At Cape Horn (and lagniappe)

November 15, 2019 • 7:45 am

As of 6:37 this morning Antarctic time (3 hours later than Chicago time), the ship’s map showed where we were: sailing back through the Drake Passage from Cape Horn to Antarctica. We’re scheduled to land at Half Moon Bay tomorrow (I don’t know where yet), which suggests that gentoo penguins may be in store! I can’t get enough face time (or is it beak time?) with these adorable, tough, and well-adapted birds.

As it’s getting closer to Antarctic summer, expedition-ship traffic is increasing, with most of the boats run by Hurtigruten or Quark Expeditions. You can find out which boat is which by going to the map site and putting your mouse over a boat. The Roald Amundsen is circled in red:

The ship’s real-time Panomax Camera shows us, as of 20 minutes ago, in the middle of the Drake: sea all around as the sun rises:

Yesterday we landed on Cape Horn, which is somewhat of an accomplishment because, as the Captain told us, conditions are so rough there that only one in five or ten visits has weather mild enough for a landing. I spent a good two hours on the island and show some pictures (with lagniappe at the bottom). First, some words about this passage from Wikipedia (most quotes from that source):

Cape Horn is the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile, and is located on the small Hornos Island. Although not the most southerly point of South America (which are the Diego Ramírez Islands), Cape Horn marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage and marks where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet.

Cape Horn was discovered and first rounded in 1616 by the Dutchman Willem Schouten, who named it Kaap Hoornafter the city of Hoorn in the Netherlands. For decades, Cape Horn was a major milestone on the clipper route, by which sailing ships carried trade around the world. The waters around Cape Horn are particularly hazardous, owing to strong winds, large waves, strong currents and icebergs.

Here’s a view of the Cape from the ship. You can see a tower on the headland, as well as a small dot in front of it. The tower is supposed to mark the southernmost part of the island, and the dot is a lighthouse, inhabited year-round.

Below: going ashore in Zodiacs from the Roald Amundsen. It is considered a difficult landing because there’s no easy way to beach a Zodiac on the shore, and so you must exit from the front (usually it’s from the side), while several Expedition Team members, partly immersed, hold the boat steady. Kudos to those team members, who must stand in frigid water up to their waists for several hours to receive and send off the Zodiacs. This is a tough bunch, I tell you, but they’re absolutely dedicated to their work.

Disembarking passengers. The seven people in yellow and blue jackets are Expedition Team members, while the guy at the rear with the goggles is a skillful Zodiac driver (it takes, I’m told, a lot of practice to steer one of these rubber, flat-bottomed boats):

Here’s the entrance sign to the lighthouse complex, which is run by a Chilean naval officer and his family. They are there for at least a year, though the last guy apparently didn’t last more than a few months. The Spanish is roughly translated as “Chilean Army.  Mayor of the Sea, Cape Horn.”

Here’s the plaque by the huge flagpole that formally marks the southernmost point of South America, the “monumental flagpole of Cape Horn.” Spanish-speaking readers are invited to give a translation in the comments.

The monumental flagpole. It is big, but there was no flag flying on this pole. I imagine that, given the winds, it would be quickly ripped to shreds.

The lighthouse from afar. It is, as I said, still manned, though I can’t be sure it actually lights up to help ships get around the Horn safely.

A closer view. There is apparently a smaller lighthouse lower down, located right on the sea, but we weren’t able to glimpse it.

The lighthouse stands next to a small church, the Chapel of Stella-Maris, where, I suppose, mariners give thanks for safe passage or families pray for the many sailors lost at Cape Horn.

Here’s the friendly naval officer stationed at the lighthouse with his family. Their children are homeschooled for the one year period of tenure, but I wasn’t able to ask how they got supplies. Presumably they are supplied by vessels or helicopters (there’s a helipad) that service the nearby naval base.

The tiny Chapel from the outside. . .

