Cape Horn is located on Isla Hornos in the Hermite Islands group, at the southern end of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. It marks the north edge of the Drake Passage, the strait between South America and Antarctica. It is located in Cabo de Hornos National Park.
The cape lies within what are now Chilean territorial waters, and the Chilean Navy maintains a station on Hoorn Island, consisting of a residence, utility building, chapel, and lighthouse. A short distance from the main station is a memorial, including a large sculpture made by Chilean sculptor José Balcells featuring the silhouette of an albatross, in remembrance of the sailors who died while attempting to "round the Horn". It was erected in 1992 through the initiative of the Chilean Section of the Cape Horn Captains Brotherhood. The terrain is entirely treeless, although quite lush owing to frequent precipitation. Cape Horn is the southern limit of the range of the Magellanic penguin.
Two lighthouses are located near or in Cape Horn. The one located in the Chilean Navy Station is the more accessible and visited, and is commonly referred to as the Cape Horn lighthouse. However, the Chilean Navy station, including the lighthouse (ARLS CHI-030, 55°57′48.5″S 67°13′14.2″W) and the memorial, are not located on Cape Horn (which is difficult to access either by land or sea), but on another land point about one mile east-northeast.
On Cape Horn proper is a smaller 4-metre (13-foot) fiberglass light tower, with a focal plane of 40 metres (130 feet) and a range of about 21 kilometres (13 miles). This is the authentic Cape Horn lighthouse (ARLS CHI-006, 55°58′38.3″S 67°15′45.5″W), and as such the world's southernmost traditional lighthouse. A few minor aids to navigation are located farther south, including one in the Diego Ramírez Islands and several in Antarctica.
The climate in the region is generally cool, owing to the southern latitude. There are no weather stations in the group of islands including Cape Horn; but a study in 1882–1883, found an annual rainfall of 1,357 millimetres (53.4 in), with an average annual temperature of 5.2 °C (41.4 °F). Winds were reported to average 30 kilometres per hour (8.33 m/s; 18.64 mph), (5 Bf), with squalls of over 100 kilometres per hour (27.78 m/s; 62.14 mph), (10 Bf) occurring in all seasons. There are 278 days of rainfall (70 days snow) and 2,000 millimetres (79 inches) of annual rainfall
Cloud coverage is generally extensive, with averages from 5.2 eighths in May and July to 6.4 eighths in December and January. Precipitation is high throughout the year: the weather station on the nearby Diego Ramirez Islands, 109 kilometres (68 mi) south-west in the Drake Passage, shows the greatest rainfall in March, averaging 137.4 millimetres (5.41 in); while October, which has the least rainfall, still averages 93.7 millimetres (3.69 in). Wind conditions are generally severe, particularly in winter. In summer, the wind at Cape Horn is gale force up to 5% of the time, with generally good visibility; however, in winter, gale-force winds occur up to 30% of the time, often with poor visibility.
Many stories are told of hazardous journeys "around the Horn," most describing fierce storms. Charles Darwin wrote: "One sight of such a coast is enough to make a landsman dream for a week about shipwrecks, peril and death."
Cape Horn is part of the Commune of Cabo de Hornos, whose capital is Puerto Williams; this in turn is part of Antártica Chilena Province, whose capital is also Puerto Williams. The area is part of the Magallanes y la Antártica Chilena Region of Chile. Puerto Toro, a few miles south of Puerto Williams, is the closest town to the cape.
A number of potential sailing routes may be followed around the tip of South America. The Strait of Magellan, between the mainland and Tierra del Fuego, is a major — although narrow — passage, which was in use for trade well before the Horn was discovered. The Beagle Channel (named for the ship of Charles Darwin's expedition), between Tierra del Fuego and Isla Navarino, offers a potential, though difficult route. Other passages may be taken around the Wollaston and Hermite Islands to the north of Cape Horn.
