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(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.

The year 1907 was also bad for both ships and sailors. Four vessels were wrecked in the vicinity of the Cape, while two others made their way right across the Atlantic, and put into Cape Town badly damaged.

The next year, 1908, was worse for, as previously mentioned, six big ships went missing altogether, whilst many others had to make their way into the River Plate, Falklands, Rio de Janeiro or Cape Town more or less dismasted, and their decks swept by the heavy seas off the Horn. And so the tale went on year after year until the United States Government completed the cutting of the Panama Canal, which saved vessels sailing those seas from having to sail down to the south of the American continent in their voyage from the one ocean to the other, and now the vicinity of the Horn is almost deserted, and going back to its former solitude.

One of the greatest dangers to the mariner in these seas was the presence of ice in the shape of bergs, or immense fields of "pack-ice."

Far away to the south lies the great icy barrier of the Southern Antarctic Continent, extending for thousands of miles, and consisting of the icy cap of the South Pole. As warmer weather comes on, immense portions of this icy cap break off, and drifting north before the prevailing winds from the south are to be met with by the ships sailing in the waters around the Horn, and no doubt many of the missing ships met their fate by striking against this ice, maybe at night or in a dense fog, which often accompanies this drifting ice, as it floats noiselessly along before the strong winds.

Many of these ice-bergs are of great height, and extend for very many miles as far as the eye can see. Thus the Invercargill, from New Zealand, and the Cromdale from Australia, sailed through over 200 bergs, and the Kinfauns threaded her way through ice for 40 miles, and counted over 100 bergs on the passage. In September, 1908, the ship Carnarvon Bay in the midst of a dense fog, drifted into an immense iceberg and smashed her stem, bowsprit, and fore-yard, but, fortunately, managed to slide off sideways before more damage could be done. Old-time sailors have the belief that the big Danish training ship Kobnhaven, which disappeared many years ago on her voyage from Monte Video to South Australia to load a cargo of wheat, met her doom by striking ice, possibly in a fog.  


Another source of danger to sailing ships navigating the rough and stormy waters in the vicinity of Cape Horn was the possibility of two ships bound on opposite courses meeting in mid ocean with fatal results in both cases. I think that the best testimony to this danger is the following experience given by an old ship's captain, recalling the time when he was an apprentice on a big four-masted barque rounding Cape Horn during his early days. His story is as follows:

"I call to mind a forenoon when I was in a four-mast barque west of the Horn. A southerly buster had caught her during the night, and she was running north under six topsails and a reefed foresail. I was steering with a third-voyage apprentice at the lee wheel to lend me a hand. The sea was tremendous. She was constantly rolling her bulwarks under one after the other; her decks were continuously awash, and the compass card swung through a horrifying arc.

"To hold her on her course took every ounce of strength and all the skill of the man at the wheel. It was bitterly cold — 56 south latitude in July, with the wind off the Polar ice-cap. If I dared to glance upward for an instant it was to see a world of green and white water, with above it a hard white yellowing sky, either that, or else nothing but a whirl of roaring whiteness, for snow squalls constantly obliterated everything. My arms began to tire, but I did mind that.  

"I was in the prime of my youth then, and I wouldn't have traded my hold on those wheel-spokes for the softest job ashore. But all of a sudden the enjoyment passed from me, my heart went cold as the snow upon my shoulder. At my shout the skipper leaped from the chart-house and ran to my side. I shouted half a dozen words to him: 'Ship hove to, dead ahead, sir.' Glancing up from the compass I'd glimpsed her for an instant only, lying full upon our track, under her main topsail and fore-top-mast staysail, and even as I glimpsed her snow hid her again before me, hid our forecastle head, our fore and main-masts, and the straining sails upon them. Above my head the mizzen topsails had become a dim grey blur. When in an instant, I dared glance up again, the snow had thinned a little. To starboard I saw a monstrous great green sea lift up its thundering crest of snarling, broken,white-lathered water.

