Cape Horn, located at 56 degrees South latitude, brings to mind visions of wind-whipped water, plunging seas, desperate mariners hanging aloft in frozen rigging, braving howling winds trying to secure flapping sails. It marks where Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet in one writhing mass. The Horn, or “Cape Stiff,” has earned a prominent place in art, music, literature and Maine maritime history. Rounding Cabo de Hornos signified the true test of a mariner, a badge of honor and a most-prized singular achievement.

From my research for “Whaling in Maine,” I kept encountering Maine vessels and crews who battled their way around Cape Horn. The more I looked, the more I found how Cape Horn and maritime Maine are linked in many ways, fused together by wooden ships, seasoned sea captains, intrepid mariners and hardy sailors of the Pine Tree state.

My own visits to Cape Horn have so far been mercifully brief, with decent weather. Still, looking out over those gray seas, you can just feel the presence of countless prior vessels and mariners who sailed those waters in far more challenging conditions. Visitors suggest it is the light or wind or weird landscape which affects them. There definitely is a poignancy to the place: that loneliness hangs heavy as the weather, melancholy with its remoteness, churning waters, cry of sea birds, and constant wind. It truly is the end of the world, “fin del mundo,” that faraway place geographically and emotionally, ready to test one’s mettle and sear one’s soul. I stand in awe and amazement at those mariners who did it the old-fashioned way, the hard way.

In the 1840s, a Cape Horn veteran from Maine could be recognized by his gold earring in his left ear. Having rounded the Horn, he was allowed to put a foot upon the table while dining, both feet if he had also rounded Cape of Good Hope! The earring testified to his success at surviving one of the most difficult stretches of water on the planet. Capt. Harvey Mills of St. George, sports such an earring in an 1847 oil painting. Many fellow Mainers were not as successful, many did not return from such troubled waters. Which is why the earring was gold, it would cover the cost of his funeral, should the mariner’s body ever be recovered.

Sailing directions for Cape Horn were pretty simple: Make westing…Whatever you do, make westing! Not as easy as it sounds, with prevailing winds shrieking out of the west right into your teeth.

In 1578, when Francis Drake took 18 days to struggle his way through the Straits of Magellan, he was not prepared for the storms he encountered upon leaving the relative safety of the inland passage. Fierce weather drove him far to the south, consequently enshrining his name onto this turbulent patch of water separating South America from the Antarctic Peninsula, the infamous Drake Passage.

It was up to Dutch explorer Willem Schouten, who bypassed the Straits of Magellan, to work his way through the newly discovered LeMaire Strait and be one of the first Europeans to see and round Cape Horn. He named the wind-swept prominent rock Cape Hoorn, after his hometown and one of his expedition ships. Schouten had to madly tack back and forth in front of the cape amidst cold weather, variable winds, huge waves, hail and rain. They were finally able to round it Jan. 31, 1616. His chart, due to the lousy weather, showed an incomplete chunk of land — not sure if it was an island or connected to something larger. But he had established that a ship working its way westward could battle and succeed in rounding this extreme southern point.

While Capt. James Cook later successfully followed in Schouten’s tracks, the Horn defied Capt. William Bligh of HMS Bounty in 1787, forcing him back into the Atlantic. Why is the passage so difficult, so stormy and incessantly wind-tossed? Drake Passage stretches from 60 degrees South to 70 degrees South Latitude. This stretch of water continues completely free of land around the entire planet, encircling Antarctica to the south. This open passage allows a true maritime highway, free for wind and waves and storms, constantly in motion and constantly active.

But the narrower Drake Passage acts as a funnel for these winds, waves and water. The meeting of Pacific and Atlantic waters off Cape Horn also produces an extreme low-pressure weather system, a hallmark of treacherous seas. Storms are called “Graybeards” or “Cape Horn Snorters,” winds are known as “Williwaws” or “Woollies,” and there are lots of both. Welcome to the “Furious Fifties” and “Screaming Sixties” latitudes. Prevailing winds howl out of the west, constantly pushing vessels back eastwards, hence the obsession to make westing!

The area receives precipitation for 278 days a year, which produces an annual rainfall of nearly 80 inches or almost seven feet of water! Annual average temperature hovers around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the sailing-ship era, “doubling the horn” was the process of sailing from 50 degrees South Latitude westward around the Horn, then back up to 50 degrees South Latitude on the other side of South America. At a distance of 930 miles, success was measured by how many days it took you to cross those lines. Quick passages were noted for their rarity, seamanship or luck. Longer passages were due to many factors, such as shipping heavy seas over the side of your vessel. Rogue waves off Cape Horn have measured 98 feet high. If the entire port or starboard side of your ship submerged, the sea could literally drag the vessel over and under.

Shipping such waves made footing or moving along deck extremely dangerous. Often, lines were affixed to haul yourself along, and safety netting established along the bulwarks. Stewards had to use these lines to deliver meals to captain and crew, still many meals (and sailors too) were washed overboard or lost into the water after falling from the frozen rigging. More later about such a tragedy on the Belfast-built Suliote!

The helmsman often required another set of hands to help him steer the ship. The huge ship’s wheel could spin uncontrollably, the handles or grips could easily snap an arm or wrist-bone. Poor visibility and turbulent conditions also made taking navigation sights extremely difficult. Glimpses of sun, the horizon or stars were necessary to maintain one’s position and chart one’s passage. Ship routes were often remeasured and more accurately charted long after their time in Cape Horn waters.

The 1914 route of Maine-built downeaster Edward Sewall, under Capt. Richard Quick, showed constant back and forth progress, as the crew endlessly tacked trying to gain westward advantage. They were eventually successful, but it ended up taking them 67 days to double the Horn after logging 5,000 miles, or over three times the normal distance.

More dangers included the possibility of cargo breaking loose and shifting in the hold, which could easily capsize a vessel. Or your cargo might catch afire, as coal shipments occasionally did. The presence of ice also threatened vessels; there is a great illustration of Rockland’s clipper ship Red Jacket poking among ice floes off Cape Horn. Losing your rigging or most of your sails or having to jury-rig a rudder under extreme conditions were other tests for a Cape Horn crew. So was being dismasted, which effectively removed your steering capabilities. As a last resort, crews took to lifeboats, never easy to launch in a rough sea, and certainly not much of a match for the wild waters.

The idea of the Horn and rounding it have assumed iconic status, at least in an art or literary sense. Paintings, songs, poems, photographs and sketches abound about Cape Horn, including Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ghosts of Cape Horn.” Richard Henry Dana Jr. provided an account of the Horn in his maritime epic “Two Years Before the Mast.” Jack London even wrote a short story entitled “Make Westing” based on his experience sailing from New York to San Francisco aboard the Maine-built downeaster Dirigo. The gripping tale is filled with the obsession of battling one’s way westward around the Horn.

Cape Horn has long been recognized as a maritime touchstone for sailors. On the actual piece of land itself, Hoorn Island, the Chilean government has built a small station, mostly for tourism. Today, it is worn and weather-beaten, although a chapel and small post office there will provide an official Cape Horn stamp on a document. There are a few postcards to buy, get postmarked and perhaps send from Cabo de Hornos. In 1992, the station added a large memorial, a seven-meter high sculpture by Chilean artist José Balcells, made of 10 steel plates, each 6 millimeters thick, showing an albatross in flight. On it is a dedication to “…the memory of the men of the sea from every nation that lost their lives fighting against the merciless forces of nature of the Southern Ocean that prevail in the vicinity of the legendary Cape Horn.” In 2014, terrific winds, which constantly batter the place, knocked over the sculpture.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at He is author of "Whaling in Maine" available through