. . . and from the inside:

And a memorial plaque to Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865), captain of the Beagle during the latter part of its first voyage and the entirety of its second voyage, which also carried Charles Darwin. According to the plaque, FitzRoy landed here on the first voyage—on April 19, 1830. The second voyage lasted, as all Darwin aficionados know, from 1831 to 1836.

This is the Cape Horn Memorial. According to TripSavvy, it was “added to Hornos Island in 1992. The Chilean section of the Cape Horn Captains Brotherhood sponsored the erection of this memorial that honors thousands of mariners who lost their lives in the waters around the Cape.”  And the date is 1989, not 1992. (I think TripSavvy is mistaking the Albatross Monument with the Cape Horn Memorial.)

Here’s the inscription, which, curiously, is in French.

The conflation of the monument above with the very famous Cape Horn Monument, below, is confusing. But there’s no doubt about how moving—and how artistic—the metal monument is. As TripSavvy notes:

The memorial, designed by a Chilean artist, is constructed of 22-feet-high steel plates and made to withstand winds of 200 miles per hour. To build it, members of the Chilean Marine Corps used an amphibious exercise to transport over 120 tons of materials from two barges to shore.

It’s very clever, as the plates are in two separate sections, with the space in between limning the shape of an albatross. Wikipedia names the sculptor:

[The] memorial [includes] a large sculpture made by Chilean sculptor José Balcells, [features] the silhouette of an albatross.

Isn’t it lovely?

I think the Big Albatross is the most beloved part of the Cape Horn experience (you are limited to walking on wooden paths because the peat-bog and tussock-grass habitat is marshy and fragile). A line of passengers snaked its way to the memorial:

Wikipedia explains why so many sailor have been killed, and ships foundered, on Cape Horn:

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 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 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 great height 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 metres (98 feet).

Here are the two marble plaques describing the Albatross Monument. Here it says the monument was erected in 1992 in honor of those who died fighting the “elements of the Chilean southern sea”.

A poem to go along with the albatross memorial. I’ll leave a reader to translate the Spanish in a poetic fashion:

More from Wikipedia:

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.

Here is the tussock grassland surrounding the Cape. This part actually has stunted trees, called Krummholz (“crooked wood”) in German. The Wikipedia article at the link explains how these bizarre forests arise.

More views of the grassland:

I’m not sure exactly what this is, but I am sure that a botanist or botanical enthusiast will identify it:

This plant, too, needs identification:

A close-up of the vegetation:

I’m told that our passports, which are in possession of the ship, have all been stamped with a special Cape Horn stamp featuring penguins. I can’t wait to see it!. The Internet says the stamp looks like this:

Back to life aboard ship. Here’s a menu and some photos from the four-course dinner the night before last (I skipped the egg drop soup):

The chorizo and pork terrine:

Lamb shank with mashed potatoes and ratatouille. As you see, we’re not eating poorly on this trip!

And the dessert—pineapple mousse.

In the main dining room, seats by the window—first come, first served at breakfast and lunch—are at a premium. Here you see why:

The second night aboard, the Captain gives a speech and a toast in the “Explorer Lounge” (a comfortable large room with chairs overlooking the view and a bar). All the ship’s officers are introduced, as are the Expedition Team, with each of us asked to say a few words. Here’s the “brass”. We have a new captain for this section of the trip; he’s on the extreme left. The friendly chef is on the right.

And so we ply on to Antarctica. The Drake Passage is remarkably calm this morning (it’s called “Drake Lake”, which could also apply to Botany Pond), and it’s even a bit sunny.

Petrels, fulmars, and albatrosses are wheeling around the ship, hoping to grab a fish stirred up by our wake. I almost never see these birds flap their wings, so adept are they are using air currents to soar. Penguins are everyone’s goal here, but we shouldn’t neglect these remarkable sea birds.


39 thoughts on “At Cape Horn (and lagniappe)

  1. Coincidentally, I was reading last night that sailors used to sport tattoos of fully-rigged ships to indicate that they can rounded the Horn.

