© 2004-2016

Patagonia Bookshelf



(By J. G. Eastwood, Babinda.)

"Boys, we've got to ninety west, round the Horn at last,
Steering course by compass now, wearing ship's all past.
Turn out sons, its seven bells, wind is good and strong;
All top-gallant sails are set, a skipper's cracking on.
Better get your oilskins on, still a nasty sea
Breaking o'er the weather rail; one just smothered me.
Hear it squelching in my boots, got my coat all torn;
What the devil do I care, now we're round the Horn."  
—Old Sailor's Song.

Of all the stormy and tempestuous regions upon the globe of ours, the seas that beat around that projecting southern point of the American continent, known as Cape Horn, certainly bear the palm.

In the great sailing-ship days of the eighties and nineties of last century many an officer and man had rounded Cape Horn 10, 20 and even 39 or more times; yet even the most hard-bitten veteran confessed to a nervous thrill whenever he crossed 50 degrees south. Few ships escaped the battle without some scars to show, and every shell-back recognised the Horn as the fiercest enemy of mankind.

The first navigators to sail around to the southward of Cape Horn were the Dutchmen under the command of Schouten and LeMaire in the year 1616, but long before that ships had passed from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific by cautiously making their way through the narrow intricate Straits of Magellan, so named after the Spanish captain who first passed through. For many years after, this was the only route followed by ships sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or vice versa.

Schouten and Le Maire were the first to discover that the American continent was separated from the Antarctic ice-cap by the broad sweep of the southern ocean, and they steered boldly through the straits, to which they gave LeMaire's name, and heading south passed the utmost point of land which they named after their home town Hoorn in Holland, and which time has gradually shortened down to the present day name, Cape Horn. The island of Tierra del Fuego was named by the Spaniards from the numerous fires lighted by the natives, who are of a very primitive and savage type. The Diego Ramirez rocks to the west of Cape Horn take their name from the head pilot of the Spanish expedition under Admiral Nodales. The locality was well known to the old-time English navigators of the buccaneering and privateering days. Two English ships, the Duke and Duchess, sailed around under Captain Woodes-Rogers in 1709 on their way into the Pacific, having on board the Duke the well-known William Dampier as pilot, and it was on this trip that they rescued from the island of Juan Fernandez the marooned Alexander Selkirk, whose story prompted Daniel Defoe to write the famous novel of "Robinson Crusoe," that famous delight of all school boys.


The next English expedition that rounded the Horn under the command of Captain George Shelvocke had a very rough time, being two months sailing from 50 degrees in the Atlantic to 50 degrees in the Pacific. This was in the year 1719, and 22 years later the next English expedition under Commodore Anson on his celebrated voyage round the world in H.M.S. Centurion had a much rougher time in getting around the stormy cape. He was over three months beating round. One ship of his squadron, H.M.S. Wager, went to pieces on the rock-bound Patagonian Pacific coast, whilst two other vessels of the fleet were so badly disabled by the everlasting stormy weather, that they turned tail and sailed away back to England. Captain Cook rounded the Horn on two occasions. The first in January, 1769, on his way out from England to observe the transit of Venus at Otageite in the Endeavour, and again in December, 1774, in the Resolution, coming from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and on both occasions he passed around fairly easy. Of course, both passages were made in the summer season, and, besides, Cook was an old and experienced navigator. The American writer Dana, in his widely-read book, "Two Years Before the Mast" tells of the rough time that they had in his vessel, the brig Pilgrim, getting around Cape Horn in 1831, whilst on the voyage from Boston, U.S., to the coast of California, at that time belonging to Mexico, before it was annexed to the United States. They were six weeks in sailing around from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and on Dana's return voyage back they took nearly four weeks for the easier voyage from the Pacific. On the first voyage round they lost one of their seamen, who fell overboard from aloft, and was never seen again. It was a common occurrence for a sailing ship to lose one or two hands in rounding Cape Horn, so that "the toll of the Horn" was dreaded by all, and often the toll included the ship itself and every soul aboard of her. No ship ever approached the attitude of the Horn without carefully preparing for the extreme limit to which bad weather could go. The stoutest canvas was bent, all standing and running rigging was overhauled and replaced with new rope or wire, wherever it was at all worn, and boats were double lashed, hatches rebattened down, skylights weather boarded, new purchases re-rove for rudder tackles, life-lines stretched along the main deck in preparation for the time when the main deck would be most of its time full of the mighty seas, sweeping over the sides, and carrying everything loose away down into the ship's scuppers, or perhaps overboard, and maybe gone for ever.


