerly wind that blows off the Pacific Ocean, first meeting the high Andes where, rather than make the effort to rise above them, it bounces off and is deflected south. So, a disturbed ocean is whisked up into even more of a frenzy by a frustrated wind. Add to this the temperamental nature of the low pressure systems that barrel through here bringing sudden and violent shifts in the wind, and you have the perfect recipe for a nasty little place.
This was why an easterly wind intrigued me so much. Surely, if the wind had been from this direction for a couple of days then several angry forces were no longer able to play a part. Certainly there would be no locally created swell, which can reach overwhelming heights. It was crazily possible we might get round in a flat calm!
We motored eastward along the Beagle Channel that afternoon, helped by that knot of perpetual current, which ran now in our favor, then turned slowly to the right to follow the pine-clad coast of the island. The sun was beginning to drop behind the mountains of Navarino, the sea was perfectly flat, and there was not enough wind to fill the sails. It seemed crazy not to go for it, stupid not to try for the Horn that night and get it in the bag. It might be our last chance. The only contradictory thought in my mind was the weather forecast, which hitherto had seemed uncannily accurate round here. It had spoken of strong westerly winds, well above 35 knots. That is what had kept the other skippers alongside. Why should I be right and they be wrong? I had to make a decision.
I throttled back so that what I said could be heard clearly. “Gentlemen,” I declared, “We are going to stand on.” I was met with a blank look from both Malcolme and Mike. I don’t think they had heard the expression before. “We’re going to go for the Horn tonight,” I explained, and then outlined my thinking. The night would be short and daylight would be arriving by the time the navigation was at its trickiest, for there would have to be a certain amount of eyeball navigation given that the charts hereabouts do not always agree with the GPS. There was one navigation light on the entire route marking a dangerous rock, but if we found it and identified it we would be OK. I said it was possible that the weather would break without warning and we might have to turn back as so many had done before, so hopes should not be allowed to rise too high. I sent Mike off to the stove to prepare some belly-filling grub. It was going to be a concentrated night.
With Navarino Island astern of us we were now crossing the open water of Bahía Nassau, which would leave us exposed until we gained some shelter from the Wollaston Islands. Shelter was not needed that night, though. All that was required of us was to gaze at the vivid sunset that cast the islands into sharp relief, enjoy the gentle dissolve of daylight into night and savour the salty taste of the fine mist that fell around us. This large, open bay was flat and peaceful with not a hint of temper about it. We were well aware, however, that these places can behave like a sleeping tiger, and all that was needed was for us to tread on its tail and all hell could break loose—this thought unspoken, but in the backs of our minds. We pressed on.
The lads took it in turns to rest, although I suggested they do so in their oilskins in case they were suddenly needed. Perhaps I was being over-cautious. A breeze would have been welcome to give us a sail toward the Horn. How crazy to be sailing for Cape Horn and hoping for more wind. I didn’t rest. I navigated myself into the ground, taking bearings, getting fixes, reading the pilot book to make sure that my escape plan was ready if conditions should turn for the worse. It was a chilly night. Mugs of hot soup were called for on a regular basis.
There is one big decision to make in approaching Cape Horn from the north, and for hours I could not make up my mind. To the north of Isla Hornos lie Isla Herschel and Isla Deceit, with passages between them and also to the north of them and to the west of Herschel. In other words, there are two routes down to the Horn. But which to choose? If I chose the Canal Franklin and sailed to the western tip of Herschel, I was then 5 miles west of the Horn and could bear away and enjoy a fast ride down to and eventually round it. That was a strong option. But Canal Franklin is wide open to the west and I would be staring directly into the face of the Pacific Ocean throwing its waves and swells at me. It is here, in this short stretch of troubled water, that many are defeated and forced to turn back. The pilot book warns, sternly, that progress through here against wind and swell can be impossible. But if you make it you have cracked it and the Horn is yours, which makes it a tempting prospect.
