Trip Reports » Sailing to Cape Horn

Sailing to Cape Horn

Sailing to Cape Horn

After sailing to Antarctica two years ago I had thought that a yacht delivery from Buenos Aires, to Tierra del Fuego would be straight forward. In the event it proved one of the hardest adventures I've had. At one point we were gripped in a 5 knot current and battling 35 knot headwinds when the Genoa tangled in the forestays and the engine failed. With a lee shore hidden in the squalls, we were concerned enough to put the coast guard on standby. But I don't think those were the toughest moments of the trip.

Spirit of Sydney

Spirit of Sydney is a 60ft aluminium yacht that has well modified for regular Antarctic use. She was being relocated back to Ushuaia following a winter refit in Buenos Aires. I had managed to wangle a place aboard and was looking forward to the chance to improve my sailing skills, which I thought were marginal for a place on this trip. 

Stepping aboard Spirit in the marina at San Fernando brought back great memories of our trip to Antarctica. Darrel, the skipper proudly showed me the extra plating on the bow, new bow sprit, cockpit and galley changes. But it was immediately apparent that there was a lot to do before we could sail and the two day deadline looked a tough call. There was gear and half finished jobs everywhere.

Broken Bodies

Prior to arriving at Sprit I'd decided that I probably wouldn't continue with the trip. I'd injured my right arm in a skiing accident in Patagonia a couple of weeks before and it was proving pretty useless (I discovered after the trip that I had fractured the humerus). But more worrying, my Mum had been taken to hospital with lung infection and was clearly in a pretty serious state. I discussed the situation with Darrel, who was still thought I would be useful and with my wife, Frances. She urged me not to return because of family "your Mum won't forgive you if you come home because of her - everything is under control here and you have wanted to do this for a long time". I played down the arm to her. In the end the decision was made easier when Aerolineas Argentina demanded $3,000 to change the flight.


For the next 3 days we worked incredibly long hours to get ready. It wasn't just that there was a lot to do, but the skipper was needed for nearly all of it. He knew where everything was, how it worked and what standard was needed, so there were few jobs that could be done without some involvement from him. There were up to six of us working on the boat, which also added to the confusion.

Allan was a fly fishing guide from Baraloche and an excellent handy-man. He had been working on the boat long enough to know where everything was and what standard of work was expected. Like all the Argentines aboard, his English was excellent and it was fun working with him. Unfortunately Allan couldn't spare the time to sail with us as I'm sure he would have been a great asset.

Ian spent much of the time in a bosons' chair painting the mast and enjoying the views of the very scantily clad young women in the surrounding boats. Ian was a Scottish backpacker who had arrived with a very small backpack that contained all his travelling possessions and was hoping his work would earn him a cheap trip to Antarctica. With an IT and army background he could turn his hand to almost anything. He also proved completely inured to sea sickness.

Juan was a family friend of the skipper and trainee chef. Hard working ashore, he had never sailed before and suffered badly on the voyage from sea sickness.

Martin was an international citizen, with several passports and many languages. Currently living in Auckland, he was also the second most experienced sailor aboard. But he had arrived only the day before me and was struggling with where to find gear etc.

I had arrived intending to spend only the afternoon at the yacht, but quickly became immersed in preparation. It was soon too late to return to my hotel and so I stayed the night and somehow never found time to leave. My spare clothes were all back in a hotel in downtown BA and the days were very hot. Originally we had been intending to leave San Fernando for a berth in down town Buenos Aires after two days, so at the end of the third day I bought a clean shirt in the local village and boarded the train to collect my gear.

We did manage to leave the next day, but only after a long protracted run-around from Customs and the Navy Prefectura. So our planned mid-morning departure became late afternoon. Motoring down the canals and river to Buenos Aires we all took time out from last minute preparations to enjoy the views. Our exit papers were still not in order so we had another frustrating morning the next day trekking around the customs offices. At one point a very smug customs officer told us that while he was very sorry, we needed to return to San Fernando and begin the exit process all over again; a process that would have taken a whole day. At this point one of the crew called in a political favour and the customs officer received a phone call and bollicking which quickly changed his tune. Our papers were processed in 5 minutes by a now very unhappy customs officer.