All of these, however, are notorious for treacherous williwaw winds, which can strike a vessel with little or no warning; given the narrowness of these routes, vessels have a significant risk of being driven onto the rocks. The open waters of the Drake Passage, south of Cape Horn, provide by far the widest route, at about 800 kilometres (500 miles) wide; this passage offers ample sea room for maneuvering as winds change, and is the route used by most ships and sailboats, despite the possibility of extreme wave conditions.
Several factors combine to make the passage around Cape Horn one of the most hazardous shipping routes in the world: the fierce sailing conditions prevalent in the Southern Ocean generally; the geography of the passage south of the Horn; and the extreme southern latitude of the Horn, at 56° south. (For comparison, Cape Agulhas at the southern tip of Africa is at 35° south; Stewart Island/Rakiura at the south end of New Zealand is 47° south.)
The prevailing winds in latitudes below 40° south can blow from west to east around the world almost uninterrupted by land, giving rise to the "roaring forties" and the even more wild "furious fifties" and "screaming sixties". These winds are hazardous enough that ships traveling east would tend to stay in the northern part of the forties (i.e. not far below 40° south latitude); however, rounding Cape Horn requires ships to press south to 56° south latitude, well into the zone of fiercest winds. These winds are exacerbated at the Horn by the funneling effect of the Andes and the Antarctic peninsula, which channel the winds into the relatively narrow Drake Passage.
The strong winds of the Southern Ocean give rise to correspondingly large waves; these waves can attain great height as they roll around the Southern Ocean, free of any interruption from land. At the Horn, however, these waves encounter an area of shallow water to the south of the Horn, which has the effect of making the waves shorter and steeper, greatly increasing the hazard to ships. If the strong eastward current through the Drake Passage encounters an opposing east wind, this can have the effect of further building up the waves. In addition to these "normal" waves, the area west of the Horn is particularly notorious for rogue waves, which can attain heights of up to 30 metres (98 feet).
The prevailing winds and currents create particular problems for vessels trying to round the Horn against them, i.e. from east to west. This was a particularly serious problem for traditional sailing ships, which could make very little headway against the wind at the best of times; modern sailing boats are significantly more efficient to windward and can more reliably make a westward passage of the Horn, as they do in the Global Challenge race.
Ice is a hazard to sailors venturing far below 40° south. Although the ice limit dips south around the horn, icebergs are a significant hazard for vessels in the area. In the South Pacific in February (summer in Southern Hemisphere), icebergs are generally confined to below 50° south; but in August the iceberg hazard can extend north of 40° south. Even in February, the Horn is well below the latitude of the iceberg limit. These hazards have made the Horn notorious as perhaps the most dangerous ship passage in the world; many ships were wrecked, and many sailors died attempting to round the Cape.
In 1525 the vessel San Lesmes commanded by Francisco de Hoces, member of the Loaísa Expedition, was blown south by a gale in front of the Atlantic end of Magellan Strait and reached 56° S where they thought to see Land's End.
In September 1578, Sir Francis Drake, in the course of his circumnavigation of the world, passed through the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific Ocean. Before he could continue his voyage north his ships encountered a storm, and were blown well to the south of Tierra del Fuego. The expanse of open water they encountered led Drake to guess that far from being another continent, as previously believed, Tierra del Fuego was an island with open sea to its south. This discovery went unused for some time, as ships continued to use the known passage through the Strait of Magellan.
By the early 17th century the Dutch East India Company was given a monopoly on all Dutch trade via the Straits of Magellan and the Cape of Good Hope, the only known routes at the time to the Far East. To search for an alternate route and one to the unknown Terra Australis, Isaac Le Maire, a wealthy Amsterdam merchant and Willem Schouten, a ship’s master of Hoorn, contributed in equal shares to the enterprise, with additional financial support from merchants of Hoorn. Jacob Le Maire, Isaac’s son, went on the journey as “chiefe Marchant and principall factor,” in charge of trading aspects of the endeavor. The two ships that departed Holland at the beginning of June 1615 were the Eendracht of 360 tons with Schouten and Le Maire aboard, and the Hoorn of 110 tons, of which Schouten’s brother Johan was master. It was Eendracht then, with the crew of the recently wrecked Hoorn aboard, that passed through the Le Maire Strait and Schouten and Le Maire made their great discovery:
“In the evening 25 January 1616 the winde was South West, and that night wee went South with great waves or billowes out of the southwest, and very blew water, whereby wee judged, and held for certaine that ... it was the great South Sea, whereat we were exceeding glad to thinke that wee had discovered a way, which until that time, was unknowne to men, as afterward wee found it to be true.”