    I object on several grounds to the dish “beets bourguignon”, although that lamb shank looks awesome.

  2. Really great photos and stories at the far south of the earth. I was interested to see the landing zone from the zodiac are two pallets and an office door mat. Good stuff.

  3. I am the albatross that waits for you
    at the end of the world.
    I am the forgotten soul of the dead sailors
    who rounded Cape Horn
    in the furious waves. . .

    . . . Today they fly on my wings
    toward eternity
    through the final chasm
    of Antarctic winds. . . .

    1. Very nice translation; many thanks.

      And thanks, as ever, to PCC(E) for the wonderful photos, especially those of the albatross sculpture. It is curiously moving.

      Interesting to see the measures taken to ensure that visitors don’t damage the environment. I would guess that going too far off piste would result in the environment damaging the visitors.

  4. They are there for at least a year, though the last guy apparently didn’t last more than a few months.
    One tough posting!
    Neat photos of the plant life!

  5. Wow

    Somehow, to me, The sculpture evokes the eye, or a profile of a face… very interesting and beautiful- also it was masterfully designed and constructed because not a degree can be noticed out of symmetry.

  6. I believe Dr Coyne requires this for his
    Chicago crib or office wall !
    = the last one ! … … it states !

    I dunno if it is a gentoo or whatever one,
    but, above all, I do adore its advice o’
    ” KEEP YOUR COOL ” ON. For sure !


    1. That is an outboard. It is hard to guess the size because whether it is a 150 horse or 300 horsepower, they all kind of look the same. Certainly a sizable engine, many of them today are 4 cycle and that allows them to go bigger. Notice a very nice steering set up for the driver, which is required to operate such an engine and boat.

      1. I did a little searching and it turns out those outboard units are pretty interesting. They are OXE (brand name) diesels made by Cimco Marine. They are billed as the first high power marine outboard motors. Hurtigruten was the first customer to buy them. Apparently the most innovative part of the unit is not the diesel motor itself but their patented belt drive transmission.

        The units on these inflatable boats are probably the OXE 150 (150 HP). A tweet at the OXE website, dated Nov 14 2019, says “15 OXE 150 HP engines tested and ready for handover to Hurtigruten’s new expedition ship ms Fridtjof Nansen.”

        1. Diesel outboard engines. Now that is a new one to me. That would account for the bit larger size of the casing there. 150 hp is not real big in the outboard business today but not small either. I’m sure you could ski behind it.

          1. “150 hp is not real big in the outboard business today . . .

            Very true. 150 hp is modest at best for a 2 person bass boat among the “outdoor sportsman” crowd. 300 hp on such boats is not all that unusual. Cracks me up. When the boat is sitting still the bow points up at a 30 degree angle.

            1. That is because they are in a really big hurry to get to the fish first. It is rather silly when you look at it but there are a lot of crazy fishermen out there. Hot rods to catch fish.

        2. Many thanks to randall and darrele for the research and great information. Had no idea about these advances. My outboards from the 50’s through the 80’s were all two strokers and much much smaller. And kudos to Hurtigruten for taking the lead in exercising the technology.

    1. None of the ship’s staff are allowed to drink, either onboard or off, so long as they are working on their contract. I am an exception, but I’ve had about three glasses of wine over the entire trip. Notice that all the brass are drinking orange juice.

  7. The Diego Ramirez islands are indeed still part of the South American continental shelf, although separated from Cape Horn by more than 100km, and by depths of 2-300m.
    I think the sailors may be forgiven for considering Horn instead of Diego Ramirez as the Southernmost point of South America.
    100km is wide, for any ship.

  8. ‘Not eating poorly’ is the understatement of the year indeed, I’m jealous! Even the Sun King (Louis XIV) would be jealous.

  9. Hi Jerry,

    How do you get from the big ship into the Zodiacs? Is it on the level, or do you have to climb down a ladder/stair?

    Cheers! What a great trip!