Being cleared to leave wasn't quite the same as being ready to leave, so back at Spirit the preparations continued. Iain and I replaced the cable from the satellite aerial, the main sheets were installed, the anchor chain sealed where it entered the deck, various pulleys replaced, kayaks were lashed to the foredeck, gear stowed and a myriad of other tasks undertaken. To exit the dock required a road bridge to be swung open and as this disrupted a lot of traffic its opening had to be booked well in advance and the passage through the canal executed briskly and exactly on time. We made our designated opening time, but were far from ready to raise the sails and so for two hours we motored around in tight circles while we finished what we hoped were the most urgent jobs. We were to discover that some of our priorities were possibly not the best of choices.

Rio Plato

The Rio Plato, or River Plate may be well known for its famous WW2 battle and the scuttling of the Graf Spey, but it is better known to yachties as a big shallow basin full of wrecks, sandbars and potentially nasty winds. We motored in choppy waters and unfavourable winds for almost 48 hours before the water turned from brown to green and the wind backed enough to sail. A following wind brought a lovely spell of sailing and life aboard was immediately better with the motor turned off.

Allan had left the boat in downtown Buenos Aires and his place had been taken by Juan's dad, Javier. Like Juan, Javier had never sailed before, but his connections and multi-lingual skills had already proved there worth. Our crew of six now comprised an experienced skipper (Darrel), an experienced offshore racing crew member (Martin), myself with limited sailing experience and a useless arm and three complete novice sailors. Darrel decided that we would split the crew into two watches of three and that we would work three hours on three off. It was a bit of overkill as we were sailing on autohelm and after a couple of days we convinced Darrel that three watches of two crew was a better arrangement.

Storms and more storms

The wind continued to back and strengthen and we were soon running goosewinged with the genoa on the end of the spinnaker pole. It was fast and exciting, but the autohelm could not cope in the steep, confused sea and we had to steer by hand. During daylight this was exhilarating. At night, as the sole helmsman on watch in 35-40 knots it was exhausting. My hardest watch was from midnight on a moonless, overcast night. It was completely dark and with nothing to focus on but the instruments. My eyes would struggle to focus on the wind instrument while Darrel's warnings about the risks of jibbing and smashing the spinnaker/ripping the Genoa resonated in my head. With more experience I could have sailed more on the feel of yacht and the wind on my back - maybe next time. Adding to the challenge was a helm that was quite heavy from the attached, but not working autohelm.

Sleep came easily after these watches. As the trip progressed and conditions got tougher, I would simply peel off my waterproof layer and crawl under my sleeping bag. Despite my bunk being forward of the mast, it was at least on the lee side for most of the voyage and I would generally be asleep in 5 minutes. While Ian and Martin also seemed to sleep well, Juan and Javier struggled with seasickness.

Darrel had the worst problems with sleep. He was finding it very difficult to relax and was getting more and more exhausted. He was still the only person who knew the yacht thoroughly and while we all tried to minimise questions, there were a lot of sentences that began "Darrel, how do...". It didn't help that he was trying to quit smoking and was drinking huge quantities of coffee. I'm normally also a very heavy coffee drinker, but I don't like instant coffee and much of the time it was too rough to make a pot, so I went without - and felt much better for it. However, I am writing this with the aid of numerous fresh coffees.

Darrel had been watching the weather maps with growing concern as a southerly gale was predicted and he thought we might need to hove to. He was also conscious that we had left a couple of days late and that more delays would begin to impact our flights home. The southerlies arrived with more westerly than predicted, which allowed us to mostly keep sailing, but they also came with some nasty squalls. One minute we would be close hauled in 30-35 knots and the next we would be in a squall with 50 knots, hail and a 40 degree wind shift. My first experience of these was a backing squall that heeled Spirit and sent loose items flying inside the cabin. We were sailing on autohelm and had been contemplating reefing further, so it was fairly easy to grab the helm from the autopilot and yell for more reef on the Genoa. Nether the less it was a huge spike of adrenalin and a few tense moments as I still felt like a novice aboard.

If there was a moon or at least some star light it was possible to see these little storm cells approaching. They would also normally show on the radar, but because we had a faulty battery in the bank that ran the radar, we were using this only intermittently. Also for the first half of the trip I was still learning how to use the electronic systems and so my competence and confidence with the radar was limited. 

