Bronwyn Elsmore dares to round the Horn and in doing so joins a select club that would horrify her mother.
You'll excuse me, I'm sure, if I sit with both elbows on the dining table. I'm allowed, you see.
The old tradition was that when a sailor had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, he could rest his left elbow on the board. To qualify for the right elbow, one had to be a veteran of passage around the notorious Cape Horn. There were few who could sit and rest both arm joints on the table or counter. A good number of candidates didn't survive to make their claim.
Having been a left-elbower for a while, veteran of the passage from the Indian Ocean westward into the South Atlantic, I recently jumped at the chance to complete the set. When I say I sailed across the Pacific and down the length of the South American coast, 17,000km one way, in order to achieve the feat, the fact is I paid my way on to a well-crewed modern vessel, along with a few hundred fellow passengers. And the term "sailed" is figurative considering the size of the diesel-electric engines powering our journey.
Still, the fact remains that, as in past times, few people can claim to have done it. Most ships that take the southern route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans navigate their way through the mass of islands that make up the south of Chile, and pass through one of the waterways that cut through the end of the continent.
Even that choice doesn't provide an easy option. Both the Strait of Magellan that separates the mainland from Tierra del Fuego, and the Beagle Channel further south have earned their reputations as notorious stretches of water.
The fabled "Horn" is an island, the south tip of Isla Hornos, the southernmost tip of the continent. From Ushuaia, Chile, on the Beagle Channel and the southernmost city on the globe, it's still a good day's steaming — past the Wollaston Islands, on to the Hermite Islands which, if not part of the world's southernmost national park, would surely be the least sought-after real estate on earth. Nevertheless, 40 years ago Argentina attempted a summertime invasion — perhaps the most short-lived in history as it was postponed within hours due to bad weather.
The island furthest south in the group, with 650km of stormy sea separating it from the ice of Antarctica, is Isla Hornos, and its cape is ill-famed, infamous and feared, for good reason.
Rather than turning to port at the Atlantic end of the Beagle Channel and making a run up into more equable temperatures, we turn to starboard and head toward the Southern Sea and the pole. No taking the easy option for us. The captain plans, if at all possible, to circumnavigate Isla Hornos. That achieved, all on board will be able to say with certainty that we have, indeed, rounded the Horn.
Finally, after much planning, anticipation and praying for good weather, here we are.
Around breakfast time we stand on deck, clad in polar fleece and padded jackets. The sky is grey, temperature just above freezing, wind at 4 on the Beaufort scale. The engines are managing the legendary currents, the surface of the top of Drake's Passage is as smooth as can be realistically hoped for, and there's not an iceberg in sight. Almost balmy for this part of the world, even in summer.
We're at the meeting point of the great oceans. On one side lies the Pacific, on the other the Atlantic. Across a short expanse of water stands a peak, about twice as high as Mt Maunganui, rocky, with scattered low vegetation. With the aid of binoculars and telephoto lens I can see the long building topped by the lighthouse that still serves to signal to mariners the end of the earth.
There's no chance of stopping ashore to view the Cape Horn memorial — a sculpture with a cut-out shape of an albatross — to the unknown number of seafarers who, over centuries, didn't live to tell the tale of their passage.
I give the lost souls a thought, a prayer, as we move past the headland that stands at the end of the inhabited world.
With the notch now etched into my sailcloth belt, I'm thinking of becoming a member of IACH, the International Association of Cape Horners. More intrepid commanders of ships that have made the passage can be admitted to Albatross class, lesser crewmembers inducted as Mollymawks or Cape Pigeons, but I'll be satisfied with entry into the Friend category.
Mine wasn't a merchant ship, as the rules first intended but I promise to uphold the aims of comradeship "which bind together the unique body of men and women who enjoy the distinction of having voyaged round Cape Horn".
Meanwhile, were my mother here she would look at my offending arms placed amid the cutlery and issue her customary phrase "all uncooked joints off the table".
What pleasure I'd take in being able to plant them even more firmly and respond, "I'm allowed. I have a certificate to prove it."
sails the Strait of Magellan, the Beagle Channel and rounds Cape Horn. Departing from Valparaiso on November 1, 2019, fares start from $9288pp, twin share.