It’s not all misery at the Horn; just mostly

The Cape Horners’ Club
By Adrian Flanagan, Adlard Coles Nautical, 2017; 295 pp., $27.

Reviewed by Sandy Marsters
For Points East

When my wife and I acquired our first big sailboat, we always made sure we had a Big Gulp of ice water at the helm when departing or arriving at the dock. We knew the anxiety would parch us speechless. Clearly, we are not candidates, nor will we ever be, for the Cape Horners’ Club, which is why we are not mentioned in the eponymous book by Adrian Flanagan.

Really, it’s a very small club of very brave sailors. After all, who would invite such misery, fear and discomfort into their lives? Excluding gold-rushers heading for California aboard clippers and organized racers, Flanagan puts the number of singlehanded Cape Horners at about 91. In “The Cape Horners’ Club,” we meet 20 of them. It’s not clear how the culling was done, although drama may have had something to do with it.

New Zealander Dr. David Lewis was the first sailor to circumnavigate the globe in a multihull, though he avoided Cape Horn with a detour through the Strait of Magellan. That done, he set his sights on being the first to circumnavigate Antarctica aboard his 32-foot steel sloop Ice Bird. What could go wrong?

Well, for one thing, this would require a rounding of Cape Horn. At this latitude, 56 degrees south, there is nothing to stop wind, waves and storms as they make their way around the earth. Sometimes storms even catch up with themselves where they started. Hurricane-force winds and seas 50 feet and over are common. It is the last place on earth a boat should be.
Lewis had already been clobbered, knocked down and rolled numerous times when, on a December afternoon – under a jury rig after a dismasting, his hands frostbitten – he encountered 60-knot winds and monstrous seas with near-vertical faces. He hunkered down, terrified, in the cabin, awaiting his sentence.

“The detonation came at 3 p.m., a hissing prelude, the roaring approach followed by the shattering explosion. Lewis found himself hurled onto the cabin roof, encased in blackness, before Ice Bird regained her feet and rolled back upright, dumping him on the floor,” Flanagan wrote in his book. Dazed, he went on deck to survey the damage, sitting on the coach roof without a harness (“What was the point?”), when another huge wave boarded and hurled him against the stanchions, breaking ribs.

Defeated, he retreated to the cabin, only to find the bilges full. After bailing, he did not leave the cabin for three days as the storm raged.

Lewis’ experience was far from atypical. The book is full of knockdowns, pitchpoles, rollovers, injuries, dismastings, frostbite, and other miseries. The phrase “was never to be seen again” comes up several times. There are no reunions of the Cape Horners’ Club. And this group doesn’t include the estimated 10,000 who died in 59 ship sinkings in the area up to 1929.

But it’s not all misery. The Brits, especially, seem uniquely able to keep a stiff upper lip, consoling themselves amid the chaos with champagne and endless versions of “tinned” foods. It seems they will tin just about anything, including chickens, ducks, pork roasts and even sponge cake.

And for those who make it, there is the thrill of victory. “A man who loves the sea and ships can aspire to no more searching a test than a Horn passage,” wrote Warwick Tompkins, who made the trip, though not singlehanded, in 1936. “It is the last word in the lexicon of sailormen…This is the ultimate test, given to very few to know.”

And not everyone meets misery on a rounding of the Horn. In January 2010, teenager Jessica Watson, one of several women profiled in the book, found light winds and sunshine as she slipped south of the 50th parallel. “You wouldn’t guess this is the Southern Ocean,” she wrote in her log.

In the appendix, I was pleased to find the name of the late Dodge Morgan, a great friend of Points East, who shattered singlehanded records with his 155-day circumnavigation completed in 1986. So I revisited his Cape Horn rounding in his wonderful book, “The Voyage of American Promise.”

Like Watson, he found benign conditions at the Cape. “The sea is choppy on long, lazy, ten-foot waves,” he writes in his log. “The wind is west-southwest at twenty knots, and Promise dances along under her wings…I am floating on a sea of utter contentment and pride. Every so often I erupt into a yell of joy and punch the air with my fist.”

It’s not all misery for sailors of small boats at the Horn.

Just mostly.

Co-founder of Points East, Sandy Marsters is also the magazine’s former editor, and he crafts PE’s reviews when he’s not sailing in the Caribbean.

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