Many captains prepared oil-bags and filled them with heavy non-freezing oil to calm down the heavy seas breaking abroad the ship, whilst others used to pay out coir hawsers on each quarter of the ship, and so break the force of the waves overtaking the ship, and breaking on board, and breaking on board, smashing the wheel,sweeping the helmsman overboard, and by causing the vessel to broach to, maybe turning her over and sending her to the bottom with everyone on board. No doubt this is what happened to many of the ships that were later on posted up at Lloyd's in London as "missing." It is impossible for anyone who has not experienced them to realise the fury of the sudden squalls in what used to be termed "a Cape Horn snorter." One captain put down in his log book: "The force of the wind was so great that the ocean smoked, and one could not see the jib-boom for spume, which flew through the air like skum, whilst the squalls were thick with snow and sleet, and they appeared to be charged and saturated with electricity. On the other hand, sometimes a ship found herself caught near the rocky coast in the midst of a "dead calm" and drifted on to the heavy surf and the rocks which soon tore the bottom out of her. The celebrated" American trans-Atlantic packet-ship, the subject of a well-known sailors shanty, 'Tis a great clipper, a clipper of fame', The Dreadnought came to her end in a Cape Horn calm. She drifted ashore in the Straits of Le Maire. Her crew, at the last, made a desperate effort to tow her clear of the rocky Tierra del Fuego coast, but the boats were quite helpless in the strong current, and the "wild boat of the Atlantic" was soon bumping in the surf and going to pieces, which her crew had a long struggle before they were picked up by another ship. Then a more recent case was that of the steel built ship Deccan of 1985 tons register. On December 6, 1908, after a hard struggle with the stormy weather, this fine full rigger succeeded in weathering Cape Stiff (Cape Horn), but her crew were not out of danger, for the ship was close inshore under Cape Santa Inez, the western shore of which has been truly named by sailors as "Breaker Coast," for here the surf spouts amongst hundreds of outlying rocks. Then the wind died out altogether, and the Deccan lost steerage way in the heavy cross sea that was running.

In a very few minutes it was plain that, unless the wind came again, the ship would be carried on to a reef called the College Rocks, lying about four miles west of Cape Tate. But the calm kept on, so that at the last moments there was a rush by the sailors to clear away the boats, which were floated clear just before the vessel struck the rocks. At the first shock the big ship's masts went by the board, and her decks were swept bare.

Twenty minutes later there was nothing to be seen of the ship. She had been torn to pieces by the heavy surf when it roared over the rocks.


