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Rounding the Horn

In 1929, a 24-year-old Irving McClure Johnson set aboard the Peking with a motion-picture camera and the brave, stubborn, half-suicidal goal of rounding Cape Horn. The amateur filmmaker and explorer from Maine—depicted in early home footage climbing telephone poles and wrestling friends in preparation for his Jack London life at sea—climbed, camera in hand, high into the ship's rigging while the Peking pitched and shook through nearly fatal Patagonian storms. He could have easily been killed, the ship wrecked, sunk, never heard from again. But he survived—and got some amazing footage.

This will probably not be your experience aboard one of the cruise ships of Cruceros Australis, which operates three- and four-day luxury cruises through these same adventure-soaked waters between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia. But the tragic history of the region is somehow part of its magnetism, its romance, and the tour guides aboard one of the three pocket cruisers—the M/V Mare Australis, M/V Via Australis and the newly-unveiled M/V Stella Australis.

Thanks to Johnson's footage, the voyage of the Peking is now immortalized in the film Around Cape Horn. In that time, the crew was lucky to survive. Since its discovery in 1578 by Sir Francis Drake, more than 800 ships and countless lives have been lost attempting to round the Horn. The winds at these latitudes (56° south) can literally blow around the world without encountering land, building to frightening strength, and earning the lower latitudes nicknames like “the roaring forties,” “the furious fifties,” and “the screaming sixties.” Waves in this region, fed by the winds and rolling likewise free of interruption, become shortened and heightened as they hit the shallow waters near Cape Horn, making them all the more dangerous to early sailing ships. The much-feared “rogue waves” here can tower to 30 meters (100 ft). And then, of course, there's the freezing temperatures and ice.

So it's for good reason that this route is a renowned challenge for sailing enthusiasts. It's said that Old-World sailors who rounded the Horn were entitled to wear the often-depicted gold earring as a reward. Today, the Around Alone, Vendée Globe, Volvo Ocean Race, and Global Challenge yacht races all take on Cape Horn as one of their most trying segments.

Aboard a Cruceros Australis cruise ship, passengers can soak up this history and thrilling scenery more or less free of its dangers. The 120-passenger Mare Australis, 140-passenger Via Australis, and 210-passenger Stella Australis cradle guests in plush cabins with gourmet meals, an open bar and a library, among other amenities. Prices for the shorter cruise from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas start at $1,050 low season (Sept, Oct, March, April) and $1,330 high season (Nov. - March). For the four-day trip in the other direction, prices start at $1,930 low season and $2,300 high season.Check website for discounts and special offers (see “Things to See and Do” in Punta Arenas and Ushuaia).

The cruise, which runs between September and April, passes through the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel, places named for some of the world's greatest explorations: the Flat Earth-shattering circumnavigation by Ferdinand Magellan in 1519, and the 1831 voyage of the HMS Beagle that eventually carried Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands. Here, the ships stop frequently to shuttle passengers ashore in Zodiacs to explore damp Magellanic forests, approach towering blue glaciers, observe colonies of Magellanic Penguins and elephant seals, and hike around the sheer 425-meter (1,394-ft) rock promontory of Cape Horn, the absolute southernmost point in the world short of Antarctica.

The guides on these expeditions are knowledgeable and eager to share, possessing perhaps a bit of the zeal, or lunacy, of Irving Johnson and other sailors who have risked their lives in these seas simply to say They Did It. This is the draw of Cruceros Australis, after all: to peer safely into the world of daring and exploration, into an icy-bearded past when reckless men fought against the cruelest nature had to offer and against the black edges of their candle-lit maps; to sit comfortably on deck amid the glaciers and wind and say, “Those guys must have been insane.”

By Kyle Adams
Kyle just graduated Syracuse University with degrees in magazine journalism and anthropology. After his summer with V!VA, he'll be starting Peace...
04 Aug 2009

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