There is an old sailors’ proverb claiming that below latitude 40 degrees south there is no law, and below 50 degrees, no God. Cape Horn sits at 56 degrees south, about 550 miles lower than the southernmost point of mainland New Zealand, and forces sailors much farther south than they would otherwise go. It is a landform that resonates with centuries’ worth of collective fear; thousands of people have died there. The cape itself is a promontory on a small island off the tip of South America that was first rounded in 1616 by a Dutch expedition—previous ships had gone through the Strait of Magellan—and was named after its captain’s hometown, Hoorn. There, mariners endure increasingly extreme weather as currents that otherwise circulate freely around Antarctica are forced through the narrow Drake Passage. South America’s steep continental shelf amplifies waves to heights that can surpass a hundred feet, and violent, gusty winds called williwaws shoot down through the Andes. The Horn, a symbol of the dangers of the sea, looms large in a sailor’s mind until it has been safely passed. In December 1968, the first of the men of the Golden Globe made his approach. Robin Knox-Johnston, a twenty-nine-year-old captain in the British Merchant Navy, was leading the field in the southern Pacific. One of the first to enter the race, he was still stewing about a French victory in the 1964 Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race, which had inspired headlines offensive to Knox-Johnston’s national pride (“Frenchman Supreme on the Anglo-Saxon Ocean,” ran one such offender in Paris Match).
more from Maggie Shipstead at Lapham’s Quarterly here.