Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from a book about a painful rounding of the Horn for Warwick Tompkins on the redoubtable schooner Elbe 5

The German pilot schooner Elbe 5, built in 1883, has had a remarkable life. A few years ago, she was in the news after being sunk in a collision with a container ship, ironically in her native river after a significant refit, but it is in the interim period that she had her glory days. After working the difficult waters of the outer Elbe off Hamburg for many years, she retired and ended up with a youth club who renamed her Wandervogel, or Wander Bird.

She was bought in the depths of the depression by Warwick Tompkins and his redoubtable wife, Gwen, to sail under the Stars and Stripes. And sail she certainly did. After crossing the Atlantic seven times, including one passage of 16 days, a record for a sailing vessel under 100ft, the Tompkins shipped a doubty crew which included their small children, and took the schooner from Gloucester, Mass, to San Francisco via Cape Horn.

Tompkins’ book, Fifty South to Fifty South – the classic definition for ‘doubling the Horn’ from east to west – describes this passage. It is an absolute classic. To complete the 1,000-mile rhumbline trip, they sailed 2,125 brutal miles. Nonetheless, they made the passage to the Golden Gate in a time that many an 1850s clipper ship captain might have envied. We join them in 1936 as they beat ever westwards south of the Horn, wondering if it will ever end.

Tuesday, December 8

Last night’s gale has set us back 54 miles, all we’ve won in the past four days. We have lost westing as well as northing, but are in no more hazardous a position than before, thanks to the curve of the coast.

The squalls average three an hour today. They are careering through a wind already blowing gale force and outstrip it with ease. Some we can avoid, not many. Their cumulus heads are miles high, pompadoured and silvery. They look disarmingly soft and fluffy up there but underneath they show metallic, gun-metal blue, flat and hard. Each is a pillar of hail, a mile and more in diameter. They sweep over the western edge, envelop us with sleet and screaming wind and are gone so quickly it seems not unreasonable to believe they are making 60 knots.

The entire morning watch we sail north-east-by-north, then gybe to the west until nine. We once more swing to north-­by-east as a gale makes up at noon.

Gwen and Warwick Tompkins, their children and crew aboard Wander Bird. Photo: courtesy of Warwick Tompkins

Noon Position: 51°49’ S., 76°12’ W. To 50° South in the Pacific: 109 Miles. Made Good: Minus 54 Miles. Sailed by Log: Log scarcely carried at all this day.

The patch on the foresail clew cringle has started to rip and we have lowered the sail. Everyone is sewing on either oil bags or the foresail.

The sea is something phenomenal, its wildest excesses of all the yesterdays having at last been surpassed. We are assaulted now simultaneously on both sides, from dead ahead and from astern. How such a thing can be defies comprehension, but it is so.

A new ‘button hole’ patch is fitted about the foresail reef cringle and sewn hard to both sides of the wet sail. By late afternoon this most vital of all our canvas is again reefed and reset. (How simple it all sounds! What tedious, hard work it is to do!) Four new oil bags are also ready for the next violent gale.

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Conditions are worse. Progress seems utterly impossible even though the sluggishly turning log records a couple of knots. We are exhausting our strength and patience scandalizing and re­setting the mainsail in squalls of sleet and wind.

This course is bad, too. We are closing with the land again.

Wander Bird’s usual slow and easy motion now is jerky, erratic and entirely unpredictable in this anarchist sea. Why she is not rent plank from plank is a mystery.

The angling seas run to form deep hollows, only immediately to fill them brimming with their tumbling crests. The ship bravely fronts each hazard, balances briefly astride each lifting ridge and then falls a-crash into another sheer crater. Her jib-­boom and its furled sails plunge into solid water which thunders over the depressed bows to jet white against each obstruction.

But even this cannot subdue this ship, this living and fighting miracle of beauty, strength and courage. She rises afresh to every assault and tilts anew at the sullen sky with her lancing jib-boom.
Having clubbed us into submission the weather now perversely moderates almost at once, leaving us too weary and discouraged to set another rag. Under-canvassed for this rampaging ocean the schooner bashes ahead, painful mile after mile, long hour after hour.