“... on 29 January 1616 we saw land againe lying north west and north northwest from us, which was the land that lay South from the straights of Magelan which reacheth Southward, all high hillie lande covered over with snow, ending with a sharpe point which wee called Cape Horne [Kaap Hoorn] ...”
At the time it was discovered, the Horn was believed to be the southernmost point of Tierra del Fuego; the unpredictable violence of weather and sea conditions in the Drake Passage made exploration difficult, and it was only in 1624 that the Horn was discovered to be an island. It is a telling testament to the difficulty of conditions there that Antarctica, only 650 kilometres (400 miles) away across the Drake Passage, was discovered only as recently as 1820, despite the passage having been used as a major shipping route for 200 years.
From the 18th to the early 20th centuries, Cape Horn was a part of the clipper routes which carried much of the world's trade. Sailing ships sailed round the Horn carrying wool, grain, and gold from Australia back to Europe; much trade was carried around the Horn between Europe and the Far East; and trade and passenger ships travelled between the coasts of the United States via the Horn. The Horn exacted a heavy toll from shipping, however, owing to the extremely hazardous combination of conditions there.
The only facilities in the vicinity able to service or supply a ship, or provide medical care, were in the Falkland Islands. The businesses there were so notorious for price-gouging that damaged ships were sometimes abandoned at Port Stanley.
While most companies switched to steamers and later used the Panama canal, German steel-hulled sailing ships like the Flying P-Liners were designed since the 1890s to withstand the weather conditions around the Horn, as they specialized in the South American nitrate trade and later the Australian grain trade. None of them were lost travelling around the Horn, but some, like the mighty Preußen, were victims of collisions in the busy English channel.
Traditionally, a sailor who had rounded the Horn was entitled to wear a gold loop earring — in the left ear, the one which had faced the Horn in a typical eastbound passage — and to dine with one foot on the table; a sailor who had also rounded the Cape of Good Hope could place both feet on the table.
One particular historic attempt to round the Horn, that of HMS Bounty in 1788, has been immortalized in history due to the subsequent Mutiny on the Bounty. This abortive Horn voyage has been portrayed (with varying historical accuracy) in three major motion pictures about Captain William Bligh's mission to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to Jamaica. The Bounty made only 85 miles of headway in 31 days of east-to-west sailing, before giving up by reversing course and going around Africa. Although the 1984 movie portrayed another decision to go round the Horn as a precipitating factor in the mutiny (this time west-to-east after collecting the breadfruits in the South Pacific), in fact that was never contemplated out of concern for the effect of the low temperatures near the Horn on the plants.
The transcontinental railroads in North America, as well as the Panama Canal that opened in 1914 in Central America, led to the gradual decrease in use of the Horn for trade. As steamships replaced sailing ships, Flying P-Liner Pamir became the last commercial sailing ship to round Cape Horn laden with cargo, carrying grain from Port Victoria, Australia to Falmouth, England in 1949.
Many modern tankers are too wide to fit through the Panama Canal, as are a few passenger ships and several aircraft carriers. But there are no regular commercial routes around the Horn, and modern ships are rarely seen.
Despite the opening of the Suez and Panama Canals, the Horn remains part of the fastest sailing route around the world, and so the growth in recreational long-distance sailing has brought about a revival of sailing via the Horn. Owing to the remoteness of the location and the hazards there, a rounding of Cape Horn is widely considered to be the yachting equivalent of climbing Mount Everest, and so many sailors seek it for its own sake.
