12. A No Fish Story : Cape Horn
Rounding Cape Horn. Photo by Gerry Kahrmann
In the fall of 1969, I took a year off university studies and hitchhiked to South America. I had been spending my summers working as a prospector for small, gypo mining exploration companies in northern Canada and had managed to put aside enough money for an eleven-month trip. While in bush camp I had also been able to study elementary Spanish, just enough to get by on.
My most southerly journey was to Puerto Montt in Chile. It was a frontier town and reminded me of places I had worked out of in Canada, such as Whitehorse and Yellowknife. It was also the jumping-off point to Patagonia, that great wilderness of mountains, glaciers, deep bays, islands and seas. Over time the place called me back. For me, a return visit would be a chance to compare my own beautiful coast, although scarred by many logging clearcuts, to a more pristine, forgotten land with many strange, endemic species.
The southern tip of South America juts into the southern ocean like a great extended middle finger. It impinges the western flow of seas that pass between it and the Antarctic Peninsula across Drake Passage. The incessant westerlies force the seas up over shallow ground and against unseen currents moving in the opposite direction. Huge waves are not uncommon, with some over 30 meters (100 ft.) high.
In 1994 in the Bering Strait Tom, Dick and I had talked about my idea of “rounding the Horn” by kayak. We had discussed scenes from Mutiny on The Bounty where the ship, after a month of trying to round the horn from the east in terrible seas, had been forced to turn back and go all the way around Cape Hope in Africa. Captain Bligh had worried about being too late in the season to make the passage, and I wondered about the actual conditions off Cape Horn in summer months. At any given time there are perhaps four storm systems generating very large wave formations zooming in a clockwise direction around the Antarctic. If your timing is unlucky and you run into one of these systems you will fare no better than Captain Bligh, and perhaps much worse. The key to success is to be as close as possible to the Horn and wait for an opening in the weather conditions. This sort of planning is easy to contemplate sitting in front of a computer or chart. It is much different when you are camped on an open slope in a land with 278 days of rainfall, 120 inches a year, in a tent that is in danger of being blown away. But, compared to being offshore on a wooden sailing ship, it is better. Since you are traveling by kayak you have the unique ability to haul your craft ashore and wait near the action in relative safety (if not comfort). When you judge it is the right time you go fast and hard. Things change really quickly at the Horn.
When I outlined to Gerry, my new paddling partner, my proposed trip around Cape Horn, and the conditions we would likely encounter, he jumped right in. He had gone on some coastal kayaking trips but this would be his first open ocean experience. What he brought to our team was enthusiasm and a lot of diverse skills based on his hiking and climbing experiences, including first aid. He also offered to cook! As a professional photographer for a major newspaper he would be able to document our progress. I designed a special frame for holding his waterproof Pelican case so he could mount his cameras on the deck of our double kayak. He wasn’t going to be a powerhouse up in the bow cockpit, but I knew that he was fit, knowledgeable in a lot of areas, articulate, and would be a good partner.
Gerry and I met up with our teammates at the Santiago airport, Chile on January 1, 1997. First out of the gate, as expected, strode Tom. He greeted us with a wide smile and extended his big paw out for a crunching handshake. Dick followed. He was the same gregarious, warm guy I remembered.
The next day Dick and I headed to Chile’s main port, Valparaiso, to get charts for south Patagonia. Following instructions from our hotel staff we first took a subway to the Universidad de Chile and then walked down a fine, tree-lined street to a nice, modern bus depot. There we got on a bus for the coast. We passed by some estancias, some shacks, with much of the land too dry for anything. As the bus came down through the barren hills we could see numerous navy ships out past the docks, tidy houses and old colonial buildings.
We started asking around for the address of the Servicio Hydrografico y Oceanografic de la Armada de Chile. We had no address number.
Eventually an attractive, middle aged woman overheard us and told us to take the Rioja (red bus). Tequalda was so friendly, she decided to go with us. We went up the steep hills (like “San Francisco”, she said, although she had never been there). All this time she talked nonstop, which was music to my ears, because I was trying to resuscitate my rusty Spanish.