It is clearing in the north-west; stars are showing for the first time in a week. The wind fluctuates, blowing sometimes briefly from west-northwest or a bit more west. Its shifts are torments, each one posing the problem: What tack now?

A different attitude to health and safety in the mid-1930s. Photo: courtesy of Warwick Tompkins

With the wind at west-north-west we sail north, a course which (if leeway, current and sea are not too greedy) will take us narrowly clear. Now and again, for five or 10 minutes, we sail a point west of north. That course is safe; if we make it often enough we will surely go clear. But if we tack offshore, as chiding prudence suggests, we shall sail back into the deep south-west, losing very nearly a mile for every one sailed!

The Old Man, gored by this dilemma, still clings on with touching faith and at midnight it seems he may at last have called the turn. The ship is sailing a better course, the stars are serene and brilliant in a clear sky, and hope apparently has been rewarded for its long vigil.

Wednesday, December 9

In the graveyard watch we buried our midnight hopes. The logbook was scarcely closed on the final entry yesterday when a squall blotted out the night and the wind again headed. It was a dirty dawn with the wind steady at west-by-north. Had it but settled yesterday the ship would have sailed clear during the night. The Old Man’s gamble has lost, leaving two courses open.

Concepcion Strait is a tortuous inland waterway leading for 300 miles north between cramping islands and opening again on the Pacific far beyond Fifty. It is badly charted and flushed by currents and tides of unpredictable strength. If we enter it we sentence ourselves to worry, unceasing toil and all the grave risks of sheltered waters. Or we can throw away this dearly-bought northing, although heart’s blood itself seems scarcely less precious, and run back to the south. With current under us and the coast soon curving away south-east we can clear our lee.

Many would reckon our situation desperate. It is scarcely that, but it is the Old Man’s bitter portion now as he ups the helm in full retreat, abandoning the miles won so laboriously. The gybe, accentuated by a sudden and inopportune squall, is hard. John, coming aft, discovers it has torn the foresail again at the cringle. We must at all costs repair the foresail, and while we do it the ship will sail badly with the trysail on the foremast. In the face of these shrieking squalls we cannot contemplate setting even a corner of the mainsail.

Without saying much but working surely, spurred by a fear of which none need be ashamed, we get in the foresail. The needles are at it as the trysail is swayed aloft.

The crippled Bird does her best, but can point no better than seven points from the wind nor make more than a couple of knots. Not until seven o’clock this morning can anyone draw a free breath, but at that hour we emerge from blinding sleet and shout with delight at finding the land at last abaft our leeward beam. We are safe again.

having safely rounded Cape Horn and reached destination of San Francisco Bay, Wander Bird takes guests aboard for a day of more pleasant sailing. Photo: Photos courtesy of Warwick Tompkins

Noon Position: 51°-44’ S., 75°-40’ W. Made Good: 6 Miles. Sailed by Log: 66 Miles.

All day we stand to the south-south-west, beginning to realise how interminable our struggle may be, and precious water becomes our chiefest treasure. Down here rain is usually so fouled with spray there is little chance of ever catching a potable supply.

This evening we are not more than 30 miles from the mouth of Magellan Straits, and again the Old Man is wrestling with the demons of temptation.

Off there, five hours’ sail and just within the Straits, is Port Mercy, all bright with allure. ‘One of the best anchorages,’ say the pilot books and the corroboratory charts, ‘Very conveniently placed for waiting for a favourable opportunity. There is no danger in entering, the depth is moderate, the ship will be well sheltered. Wood, water and fish abound.’

Against these blessings what has this unendurable sea to promise us? More gales, more sleet, more rain? Is it not the better part of wisdom to forsake all these for the port’s mercy? Why, even the name invites and soothes! Port Mercy! There are not many such soft words to be found hereabouts; most are eloquent only of death, defeat and misery: Cape Deceit, False Cape, Anxious Pass, Desolate Bay, Port Famine, Disappointment Bay, Last Hope Inlet, Non-entry Bay, Wreck Island, Grave Cove. Syllables of heartbreak and despair.

