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Monday, 3 May 2010

Edward Lear: There Was An Old Man of Cape Horn


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The "Tryal", Commodore George Anson's smallest boat, overcoming the Horn during a severe gale from the West, in 1741: Arapaimo, 2008

There was an Old Man of Cape Horn
Who wished he had never been born;
So he sat on a chair, till he died of despair,
That dolorous man of Cape Horn.

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Antarctica, Cape Horn: photo by Jerzy Strzelecki, 2000

December 21st. -- The Beagle got under way: and on the succeeding day, favoured to an uncommon degree by a fine easterly breeze, we closed in with the Barnevelts, and running past Cape Deceit with its stony peaks, about three o'clock doubled the weather-beaten Cape Horn. The evening was calm and bright, and we enjoyed a fine view of the surrounding isles. Cape Horn, however, demanded his tribute, and before night sent us a gale of wind directly in our teeth. We stood out to sea, and on the second day again made the land, when we saw on our weather-bow this notorious promontory in its proper form -- veiled in a mist, and its dim outline surrounded by a storm of wind and water. Great black clouds were rolling across the heavens, and squalls of rain, with hail, swept by us with such extreme violence, that the Captain determined to run into Wigwam Cove. This is a snug little harbour, not far from Cape Horn; and here, at Christmas-eve, we anchored in smooth water. The only thing which reminded us of the gale outside, was every now and then a puff from the mountains, which made the ship surge at her anchors.

Charles Darwin: from Dec. 20, 1832 journal entry in Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1832 and 1836 describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle's circumnavigation of the globe

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Magellanic penguins (Sphenicus magellanicus) on beach of Carcass Island, Falkland Islands: photo by Stan Shebs, 2001

Just before eight o'clock (then about sundown, in that latitude) the cry of "All hands ahoy!" was sounded down the fore scuttle and the after hatchway, and hurrying upon deck, we found a large black cloud rolling on toward us from the south-west, and blackening the whole heavens. "Here comes Cape Horn!" said the chief mate; and we had hardly time to haul down and clew up, before it was upon us. In a few moments, a heavier sea was raised than I had ever seen before, and as it was directly ahead, the little brig, which was no better than a bathing machine, plunged into it, and all the forward part of her was under water; the sea pouring in through the bow-ports and hawse-hole and over the knightheads, threatening to wash everything overboard. In the lee scuppers it was up to a man's waist. We sprang aloft and double reefed the topsails, and furled all the other sails, and made all snug. But this would not do; the brig was laboring and straining against the head sea, and the gale was growing worse and worse. At the same time sleet and hail were driving with all fury against us. We clewed down, and hauled out the reef-tackles again, and close-reefed the fore-topsail, and furled the main, and hove her to on the starboard tack. Here was an end to our fine prospects.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.: from Chapter V, Cape Horn -- A Visit, in Two Years before the Mast, 1840

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Cape Horn
: photo by Jerzy Strzelecki, 2000




Great photos of the cape, great eyewitness accounts (e.g. how Dana and crew "clewed down, and hauled out the reef-tackles again, and close-reefed the fore-topsail, and furled the main, and hove her to on the starboard tack." (!). Having once sailed to Hawaii and back on a 40' boat, I can only imagine it. What a way to start the day. . . .


silver edge of sun rising over shadowed
ridge, waning white moon above branches
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

present and past, experience
temporal perspective

external aspects of material,
in the end, possible

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
cloudless blue sky to the left of point

TC said...


Your marine reports have the beautiful regularity of a ship's log.

As for the Old Man, though, one would not be hard put to imagine why he might become a bit depressed.

There are according to the maritime logs legendary intense localized downslope winds off Cape Horn, heralded by temperature inversions and other weirdly abrupt atmospheric changes. The williwaws.

It's said they do strange things to a person's moods.

In fact, with that kind of weather as his

present and past, experience

the Old Man can hardly be blamed at all.

Curtis Roberts said...

