Rounding the Horn

We were in Chilean waters three days out of Ushuaia and on course for Cape Horn when, as Richard Henry Dana put it in “Two Years Before the Mast,” the Horn came out to meet us.

Our sleek 60-foot, steel-hulled sloop, the Sauvage, with her crew of four, this Montecito transient and two other paying passengers had been moving along nicely, headed southwest, when the infamous williwaw wind came up and over the mountains to the north and hit us like a hammer. In moments, from lazing along in easy, calm sailing, the wind had gone to 40 knots, gusting to 50, and we were creaming along through the sea. The ocean had turned white with foam and the gale was on us.

This, I said to myself, is what I came for.

With the wind on our beam, it made for fabulous sailing in the cold off the tip of South America, the snow-covered mountains of Patagonia in the distance. Fourteen-year-old Nino had jumped forward to take in sail, and down below his mother, Sophie – who’s just as good on deck as she is in the galley – was used to the drama of it all and didn’t even slow down in what she’d been doing, baking chocolate chip cookies.

Me, I was aboard because all my reading life, from the time I was perhaps eight, I’d been fascinated by sea voyages, and especially by the stories of the harsh, icy passage around the Horn, the routes of Drake, Cook, Dana and all the others, of going west, of “rounding the Horn.”

Today, rounding the Horn doesn’t have to be all that hard. You can enjoy the comfort of a 2,000-passenger cruise ship with a schedule to keep and hope the visibility is good enough to actually see the Horn when you get there, protected by the ship’s size and by stabilizers and thick glass windows from waves that can get well over 50 feet and winds over 100 knots. Or, you can sail your own small sailboat, as some have, and know you’ve done it yourself. Me, I choose a middle path, with Sauvage.

The yacht is owned and crewed by a French family, Didier Wattrelot and Sophie, plus 17-year-old Cloe and Nino. The kids have lived aboard all their lives, and in handling the boat, they’re right up there with their parents. These are the sort of sailors with whom you’d go anyplace, the boat’s route taking them from northern Alaska to the Antarctic, from the coast of Chile to the Marquesas Islands, from Mexico to Hawaii.

This is sailing that’s governed by weather.

In the South American autumn we’d hole up in a sheltered cove, lying quietly and waiting for a “window.” The weather gods smiled on us, and the day after the williwaw, when the weather report told us it looked like a brief break between storm fronts, we pulled up anchor at Isla Hershel and headed out, coming on the Horn itself in amazingly benevolent conditions, calm enough that, after moving in close to the promontory itself, we went on to stop in the lee and go ashore. I think I’m the only guy I know who actually has a Cape Horn stamp in his passport.

No huge waves or hurricane winds for us. For us, fabled Cape Horn was a pussycat. And so we headed up the Beagle Channel to the glaciers, the wind in the channel strong and churning, giving us wonderful sailing nearly every day before we’d slide up into a fjord to anchor at night, Cloe and Nino getting into the dingy to haul heavy lines ashore and tie them to trees to secure us against another williwaw. In the Channel we’d seen penguins and fur seals, dolphins and orcas, and an albatross had circled our mast.

Sometimes, when we were underway in the late afternoon, I’d make myself snug in my cabin up in the bow, reading or napping, getting up before dinner to put on foul weather gear and go on deck, joining Didier at the wheel, me holding on with one hand, a glass of wine in the other, loving the wind and the water hitting us as it came off the bow, before going below to eat with the others, stuffing ourselves with the fresh king crab we’d taken out of the crab pot from our anchorage that morning.

Late in the voyage, we found ourselves at anchor one noontime, surrounded by floating ice in Fjord Pia just off the glacier. The sun was warm enough so that, for the first time, we were able to eat on deck in the cockpit, celebrating with crab and a bottle of Argentine champagne, celebrating the magnificence of it all, celebrating Cape Horn.

Doing it: www.sauvageocean.com, www.oceanvoyages.com.