On most coastlines in the world, you’ll invariably hear of some challenging nearby headland being referred to as “the local Cape Horn” writes W M Nixon
No other promontory worldwide has the same global image. It tells us much about the fearsome reputation of South America’s most southerly point, jutting as it does into the turbulent waters of the Great Southern Ocean where it becomes the Drake Passage, with Antarctica itself not so very far away across some of the roughest seas on the planet.
Cape Horn is always on the oceanic sailing agenda. And at the moment it is top of the list, with 73-year-old Jean-Luc van den Heede of France, leader in the Gold Globe Golden Jubilee Race, rounding it a week ago, while second-placed 41-year-old Dutchman Mark Slats (in a much-depleted fleet) will soon be there, albeit more than a thousand miles astern of van den Heede.
They and the remaining sailors in this challenging re-enactment are following in the wake of solo skipper Robin Knox-Johnston fifty years after he became the first man to sail round the world non-stop in Suhaili, with Knox-Johnston and his little ketch undoubtedly achieving one of world sailing’s truly great firsts.
But by the time Suhaili rounded Cape Horn on 17th January 1969, a number of small sailing boats had done so before her, though none in the same epic non-stop world-girdling style. However, some 45 years had elapsed since the first rounding of Cape Horn by a small cruising boat which had crossed the southern reaches of the South Pacific to get there. But though it was hailed afterwards as the great pioneering achievement it genuinely was, at the time those involved seemed to handle it in an almost low key way, however much it may have meant to them personally.
It was the evening of Tuesday, December 2nd 1924 (94 years ago this Sunday) when the small bluff-bowed 42ft gaff-rigged Irish ketch Saoirse, a craft of antique appearance, approached Cape Horn from the west. The weather had been unsettled with winds from several directions, and two days previously, squalls from the northeast had brought flurries of snow despite it being early in the southern summer. But conditions were improving as the Horn came abeam around 2200hrs in the last of the daylight.
With the onset of the short southern summer night with its brief darkness, the wind settled in the north, and the little ship made steady progress. By noon on Wednesday in fine conditions, she had made good 140 miles in 24 hours, aided by a favourable current of at least one knot. Superb visibility enabled the ketch’s crew to admire the massive scenery along the rugged coast as they shaped their course to pass eastward of Staten Island. The wind then drew fresh and favourably from the southwest, and despite progress being slowed by their vessel’s fouled bottom - for they had been at sea for more than 40 days since leaving New Zealand – by Saturday December 6th they were moored in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.
In rounding Cape Horn, the ketch’s amateur skipper Conor O’Brien (1880-1952) of Foynes Island on the Shannon Estuary had made the breakthrough towards becoming the first to take a small yacht around the world south of the Great Capes, running down his easting across the full width of the far Southern Pacific through everything that the Roaring Forties and Screaming Fifties could throw at him.
He faced it with some confidence, as his little vessel had successfully negotiated several ocean storms during her long passage from Dublin Bay. Ironically, it was in the warm and sunny latitudes of the Canary Islands that they had experienced one of their most severe tests, logging a day’s run of 185 miles while driving hard in rough seas in a sharp gale of the northeast trade winds.
But O’Brien’s own-designed little ship, soundly built by Tom Moynihan and his craftsmen at the Fisheries School in Baltimore in 1922, proved well able, and continued to log many excellent 24-hours runs. The most severe conditions were experienced between southern Africa and Australia, yet the ketch seemed to lead a charmed life. Although he and his shipmates observed several huge pinnacle breakers caused by intersecting wave patterns which he felt sure would have overwhelmed his vessel had she been caught up in one of those mega-breakers, it never happened, and the long haul across the southern Pacific to curve southward to round Cape Horn was subsequently recounted in an under-stated tone. But then, that was the style of the era and the milieu from which Conor O’Brien had emerged.
O’Brien may have been rewarded with a fairly gentle rounding of the Horn itself, but the very small world of ocean voyagers at the time had no doubt of the quality of his achievement. Although Joshua Slocum in Spray had negotiated his way westward from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the channels north of Cape Horn some 28 years earlier, the weather he’d experienced, coupled with the historical stories from the crews of much larger sailing ships which had succeeded in rounding the Horn – for many failed in the attempt – left no doubt about the extremely changeable and often ferocious conditions which were central to the challenge O’Brien had faced.
For circumnavigator sailors from Europe, once you’ve rounded Cape Horn and returned to Atlantic waters, there’s a reassuring feeling of being on the home stretch, for all that there are ten thousand miles still to sail. Certainly O’Brien and his crew of two became so relaxed that they spent six weeks in the Falklands over the Christmas period, becoming so much part of the local community that a crew-member married a local girl and much of Saoirse’s subsequent voyage northward through the Atlantic was made with just two on board.
Yet although it all continued to be done in a low key style, O’Brien was no slouch when publicity opportunities arose, and he returned to Dun Laoghaire on Saturday June 20th 1925 – two years to the day since he departed – in order to facilitate a rapturous welcome. Dublin Bay Sailing Club even cancelled their Saturday racing programme so that their members could join the fleet welcoming Saoirse home.
For most of the voyage, however, Saoirse and her crew were totally out of contact, and could get on with traversing the oceans in traditional lone ship style. And 45 years later, there were long periods in 1968-69 when Robin Knox-Johnston’s location with Suhaili was a matter of speculation rather than precision – it was something of a surprise when the battered but unbowed little ketch appeared in the distant approaches to Falmouth to claim an indisputable “first”.
But today, a constant flow of information in every shape and form is central to any major oceanic sailing event. The Golden Jubilee of the Golden Globe is supposed to be a retro event in which the participants sail old-style boats of closed hull profile using only the technology available in 1968. But the demands of the 21st century with its multiple communication technologies means that the outside world knows almost everything that is going on in this nine month saga.