Joshua Slocum was the first single-handed yachtsman to successfully pass this way (in 1895) although in the end, extreme weather forced him to use some of the inshore routes between the channels and islands and it is believed he did not actually pass outside the Horn proper. If one had to go by strict definitions, the first small boat to sail around outside Cape Horn was the 42-foot (13-metre) yacht Saoirse, sailed by Conor O'Brien with three friends, who rounded it during a circumnavigation of the world between 1923 and 1925. In 1934, the Norwegian Al Hansen was the first to round Cape Horn single-handed from east to west — the "wrong way" — in his boat Mary Jane, but was subsequently wrecked on the coast of Chile. The first person to successfully circumnavigate the world single-handed via Cape Horn was Argentinian Vito Dumas, who made the voyage in 1942 in his 33-foot (10-metre) ketch Lehg II; a number of other sailors have since followed him, including Webb Chiles aboard "EGREGIOUS" who in December 1975 rounded Cape Horn single-handed. On March 31, 2010, 16-year-old Abby Sunderland became the youngest person to single-handedly sail around Cape-Horn in her attempt to circumnavigate the globe.
Today, there are several major yacht races held regularly along the old clipper route via Cape Horn. The first of these was the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, which was a single-handed race; this inspired the present-day Around Alone race, which circumnavigates with stops, and the Vendée Globe, which is non-stop. Both of these are single-handed races, and are held every four years. The Volvo Ocean Race is a crewed race with stops which sails the clipper route every four years. Its origins lie in the Whitbread Round the World Race first competed in 1973-4. The Jules Verne Trophy is a prize for the fastest circumnavigation of the world by any type of yacht, with no restrictions on the size of the crew (no assistance, non-stop). Finally, the Global Challenge race goes around the world the "wrong way", from east to west, which involves rounding Cape Horn against the prevailing winds and currents.
The Horn remains a major hazard for recreational sailors, however. A classic case is that of Miles and Beryl Smeeton, who attempted to round the Horn in their yacht Tzu Hang. Hit by a rogue wave when approaching the Horn, the boat pitchpoled (i.e. somersaulted end-over-end). Although they survived, and were able to make repairs in Talcahuano, Chile, they attempted the passage again, only to be rolled over, and dismasted for a second time, by another rogue wave, which again they miraculously survived.
Cape Horn has been an icon of sailing culture for centuries; it has featured in sea shanties and in many books about sailing. One of the classic accounts of a working ship in the age of sail is Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., in which the author describes an arduous trip from Boston to California via Cape Horn:
Charles Darwin, in The Voyage of the Beagle, a journal of the five-year expedition upon which he based The Origin of Species, described his 1832 encounter with the Horn:
Alan Villiers, a modern-day expert in traditional sailing ships, wrote many books about traditional sailing, including By way of Cape Horn. More recent sailors have taken on the Horn singly, such as Vito Dumas, who wrote Alone Through The Roaring Forties based on his round-the-world voyage; or with small crews.
Bernard Moitessier made two significant voyages round the Horn; once with his wife Françoise, described in Cape Horn: The Logical Route, and once single-handed. His book The Long Way tells the story of this latter voyage, and of a peaceful night-time passage of the Horn: "The little cloud underneath the moon has moved to the right. I look... there it is, so close, less than 10 miles (16 km) away and right under the moon. And nothing remains but the sky and the moon playing with the Horn. I look. I can hardly believe it. So small and so huge. A hillock, pale and tender in the moonlight; a colossal rock, hard as diamond."
And John Masefield wrote: "Cape Horn, that tramples beauty into wreck / And crumples steel and smites the strong man dumb."
A memorial presented in Robert FitzRoy's bicentenary (2005) commemorates his landing on Cape Horn on 19 April 1830.
Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song entitled "Ghosts of Cape Horn."
Visiting Cabo de Hornos can be done on a day trip by helicopter or more arduously by charter power boat or sailboat, or by cruise ship. "Rounding the Horn" is traditionally understood to involve sailing from 50 degrees South on one coast to 50 degrees South on the other coast, the two benchmark latitudes of a Horn run, a considerably more difficult and time-consuming endeavor having a minimum length of 930 miles (1,500 km).