The ship's company, under Captain Rowlands, after some desperate pulling, managed to make a safe landing on a small sandy beach on the southern shore of Desolation Island, which lay to the northward of the wreck. They had safely got landed just when the fatal calm was over and it came on to blow as hard as before and lasted for another 10 days, and it was with great difficulty that a fire could be made and kept going. The boats had been hurriedly provisioned with 60 lbs of bully-beef and 20 lbs. of biscuit, and these the captain wisely reserved for emergency, the sailors in the mean-time subsisting on a diet of mussels, limpits and red berries, these last being something similar to the English red currants. Owing to the incessant rain no one was ever dry, and four of the crew became so stiffened with rheumatism that they could hardly move. After four separate attempts to get away, on the fourth Captain Rowlands and a few of the strongest and toughest of his crew managed to find their way to a bay on the north shore where a Chilian sealing cutter was lying at anchor. Her crew, after feeding the famished wanderers, hoisted up their anchor, and sailed round and picked up the rest of the shipwrecked crew and took them on to Punta Arenas, the Chilian town established in the Magellan Straits. At this place all sorts of rumours were going about of skeletons of ship-wrecked sailors lying alongside heaps of mussel shells, or lying about the rocks, but Captain Rowlands and his men declared that in all their wanderings on Desolation Island they found no signs of shipwrecked survivors, either alive or dead, though there was plenty of spars, masts, cordage and other wreckage. In June, 1908, the British steamer Devon reported that whilst rounding the Horn she sighted large fires burning ashore that appeared to have been lighted by ship-wrecked mariners, but when a Chilian steamer was sent in search she found no one dead or alive. The waters in this locality are credited by old-time sailors with the disappearance of many ships that went missing at various times. Thus, in 1906 the following ships went missing somewhere about the locality of Cape Horn: The Glasgow ship Glenburn on the passage San Francisco to the Channel; the London ship Alcinous, Lobos d'Afuera, bound for Antwerp; the Cardiff ship Bay of Bengal from Cardiff to Tal Tal; and the Liverpool ship (four-masted barque) Principality bound from Junin to Rotterdam. Then in 1908 the following vessels missing were put down to the debit of the stormy Cape: The Glasgow ship Falklandbank, the Liverpool ship Carned Llewellyn and Toxteth, the American ship Arthur Sewall, the German ship Adolph Obrig, and the big London ship Bangalore. A relative of the writer perished whilst an officer on the Toxteth.


Two of the best known New Zealand clipper ships, the Marlborough and the Dunedin, both laden with frozen mutton and bales of wool, disappeared whilst on the voyage to London from New Zealand, and both are supposed by old-time sailors to have fallen victims to the Cape Horn weather within a few months of each other in 1890. From time to time rumours have circulated in seafaring circles that the Marlborough had been found ashore in a lonely secluded inlet in the vicinity of the Horn, having on her rotten decks the grisly skeletons of most of her missing crew, but this story is discounted by most of the seafaring community.

However, the following story, related by the late Captain T. S. Burley, of Seattle, U.S.A., seems to throw some light upon the disappearance of the Marlborough, and I will give it in the captain's own words: "On July 23, 1890, I was wrecked on Tierra del Fuego in the iron barque Cordova, 521 tons register, belonging to Messrs. Parry, Jones and Company, of Liverpool. (A vessel known to the writer.) The whole crew succeeded in reaching the shore, landing in a bay named Thetis Bay. After spending about two weeks there and suffering terribly on account of the extreme cold, it being the dead of winter, and, further, becoming nervous on account of a wandering bands of Fuegians, who had attached themselves to us, the mate, second mate and seven of the crew took the boat with the idea of reaching Staten Island, and procuring assistance, but unfortunately perished on the way. This left the captain and four,including myself. One night at camp somebody remarked that there were always whalers in Good Success Bay, which was to the southward of where we were camped, boiling out their oil, and, as two of our party were nearly gone, one other and myself volunteered to endeavour to reach Good Success Bay by tramping along the beach. We left next morning at daylight, which was nearly 10 o'clock, but the travelling was so difficult that by four we had not travelled far. We passed the wreck of a barque named the Godiva, but I cannot now recall whether she belonged to either Glasgow or Greenock, but the after-end was high on the rocks, the forward end having disappeared, and her cargo, coal, was scattered along the beach. I never saw any signs of the Marlborough, but a few miles to the southward of the wreck of the Godiva was a boat marked Marlborough, of London.