The Servicio at the top of the hill was the wrong place, but we were given another address back down to where we had started. We actually did find the charts. Success. To celebrate, Tequalda wanted to take us to her home for lunch, but we insisted on treating her in a restaurant. She led us to a fine, swank place on the water above the docks. She talked to Dick, who was loving this, even though he didn’t understand a word. They both used the old technique of talking louder and louder to make someone understand, but this didn’t work this time.
After lunch she invited us to take a collectivo up the hill to her home, and there we met her number three husband, also a collectivo driver. The first two husbands had been navy men, “gone eight months a year” she said, and the marriages hadn’t prospered. This guy, who treated her with great respect, was golden.
After the visit he dropped us off at the bus depot and we purchased a ticket for Santiago. “Santiago” was printed on the ticket, but also “Cholloum”, which I interpreted as a stop along the way. We arrived at an old station surrounded by low, dilapidated buildings, none of which looked familiar. We stayed on the bus. More people got on. The bus pulled out, and only when the conductor came to ask us for tickets did we realize that we had entered the same bus depot, but by a very different route. Embarrassed, we jumped out of the bus, found the University de Santiago subway, bought tickets, and went through the turnstiles before realizing that we had left the charts in the bus. We went back to the bus depot, reported our loss and were told to come back the next day.
When we got back to our hotel we found Gerry and Tom packaging up a mountain of food for the trip. It had to last up to five weeks. At least they had been successful. The next morning we returned to the bus depot but nobody seemed to have been notified, or cared, about the charts. In broken Spanish I managed finally to get through to the supervisor who phoned Valparaiso and found out the bus number. We came back two more times, and to our astonishment, on the third visit in late evening the charts were handed to us.
That night we went out for dinner at a possibly sketchy restaurant. Dick, Tom and I had fish and meat while Gerry had the best looking dinner: a juicy salad full of ripe tomatoes and cucumbers. After dinner we were strolling down a main tourist avenue when a guy whispered to us that the beer was good “down below”. He led us down some stairs and into a subterranean grotto.
As soon as we got to the entrance a number of heavily painted, short-skirted women escorted each of us past a bar full of other women. I will always remember Dick, in his 75th year, being led by his women, one on each arm, to a seating area.
Gerry came to his senses first. In his usual articulate way he said: “This is going to cost us big time just to ogle some tits”. Unfortunately, by this time Tom was already sitting between two women with their arms on his lap, being served beer and grinning from ear to ear. You might be able to separate Tom from two hookers, but not from two beers. To our great shame we left him there to his own devices. I feared the worst.
Fortunately, he came back late that night. He said that they tried to charge him 40,000 pesos for two beers. When he balked he said the biggest bouncer he had ever seen suddenly appeared and became quite persuasive. Tom just gave them all of the money he had — 17,000 pesos — and managed to get out of there.
That night Gerry became very ill. He had diarrhea, was heaving, sweating, groaning, vomiting, and looked ghostly pale. We suspected it was the salad. The next morning after booking a van that never came we managed to get ourselves and our ten large bags, (totaling 320 kg.) including two double kayaks, food and gear to the airport in three taxis. I have a photo of all our gear sitting outside the terminal and poor Gerry lying on top it.
When we got on the plane he was so sick that the stewardess asked us what was the matter with him. I was worried that they might kick us off as health risks and told her that he was scared sick of flying. Too hard to explain about the salad. That seemed to work, as soon we were in the air, heading for the southern town of Puerto Montt.
Puerto Montt had that frontier look and feel of the northern towns that I used to work out of, but with a decidedly Spanish influence. We didn’t want to hang around there, though. Gerry was still ill and I thought that maybe our best option was to fly directly to the Chilean town of Puerto Williams, on the Beagle Channel and rest up until Gerry recovered.