An alternative is to pass between Herschel and Deceit through the Paso Mar del Sur, avoiding a rocky, low island in the middle, which carries a warning light. This brings you directly to the backside of Isla Hornos and a mere 10-mile beat will have you off its western tip ready to bear away for the Horn itself. Although a 10-mile sail into the wind does not sound like a lot, this can quickly become a sail too far. Although there is land on three sides of you, you are exposed from the worst possible direction, which is the west. I pondered this for hours and opted for the latter route. It’s shorter, and I sensed time was against us. It was as simple as that.
The night was at its blackest as we started to feel the islands close in around us, and it was still pitch black as we felt our way into relative safety in the lee of Wollaston and Herschel. A slight lifting of the sky from black to dark gray spoke of dawn and with it would come some welcome visibility. We strained our eyes to try to make out a light beacon on the rock in the middle of Paso Mar del Sur, and were more than relieved to spot this feeble flickering bulb, for it reassured us that we were exactly where we thought we were. Having been lost once already in the western end of the Beagle Channel, I knew how easy it was to deceive yourself by wishful navigation in these parts.
There was much joy as we raised that dim navigation light, although by now there was just enough light to see what we were trying to avoid and it looked a nasty piece of work. A breeze came in from the west, and it was time to set sail. Broad daylight now and we emerged from between the islands and saw the barren northeastern face of Isla Hornos. The old bugger was nearly within our grasp.
But what a desolate sight this bleak rock landscape was. There were no trees, and no vegetation more than an inch high. I doubt that wind alone has the force to smooth the surface of granite, but the islands looked as though they had been subject to unrelenting shaping by the elements since the dawn of time. Our course was now toward the southwest. Ominously, it was from that direction that the wind started to blow.
It came gently at first, enough to fill the sails and give us 4 knots, but built quickly till the first reef was pulled down, then the second. The headsail was quickly reefed and then the staysail, till we were flying not short of storm canvas and Wild Song looked like she had had her clothes hastily ripped from her. The Horn was within reach but not yet in our grasp. It could so easily slip away.
This was, without doubt, the most desolate stretch of water I have ever sailed. The barren rocks to the north gave no comfort, and in the landscape there was little pleasure. Rocky pinnacles off Isla Hornos spoke only of threat. The sky was lowering and the wind now had a moan to it. The spray was flying, cold and sharp on the face. I had not slept and didn’t have the strength for a battle, and became less than enthusiastic when it became clear we would not get through on one tack. There was not much sense of relaxation here, it was not a place to sit and gawp, and something about it eclipsed any sense of adventure. Only a sense of survival remained. I wanted to get this over with.
Inch by inch we got to the western tip of Isla Hornos and the temptation to bear away to make the ride smoother was overwhelming, yet a sense that to do so too early might create more problems than it solved prevented me from turning the wheel. Then, once it was clear that we were going to get a clear run down to the Horn and not a moment before, I did make the turn to let her fly over the turbulent, crested sea whipped into spiky water by the advancing Pacific waves meeting the reflections that bounced back from the cliff faces. She raced now, unhindered by wave or spray. Great dollops of the icy green water raced aft along the side decks and dropped themselves into the cockpit, but we didn’t care. We were running fast and free, for the Horn.
I glanced at the compass. “Hey, we’re heading east,” I cried. “We must be round!” Amazingly, it was difficult to be certain. We nearly sailed round Cape Horn without realising it, which is easier to do than you might think. “There’s the first lighthouse,” I shouted, pointing to a lonely modest lantern perched high on the rocks. There are two lights on Cape Horn and this was the most southerly. “We’re round,” I declared. “Well, bugger me,” said Malcolme. “Our skipper’s got us round the Horn!” There was cheering, there were photographs, and then there were unexpected rocks ahead and I made a quick alteration of course to seaward, at the same time reminding myself of where I was and that I had to pay more attention. Malcolme was later to point out that he’d seen many pictures of yachts rounding Cape Horn but he’d never seen one as close as we had come.
And then it was all over and we were pointing northeast. Malcolme pulled the sea-soaked blue woolly hat from his head and announced, “I shall never, ever wash this hat. It’s got Cape Horn salt on it!”
If ever there was a song to sing, it was the one wild song that filled all our heads at that moment.
For more on One Wild Song: A Voyage in a Lost Son’s Wake, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2015, or to order a copy of the book, visit bloomsbury.com.