It was a square-sterned gig with teakwood thwarts, and had brass knees and a grating made of teakwood in the after end. The boat was pulled up out of reach of the seas, and the oars were still there. It also contained a water breaker, the same being either oak or teak, and had a stand and was bound with brass hoops. Up above the boat in a sheltered part of the rocks we found a tent made from the belly of a square sail, and I am inclined to believe that the survivors of the boat from the Marlborough had obtained the sail from the Godiva, although the camp in question was several miles to the southward of the wreck. In the tent were seven skeletons, and outside was a pile of a sort of mussel shells, which they had apparently lived upon. I am inclined to believe that they had perished from exposure and ptomaine poisoning. One of the skeletons had on a Welsh grey flannel shirt with the initials worked in red on a piece of white tape, sewn on the piece down the front. The initials were either W.R.J. or W.J.R, but which, I cannot recall. It was growing dark at the time, and being in the condition that we were you can readily understand our feelings when we ran across the gruesome sight. We two started back to our camp, having given up the idea of reaching Good Success Bay, and we camped that night not far from that spot. After suffering untold hardships, we survivors were picked up on August 23 by a barque named the Banco Mobilirio, and landed at Coquimbo, after having been cast away 33 days. I may state that there were signs of a wreck right below the camp at the cliffs, but there were no means of identifying what ship it was." Thus far Captain Burley's story.


Very many years after the Marlborough went missing the following story was being circulated amongst the seafaring community about the north-east coast of England, and I give the story as it was told, at the same time it must be observed that a lot of seamen look upon the narrative as merely an old sailor's yarn, un-worthy of credence. The story is as follows:

We were off the rocky coves in the vicinity of Cape Horn, keeping near the land for shelter. The coves were deep and silent, the sailing difficult and dangerous. It was a weirdly wild evening, with the red orb of the sun setting on the horizon, and the stillness was uncanny. There was a shining green light reflected on the ragged rocks on our right.

"We rounded a point into a deep cleft rock, and before us, a mile or more across the water, stood a sailing vessel, with the barest shreds of canvas fluttering in the breeze. We signalled and hove-to, but no answer came.

"We searched the stranger with our glasses, but not a soul could we see, and not a movement of any sort. Masts and yards were picked out in green, the green of decay. The vessel lay as if in a cradle and it recalled to me the 'Frozen Pirate,' a novel that I read years ago. At last we approached her, but there was no sign of life aboard. After an interval our first mate with a number of the crew boarded her. The sight that met their gaze was thrilling. Below the wheel lay the skeleton of a man. Treading warily on the rotten decks, which cracked and broke in places, they came across three skeletons at the hatchway. In the mess room were the remains of 10 bodies, and six others were found, one alone, possibly the captain, on the bridge. There was an uncanny stillness around, and a dank smell of mould which made the flesh creep. A few remnants of books were discovered in the captain's cabin, and a rusty cutlass.

"The first mate examined the faint lettering on the bow, and after a time read, Marlborough of Glasgow."

I have given the story as we have been given it, and my readers can believe or reject it as they deem best.

The chief interest in these stories is the evidence of tragedy — of fate — which has overtaken so many Cape Horners, without leaving a single survivor. The recorded wrecks, founderings and dismastings are numerous enough, yet nothing to compare in numbers with the toll of missing ships, lost in some way or other, between the latitudes of 50 degrees east in the Atlantic, and 50 degrees in the Pacific west, both south of the Equator. Right up to the very last days of sail the Horn was the chief terror of underwriters, besides which Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands has always been dreaded by masters of ships, and owners at home, for its heavy ship repairing charges, and leisurely methods of work.

In the year 1906 over 20 big ships put back into Atlantic ports for heavy repairs, five foundered after nearly losing some of their crew, and the following ships went missing altogether, and took all hands down with them, namely: Glenburn, bound from San Francisco to Liverpool; Alcinus, Lobos d'Afuera to Antwerp; Bay of Bengal, Cardiff to Tal-tal; and Principality, Junin to Rotterdam.

(To be Continued.)

Source: "The Cairns Post" (Qld.), 14 June 1940
Clipped: 22-IX-2012
Copyright © 2004-2016 Duncan S. Campbell + Gladys Grace P.
— for personal and educational use only — please cite this URL —