Thursday, May 2, 2013

Cape Horn and the Glaciers

The waters around Cape Horn are particularly hazardous, and we saw on YouTube photos, pictures of ships traversing these waters. Then for 10-15 minutes prior to a lecture on Cape Horn, by Professor Karl Fox on the Star Princess, he showed slides of large ships rounding Cape Horn in rough weather. It can be treacherous, to say the least.

Why are the waters around Cape Horn hazardous? There are strong winds. Winds get funneled—intensified—as they get wedged in the 400 mile area between the land masses of Antarctica and South America (Tierra del Fuego). Also, there are large waves (this is where the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet), strong currents, and icebergs. Because of these dangers, the area has become notorious as a sailor’s graveyard.

In two separate lectures, Professor Fox reassured us that we would be safe, and he gave us four reasons to reassure us. First, it is the right season. There are four months (November through February) that, in general, are safe (the summer months). No passenger ships go through the region (Cape Horn) during the winter months.

The second reason why we would be especially safe is that our ship is large. Fox said that our ship was larger than World War II aircraft carriers. Closely related to the second reason is the third: Our ship is equipped with powerful engines that can face down the wind and currents.

The fourth reason we did not need to worry had to do with the stability of our ship. Large gyroscopes maintain its stability—a system not even available on most of the early ships.

Cape Horn (Cabo de Hornos) is named after the city of Hoorn in the Netherlands and is the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile. It marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage.

The Drake Passage was a major milestone on the clipper route by which sailing ships carried trade (e.g., wool, grain, and gold) around the world. It was the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 that reduced the importance of and need for the Drake Passage.

Looking up the Drake Passage on Wikipedia, I found this interesting piece of trivia: "There is no significant land anywhere around the world at the latitudes of the Drake Passage, which is important to the unimpeded flow of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current which carries a huge volume of water (about 600 times the flow of the Amazon River) through the Passage and around Antarctica."

Cape Horn is actually a small island (Hornos Island), and it was only in 1624 that it was discovered to be an island. Despite the fact that the Drake Passage was used as a major shipping route for 200 years, Antarctica was discovered only as recently as 1820.

On the day we rounded Cape Horn (Sunday, February 26, 2012), cruising west and south from the Falkland Islands on a direct course towards the Tierra del Fuego region of Argentina, we experienced fog, rain, hail, then snow, but only a two-force wind (out of 8). To cruise around the island we first passed on the northerly side in the Atlantic Ocean, turned south along the spires of rock that reminded us of the twelve apostles in southern Australia and into the Pacific Ocean. Those spires are the most northwesterly extremity, which ends in twin peaks which resemble towers or horns. Our final turn was east along in front of the horn itself as we cruised back into the Atlantic from the Pacific. The area known as Cape Horn is a pointed, granite mountain that is bare of trees or foliage and, honestly, is more symbolic than impressive.

At Cape Horn, we were at a south latitude of 56-degrees, which is the equivalent, at a northern latitude, of being in Edinburgh, Scotland, or in Ketchican, Alaska. At Cape Horn, too, our ship had traveled 2,661 nautical miles since Rio de Janeiro.

Once clear of Cape Horn, we were to head on to Port William for Argentinean immigration clearance and then on to the next port of call, Ushuaia, but an interesting thing happened in the evening of February 26, 2012.

Normally, the captain of our ship does not broadcast his messages directly into passenger cabins; however, for this announcement, he made an exception.

The captain came on the loudspeaker and told us that a container ship was occupying our dock space in Ushuaia, and the ship’s workers were on strike. The captain said he hoped that the conflict would be resolved during the night and that the container ship will have moved from its dock position by 8:00 a.m. when we were scheduled to dock.

It was 7:30 a.m., again in our cabin, that the captain came on the loudspeaker. First, he apologized for the in-cabin intrusion. Then, he said, "Unfortunately, things have taken a turn for the worse." The captain said, "because our ship visited the Falkland Islands prior to coming to Argentina, we would not be allowed to dock, or even gain entry into Argentina." He added that the Adonia, a ship that had followed the same route as our own (coming from the Falklands), would also be denied—as if that would make us feel better!

At the time we heard this second announcement, we were unaware of the tradeoff that had
taken place (albeit a forced tradeoff). Because we would be unable to take a walk around Ushuaia and spend a full day there, leaving at dusk, we would instead cruise slowly along the Beagle Channel (named for the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his voyage of discovery in 1831-1836), during daylight hours and, thus, be able to see the five glaciers along the Channel.

Traveling directly west on the Northeast Arm of the Beagle Channel, we saw the Holanda,
Italia, Francia, Alemania, Romanche, and EspaƱa glaciers—each one distinctive and each one impressive as well.

Although the personnel (staff) on the ship had been traveling from Santiago/Valparaison to Rio de Janeiro and back for the past three or four months, none had seen the glaciers along the Beagle Channel because it was normally traversed at dusk or night and at great speed. They travel along the Channel quickly to get through as much of it as possible with some (even minimal daylight). It is narrow and unmarked.

At two of the glaciers along Beagle Channel, our 950 foot long, 118 foot wide, with a draught of 27.7 feet, and weighing 73,347 ton ship, made a 360-degree turn so both sides of the ship could have a full view. One thing the captain told us in one of his announcements was that the Channel itself is as deep as the mountains on either side (especially the eastern side) were tall.

Speaking of the glaciers we saw, as the final entry for this essay, let me quote from the "Log of the Cruise" regarding what we did on February 29, 2012, our first day "At Sea" from Punta Arenas to Valparaiso:
"At 05:20 Star Princess exited the Magellan Strait and proceeded out into the Pacific Ocean and at 06:52 altered course to the north. At 08:49 we altered course to the east heading for Nelson Channel then the Canal Garcia Dominquez and shortly after we altered our course towards Amalia Glacier. At 15:00 (3 p.m.) we were in front of the Glacier, at 15:09 we swung our bow to starboard and at 1542 the ship was leaving the glacier area. At 21:40 (9:40 p.m.—well after dark) Star Princess exited the Canal Trinidad into the Pacific Ocean. At 23:26 we altered course to the North following the coast of Chile."
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There are a large number of Cape Horn images at:


Wikipedia has an excellent article on Cape Horn ( ), and the section I found most interesting is that on "Shipping Hazards." Once you read it you will know why passenger ships do not round the Horn during all seasons. Our ship was the last to go around for the season (late February—remember that seasons are reversed in South America).

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Copyright May, 2013, by And Then Some Publishing LLC


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