However, the airline and the ferry were both heavily booked, so we went to the bus depot. There we were told that they wouldn’t take our baggage. At the tourist office we explained our predicament and they told us of another bus company operating out of the Hotel Cabot de Horno. There, the young ticket guy, in true bureaucratic fashion, said no, they couldn’t handle our stuff. Fortunately, after more enquiries, the woman who actually ran the office and even spoke English with a deep, masculine voice and a twinkle in her eye, said we could load the bags ourselves if we purchased three extra seats for our gear. Each seat needed an occupant, so we named ours Susy, Marie and Isabel (para las mujeres). We loaded our bags and the still mostly comatose (when not erupting) Gerry into the bus and motored off for the Argentine town of Ushuaia.
Our route took us to the Straits of Magellan, where all the passengers got out as the bus drove onto a small ferry with loading ramps at each end. There were no piers or docks. Perhaps the wind is just too strong to justify maintaining them. The gusty, 35 knot westerlies that we encountered during the crossing reminded me of how remarkable the early, upwind passages through this unmarked channel by Magellan must have been, and for those who followed.
As late as 1900, when Captain Joshua Slocum sailed through these passages on the first solo circumnavigation of the globe, there were still locals paddling canoes with fires blazing both as a source of heat and for signalling. Hence the name: “land of fire”. When he dropped anchor and slept here he was advised to put tacks on his deck to ward off the local Yahgan people. He did so, writing: “now, it is well known that one cannot step on a tack without saying something about it”. One night locals did try to board his Spray while he was asleep, but howled when they stamped on the tacks and fled into the water and to their canoes .
Unfortunately for the Yahgan people, whose ancestors had lived in this unforgiving land for 10,000 years off fish, sea lions and wild plants, they did not survive the onslaught of European diseases and greed. There are apparently very few Yahgans living today.
As we headed south on the gravel road towards San Sebastian, at the border with Argentina, the soil appeared to become tenuous, the land more rocky and barren.
In Ushuaia we stayed at “The Casita” which was a dumpy, separate cabin with three rooms and its own entrance to the street through a falling-down gate and a door with no knob. It had character and suited us perfectly. There was a large table in the kitchen where we could organize our huge pile of food and gear. Our hostess, Senora Fernandez, had character too, much like a communal mother. She was very helpful with our organizing, although frugal — and especially not generous with the TP. I think that she had housed numerous climbing expeditions around here, although ours was the first kayaking event for her.
We left Ushuaia heading east down the Beagle Channel towards Puerto Williams, with a 35 to 40 knot tailwind. Gerry, being only slightly recovered, could offer little help in the paddling. The following seas were tricky for me to handle the big double kayak on my own. Bare knuckle paddling.
When we got to Puerto Williams, back in Chile, we went straight to the Port Authority and presented our letter of permission for traveling around Cape Horn. “No, this is not possible,” said the superintendent. “You cannot go to the “Wollaston Group” (“Cabo de Horno” is in the Wollaston group of islands). He suggested that just maybe we would be permitted to go to Punto Guanaco, at the south east end of Navarino Island, and that then maybe they would change their minds. We did not know how to interpret that. Perhaps he did not want to approve our plans because something might go wrong and he would be held responsible? Did he expect money? We didn’t think that. If we went to Guanaco and just kept going, would they send the navy after us? Hard to say. I just decided to stay in his office during working hours and sit across from him. Mostly it was just me, because I could at least talk to him or at him, but Tom and Dick relieved me from my vigil when I needed food and bathroom breaks. I stayed there in that office for two and a half days. Finally he said that our “permission has arrived”. I think that he was getting tired of me. The agreement offered was that we would call in on our VHF radio every day and report our position and condition. We both knew that there was no way they would be able to pick up a VHF signal, with its short range, during most of our trip. I agreed readily. We made surprisingly good time early on.
Journal, January 26, 1997, East Side of Pto. Eugenia, Isla Navarino, -54.936, -67.29
Paddling down the east side of Isla Navarino: “Left camp just E. of Pto. Eugenia, light westerlies. These grew to strong 25 knot northerlies. We had a direct tailwind till Pto. Toro. But pressure falling: 1010 to 989 in a few minutes. Flat calm after a downpour. Lunch. Then 180 deg. reversal, strong 20 to 30 kn wind from the south, against us. Smokin’ out in the Strait. Evening now, pressure still 994. Clouds from the west, winds moderate.”