My worst moment of the trip (although no one else's worst moment) came when one of these squalls came as a header during a particularly dark night. I grabbed the helm and turned the wrong way, a really basic error that lead to an accidental tack with a backed Genoa in 50 knots. Fortunately we were carrying sail for the squalls and not the average winds. An urgent and somewhat stressed call to Darrel who was resting in his bunk, got a fairly laid back instruction to the effect of just gybe around. Most of my sailing had been in hobie cats and gybing in these conditions would have been a disaster, but aboard Spirit, with the boom already sheeted in and only a small head sail it was a smooth and easy action. Coming off watch I was really annoyed with myself for both the original mistake and not knowing to gybe out of the situation. I lay awake in my bunk for some time in a state of considerable angst. Later in the trip I saw Martin make the same mistake and I also realised that other accidental tacks had been made with the engine running, when the technique of just tacking back will work just fine.

The wind changed again to due south and we were unable to make effective progress under sail so we started to motor again. But the motor was becoming unreliable. The first time it cut out we assumed it had simply run the port tank empty through being used harder than normal. But when it happened again the fault was chased to clogged fuel filters. We had taken aboard a load of very dirty fuel and it was clogging all the filters very quickly and destroying the fuel pumps. There were spare filters and fuel pumps aboard, but every time the engine ran dry of fuel the lines would airlock. To start it required a spray of ether or CRC into the air intake and we quickly ran out of ether. At one stage we used paint thinners, sprayed from a bottle that had once held toilet cleaners and we spent a lot of time scouring the boat for suitable starter liquids.

The lack of sleep, the strain of constant storm conditions and being the man required to do all repairs was taking its toll on Darrel and he was beginning to snap at most of us. He ordered a big cleanup of the boat while I got to and made pancakes for everyone. A sense of calm gradually returned as the huge stack of pancakes was steadily demolished. I've been as exhausted and stressed as Darrel on a few occasions and understood where he was at. He later said that he really missed not having a equal on board to whom he could totally hand over to when he went off watch. It was also a bad time to have run out of cigarettes.

With the motor running, we took the opportunity for a shower and freshen up. It was also a chance to change clothes for the first time in three days.

Our route had taken us 300kms off-shore and we had a couple of nights where the waves were lit up with phosphorescent plankton. During the day we were often surrounded by albatross and petrels and spent a lot of time watching them swoop within inches of the wave tops. They continued flying when the wind was over 50 knots and we only saw them land on the water when food scraps were thrown overboard. The moon rises and sunsets were often spectacular, but I have to say there are easier ways to see all of these things.

Over the next few days we battled on southwards in near gale and gale conditions. It was too difficult to sail at a racing pitch as we needed to set the sails for the squalls and gusts and the seas were often brutally confusing. With at least two different swell patterns we would find ourselves in short patterns when the waves were about 5 metres high (I stood on the highest point I could on the boat and noted how often I could see beyond the current trough). Periodically Spirit would fall off the top of these waves with a huge crash. Lying in the forward bunks it felt like the boat was being hit with a giant sledge hammer. Darrel didn't particularly like the stress this created on the rigging, but we were beginning to appreciate just how strongly built she was. The four forestays and running backstays made tacking a slow job, but were a considerable comfort.

The heat of Buenos Aires was a distant memory as the squalls bought snow and hail. The cockpit was well protected by a large plexiglass dodger which sheltered us from the occasional wave that broke right over top. Keeping a lookout meant poking your head above the dodger and staring into the wind. An unpleasant task that was almost impossible without glasses.

Cape Horn Storms

The Straits of Le Maire marked the end of our run south as we turned west and headed towards Cape Horn. The straits have a bit of a nasty reputation and the charts are littered with wreck sites, so I had been a little trepidatious about this part of the trip. The original plan had been to anchor in the shelter of Staten Island, hopefully with time to explore the island, while we waited for an ideal tide and weather window. However Darrel was concerned that we were running several days late and decided to press on.

