Rounding Cape Horn

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

In this series of blogposts, we are following the Steamship Beaver on her first and only sailing journey from London to the Pacific Northwest and Fort Vancouver! Rounding Cape Horn was always an exciting adventure in a sailing ship, as freezing head-winds, steep waves, and challenging weather conditions made any sailing journey difficult.

And: Did I say sailing? I did. For this long journey the Beaver sailed instead of steamed across these massive oceans. After all, how could the Beaver carry enough wood or coal to feed the boilers through a seven-months-long ocean journey?

Accompanying the Beaver on this adventure is the HBC ship Columbia, also on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Having left the Thames River town of Gravesend on August 29, 1835, the two ships were now, on November 11, off the Falkland Islands. Here is what Captain David Home wrote in the Beaver’s log on that date: “Made the Falkland Islands bearing S. by W.”

The Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas, is a group of islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean, 300 miles east of the Patagonia coast. Once sailing past the Falklands, the two ships would approach Cape Horn, which has the most violent and dangerous waters found on earth. Here the ocean currents travel around the world without interruption, and except for the Antarctic, there is no other land mass as far south as Cape Horn.

The climate in the region is generally cold, owing to the southern latitude. November was the summer season in these southern latitudes. While much of the abundant precipitation fell as sleet and snow, it probably did not happen in summertime [I was wrong, as you will see]. In the southern summertime, daylight would last almost seventeen hours. (It would not be until the summer solstice, or December 21, that Cape Horn would experience “white nights,” or days when the sun did not set.) Winter winds averaged 30 kilometres, or 18 miles per hour, with squalls of more than 62 miles per hour. In summertime, the wind at Cape Horn is gale force only 5% of the time, but the visibility was generally good. Winter: different story altogether! [I was also wrong about the likelihood of gale force winds, as you will see below].

There is, of course, something else to think about: the direction of the wind, and of the ocean currents. The ocean currents flow from west to east, as do the prevailing winds — they blow directly in the face of any sailor who is rounding the horn from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. There’s lots of names for the winds here, depending how close to the Antarctic the ship is sailing. The names are: the “roaring forties” (referring to 40-50 degrees South latitudes), the “furious fifties,” and the “screaming sixties.” Cape Horn juts southward to about 55 degrees South Latitude, but Tierra del Fuego is made up of islands, and there are routes through these islands that might be a little more sheltered than the open ocean. For example: the narrow Strait of Magellan lies between the mainland of South America and the islands of Tierra del Fuego: it had frightening winds that blew from many directions. Another passage is named for the ship Charles Darwin sailed in: the Beagle Channel, but the route is said to be challenging. The open waters of Drake Passage, off the southern tip of Cape Horn (which is on the southernmost island in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago) offers the safest passage: no rocks perhaps, but the weather and waves are wild out there!

So how did the steamer Beaver and the HBC ship Columbia round Cape Horn. Let’s find out.

November 13. Strong breeze throughout, increasing with head sea. A sail on the weather beam standing to N.

November 15. Moderate breeze with heavy sea, freshening with rain. Weather too unsettled to read prayers. Longitude 61 degrees 33 minutes [West]. Made Cape Horn bearing N by W distance 10 leagues. At noon cape Horn N.E. by East. Passed Island of Diego Ramirez.

 If Cape Horn is north of their current position, then the two ships are sailing through Drake Passage, with the wind probably in their faces and, obviously, the waves a little steep. If that is where they are, they will be doing lots of tacking to get around the point of land. But where is Diego Ramirez? The lighthouse at Cape Horn is on the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, in southern Chile, and it marks both the northern boundary of Drake Passage, and the place where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. Diego Ramirez is a set of islands 68 miles southwest of Cape Horn, in the Sea of Hoces. Its’ location is 56 degrees 29′ S Latitude, and 68 degrees 44′ West Longitude. That means that the two ships are now officially in the Pacific Ocean. Hurray!

November 20. [Five days after the last log entry.] Strong breeze. A sail in sight bound to the N. & E.

November 22.  Fresh gales with heavy squalls and hail; weather too bad to read prayers. Longitude 78 degrees, 7′ [West], Latitude 59 degrees, 62′ [South].

This latitude and longitude, if correct, puts the ships just west of South America, but well to the south of the continental landmass. As incorrect as this location might be, we must remember that the two ships rounded the Diego Ramirez Islands, as you can see above. It is possible that sailing north of the Diego Ramirez Islands would put British ships in Chilean waters and cause an international diplomatic outrage. But this is what I think really happened: that the ships took a long tack to the south west to round the Diego Ramirez Islands on its southern side; then north west until they were clear of the islands; and north east until they saw land again. Long reaches are very much easier, and safer, to sail than attempting numerous short tacks between rocky points of land or islands lying offshore, part of the time in the dark of whatever hours of night they were experiencing. 

November 25. Fresh breeze. A sudden squall carried away topmast steering sail boom. Heavy fall of snow.

November 26. Heavy gale; lay to under fore topsail.

November 27. Strong gale and heavy sea; lying to under double reefed foresail.

November 29. Drizzling rain and foggy. Made land. Bearing N.NN.E and tacked to the Westward. Longitude 75 degrees, 45′, [West], latitude 49 degrees, 29′ [South].

The ships are no longer as far west of South America as they may want to be, and tacking to the west is pretty necessary right now, if they want to avoid ploughing into a Chilean island. The longitude reading tells me they are off the islands that litter the west coast of Chile, and well north of Cape Horn. In twelve days or so they will reach Cumberland harbour, which is somewhere in the immediate area of Juan Fernandez. Where is that? Juan Fernandez Islands is located out in the ocean, at 33 degrees, 38′ 29″ South Latitude, and 78 degrees, 50′ 28″ West Longitude. It is famous: but I am not telling why right now!

So do you want to know about Thomas Lowe’s experience in rounding the Horn? Here it is: 

To return to the first post in this relatively short series, go here:

When the next post in this series is written, it will appear here: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2024. All rights reserved. 


6 thoughts on “Rounding Cape Horn

  1. John Hansen

    Great Research, perfect background information.

    Best read about, rather than experienced first hand !

  2. Dave Martin

    An exciting and captivating read Nancy. The trepidation rounding the Horn and all those protective ‘prayers’ in abeyance! Makes me shiver. With centuries of ill fated attempts to circumnavigate that point, it’s a marvel today’s massive cruise ships pass with such comparative ease.

  3. Nancy Funk

    I have found this blog very interesting and helpful. I am a volunteer interpreter at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. I have been researching about the ships that came to the fort during the HBC era. Have you come across any ships bills of lading? I have seen several partials, but not of these two sailings.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Actually, one of your local historians is the source of much of my information, and he has the bill of lading for the Columbia at the time she sailed across the ocean with the Beaver. As I have not written about the coast and its ships until now, I don’t necessarily have or need that information. Will send you an email.