American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

CAPE HORN. Both a geographical location and a literary symbol, rugged Cape Horn represents the ultimate test of nautical skill. The cape itself is located on Horn Island, a 1391-foot-high rock at the southernmost tip of South America. More broadly, Cape Horn constitutes the whole area from fifty degrees south in the Atlantic to fifty degrees south in the Pacific. Willem Cornelisz Schouten and Jacob le Maire, on an expedition to discover a new route from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1616 for the Dutch East India Company, were the first Europeans to sight Horn Island. It was visited infrequently until the nineteenth century, when “rounding the Horn” became the primary route to the South Seas whaling grounds and the California goldfields. The completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 largely ended the Horn’s commercial significance, though oil tankers must still round the Horn since they are too large for the Panama Canal.

Cape Horn has the most dangerous waters in the world, with 100-foot waves, relentless, gale-force winds, fifty-mile-long icebergs, and treacherous currents. In 1905 alone, over 400 ships perished there.

Many fine descriptions of the Cape Horn passage exist, including James Fenimore Cooper’s* in The Sea Lions,* Richard Henry Dana’s* in Two Years before the Mast,* and Herman Melville’s* in White-Jacket.* Warwick M. Tompkins sailed around the Horn with a crew that included his two small children, as described in his Fifty South to Fifty South: The Story of a Voyage West around Cape Horn in the Schooner Wander Bird (1938). Today the cape is usually rounded only for adventure, as described, for example, in David and Daniel Hays’ My Old Man and the Sea (1995). [See also CIRCUMNAVIGATIONS AND BLUE-WATER PASSAGES; CRUISING LITERATURE; VOYAGE NARRATIVES]

Dennis Berthold