Reading these passages, I’m at once transported to a place it feels I haven’t been since childhood (memories of black and white movies about various rough sea voyages, in war and peace, throughout history), amazed that people ever undertook such adventures, and diminished by the knowledge that I will never do this (and can’t even imagine wanting to). We have a Scottish friend, who along with his wife (she was eventually dragooned in as companion/accomplice), is an accomplished trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific sailor. His stories about Atlantic crossings, and particularly wind, temperature and atmospheric changes, revisit me frequently, especially his descriptions of colors you never see anywhere else and what it looks like to see your sail simply explode from the mast and go shooting off into the far high distance like a bullet. As you might imagine, he lives for this stuff. Everything else is surplusage, as we lawyers sometimes are forced to say.

TC said...


Well, I love all this maritime business, from the landlubber's armchair, with a cracked spyglass.

Actually spent about five years on research in round-the-Horn stuff, time that could have been more profitably employed selling lemonade in Tierra del Fuego. The project developed into massive holograph simulations of sailor's logs of the 1790s, until my wise better half, one day when I wasn't looking, discovered the trove of guilty evidence and mercifully put the whole sad boondoggle out of its misery.

Therefore henceforth I may not speak of it further.

I will say this, however, Curtis, as you and I are evidently alone here and as (to wildly veer off topic) I have been thinking quite a bit about your (well, you started his off-topic thing, I think) recent remarks re. the "basement" or "downstairs" cats.

Our equivalents are the "side door" cats.

The principal side-door cat shows up every night and stays all night, through rain, sleet or hail, successfully enticing the big Siamese out to get into trouble, and begging for food, with an equally high success rate.

Anyway last night there was a major side-door altercation in the dark, great thumpings and bumpings and moanings and groanings of exacerbated animal hostilities; after which the last creature standing was a large raccoon, front and center at the side door.

Tonight, modified version of same story, only this time the victorious survivor was, yes, Pedro the Perpetually Terrified Opossum, who seems to have survived a winter almost Cape Hornian in severity.

Thought you might be relieved to hear that earthshattering bit of news.

Ah, and before we leave the unsmiling vista of Cape Horn in our roiled wake forever, I am reminded I had one bit of CH trivia stored up in preparation for a barrage of discussion that now seems unlikely to develop -- viz., that it is named not after what it appears to resemble (the horn of a beast, back to our animal non-topic) but after a town called Hjoorn, I believe it is, in the Netherlands. Who would have thought.

Curtis Roberts said...

A. Regarding the name Cape Horn: I would never have thought, but probably should have. Facts like this abound, don't they?

B. Your side-door saga is extremely interesting to me and I'm relieved that Pedro's ok. Opossum's are one of nature's real surprises in the "quietly persistent and tough" department. We've had our share of raccoon mishaps and miseries. Of course, they're marvelously dexterous, but they're so dangerous to cats, certainly, and potentially to humans, if you'd ever be so foolish as to try to tangle with one of them. In Tuxedo Park, NY we have an animal door cut into our garage, which we put there to give animals shelter from the very punishing winters. Of course, the door admits everyone, cats and raccoons alike, and that has led to some heartache over the years. Our other (unwanted) visitors have been squirrels in the attic, who need to be lured out by humane trappers using peanut butter as bait. When that was going on, I was grateful to have an office to go to. The trappers (who would release the animals in Sterling Forest) were lovely people, but the whole process seemed crazy.

I'm all for more Cape Horn lore. You shouldn't let it go to waste.

TC said...


Here is a taste of the raw material I was working with before it all went down the drain: some bits of the journal of a 17 year old Massachusetts lad, fresh out of Boston Latin school, who was a junior officer on the ship Columbia, under Gray, first white man to sail into the mouth of that large river which would be named after that not very large ship.


Pretty amazing stuff here -- who knew? Your Vanitas link leads to whole new universes of things that one doesn't at THIS moment have time to explore -- nice to know it's t/here in any case. . . .

Curtis Roberts said...

I second Steve's remarks. I wonder what I was doing last March when I wasn't reading Apparitional Canoe 2? As I recall the winter of 2009, it was a sort of lonely dispiriting voyage with no sparks of light or discovery to speak of. I also just became aware of the volume of Vanitas material and am very much looking forward to reading through it.