We could never make a connection between pressure and weather. Both were all over the place, and not in sync. Mainly this was topography: sometimes the prevailing westerlies would blow around the north end of the island and we would have northerlies, sometimes around the south end, especially as we traveled south and sometimes right over the hills and mountains, treating us, for our pleasure, to strong katabatic westerlies that seemed capable of blowing our tents into the sea and our kayaks out to nowhere. The land changed too, passing from attractive beech and conifer forests in the Beagle Channel down to Magellanic mooreland at the south end of Navarino Island, featuring Magellans’ peat moss and poor drainage for the 5000 or so millimeters of rain a year that inundates this rocky land.
This was a desperate place, populated by few animals, although midway down the island we did see one of Canada’s famed national animals, a beaver, fifty of which were imported to this area back in the 1940s in an attempt to foster a fur trade. With no natural predators such as wolves or bears, these animals have flourished, while busying themselves, as only beavers can, decimating forests and causing widespread flooding.
We still had some problems. Gerry was still weak. If it was normal food poisoning he should have been getting better. We decided, somewhat belatedly, that he was the reason that he, the medical guy, had brought along a course of antibiotics. He started taking them.
I was suffering too, from tendonitis on my left wrist, which was swollen and sore. It had started on my first day when I was trying to handle the double kayak by myself in big following seas. According to my expert, Ken Fink, who has raced kayaks successfully for years off the coast of Maine, tendonitis occurs when you are holding the paddle too tightly. Perhaps I was. Fortunately, we had a solution at hand. Dick had brought along a bent shaft paddle, which was new at that time, and he generously lent it to me. It allows you to paddle with your wrist in a more open, natural position. Surprisingly, it worked incredibly well. As I used it each day my pain and swelling eased. When I tried going back to my straight shaft paddle, even with a loose grip, the pain returned.
We managed to make Guanaco Point, southeast corner of Navarino Island, (-53.322, -67.23) without too much difficulty. From there, looking south across the Bahia Nassau, we could see the hills of the Wollaston group of islands. Bahia Nassau is only 15.5 kn. across, but it looked formidable. There was a 30-knot wind blowing south down the east side of Isla Navarino colliding with westerlies barreling down Bahia Nassau. Roiling, difficult seas. At times like these I often think of an old song by a great gal, blues singer Ernestine Anderson’s “Never Make Your Move Too Soon”. We needed to see how this body of water ahead of us behaved. We stayed there for three days, just wandering around the bogs and moors, studying how the wind and waves behaved on the strait, and waiting for a weather opening.
It became clear to us that some of the wind was created by daytime temperature differences between land and sea. The wind never stopped, but it did pick up in the afternoon.
On our fourth day we were up at midnight and on the water by 2:30 am. It worked. The crossing took just four hours and soon we were closing in on Alcamar Wollaston, which is a small weather station at the northeast corner of the Wollaston Group. (-55.5855, -67.366)
We wondered why nobody answered our VHF request to land and soon found out why when we knocked on the door. Nobody was awake. Once they got up and shared their coffee with us, though, they were very friendly and seemed happy to see us. It was a relief for us to be welcomed by these men. There were five young navy guys there on some sort of training mission as well as the three regulars. We left after an hour or so and made our way to Hately Bay, another 4 nautical miles south.
In Hatley Bay (-55.629, -67.3765) I finally managed to land a fish. Its head looked like a rock fish, which generally have a large, dangerous looking head. But this evacuated fellow had no body, just a cavity. I threw it back and wished for it better times. Although I dropped a line at various times, this was the only fish I caught.
The next morning we got up at 4 am, were off by 6:45, crossed Franklin Channel to the Hermite Islands and made it to the south end of Isla Herschel (-55.8795, -67.199) opposite Isla Deceit. We had made 17 NM in pretty good weather, although Franklin Channel was a bit hairy. We had intended to stay the night on Herschel at the abandoned navy camp left over from the Beagle Conflict that had brought Chile and Argentina to the brink of war in 1978 over Isla Picton, Isla Lennox and Isla Nueva, just east of Isla Navarino.
