Despite apparently idyllic conditions, a Cape Horn rounding throws up numerous surprises for Bob Rubadeau. Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from Bound for Cape Horn

Read about sailing all your life and you won’t find another book quite like Bound for Cape Horn, with its interesting subtitle Skills for Expedition Cruising. Any suggestion this might be yet another text book on how to do it is dissipated in the opening pages. R J Rubadeau is a one-off.

The reader is soon treated to proper, seamanlike literature about why a man might seek out trusted comrades and sail from Maine in a Morris Bermuda 51, south to the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal and on down the west coast of South America to Cape Horn. A sentence lifted from the early chapters gives the flavour: “On the edge of the abyss is where a lot of the good stuff seems to happen in the lessons learned department.”

In spite of the light-hearted style of the prose, it’s clear the voyage is meticulously planned. In the extract here Rubadeau and his old shipmates are finally sailing through the last of the South American archipelago to the Horn itself. After the recent chamber of horrors served up by the weatherman, things seem to be on the up and he looks to have sent them a day to remember.

The sky is clear and Homefree is on a sizzling reach in flat water. The crew are praising their luck, but the Horn will always have the last word…

Extract from Bound for Cape Horn

The three of us are lounging in the cockpit in the sun. Our lizard brains are fully not in control of those boiling pots of mixed emotions swirling around at the end of something important. Confusion, uncertainty, equations of value and cost, damage assessments, second guessing, were all fodder for a rumbling fire pit demanding attention. The unexpected arrival of the next question came looming over the transom before we could protect ourselves. Our pea-sized brains suddenly recognised that we were tempting fate by letting words tumble from our mouths before we thought about them and weighed the downstream consequences. Trenary did his best to stop the cosmic train wreck.

“Fat chance anyone is going to believe this kind of day at the Horn,” said John coming up on deck.
“Got to be one in a million day,” said the Crew.

“Stop,” said the Captain in his best loud commander’s voice. “Don’t jinx it. Just shut up about it.”

“I want to get the whole crazy, once in a lifetime scene just right for the log,” said the Crew. “How beautiful and rare is this? Like maybe never.”

“Only thing missing is the cold beer, grill and the sunscreen,” said John.

“You’re gonna kill it.”

“You can’t kill something by counting yourself lucky and wishing…” I started.

Trenary covered his ears with his palms and closed his eyes and launched into singing the theme song from Sesame Street like a drunken Pavarotti.

Classy, effective, final; I have to remember that strategy.

The sleigh ride continued like a looped video. In an hour we were finally putting Wollaston in our rearview mirror and driving straight towards Paso Bravo and Isla Herschel. According to our cruising guide this was a notorious route in south-west winds like the ones we have today, and the legendary stories of dramatic williwaws grow with each boat’s telling.

We stood by sheets, furling lines and winches as the pass gradually closed in tight around us. We were still sailing like a racehorse, tempting fate. Then it was over. The end of the tunnel appeared ahead. Everything opened up. We eased sheets and ran down the coast of Herschel Island directly towards Isla Deceit looking for the still hidden entrance to Paso del Mar.

Isla Deceit was a perfect cast character on this starkly bright, blue, smudged white and khaki stained stage. Sharp sided and angled off to a flat mesa on top with nothing behind it but the brutal open sky, the Drake Passage, and Antarctica, Isla Deceit was really something else. It made the hair on my neck stand up and be noticed. That rock had some bad juju going on. An age worn and imposing marker stone for all the souls buried deep in these waters.

A perfect day as Rubadeau’s Homefree approaches Cape Horn. Photo: Scott & Mary Flanders

We watched in stunned silence, transfixed for a long five minutes, while an angry and aggressive foaming layer of bleached white clouds suddenly appeared on the horizon and crawled up and over the flat-topped mountain and spilled down the 800 vertical feet of rock like a falling shroud. Suddenly the white caps at the water’s edge were flattened into spray and spume. A 20ft-tall boiling cloud of mist pushed ahead of the thick white vaporous sheet as it actually moved upwind of the tall choppy waves rolling down through the pass.

It came towards us, fast. Our reaction was like we were primitive natives on a beach watching a towering tidal wave arriving to engulf our home atoll and every living thing on it. We were frozen in place. On it came. “What the…?”

We were all in action a brief nanosecond before the expletive was ripped out of the Captain’s mouth and the boat was pushed down onto her side in a sudden vicious assault, pressed hard over until her sails were flat in the water and the top of the mast was downhill from my perch clinging tight to a sheet winch in the cockpit for dear life.

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I remember thinking, “… this is interesting”…

The sound of the wind was like standing in front of a billboard sized festival speaker and getting a squelch reverb that leaves you deaf for the whole damn concert. The Captain later said that I got even worse at taking orders when I couldn’t hear them any more.

We were dead in the water, tangled in a headlock by this frontal assault. The wind caught the underside of the hull and pushed her entire tonnage, with the masthead leading the way into the base of the next wave. I watched as solid water came down the folded leech of the mainsail, up and over the cockpit coaming, then spilling back out as our girl suddenly exploded like a freed and branded horse, almost jumping up in fright onto her feet. The wind tried to knock her over again, but she kept her skirts out of the next wave-led assault and we began to slide forward.