"High on the lathered crest there rose the sharp bow of the hove-to ship. For one grim instant her boom-end hung almost above our very rail, and all but fouled our straining cro'jack braces. For a moment I saw the stiff grey belly of her fore-topmast-staysail. I'd scarcely caught the rusty letters of her name when she was gone — the ship Yarana.    

"We had missed her by a mere matter of inches, and I never saw her after this narrow escape." As a sequel to this, story I may add that the ship Yarana, of Glasgow, finally went "missing" with all on board of her.  


Here is the story of another narrow escape from collision between two big sailing ships whilst in the vicinity of the Horn. The narrator, was one of the crew of a four-masted barque that had been for weeks trying her hardest to get round the Horn from the Atlantic into the Pacific and my account starts after the crew had spent a miserable night, through the wet and cold, waiting for daylight to show up. 'The long-delayed dawn came at last, revealing a blue-lipped, red-eyed, half-  frozen group of suffering humanity, and with it the wind seemed to lull a little and the squalls were less frequent and not so serious. There was still too much wind for more sail to be set, but the captain considered it safe for the watch below to seek their quarters in the forecastle and half-deck.

"About six o'clock we saw the only pleasing sight of that wretched morning —smoke from the galley funnel blowing straight down into the waves to lee-ward. The fire had been washed out the previous afternoon, but now there seemed a prospect of coffee. Vile stuff it would be, but it would be hot, and it would make us feel like men again. While we were eagerly watching for a signal from the galley to say that it was ready the weather clew of the mizzen lower topsail blew free from its containing gaskets and flapped furiously around the yard arm. Four of the able-seamen went up to secure it, and we watched them as they gingerly made their way up the mizzen rigging, being almost flattened against it by the force of the gale. Shrouds and backstays for 30 feet above the deck were now about six inches in diameter, for the spray which had been lashing against them had frozen, and as more spray struck them they were gradually thickening into solid bars of ice. It was impossible for the men to hang on to them, as they would have done in the usual way, so that they had to adopt the unseamanlike trick, condemned in 'greenhorns' and 'first voyagers' of hanging on to the ratlines with their hands as well as their feet — for rat-lines have been known to carry away. Very cautiously they crawled up the rigging and eventually made their way out to the yard-arm.

"They had some difficulty in securing the sail, for although only a small portion of it had broken adrift, the canvas was frozen and stiff, and the wind made it act as if it were possessed of devils. At last they mastered it, and got it secured again, three of them were laying in along the yard when the fourth, gazing to windward stretched out his arm towards the weather beam, and we could see that he was shouting something. Our eye followed his directing arm; the sky was fairly clear at the time, and presently we could see through the driving spray tall masts and narrow strips of canvas. Those developed, and we soon discovered that the vessel which was bearing down on us was another large four-masted barque, running before the wind — homeward bound. Here was company at last — however brief — after weeks of loneliness, but we soon noticed that our captain was watching the oncoming vessel with a certain amount of uneasiness.

"At times she would be heading straight for us; then she would yaw wildly, a couple of points and look as if she were making to pass under our stern, only to swing violently a moment afterwards and head across our bows.

"In the main, however, her line of progression was straight towards us. She was carrying three lower top-sails and a reefed foresail, and coming on at a great speed. We also began to feel uneasy and watched her carefully. Surely, we thought, those on board must have seen us, the fore-sail being reefed, there was a wide gap between the foot of it and the forecastle head, and they could easily   see under it, besides, when she yawed we must have been plainly visible on either side of it. As was only natural, our captain was the first to solve the problem with his quick shout: 'Hard up the helm, hand to the lee wheel,' showed. Being nearest I jumped to the lee side of the wheel, and helped the regular helmsman to heave it hard over, and while we were holding like that I also realised what was wrong with the stranger. She was unmanageable. She could not keep out of our way. In such a wind and sea she should really have been hove to, but her captain, doubtless anxious to take advantage of the fair wind, had run her too long, with the result that he could not heave her to now he wished to. He had to run, and doubtless her heaving helmsmen were doing their best to keep her dead before the wind, for if it got too far one side or the other she would broach to, and in that sea would probably have foundered or at least been dismasted. The on-coming vessel was certainly acting contrary to the International Rules and Regulations for preventing collisions at sea; but I doubt if our captain ever troubled about this at this time, he was simply acting as any seaman would do — to do his best to save his ship and his crew to the best of his ability, and, indeed there would have been no one to attend from either vessel in case of a collision, as all would have been beneath the waves, and gone from this world.