At the entrance to the strait we could see both the headlands of Isla Grande (Tierra Del Fuego) and much of Staten Island. Both were snow covered almost to sea level and had steep cliffs and rocky shores. Darrel pointed out anchorages in sheltered bays but we kept going until the tide reached its peak of almost 5 knots against us. The wind was also being squeezed through the channel and was 35 knots almost bang on the nose. It became impossible to make forward progress and with the engine at cruising revolutions and safely reefed sails we were going backwards at about 1 knot.

Tension increased considerably when the genoa appeared to tangle on an attempted tack and the engine water pump decided to give up the ghost at the same time. The coastline was hidden by passing 45 knot squalls and we knew that Staten Island was directly down wind and no place to be. A call was made to the Coast guard, asking them to standby. Darrel grabbed the new pump (which had been on the to-do list to replace before we left) and climbed into the bowels of the engine compartment, while Martin and I were left to sail. Gybing the boat cleared the genoa and we were able to set up on a safe tack out towards the Drake Passage proper. It meant heading towards bigger seas, but it was a least clear of lee shores. Darrel managed to replace the pump in a record 10 minutes and the immediate crisis was over.

Making forward progress or a safe harbour was still a problem, but in the end Darrel elected to run the engine hard while sailing as close to the wind as we could. For 8 hours we stayed still, just holding our own against the wind and tide.

I came off watch and fell asleep almost immediately, despite the severe crashing as the hull dropped off waves every minute or so. Martin woke me three hours later and said that he had convinced Darrel to sleep and that he and I were now on alternate 3 hour watches. It was what Darrel desperately needed and I was pleased to see that he was indeed asleep. But the next few hours still dealt a few challenges that I would have preferred to contact the skipper about.

Overflowing bilges were the first worry. Going below to check the radar I noticed water slopping over the galley floor. The electric bilge pumps either weren't working or weren't keeping up as the water was continuing to rise. We took turns periodically manning a manual bilge pump, which pumped an impressive volume of water, but I was pretty concerned about the possible cause. Much later we found the cause was only a split exhaust cooling hose. A new high volume macerating pump had been purchased to supplement the standard bilge pumps which are notorious for being easily blocked. Likewise new cable jointers had been purchased to make the bilge pumps more reliable. Both jobs were on the not quite completed list.

The engine was another concern. Fuel filter blockages were normally signalled by the engine hunting, its speed and tone would fluctuate and then if an alternative tank wasn't connected it would stall and require priming with the ether that we didn't have. So we were very keen to avoid a fuel blockage. However the steep seas were causing the engine note to change hugely as we attempted to climb up waves then slide down the other side. The engine was also belching large quantities of soot into our wake as it was pushed too hard.

Being in a shipping lane and with very limited visibility was another source of anxiety. On my watches the ships we saw also saw us in good time, but Martin had to attend to a ship that did not see us until called with increasing urgency over the VHF.

The tide eventually released us and we were able to slowly make our way into the sheltered waters of Beagle Channel and motor sail to Puerto Williams on Chilean Isla Naverino. Once ashore we had trouble standing and found ourselves literally staggering up the hill to the Port Captains office. Once inside we could not stand without holding onto a wall or counter as the room appeared to rock and sway. We then passed a very pleasant afternoon in a wonderful local café. It was great to relax and over coffee, a meal and finally a few pisco sours (a Chilean specialty of local brandy and limes) we had time to appreciate the voyage and each others company.

The next morning we continued up the Beagle channel to Ushuaia. A recent snow storm had dumped snow almost down to sea level and in the early morning calm, the place was stunning. However our own calm relaxed state was spoilt when the engine again failed just as we were approaching Ushuaia Bay. The filters were completely blocked and so we eventually made the dock by running the engine directly from a jerry can of diesel. The fuel line only extended a few centimetres into the can, which was located in the head. So Iain was forced to sit on the loo, constantly topping up the fuel can for the finish of the trip.

Since the voyage I've read Adlard Coles' "Heavy Weather Sailing" and "Rescue in the Pacific" on the 1994 Pacific storm that claimed many yachts. The conditions we experienced were by no means extreme and we were in an exceptionally strong boat. It would have been good to have understood Adlard before the trip, for while the school of hard knocks provides excellent lessons, the fees are sometimes too high. Once my broken arm has knitted I might enrol for a cruising skippers course at RPNYC.