Team Yachting World sail round Cape Horn in stormy weather
Wind. We came to Cape Horn looking for it and we found masses. There will never be a shortage here of this unending commodity, and its sudden force is fearsome and mesmeric. When we rounded Cape Horn on Wednesday it was in 40-45 knots of wind with squalls of 55 knots – a steady Force 9 gusting storm Force 10.
Yachting World Editor David Glenn and I have been here with photographer Richard Langdon and Jonathan Reynolds from our series sponsors Pantaenius Yacht Insurance to research and video a heavy weather seamanship series at Cape Horn. It seemed like the right place for it.
Ready to clear out of Argentina in Ushuaia, only to find the port closed for the day due to high winds…
And who better to illustrate the techniques suited for these conditions than American sailor Skip Novak (pictured below), one of the early pioneers of Antarctic cruising. He has sailed here for 23 seasons. So here we were aboard Skip’s 54ft cutter Pelagic with the boat’s skipper Dave Roberts and first mate Bertie Whitley.
Before we sailed round, we heaved to west of Cape Horn to demonstrate this simple technique, one that is rarely practised these days but an invaluable tactic to play for time, particularly to let a weather system pass overhead. I felt a bit stupid, because I’ve always heaved to by means of tacking over, and had always thought of it that way. But Skip simply winched the boat’s tiny staysail to weather, let out some mainsheet and lashed the wheel. It was that simple.
The boat sat quietly riding the seas with no strain on gear or crew (well, apart from me feeling increasingly green around the gills. But that’s another story.)
The sound and sight of the wind was formidable. Gusts vapourised spray and spume into a mist from the top of seas and chased the foam into long streaks that laced the waves downwind. The sun came out, though, and off the Horn amid all this tumult dolphins played around the bows of Pelagic.
Crew of Pelagic rounding Cape Horn
It was too windy, too risky to land on Isla Hornos, but the sight of this rocky, blasted landmark is unforgettable. It is a place, just as they say, where you truly feel there is no law and no God.
On every day for the week that we were here we have seen 40 knots or more at some point. Sometimes much more. We spent one evening at anchor with the boat heeling to regular gusts over 55 knots. Once or twice while sailing, bizarrely, the wind went from severe gale strength to flat calm an hour beforehand or afterwards. There seems no logic to the forces at play here.
Watching the anemometer display at anchor, regularly recording over 50 knots while we are snug in the doghouse
The forecasts seem to be accurate almost by accident, like reading a horoscope. You have to be prepared for anything. I was surprised to see Skip taking in the first reef as we were motorsailing back to the Beagle Channel in less than 5 knots of true wind, because he’d seen the first ripples of a breeze line ahead. But the forecast had predicted 50 knots coming in from the north – which eventually it did.
Down here clearly you take no chances and we have all learned a huge amount from Skip’s almost unfashionably conservative approach and simple sailing ethos. His style of sailing is cautious, it doesn’t seek to put luxury where there is no direct utility and it has been instructive for us all to be reminded that this is the absolute basis of seamanship.
As for ‘Team Yachting World’, we’ve have had a blast – metaphorically and literally. It is huge fun going back to the basic principles of seamanship and of living well but very simply on board, as is Skip’s philosophy.
There is much to say about what we’ve learned this week, and over the next year or so there will be a great deal in Yachting World as the series unfolds in the magazine and online. But for now here are a few snapshots of our Cape Horn adventure, along with a massive thank you to Skip, Dave and Bertie for a week none of us will ever forget.
Trying out using a trysail in 45 knots near Cape Horn
The crew take a hike up to the summit of Isla Jardin, in the Cape Horn archipelago
David Glenn, Jonathan Reynolds and me fisheyed in a kelpy anchorage
Tea party in the doghouse on Jonathan’s birthday (left to right): the skipper Dave, me, Skip, Jonathan, hard-working photographer Richard, and first mate Bertie