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Chapter 24

INTRODUCTORY TO CAPE HORN.


And now, through drizzling fogs and vapours, and under damp,
double-reefed top-sails, our wet-decked frigate drew nearer and
nearer to the squally Cape.

Who has not heard of it? Cape Horn, Cape Horn--a _horn_ indeed,
that has tossed many a good ship. Was the descent of Orpheus,
Ulysses, or Dante into Hell, one whit more hardy and sublime than
the first navigator's weathering of that terrible Cape?

Turned on her heel by a fierce West Wind, many an outward-bound
ship has been driven across the Southern Ocean to the Cape of
Good Hope--_that_ way to seek a passage to the Pacific. And that
stormy Cape, I doubt not, has sent many a fine craft to the
bottom, and told no tales. At those ends of the earth are no
chronicles. What signify the broken spars and shrouds that, day
after day, are driven before the prows of more fortunate vessels?
or the tall masts, imbedded in icebergs, that are found floating
by? They but hint the old story--of ships that have sailed from
their ports, and never more have been heard of.

Impracticable Cape! You may approach it from this direction or
that--in any way you please--from the East or from the West; with
the wind astern, or abeam, or on the quarter; and still Cape Horn
is Cape Horn. Cape Horn it is that takes the conceit out of
fresh-water sailors, and steeps in a still salter brine the
saltest. Woe betide the tyro; the fool-hardy, Heaven preserve!

Your Mediterranean captain, who with a cargo of oranges has
hitherto made merry runs across the Atlantic, without so much as
furling a t'-gallant-sail, oftentimes, off Cape Horn, receives a
lesson which he carries to the grave; though the grave--as is too
often the case--follows so hard on the, lesson that no benefit
comes from the experience.

Other strangers who draw nigh to this Patagonia termination of
our Continent, with their souls full of its shipwrecks and
disasters--top-sails cautiously reefed, and everything guardedly
snug--these strangers at first unexpectedly encountering a
tolerably smooth sea, rashly conclude that the Cape, after all,
is but a bugbear; they have been imposed upon by fables, and
founderings and sinkings hereabouts are all cock-and-bull
stories.

"Out reefs, my hearties; fore and aft set t'-gallant-sails! stand
by to give her the fore-top-mast stun'-sail!"

But, Captain Rash, those sails of yours were much safer in the
sail-maker's loft. For now, while the heedless craft is bounding
over the billows, a black cloud rises out of the sea; the sun
drops down from the sky; a horrible mist far and wide spreads
over the water.

"Hands by the halyards! Let go! Clew up!"

Too late.

For ere the ropes' ends can be the east off from the pins, the
tornado is blowing down to the bottom of their throats. The masts
are willows, the sails ribbons, the cordage wool; the whole ship
is brewed into the yeast of the gale.

An now, if, when the first green sea breaks over him, Captain
Rash is not swept overboard, he has his hands full be sure. In
all probability his three masts have gone by the board, and,
ravelled into list, his sails are floating in the air. Or,
perhaps, the ship _broaches to_, or is _brought by the lee_. In
either ease, Heaven help the sailors, their wives and their
little ones; and heaven help the underwriters.

Familiarity with danger makes a brave man braver, but less
daring. Thus with seamen: he who goes the oftenest round Cape
Horn goes the most circumspectly. A veteran mariner is never
deceived by the treacherous breezes which sometimes waft him
pleasantly toward the latitude of the Cape. No sooner does he
come within a certain distance of it--previously fixed in his own
mind--than all hands are turned to setting the ship in storm-
trim; and never mind how light the breeze, down come his t'-
gallant-yards. He "bends" his strongest storm-sails, and lashes
every-thing on deck securely. The ship is then ready for the
worst; and if, in reeling round the headland, she receives a
broadside, it generally goes well with her. If ill, all hands go
to the bottom with quiet consciences.

Among sea-captains, there are some who seem to regard the genius
of the Cape as a wilful, capricious jade, that must be courted
and coaxed into complaisance. First, they come along under easy
sails; do not steer boldly for the headland, but tack this way
and that--sidling up to it, Now they woo the Jezebel with a t'-
gallant-studding-sail; anon, they deprecate her wrath with
double-reefed-topsails. When, at length, her unappeasable fury is
fairly aroused, and all round the dismantled ship the storm howls
and howls for days together, they still persevere in their
efforts. First, they try unconditional submission; furling every
rag and _heaving to_: laying like a log, for the tempest to toss
wheresoever it pleases.

This failing, they set a _spencer_ or _try-sail_, and shift on
the other tack. Equally vain! The gale sings as hoarsely as before.
At last, the wind comes round fair; they drop the fore-sail; square
the yards, and scud before it; their implacable foe chasing them
with tornadoes, as if to show her insensibility to the last.

Other ships, without encountering these terrible gales, spend
week after week endeavouring to turn this boisterous world-corner
against a continual head-wind. Tacking hither and thither, in the
language of sailors they _polish_ the Cape by beating about its
edges so long.

Le Mair and Schouten, two Dutchmen, were the first navigators who
weathered Cape Born. Previous to this, passages had been made to
the Pacific by the Straits of Magellan; nor, indeed, at that
period, was it known to a certainty that there was any other
route, or that the land now called Terra del Fuego was an island.
A few leagues southward from Terra del Fuego is a cluster of
small islands, the Diegoes; between which and the former island
are the Straits of Le Mair, so called in honour of their
discoverer, who first sailed through them into the Pacific. Le
Mair and Schouten, in their small, clumsy vessels, encountered a
series of tremendous gales, the prelude to the long train of
similar hardships which most of their followers have experienced.
It is a significant fact, that Schouten's vessel, the _Horne_,
which gave its name to the Cape, was almost lost in weathering it.

The next navigator round the. Cape was Sir Francis Drake, who, on
Raleigh's Expedition, beholding for the first time, from the
Isthmus of Darien, the "goodlie South Sea," like a true-born
Englishman, vowed, please God, to sail an English ship thereon;
which the gallant sailor did, to the sore discomfiture of the
Spaniards on the coasts of Chili and Peru.

But perhaps the greatest hardships on record, in making this
celebrated passage, were those experienced by Lord Anson's
squadron in 1736. Three remarkable and most interesting
narratives record their disasters and sufferings. The first,
jointly written by the carpenter and gunner of the Wager; the
second by young Byron, a midshipman in the same ship; the third,
by the chaplain of the Centurion. White-Jacket has them all; and
they are fine reading of a boisterous March night, with the
casement rattling in your ear, and the chimney-stacks blowing
down upon the pavement, bubbling with rain-drops.

But if you want the best idea of Cape Horn, get my friend Dana's
unmatchable "Two Years Before the Mast." But you can read, and so
you must have read it. His chapters describing Cape Horn must
have been written with an icicle.

At the present day the horrors of the Cape have somewhat abated.
This is owing to a growing familiarity with it; but, more than
all, to the improved condition of ships in all respects, and the
means now generally in use of preserving the health of the crews
in times of severe and prolonged exposure.


Herman Melville