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Cape Horn: A Mariner’s Nightmare

Cape Horn: A Mariner’s Nightmare

Before the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, Cape Horn was a place that gave mariners nightmares. The waters off this rocky point, at the southern tip of Chile’s Tierra del Fuego peninsula, pose a perfect storm of hazards.

Southwest of Cape Horn, the ocean floor rises sharply from 4,020 meters (13,200 feet) to 100 meters (330 feet) within a few kilometers. This sharp difference, combined with the potent westerly winds that swirl around the Furious Fifties, pushes up massive waves with frightening regularity. Add in frigid water temperatures, rocky coastal shoals, and stray icebergs—which drift north from Antarctica across the Drake Passage—and it is easy to see why the area is known as a graveyard for ships.

On July 12, 2014, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 satellite captured this image of Cape Horn and the Wollaston and Hermite Islands.

Hundreds of ships have gone down near Cape Horn since Dutchman Willem Schouten, a navigator for the Dutch East India Company, first charted a course around the Horn in 1616. One vessel that narrowly escaped that fate was the HMS Beagle, with naturalist Charles Darwin aboard. In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin described the harrowing journey as the explorers tried to round the Horn just before Christmas 1832.

December 21st. — The Beagle got under way: and on the succeeding day, favored to an uncommon degree by a fine easterly breeze, we closed in with the Barnevelts, and running past Cape Deceit with its stony peaks, about three o'clock doubled the weather-beaten Cape Horn. The evening was calm and bright, and we enjoyed a fine view of the surrounding isles.

Cape Horn, however, demanded his tribute, and before night sent us a gale of wind directly in our teeth. We stood out to sea, and on the second day again made the land, when we saw on our weather-bow this notorious promontory in its proper form—veiled in a mist, and its dim outline surrounded by a storm of wind and water.

Great black clouds were rolling across the heavens, and squalls of rain, with hail, swept by us with such extreme violence, that the Captain determined to run into Wigwam Cove. This is a snug little harbor, not far from Cape Horn; and here, at Christmas-eve, we anchored in smooth water. The only thing which reminded us of the gale outside, was every now and then a puff from the mountains, which made the ship surge at her anchors.

NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Adam Voiland.

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