She clawed her way through 100°, turning and spinning upwind before she could even begin to bring her head up and power forward. We were all judiciously loosening sheets and freeing up the sails to find the key to the swirling wind and waves. Each of us was doing something important in a choreography of getting her back on her feet.

Foredeck work on the morning of the Cape Horn rounding

“That is not in the brochure,” I mumbled out loud into the chaos.

Trenary caught my eye from the wheel and did his eye­brow twitching thing over a sheepish smile. I hate it when he’s right, and now I’d have to tell him how right he was about the jinxing-it thing every hour or so until sometime next Tuesday.

It was a mad scramble to stabilise the boat once she was up and moving, working against the roaring gusts from all directions, getting the rags dragged down or wound up, checking for any damage or missing gear on deck, getting our heart rates back under control, and finally putting sails back up into operation as the wind gradually eased down from 50 to 30 to 20 over the next 10-20 minutes. When we could finally look up from the essential boating tasks and check our bearings, we all stopped what we were doing and gaped. Peaking around from behind Dublé Point on Herschel Island was the matron we had all come to honour. There she was, Cabo de Hornos.

“There it is again,” John said.

Cheerful Fuegian fishermen

The three of us glared down at the screen of the chartplotter before raising our eyes to stare again at the scene of Isla de Hornos off our bow. We had an on-again, off-again target showing on the radar scan seemingly following our track out of Paso del Mar. We had not seen another boat since leaving Puerto Williams a couple of days before. This was an unwanted distraction that could grow up into an international problem.

“Probably a patrol boat.”

“Yeah, but whose?”

“I have a new pass from the Chileans,” the Captain said.

“But we could be in Argentina’s jurisdiction,” I said.

“How do you know?” I shrugged.

“I think that’s why they’re called Contested Waters on the chart,” said John.

“What kind of trouble can we get into?” asked Trenary.

“And what’s this ‘we’ thing?”

“There it is again,” said John.

“It doesn’t look like a patrol boat.” Trenary finally had the binoculars up on his nose.


“It’s a pimped-out trawler.”

“Down here? No way.”

“No mistake?”

“The club burgee, flying bridge, plus all the polished stainless and glinting glass. No mistake.”

“Who could it be?”

“Wait, hold it,” he sighed, “strangely appropriate. Stars and stripes off the stern.”

Homefree negotiating ice and glacial meltwaters

I snatched up the VHF radio microphone, then stopped. How to publicly reach out at this novel and outrageously historic moment. Two US-flagged ships were crossing paths at the very edge of the known world in the footsteps of Magellan, Fitzroy and Darwin. I had to get it just right for posterity.

“This is the sailing vessel Homefree on Channel 16,” I said, “Radio check.”

The boat came right back with a New England quick efficiency, giving us a, “Five-by-five at Cape Horn.”

I do now appreciate the poetic justice in the Isla Deceit smack-down. We really did deserve that wake-up-call for our collective failure to grasp the enormous possibilities of each day in life’s unpredictable mosaic. The actual sighting of another boat at the Horn on a beautiful day for photography flies in the face of all known laws of probability in exactly the same way a white squall on a crystal clear sailing day in Patagonia always does.

Egret is a seaworthy Nordhavn 46 Trawler with owners Scott and Mary Flanders aboard. They were approaching Cape Horn after an 8,000-mile voyage across the Atlantic from Gibraltar. We arranged to keep each other in sight and do a dosie-doe to get photographs of each of our boats with the backdrop of that iconic pedestal of rock for posterity.

The Canal de las Montañas, the ‘fjord of the mountains’ west of Puerto Natales in Chile

We three crew were incapable of sitting still in the cockpit. We seemed unable to be inert, we kept moving about, going nowhere in particular with a definite groupie-dazed affection. We worked hard to maintain the unbelievable sight of Cape Horn in the centre of our personal unobstructed view corridor. It was simply utterly amazing. This sight was a long time coming. For me it had been 45 years since my last go at this butt end of all rocks.

A long, thin tendril of wispy cloud was wrapped at the summit of the Cape like a boa-length neck scarf flowing off to the east. The higher cloud veil of beige-tinged curtains formed loosely along the western horizon, boiling above the rippling sea-state, informing us of a change in weather on its way. Swells with an ancient cadence all their own lifted us 20ft high and let us down again like an elevator with its cable cut. Clouds were flying by, geese-sized and driven hard by the wind lashing at their backsides up high where it mattered most.

Everything that caught our attention seemed to be moving haphazardly at high speed and intent on its own unique direction with no firm guardrails for the following acts. The illusion was that each of these huge natural forces and elements swirling in the entire 3D tableau we saw from the cockpit were behaving like teenagers driving aggressively in an old school bumper-cars ride. Every collision and reset in a spontaneous whirl of micro weather significantly ups the tempo and adds to the power in the whole. Unnervingly chaotic and truly, wonderfully magnificent.

It didn’t feel safe here.

You can buy Bound for Cape Horn from Amazon

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