"The strange ship came plunging on, and as our own vessel was taking no notice of her helm as she had no way upon her, something must be set forward to pay her head off. 'Get the fore topmast staysail on her, mister,' our captain shouted to the second mate. 'Quick, men, for your lives.'

"It was the first time that any of us had over heard the captain speak in this urgent manner, and it quickened up all our movements. From my post at the wheel, I could see the second mate and the men dash down the poop ladder, splash along the main deck and make their way forward, clinging to the fire-rails or the life-lines, as a heavy comber of a wave swept over the side and flooded the deck as they rushed up on to the forecastle, and bending low against the furious wind, proceed to loose the sail.  

"Would they be in time, and would the sail stand the strain? Minutes seemed like hours, as the second mate payed it out carefully, and the head of the sail slowly mounted upward, and by the time it was half-way up the wind in it commenced to pay-off the ship's head, and as the wind came on the beam she commenced to forge ahead. By this time the other ship had got very close to us, and for one thrilling moment it looked as if she would strike us as she poised upon one great wave. Then her bows righted away, swung back the other way, and she came crashing past, within about 50 yards from our stern, just over the place where we had been two minutes before — it had been a close shave. As her poop came abreast of our wheel, we could see her crew clustered on her poop, in yellow oilskins, whilst two of them were grinding away at her wheel. She was French, with black topsides, and was evidently bound from one of the Chilian nitrate ports for France, or a Channel port of call.

"Hardly had the Frenchman cleared us, when the wind tailed off, and presently we heard the cry front our galley — the sound always so very welcome to every shell-back fighting his way: 'Off the Horn' — the sound of 'Hi-oh, hot coffee.'" Thus far the seaman's narrative.

One of the best descriptions of the misery and.discomfort endured by the crews of the ships making "the Cape Horn passage" is given to us in the autobiography of Captain Sir Arthur Rostron, K.B.E., who a few years ago retired from the important position of Commodore Captain of the Cunard Line of Atlantic steamers, and had been for many years in command of the Mauretania, the crack, flyer of the Atlantic. Captain Rostron it was, who was instrumental in saving the only survivors (706 altogether) who were saved when the Titanic struck ice in the North Atlantic, and sank, taking down with her over 1500 souls, in April, 1912. Captain Rostron started his sea-faring career as an apprentice in the employ of Messrs. Williamson, Milligen and Company, shipowners, of Liverpool, and during his life made several passages around Cape Horn, sailing both west and east. His narrative proceeds from the time when his ship was sailing down the South American coast on her voyage to San Francisco:—