    1. Hi jblilie. Here’s my image compilation that shows the procedure. Read left to right & top to bottom. CLICK TO ENLARGE:

      [1] a RIB [Rubber Inflatable Boat] being lowered from RIB storage to the water – it’s controlled by the person in the RIB. To the left is the nose of a second RIB being prepared for attaching to the crane after the first one is detached.

      [2] The crane & 2 metres further away is the mobile [sliding? folding?] ship platform for passengers to embark & debark the RIBS. Note this platform is only slighter higher than the side walls of the RIB.

      [3] Green ellipse shows the hatch for the RIB storage area & closer is the platform.

      [4] To the left is the RIB storage with the crane inside the green ellipse & to the right is the platform.

      [5] Hurtigruten MS MIDNATSOL – all the images are from this ship.

      [6] Expeditioners queuing on the stairs & platform to embark a RIB.

      [7] Debarking a RIB.

    2. [1] Mandatory ship-supplied & numbered Das Boots – these are given to passengers early on in the correct size & the passenger keeps them in their cabin [I suppose] for the duration of the cruise.

      [2] Vacuuming personal [non-ship property] expedition clothes to prevent importing alien moss etc to the Antarctic.

      [3] Everyone is scanned in & out of an expedition.

      [4] Survival suit demo. Supplied in the orange box & I suppose they are in the cabins & in the lifeboats.

      [5] Boots being auto-scrubbed upon return from expedition.

      [6] Boot disinfection.


  10. The two plant species you have featured have relatives in New Zealand.
    The first is commonly called ‘vegetable sheep’, of the Raoulia genus. What NZ might lack in latitude is more than made up by the altitude of its mountains, where the vegetable sheep are found and where weather conditions would resemble those of Cape Horn. They are called ‘vegetable sheep’ because the sheep dogs of early settlers in NZ would try to round them up being confused by their resemblance to sheep. Note that in NZ the vegetable sheep tend to be pale, or white a physiological response to the high UV not found at the Horn:
    The second species looks similar to a range of New Zealand alpine species belonging to the Hebe genus. Here is a description of one of the nearly 90 Hebe species in NZ, looking similar to the one Jerry photographed:

    1. As Don says, altitude and latitude have similar effects on vegetation. Here in Ecuador, on the equator at 0 degrees this same knd of vegetation (in terms of physical growth habit, not necessarily the same species) grows at about 4500m. Plants of many species form green mounds of mossy-looking things as seen in Jerry’s photos. These are often not moss but flowering plants from many different families, adapted to the cold with tiny stiff leaves. At the right time these mounds can be covered with relatively large flowers.

      1. I like to think I know a reasonable amount of mathematics and even a little physics, but as a biological ignoramus have got nothing to add to these interesting facts.
        However I can remember being totally astounded some years ago when first noticing how little it took in altitude gain to change the average temperatures by the equivalent of a very large distance towards the north pole (but same altitude, and within the northern hemisphere—and of course to the south as well).
        From the equator to Tierra del Fuego is about 6,000 km. And so compared to 4,500 metres, the distance ratio here seems around a factor of about 1,300. But the variations due to ocean currents make a number like that not really very applicable or interesting.

      1. For linguistic symmetry, one needs vegetable dogs?? Not just lazy dogs, as Minkowski, who made a huge conceptual contribution to spacial relativity, had earlier called Einstein’s attitude, as an undergraduate, towards the mathematics course that M. taught E.

  11. The two navigation lights on Hornos are still used for navigation. They have different characteristics and ranges, so it is easy to tell them apart.
    If you are passing south of the island, and take a bearing on both of the lights, your position is easily found. Everyone uses GPS, but prudent mariners use more than one method whenever possible. After a long time offshore, such lights are a good way to confirm the GPS, and to check the error on the gyrocompass. Also, whether or not you can see the light at a given range tells you about the visibility.
    I appreciate the pictures and details. This is one more place that I have looked at from a distance, but never had the chance to visit.

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