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HomeAnt­ar­c­ti­ca infor­ma­ti­on → The Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge and Cape Horn

The Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge and Cape Horn

Cape Horn is pro­jec­ting into the Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge at 55°59′S/067°17′W, mar­king the boun­da­ry bet­ween the Atlan­tic and Paci­fic Oce­ans and the nor­t­hern end of the Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge. Alt­hough it is a bit more tri­cky than that: geo­gra­phi­cal­ly spea­king, in terms of the coast­li­ne of the con­ti­nent, the sou­thern end of South Ame­ri­ca is much fur­ther north, on the nor­t­hern side of the Strait of Magel­lan. Ever­y­thing bet­ween this strait and Cape Horn is islands. And tal­king about islands, the­re are some tiny dots of land about 60 nau­ti­cal miles sou­thwest of Cape Horn, the Die­go Ramí­rez Islands. But no reason not to be ama­zed in case you get to see the famous Cape Horn!

Which was first seen by the Dutch navi­ga­tor Wil­lem Cor­ne­lisz Schou­ten, Cap­tain of the Een­dracht which belon­ged to the Dutch tra­ding com­pa­ny Aus­tr­a­al­se Com­pa­gnie in the city of Horn. This is the easy and true expl­ana­ti­on for the name of the Cape (writ­ten Kap Hoorn in Dutch and Ger­man) – if you Eng­lish­men are still rea­ding rather than steam­ing and thin­king about bea­ting this aut­hor up, who does not give Sir Fran­cis Dra­ke the cre­dit for having dis­co­ver­ed Cape Horn. But we sim­ply don’t know if Dra­ke was ever as far south as that. If he was, he did not docu­ment it well (which does not have any­thing to do with the order he recei­ved from his Queen to keep his mouth shut about this important dis­co­very, that’s no excu­se). So … sor­ry. I’ll lea­ve it up to the real his­to­ri­ans from here on.

Cape Horn

Cape Horn on a nice day.

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

Of cour­se we will never real­ly know for sure if the­re were other Euro­pean navi­ga­tors blown off cour­se and as far to the south as the Cape. In 1525, Fran­cis­co de Hoces from Spain is said to have been some­whe­re around Cape Horn, which is the expl­ana­ti­on for the Spa­nish name of the Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge: Mar de Hoces. But my impres­si­on is that this name is not being used a lot.

Drake Passage

The Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge on a nice day.

All this did not keep Drake’s famous fel­low coun­try­man James Cook in 1769 from naming the sea south of South Ame­ri­ca after the famous pri­va­teer. It is not the bad repu­ta­ti­on of the pirate’s name that makes tou­rists shi­ver still today when they hear the infa­mous name of the 440 nau­ti­cal miles wide pas­sa­ge bet­ween Cape Horn and the Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la, respec­tively the South Shet­land Island. The crossing of the Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge is not always very plea­sant, as strong low pres­su­res are con­stant­ly cir­cu­la­ting around Ant­ar­c­ti­ca and thus regu­lar­ly pas­sing through bet­ween the Cape and the Pen­in­su­la. It is a bit of a lot­tery unless you have time to wait in pro­tec­ted waters in case the­re is one on the way, but ships usual­ly don’t have time. But it does not have to be so bad at all: the­re is reason­ab­ly calm wea­ther for seve­ral days bet­ween the storms, and often, the Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge is much cal­mer than peo­p­le usual­ly expect. It can real­ly be flat-calm! Waves calm down quick­ly, and after 1-2 days even the swell is gone, and then you could kay­ak across the Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge … or at least a few miles of it. But the next storm might be just around the cor­ner, so it’s bet­ter to use some­thing slight­ly big­ger than a kay­ak. But on the other hand, it is a myth that the Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge is always rough, as the waves are squeezed into the nar­row pas­sa­ge bet­ween South Ame­ri­ca and Ant­ar­c­ti­ca. Sim­ply not true. If the­re is no wind for some time, the­re won’t be waves and final­ly not even swell, just as with any of the world’s oce­ans.

Drake Passage

The Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge on a not so nice day.

Depen­ding on ship, wea­ther and rou­te, the crossing which makes the begin­ning and the end of many Ant­ar­c­tic trips takes usual­ly 1.5-2 days. This invol­ves crossing the Ant­ar­c­tic Cover­gence, and important ocea­no­gra­phic boun­da­ry sepa­ra­ting cold ant­ar­c­tic waters in the south from more tem­pe­ra­te nor­t­hern waters. This boun­da­ry is not­hing you can point at, it is actual­ly a tran­si­ti­on zone of many miles, shif­ting its posi­ti­on to the north or south with the ever-pre­sent tur­bu­len­ces of the curr­ents. But it is war­mer in the nor­t­hern part of the Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge than in the south. Sur­pri­se …

Henryk Wolski

The well-known sail­or Hen­ryk Wol­ski is tel­ling the tales of the Ant­ar­c­tic explo­rers during a crossing of the Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge.

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

In other words, the crossing can actual­ly be quite plea­sant (but it isn’s always): the ship’s lec­tu­r­ers are kee­ping you busy with lec­tures and you can watch out for Alba­tros­ses and other sea­birds and dol­phins, and the­re is usual­ly quite some of them around, espe­ci­al­ly near South Ame­ri­ca. And may­be they even put “Around Cape Horn” on in the ship cine­ma, the famous film made in 1929 during the jour­ney of the gre­at sai­ling ship Peking on her voya­ge from Euro­pe around Cape Horn to Chi­le. It will make you hap­py that you are on a big­ger ship (sup­po­sing this is actual­ly the case) and you don’t have to climb up the rig­ging to work sails (sup­po­sing this is not the case).

Kap Hoorn

And once again, as it is so nice: Cape Horn on a nice day, a bit clo­ser.

The draw­back is that you might not see Cape Horn at all during an ant­ar­c­tic voya­ge: it is about 40 nau­ti­cal miles west of the direct rou­te bet­ween the Bea­gle Chan­nel and the South Shet­land Islands, and you will sail this bit during night­ti­me on the way down south. Only on the way north again, the last day befo­re you get back to Ushua­ia, when the­re is time and the wea­ther for it, the expe­di­ti­on lea­der will try to talk the Cap­tain into going near Cape Horn, to get at least a glim­pse of it. And for­get the nag­ging of some South Ame­ri­can islands being even fur­ther south: on one of tho­se rather rare, beau­tiful days, it is sim­ply an impres­si­ve sight.

Kap Hoorn – 1/2 – the who­le Cape Horn archi­pe­la­go, seen from the south. The con­spi­cuous line bet­ween land and see is a mira­ge (“Fata Mor­ga­na”). No 360° pan­ora­ma, only works with the Flash Play­er on mobi­le devices, for exam­p­le, with the → Puf­fin-Brow­ser.

Kap Hoorn – 2/2 – No 360° pan­ora­ma, only works with the Flash Play­er on mobi­le devices, for exam­p­le, with the → Puf­fin-Brow­ser.


last modification: 2014-05-15 · copyright: Rolf Stange