Thus when Jean-Luc van den Heede had passed Cape Horn a week ago, it so happened that the AGM of the Old Cape Horners Association was being held in England’s historic naval harbour of Portsmouth, and they were provided with a radio linkup with the 73-year-old Frenchman who revealed that it was in fact his tenth rounding of the Horn, and his most recent visit had been during a cruise in the area when they’d landed at Cape Horn island’s semi-sheltered bay, and had gone visiting with the lighthouse keepers for all the world like cruisers of yore making their way along the west coast of Ireland or through the Hebrides.
This almost light-hearted approach to the realities of Cape Horn is classic van den Heede, for in order to still be in the lead in the Golden Globe, he had to survive a knockdown four weeks ago which was so violent that it caused the through-mast bolt supporting his lower shrouds to cut its way downwards through the mast extrusion, leaving the vital lower shrouds dangerously slack.
For a while it looked as though he’d have to divert to Chile for repairs, but somehow this doughty veteran got aloft and cobbled together a repair which held together has now got him round Cape Horn and on to what is admittedly the longest homeward stretch in the world. But his performance is impaired, and he usually has three reefs in the main when only two would be needed were all the rig in full health.
This has meant that second-placed Mark Slats of The Netherlands has been closing the gap, but as van den Heede was an astonishing 1470 miles ahead when his rig damage occurred, Slats has to steadily outperform him by 20% in order to be first back to les Sables d’Olonne in 2019, and since van den Heede got into the Atlantic, the Slats rate of gain has slowed.
Race Tracker here
Both van den Heede and Slats are racing Rustler 36s, a slippy Holman & Pye designed sloop of 1980 which fits neatly into the retro requirement of being a 36ft production design of 1980 or earlier with the specified closed profile, even if in the Rustler 36’s case it does result in a transom stern with a very steeply sloping rudder and a propeller in a large aperture cut from the rudder, which must make them the very devil to handle under power in astern, or indeed under power in any confined manoeuvring situation under power, where prop thrust is often the key to doing the job.
This is probably not remotely of interest in the Great Southern ocean, but as Tim Goodbody so brilliantly revealed with his J/109 in Dublin Bay last weekend, a boat which has an easily-accessed stern-boarding system and handles confidently in astern under power is a very effective rescue machine in a man-overboard situation.
But that’s another topic to which we’ll return some day. Meanwhile, the reality was that the most popular design which turned up to start the Golden Globe Golden Jubilee was the Rustler 36, something of a surprise to casual observers as most folk had initially thought the response would be something nearer Suhaili, and ketch-rigged too.
But as it happens, the one Suhaili sister-ship which was allowed in under special dispensation, Abilash Tomy’s Thuriya from India, and one of the few other ketch-rigged boats, our own Gregor McGuckin’s Biscay 36 Hanley Energy Endurance, were both dismasted in September in the mother of all storms in the middle of the southern Indian Ocean.
Their skippers were successfully retrieved by a French Fisheries Patrol vessel while McGuckin was in the midst of an heroic effort to get to the seriously-injured Tomy under jury rig. But despite promises that Thuriya would be retrieved by the Indian Navy and restored to seagoing standard, she still seems to be out there and virtually not moving at all. This suggests that she is still lying to her broken rigging, whereas McGuckin’s boat is now nearly 400 miles away nearer Australia, as before his controlled retrieval and passage towards Tomy under jury rig, he succeeded in cutting adrift all the broken spars and rigging, and the former ketch has sometimes been drifting at 1 knot and more.
The experience of McGuckin and Abilash in that “perfect storm” is of added interest in that it happened in the area of ocean where Conor O’Brien saw his ultimate breaking crest. The wind strengths were nothing like the horrific power which assaulted Tomy and McGuckin, as at the time Saoirse was running in her surprisingly speedy style before “a moderate gale” (as they used to say), and O’Brien and his helmsman observed a large waving moving along with them maybe about a mile away.
There were marked cross seas running at the time – a significant factor recorded by Gregor McGuckin – and they went to work on this big wave until it peaked out like the Matterhorn or Mount Fuji, an absolutely extraordinary pinnacle of water which then collapsed in hundreds of thousands of tons of breakers and spume.
Neither O’Brien nor his shipmate said a word to each as this all-powerful force of nature manifested itself, but afterwards in his deck log he noted that had Saoirse been caught up in it, she and her crew would have instantly been goners. As for the professional seaman who’d been helmsman at the time, as soon as they reached port in Australia, he went ashore and wasn’t seen again. It greatly annoyed O’Brien, as this was the only helmsman other than O’Brien himself who had shown he could get Saoirse to perform to her best, and O’Brien had hoped that in due course the situation would arise where their combined efforts would see Saoirse achieve the 200 miles day’s run of which he was convinced she was capable.
He had many crew changes, but despite that and other difficulties, his underlying intention to sail home via Cape Horn was maintained. Ninety-four years ago on Sunday, it was achieved - a simple and beautiful historical fact of small craft ocean voyaging.
Today, the realities of the Golden Globe Golden Jubilee race underline the remarkable nature of what Conor O’Brien and Saoirse made into reality. He may not have been single-handed, but his crew of two were of limited experience, the boat was of extremely primitive type by today’s standards, and the elements of the unknown in what they were undertaking were beyond calculation.
Now that we know so much more about Cape Horn and the conditions which may be experienced in sailing past it, O’Brien’s feat with Saoirse in 1924 becomes that much greater. He may have died on Foynes Island in 1952, but Saoirse has lived on, and she is currently being re-built by Liam Hegarty at his Oldcourt Boatyard near her birthplace of Baltimore. In 2020, Saoirse will sail again, and we will wonder anew at the achievement of the great pioneering sailor of Limerick.