We pulled in to the beach, didn’t like the look of the mildewed buildings and thought, what the hell, the weather is good now, let’s go. You go when you can.
It was exciting to round Isla Herschel and see our destination, the steep cliffs of Cabo de Hornos, just 6 NM away. We paddled the crossing in failing light, made the beach (-55.9624, -67.2241) and climbed the steep stairways up to the lighthouse.
January 31, 1997, Cabo Hornos,
We earned our official “Isla Hornos Correos-Chile” stamp, signed by our three hosts, in our journals today by paddling around Isla Hornos. We left at 6:45 AM, paddled hard and finished the 15 nautical miles by 10:35. Good paddle. It started off pretty easy, heading counter-clockwise up the east side of the island, but by the time we reached the north end and paddled into the Pacific, the wind had picked up and we had some real swells coming up and crashing on the cliffs rising up out of the very cold waters. Rounding the south end we were favoured by a strong current that took us back to the lighthouse. We were very lucky with the conditions.
That night we had a grand party, celebrating with our hosts’ pisco, Tom’s vodka, and the Johnny Walker whiskey that we expressly brought for the occasion. As Tom was our “designated drinker” he stayed up much later with our Chilean hosts than Gerry, Dick and I. All night, in fact: I have a photo of him laid out the next morning, half on, half off the couch, and still in his dry suit.
The next day we were late getting down to the beach. The tide was too high on the tight beach for us to launch into the big swells that were now coming into the bay.
Gerry, who by now was feeling better, and I decided to go for a hike. We couldn’t hike up the nearest hill because a sign indicated that there were still unexploded mines left over from the Beagle Conflict. Instead we went down towards a nearby beach. It was difficult to get around. We had to dance from one high, 2 meter hummock to another, while avoiding all the channels in between where dozens of Magellanic penguins lurked. Unfortunately, Bovey, the camp dog, had followed us and promptly started attacking the penguins. We got out of there and went up another hill instead. The trees were all bent sideways from the incredible wind. Sometimes it was easier to crawl on the top branches from tree to tree.
Occasionally we would fall through and end up crawling through the thicket. I had to wonder, how did Darwin get around? He must have gone somewhere else. I also had another question. By now I had thrown my fishing line in the water a few times, with different lures, and had just the one bite. What was the penguins’ secret?
We woke up the next day to strong westerlies, rising seas, and indications of more to come. By the time we got down to the launching bay the tide was high and the seas were washing right over the beach. We put off going.
The next few days were consumed with getting up early and rushing down to the beach, only to find that it would be impossible to set off. This gave us a chance to explore the island and watch the penguins, from a distance, without Bovey the hunter. They would slide down amongst the sheltering hummocks, waddle a few steps and then hurl themselves into the sea. I sat and watched them for hours and never saw them chomping on any substantial fish. Again I wondered how they could look so robust and well fed when I couldn’t get a bite? Later I learned that these birds feed mostly on krill, squid and small crustaceans. Not fish. This seemed like a great place to be for a penguin. No natural predators, good cover amongst the hummocks. Could penguins have evolved in places such as this and then headed south across Drake Passage to Antarctica?
One evening our hosts were getting hammered and a call came in from the captain of a freighter, “Request permission to come within two miles of the horn”. For some reason this stern request from an American sea captain caused confusion, so I was given the job. “Permission granted!” I shouted into the mike as firmly as I could.
Although our hosts seemed to genuinely enjoy our company, we didn’t want to overstay our welcome. One morning we left in very sketchy conditions. David, who was the head guy at Cabo, stayed on the beach and watched us patiently as we loaded our kayaks while surf was dumping on us. After Gerry and I helped Tom and Dick get off the steep beach, David steadied our boat as we got in. It was rough and he wondered why we were so eager to go. “Didn’t you sleep well in the house?” he said (in Spanish) and told us that “the sea doesn’t want you to go”. I loved that gentle, friendly statement and wondered at the time what the hell we were doing.