The Evangelista Light we know is winking guidance just beyond the eastern edge. ‘Go on in!’ the persistent inner voice argues convincingly. ‘Fill the tanks with snow water, catch fish, evade this abrading wind. Sleep your fill!’ Such voices they were which sang to Ulysses, and he wisely stopped his ears to the siren songs of snug leeward ports. He, too, had a voyage to make.

We shall keep the sea, and though the choice is hard it is right. This is no place for idling at anchor. Keep the sea! Sail the ship! Leave Cape Horn!

The foresail is repaired, reefed and aloft again at 8 o’clock; the ship sails better, pointing higher and footing faster. There are squalls tonight and they flicker with the first lightning we’ve seen down here. Possibly this is a good sign. At any rate it is something new.

The Tompkins children helped sail the schooner at a young age. Photo: courtesy of Warwick Tompkins

Thursday, December 10

Maybe we are deluding ourselves, but it seems as though the early hours today are decidedly less violent than usual. Perhaps it is only by comparison with yesterday’s dawning that this one seems almost fine. Though there are still squalls about, their punch seems largely gone, and the sea is going down very fast. All hands welcome cessation of the tiring motion which we realise now has been fearfully wearing. The wind has ceased its whistling whine.

Yesterday’s retreat has cost us 76 miles. Here is a dismally interesting statistic: Since passing Horn Island we have sailed 1,395 miles in 20 days and have gained just 385 miles. Our average speed through the water has been 2.7 knots; average speed made good over the bottom 0.85 knots!

No one says anything about it, but at one o’clock this afternoon the wind is actually south of west and the ship is actually making four knots on the desired course! We carry the fisherman, yes, but the reefs are left in the working canvas. No one expects this to last and we refuse to let hope rise.

The squalls now are not too bad, and the weather generally is almost fair. For the first time in a fortnight we carry all lowers (reefed, of course!) into the night.
At midnight we reckon we have logged 56 miles since the wind came, and although we are still close-hauled we are sailing north-west-by-north. It is all too wonderful. It can’t be true!

The Old Man, skipper Warwick Tompkins at Wander Bird’s helm. Photo: courtesy of Warwick Tompkins

Friday, December 11

Give thanks to whatever gods there be that we eschewed Port Mercy! It is noon, and in a magnificent day we have regained all the miles we won and lost this last week. The log allows us 122 miles, but it is either dirty or worn, for we’ve out­stripped it by almost 20 miles.

Noon Position: 50° 39’ S., 77° 47’ W. To 50° South in the Pacific: 39 Miles. Made Good: 140 Miles. Sailed by Log: 122 Miles.

The Bird flies with eased sheets, her motion all one smooth­flowing swoop. Her wake is a lacy shawl on the soft shoulders of a gentle sea. The lee rail stoops low to listen to the singing bubbles streaking by and water roars again under the forefoot.

At four the happiest crew afloat shakes out the mainsail reefs. The sail sighs its relief as the wind and stretching halyards iron out the deep, old wrinkles. We have forgotten what a huge sail it is!
Now it is 7 o’clock, the second dog watch. The ship slides on, and never for us shall the speed of plane, skis or plunging eagle compare with these seven knots!

‘All hands! Shake out foresail reef! Jump, you bullies!’ This is the joyous and awaited signal. By unspoken but tacit agreement we have known all along that the foresail reef would remain tied in so long as the Cape remained unconquered. For nearly a month we have flown it at half-mast, but now the ship is carrying a gleaming bone in her teeth as she snarls across Fifty. The tall foresail is swayed aloft, all the way, and crowned with the bulging fisherman staysail.

‘Tonight even the porpoises have to jump to keep up,’ reads the log at 11 o’clock. Between that happy hour and eight bells we race 9½ knots. ‘AIN’T THAT SOMETHIN’!!’

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