AND now, through drizzling fogs and vapours, and under damp, double-reefed top-sails, our wet-decked frigate drew nearer and nearer to the squally Cape.
Who has not heard of it? Cape Horn, Cape Horn—a horn indeed, that has tossed many a good ship. Was the descent of Orpheus, Ulysses, or Dante into Hell, one whit more hardy and sublime than the first navigator’s weathering of that terrible Cape?
Turned on her heel by a fierce West Wind, many an outward-bound ship has been driven across the Southern Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope—that way to seek a passage to the Pacific. And that stormy Cape, I doubt not, has sent many a fine craft to the bottom, and told no tales. At those ends of the earth are no chronicles. What signify the broken spars and shrouds that, day after day, are driven before the prows of more fortunate vessels? or the tall masts, imbedded in icebergs, that are found floating by? They but hint the old story—of ships that have sailed from their ports, and never more have been heard of.
Impracticable Cape! You may approach it from this direction or that—in any way you please—from the East or from the West; with the wind astern, or abeam, or on the quarter; and still Cape Horn is Cape Horn. Cape Horn it is that takes the conceit out of fresh-water sailors, and steeps in a still salter brine the saltest. Woe betide the tyro; the fool-hardy, Heaven preserve!
Your Mediterranean captain, who with a cargo of oranges has hitherto made merry runs across the Atlantic, without so much as furling a t’-gallant-sail, oftentimes, off Cape Horn, receives a lesson which he carries to the grave; though the grave—as is too often the case—follows so hard on the lesson that no benefit comes from the experience.
Other strangers who draw nigh to this Patagonia termination of our Continent, with their souls full of its shipwrecks and disasters—top-sails cautiously reefed, and everything guardedly snug—these strangers at first unexpectedly encountering a tolerably smooth sea, rashly conclude that the Cape, after all, is but a bugbear; they have been imposed upon by fables, and founderings and sinkings hereabouts are all cock-and-bull stories.
“Out reefs, my hearties; fore and aft set t’-gallant-sails! stand by to give her the fore-top-mast stun’-sail!”
But, Captain Rash, those sails of yours were much safer in the sail-maker’s loft. For now, while the heedless craft is bounding over the billows, a black cloud rises out of the sea; the sun drops down from the sky; a horrible mist far and wide spreads over the water.
“Hands by the halyards! Let go! Clew up!”
For ere the ropes’ ends can be the east off from the pins, the tornado is blowing down to the bottom of their throats. The masts are willows, the sails ribbons, the cordage wool; the whole ship is brewed into the yeast of the gale.
An now, if, when the first green sea breaks over him, Captain Rash is not swept overboard, he has his hands full be sure. In all probability his three masts have gone by the board, and, ravelled into list, his sails are floating in the air. Or, perhaps, the ship broaches to, or is brought by the lee. In either ease, Heaven help the sailors, their wives and their little ones; and heaven help the underwriters.
Familiarity with danger makes a brave man braver, but less daring. Thus with seamen: he who goes the oftenest round Cape Horn goes the most circumspectly. A veteran mariner is never deceived by the treacherous breezes which sometimes waft him pleasantly toward the latitude of the Cape. No sooner does he come within a certain distance of it—previously fixed in his own mind—than all hands are turned to setting the ship in storm-trim; and never mind how light the breeze, down come his t’-gallant-yards. He “bends” his strongest storm-sails, and lashes every-thing on deck securely. The ship is then ready for the worst; and if, in reeling round the headland, she receives a broadside, it generally goes well with her. If ill, all hands go to the bottom with quiet consciences.
Among sea-captains, there are some who seem to regard the genius of the Cape as a wilful, capricious jade, that must be courted and coaxed into complaisance. First, they come along under easy sails; do not steer boldly for the headland, but tack this way and that—sidling up to it, Now they woo the Jezebel with a t’-gallant-studding-sail; anon, they deprecate her wrath with double-reefed-topsails. When, at length, her unappeasable fury is fairly aroused, and all round the dismantled ship the storm howls and howls for days together, they still persevere in their efforts. First, they try unconditional submission; furling every rag and heaving to: laying like a log, for the tempest to toss wheresoever it pleases.
This failing, they set a spencer or try-sail, and shift on the other tack. Equally vain! The gale sings as hoarsely as before. At last, the wind comes round fair; they drop the fore-sail; square the yards, and scud before it; their implacable foe chasing them with tornadoes, as if to show her insensibility to the last.
Other ships, without encountering these terrible gales, spend week after week endeavouring to turn this boisterous world-corner against a continual head-wind. Tacking hither and thither, in the language of sailors they polish the Cape by beating about its edges so long.
Le Mair and Schouten, two Dutchmen, were the first navigators who weathered Cape Born. Previous to this, passages had been made to the Pacific by the Straits of Magellan; nor, indeed, at that period, was it known to a certainty that there was any other route, or that the land now called Terra del Fuego was an island. A few leagues southward from Terra del Fuego is a cluster of small islands, the Diegoes; between which and the former island are the Straits of Le Mair, so called in honour of their discoverer, who first sailed through them into the Pacific. Le Mair and Schouten, in their small, clumsy vessels, encountered a series of tremendous gales, the prelude to the long train of similar hardships which most of their followers have experienced. It is a significant fact, that Schouten’s vessel, the Horne, which gave its name to the Cape, was almost lost in weathering it.
The next navigator round the Cape was Sir Francis Drake, who, on Raleigh’s Expedition, beholding for the first time, from the Isthmus of Darien, the “goodlie South Sea,” like a true-born Englishman, vowed, please God, to sail an English ship thereon; which the gallant sailor did, to the sore discomfiture of the Spaniards on the coasts of Chili and Peru.
But perhaps the greatest hardships on record, in making this celebrated passage, were those experienced by Lord Anson’s squadron in 1736. Three remarkable and most interesting narratives record their disasters and sufferings. The first, jointly written by the carpenter and gunner of the Wager; the second by young Byron, a midshipman in the same ship; the third, by the chaplain of the Centurion. White-Jacket has them all; and they are fine reading of a boisterous March night, with the casement rattling in your ear, and the chimney-stacks blowing down upon the pavement, bubbling with rain-drops.
But if you want the best idea of Cape Horn, get my friend Dana’s unmatchable “Two Years Before the Mast.” But you can read, and so you must have read it. His chapters describing Cape Horn must have been written with an icicle.
At the present day the horrors of the Cape have somewhat abated. This is owing to a growing familiarity with it; but, more than all, to the improved condition of ships in all respects, and the means now generally in use of preserving the health of the crews in times of severe and prolonged exposure.