Hatley Bay. Photo by Gerry Kahrmann
Often in climbing expeditions, summiting isn’t the most dangerous part. It’s getting back down that’s the problem. Our trip was like that.
In big seas we made it back to Hatley Bay. But then we had to camp for several days as storms swept in. Wind whistled down off the mountains and threatened to flatten our fly and tents. Seas were grey and ominous. We set off a couple of times in driving wind and rain, but returned to camp.
Tom was reluctant to paddle in these seas because Dick, who had been strong a couple of years earlier on the Bering Sea trip, was having trouble keeping up. We did get off finally and made it back to the beach off Estacion Cabot Ross on February 4. There was big surf blasting onto the beach.
Gerry and I went in first and made it in O.K. between wave sets. We dragged our boat up as far as we could and waited for Tom and Dick. With a big loaded double it’s best to try and time it to come in between waves, not straight down them. This was no place for surfing adventures. But after Tom missed his first chance the next set came in much bigger and suddenly they were riding down a monster. I remember looking at that big wave and saying to Gerry, with a lump in my throat: “Damn, that wave is bigger than their kayak.” And their kayak was 20 feet long. The wave broke, Tom and Dick braced and somehow they managed to stay upright, but they slammed violently onto shore. They made it out all right and so did the kayak and we all breathed more easily. However, they never had a chance to raise their rudder so the fin was bent sideways and the pin that extends out of the main rudder block was torn off.
I wrestled with that rudder for two days before deciding that there was a better than 50% chance that my repairs would last for the rest of the trip. And they did, thanks to bailing wire, duct tape and a large bolt supplied by the crew at the estacion. When we got home I was able to improve on the design and strength of the rudder, lessening the chance of future failures.
The group at Estacion Cabot Ross was less disciplined than at Cabo Horno. They drank pisco very late and got up late too. It was no wonder that they never responded to our radio calls, both heading south and returning north. It was also very hot inside, and noisy with the generator and radio.
We were pinned down by bad weather for days and I found myself going for long hikes. Most of the bush was dense, like our windswept west coast. My hiking style, which combined crawling on hands and knees as well as scrambling over the tops of trees, proved to be unpopular with the others. So I was usually by myself. Only once did I glimpse an animal, which looked like an otter. There was also little in the way of animal droppings, which you tend to notice when you are on your hands and knees. The moss was luxurious and soft to the touch, though, and beautiful.
Journal entry, February 8, 1997:
“Sunny, NW 25 kn, morning
Got up at 2:00 am, checked wind. Didn’t look too bad, S.W. 15 kn,
but too much for night crossing. Got up again at 3:30 am, got dressed. Waited for light, 5:00. Paddled to point, wind had shifted to NW 25 kn,, returned here. It’s smokin’ out there now. Sitting on point, looking north. Old dog, blond mongrel, panting beside me. Waiting. Others sleeping in house. Too hot and noisy. Forecast tomorrow: 30 to 40 kn headwind. Not a lot of food left.”
Finally we made the crossing to Navarino Island on February 10. Gerry and I stopped for a quick snack mid-way across. Tom didn’t like that and berated us for stopping. With the wind and current pushing us offshore he wanted to get across quickly. Gerry said: “I’m not choking on my Snickers for nobody”. I said: “These kayaks can cross oceans”. Tom said: “But I don’t want to cross an ocean”.
This was a hard trip for Gerry. First he was awfully sick. He got over that. But he was also having to deal with a pending divorce. When we were in Puerto Williams he was on the phone with his wife a couple of times and came back feeling very sad. I heard his story and commiserated with him. Damn woman.
 Sailing Alone Around the World, By Captain Joshua Slocum, 1900
 A katabatic wind is the technical name for a wind that carries air from a hill or mountain down a slope under the force of gravity.
 In 2001 Tom rowed with a partner from the Canary Islands across the Atlantic to Barbados.
 I had no inkling that years later I would marry her. She’s outside raking leaves right now.