To the editor: If you’re the kind of sailor I am, you have been reading about Cape Horn since you caught the sailing bug. Cape Horn is the Everest of sailing: haunting, mesmerizing in its moods and a true test of mettle for sailors and their boats.
Naturally, with this kind of image and fascination concerning a piece of the Earth’s geography, I jumped at the chance to travel to Ushuaia, Argentina, in Tierra del Fuego, the largest port city in closest proximity to Cape Horn. I had images of a sailors’ base camp, plastered with sailors and stories of daring and seamanship, small ships and large yachts battling the Southern Ocean.
The flight from Buenos Aires was packed with all manner of travelers. I was in Ushuaia to meet my partner who was due to dock in a few days. As I unbuckled my seatbelt on the tarmac in Ushuaia, awestruck by the snow-covered peaks we had just flown over, wide-eyed at the breeze ripping down the Beagle Channel out the plane window, my partner was 800 miles to the south, waiting out a gale while at anchor on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Somehow I slipped past the Airbnb host who was waiting for me (no one told me she’d be there) and instead blasted out into the windy day with my two packs, seeking a taxi, wondering idly if I had enough pesos for the fare, or if the cabs there took credit cards (they don’t).
Rain spit down from thick gray clouds on a wind that I was to learn was pretty constant. I gave the cabbie the last of my pesos as I disembarked at the address I had for the rental agency. It was closed. I had been plunked down in the middle of Ushuaia on Av. San Martin — the main drag, home to tourists shops, restaurants in Swiss-style architecture, government buildings also in Swiss style, and the post office sporting larger-than-life murals of the indigenous Ona and Yamana (the last of that race as no living descendants survive).
As I wandered along the town’s main boulevard that first day, awaiting the return of my rental agent, I began to get my bearings. The town is oriented along the Beagle Channel, flowing east to west by the seaport nestled below a steep range of mountains, still capped with snow-covered glaciers even in late summer. Across the channel stood Isla Navarino and Isla Hostes, the latter also snow-capped, and both belonging to Chile. The international border is a watery one someplace in the middle of the Beagle Channel.
Ushuaia is a port town with few docks. The largest and busiest, I was to learn, is the one just below the town’s main avenue. When I arrived, there was a large red merchant vessel and one cruise ship. As the cabbie drove me into town from the airport — built on a peninsula jutting into the Beagle — I noticed, in addition to the ship pier, a few sailboats on moorings and just a couple of sailboat docks. This was the jumping-off point for Cape Horn, but this clearly was no sailing center; it is a base camp but its scale is minute, as I was to discover.
One of the Ushuaia-based sailboats that take sailors to Cape Horn and Antarctica.
In my head I had this town as some kind of sailing Mecca: the Newport of the Southern Hemisphere, with lots of chandleries, gear stores and sailors’ bars. Turns out, there isn’t much of that. Because, as I finally figured out, any sailor who stops in Ushuaia does so out of necessity, not pleasure. And did I mention that the sailing season is remarkably short, from about late November to late February? And that any sailor who keeps a boat there has to consider 25 knots “light air” since wind velocity seems to average just about that?
While Ushuaia lacks chandleries and nautical bookstores, it does have plenty of shops catering to Antarctic cruise ship passengers. Ushuaia is the beginning of the Antarctic journey for more than 30,000 ship passengers a year. During my stay at the end of February, two to six cruise ships came and left that large pier in the center of town. Daily. These were not the 3,000-passenger vessels that ply the Caribbean but the smaller kind of cruise ship carrying 100 to 300 passengers. Restrictions on disembarking passengers in Antarctica limit vessel size. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) has ruled that no more than 100 passengers per day can go ashore.
So the streets of Ushuaia ebb and flow with cruise ship passengers in the summer months, not sailors. That is not to say the town has no sailors. I did find them; I even found my own sailor, who was only two days late on his return, having gotten set 90 miles east by the winds and currents in the notorious Drake Passage.
As the Antarctic cruise ship business has boomed, Ushuaia has also become home to a small and intrepid fleet of sailboats that regularly ply the Drake Passage, ferrying passengers to the great white continent. These boats hail from many nations, are in various states of maintenance and mostly all are getting by in the slimmest of margins. They are skirting the edge of reason and seamanship, sailing to the one last great wilderness in a fashion befitting to the adventure. Crossing the Drake Passage — where 15-foot seas are standard and the current sets 3 to 5 knots to the east — to begin and end a sailing voyage is indeed a startling idea. And the notion that these vessels will take just about anyone, no matter their sailing experience, adds to the insanity. My conservative sailing streak cynically believes it is just a question of time before one of these vessels meets grief.
The provenance for many of the boats in this fleet stems from the BOC or other offshore races. Most are steel or aluminum with hard dodgers, cutter-rigged with heavy-duty anchoring tackle. Some have retracting keels to allow them to anchor in shallow waters.
There is not one Travelift to be seen along the Ushuaia waterfront. Can you imagine running a sailboat charter business with no chandlery or Travelift nearby? Madness.
Now, having said that, my partner did cross the Drake Passage on one of these vessels. Twice. He had a trip of a lifetime, more to do with location and destination than the vessel itself. So if you are a sailor and intrigued by this option, research these sailboats and their owners. Ask LOTS of questions; in particular, find out their strategy for cleaning their bottoms. A vegetable garden of marine growth is going to slow you down, and in tough situations you want to sail as fast as possible. And do your homework regarding the sailing. Know that your run down to Antarctica is downhill and your trip home, back to Ushuaia, is uphill. The prevailing winds are down the Beagle toward Cape Horn, day in, day out. You will sail on the nose as you head home to the dock in Ushuaia.
For more information on sailboats that cruise to Antarctica, visit the member directory at https://iaato.org/home.
—Based in Camden, Maine, sailor Molly Mulhern works with U.K. publisher Adlard Coles/Bloomsbury and helps launch nautical books.