"But when we reached Latitude 40 south, there commenced a three months' spell of sheer horror, as full of thrills by storm and danger as the most thirstily —adventurous boy could desire. Day after day, night after night, the fiercest weather held. Looking back on that period now, it seems as if it were the very mother and father of all storms. Up aloft for hours on end, very often all through the raging night, six or eight hours on a foreyard trying to furl the foresail, the canvas soaked with rain and sea-spray, hard as sheet-iron, until the finger-nails were torn off, leaving raw, bleeding wounds, drenched to the skin, oilskins blown to ribbons and sea-boots full of water. No clothing that could ever be devised could keep out such rioting elements. For this was winter time in the South Atlantic. If anything could add to the misery of our labouring way, it was the fact that 20 out of the 24 hours of day were dark and under that leaden sky daylight seemed to bring only a paler night time. How many times we boys came down from long hours aloft, longing as one nowadays probably longs for nothing, for just a cup of hot coffee, only to find the galley washed out, so that we had to content ourselves with a drink from the water cask in our berth and a weevily biscuit to eat. And then no rest. The reader will, of course, have his mind accustomed to the routine of watch on deck and watch below. But on that voyage in the ship Cedric the Saxon on those three weary months it was not so. Half an hour, and it seemed as if always the wind would shift and freshen or fall away, and we would be out and aloft again, tugging with all our young might and damaged hands at the ice-hard sails. Pulling, hauling on the braces and halyards, seas tumbling over us, men washed about the deck, sometimes overboard, snow or sleet stinging the face, always the eternal rolling and pitching and the almost constant hurricanes — such was our experience that year down below the Horn. Cape Horn. What memories it bring to those who are old-timers and have rounded it in sail. That trip we went far out of our course — 400 miles south of Cape Horn, drifted pushed, beaten, pulled down into the Antarctic before we found a favourable wind. At last, when we thought we should be blown into the very Polar ice, we got a slant and came ploughing up the globe again, courses top sails, and top gallant sails all set. Up we rode out of those long, long, nights and murky intervals which were daylight, thanking our stars that the wind held good. For 24 hours we ran before it; then it freshened to hurricane force, seas grew heavier and more dangerous again, great rolling mountains under our stern simply pushed us and passed on, the crest breaking and tumbling and roaring like avalanches. Sail was shortened and we all felt that we were headed for finer weather. Yet even as all hands were below for a welcome cup of hot coffee, disaster sprang upon us.


" 'Pooped! ' Our old mate literally bellowed it out as that tremendous following sea rose, towering over the stern. And crash! It came down full upon us, remorseless, murderously mad. Away went the wheel, together with the senior apprentice and the sailor who was steering. The ship broached to, simply staggered broadside to the waves, every stitch of canvas that was set, breaking with the sound of gun-shots from the bolt-ropes and trailing out on the wind and the sea. Fortunately the two men at the wheel were caught in the fore part of the poop, and struggled to their feet unhurt, but the wheel was unshipped and the ship out of control. First, the helm was lashed, then half the crew were sent  aloft; the rest on deck were bracing the yards round to the wind, trying to clear the braces washing about the decks and overboard, clewing up the sails and all working like mad to save the ship. The old mate heartened us during the worst of it; his voice still rings in my head, even at this long interval of time and memory. 'If we've got to die, let's die like men.' And his inspiring call comes to me   through all these years.

"One vision has often recurred to my mind when I think back to that eventful voyage. It was when we were labouring somewhere in the latitude of Cape Horn. As we were pitched like a cork and all hands aloft were shortening sail, out of the murky smother about us we saw flares burning. We were passing another ship in dire distress, evidently far worse than what we were, and situated as we were we could do nothing to help her crew, as no boat could live a minute in that heavy sea. Sometimes when I remember that terrible list of ships 'gone missing' my mind goes back to the sight of that ship in those stormy seas, and I wonder if her name is inscribed on that fatal list."

It has often been a source of wonder to the writer, conversant with big sailing ships from an early age,, why British ship-owners generally were so slow to adopt the system of providing strong and commodious wheel-houses for the safety of seamen steering the ships. In stormy weather, and especially when running before a following sea, the safety of the ship and all aboard her depends on the vessel being kept under control and so prevented from "broaching to" and possibly turned over and sunk.

The American shipowners generally had these wheel-houses placed on their ships from early days, but it was not until recent times when big sailing ships had been driven off by steam competition, that they were built on to big ships sailing under the British flag.         (Concluded.)        

Source: "The Cairns Post" (Qld.), 15 June 1940
Clipped: 22-IX-2012
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