Rounding Cape Horn & Cruising the Beagle Channel: A Tale of Two Waters
“It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.”
~Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle
Five-thirty came early as we turned off the alarm and made our way to the Observation Lounge on deck ten. Captain Dag was taking the ship around Cape Horn – an addition to our itinerary after our unexpected early departure from Antarctica – and had advised us to be within viewing range no later than 6 a.m. About a hundred passengers had already gathered outside on the top deck, ready with cameras and binoculars. Light was beginning to peer through the early morning clouds as we waited for the famous Cape to make its appearance.
At the southernmost tip of South America in Chile’s Tierra del Fuego Archipelago, Cape Horn marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. Until the Panama Canal opened in 1914, it was the main route for ships sailing from east to west. The route is known as one of the most challenging and hazardous stretches of water in the world and is notoriously referred to as a “sailors’ graveyard.” Captain Dag spoke with awe and respect as he talked about sailing around the Cape:
“As a sailor, I love to sail some of this historical route, a place where many a ship has gone down crossing from east to west. I’m never tired of this fascinating place.”
Cape Horn is located on the remote and rocky Hornos Island and is maintained by the Chilean Navy. A Chilean family lives there for about six months at a time, along with a lighthouse and a monument of albatross flying both east and west, dedicated to the sailors who lost their lives attempting to sail around the Cape.
For a while, all we could see was a jagged distant shoreline silhouetted against gray rolling clouds. But as the Quest made its way around a point of land that was jutting into the water, a hilltop light suddenly appeared.
The albatross monument includes a marble plaque with a beautiful dedication by Chilean poet Sara Vial:
“I, the albatross that awaits at the end of the world…I am the forgotten soul of the sailors lost, rounding Cape Horn from all the seas of the world…”
About 8 a.m. the Quest began its journey to another special sailing destination: The Beagle Channel. A strait in the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago, partly in Argentina and partly in Chile, the Beagle Channel is named after Charles Darwin’s ship, the HMS Beagle. It’s a spectacular stretch of water filled with stunning glaciers flowing from snowcapped mountain ranges. The area is known as Glacier Alley, and it’s definitely not what comes to mind when describing an “alley!”
The beautiful scenery and interesting sights of the Beagle Channel continued through late afternoon. We passed a shipwreck and distant villages and watched penguins swimming outside our balcony. It had been such an overload for the senses that it seemed like our early morning adventure rounding Cape Horn must have happened on another day!
I had been concerned after we left Antarctica that the rest of the voyage would be anti-climactic, maybe even a little disappointing. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The southern tip of South America was proving to be a fascinating destination, and it was exciting to know that the adventure was far from over.