My First Cruise Around Cape Horn, Chile

by Maria Ossa, Manager of Customer Assistance

Sailing around Cape Horn
Sailing around Cape Horn

I set sail on my first “cruise” at the tender age of just 17 months old. My family booked passage on a cargo ship to relocate from New York, where I was born, to Valparaiso, Chile, our home country. Except for a short home movie clip transiting the Panama Canal, naturally I don’t remember those first 25 days I spent at sea, but it occurs to me now that I’ve been around ships for a great part of my life.

We later returned to the U.S. and I eventually landed my dream job working in the Princess Cruises shore excursion department. One of my most exciting projects dates back to 1995, as we prepared for Princess’ first-ever South American cruise season that would sail around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of the continent, and up the west coast of South America.

Although Princess had previously sailed to Brazil and up the Amazon, we’d never explored this part of the continent. Pacific Princess (yes, the original “Love Boat” cruise ship) would be making our maiden voyage around one of the most fabled sea passages in the world, literally rounding the bottom of the world by sailing around Cape Horn.

As this was new territory, we’d been preparing for this voyage for some time. Advance work included exploring the ports of call, inspecting facilities, and working closely with the local shore excursion operators and shipboard staff to offer our passengers the best possible experience ashore.  

Until now, many of the places I was researching were simply names and dates remembered from a history book. As I learned about the region, I realized the tremendous impact of shipping in this remote part of the world, and how much has changed in the last century alone.

Prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, the treacherous shipping routes around South America, either navigating through the Magellan Straight or around the Horn, were frequented by ships transiting between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans transporting goods, explorers, immigrants, gold miners and travelers.  It was also very likely the route used by my ancestors who traveled to Chile from Europe and the United States.

The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 greatly impacted these routes by significantly improving the transit time, and offering a safer passage. For example, a passage from New York to San Francisco was reduced by some 8,000 miles. Consequently, the opening of this new shipping route devastated the ports along the southerly routes.

Throughout its history, sailors regarded sailing around Cape Horn as the most treacherous navigation in the world, with notoriously fierce winds, strong swells and often icy conditions. Many ships did not make the passage or suffered great damage in the attempt. In fact, a sailor who had successfully  completed the journey around the Horn earned a level of bragging rights and recognition that followed him the rest of his life. This included the entitlement of wearing a gold loop earring and the right to eat with one foot on the table.

It was Charles Darwin’s account in Voyage of the Beagle that set my expectations. “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 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 extreme violence.”

Today, modern ships and navigation equipment have made the journey much less hazardous, but the notoriety of Cape Horn still lives on making the passage a very special occasion.

As the cruise departure approached, I was making final arrangements to travel in advance of the ship to each port. I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed that because my role required me to arrive in advance,  I wouldn’t actually be sailing around the Horn; I would simply be flying ahead of the ship to make sure everything was ready for the  its arrival.

However, as my travel arrangements finalized, it became apparent that very limited flight availability and complicated logistics would hamper some of my plans. It turned out I would be “required” to sail aboard Pacific Princess from Puerto Madryn to Punta Arenas. I did my utmost to remain professional and contain my enthusiasm, but in truth this was an exciting opportunity – I would actually round Cape Horn by cruise ship after all!

As I often did, I called my mother to share my big news, and to my surprise, I received an envelope in the mail a few days later. Inside was a photo of that long-ago first sea voyage with my family, titled “your 1st cruise at 1 year, 5 months.” My mother had sensed that Cape Horn would be another seagoing milestone in my life, just like that first one, and had sent me the photo as a reminder.

Just boarding the ship was a thrill. Due to the nature of my job, I sometimes had the opportunity to interact with passengers in port, but it was a unique and special experience for me to be on board with them as they sailed.  So after I joined the cruise ship in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, I immediately sensed the excitement and energy throughout the ship from passengers and crew alike as we neared our milestone passage. The overwhelming sense of adventure and exploration seemed to bond everyone together in the experience.

Rounding the Horn was not only new for the passengers, but also the crew. Captain Moulin, the commander of the vessel, was sailing these waters for the first time as well. He prepared an excellent presentation for passengers about the history of ships sailing around Cape Horn. He drew a standing-room only crowd and I strained to hear him talk from the hallway outside.

When we got to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, I was able to visualize the toll of the treacherous passage.  Many ships suffered significant damage and were only able to limp into port, never to sail again. Here I could still see the evidence right in front of me — partially sunken hulks still visible along the shoreline.

As we drew closer to the Horn, we got the weather report from another ship who had made the journey the day before. They’d experienced calm seas and sunny skies for a very comfortable trip. That should have been great news but, secretly, I was disappointed. After reading so much of the legend of Cape Horn, I also wanted the full experience.  I hoped to encounter just some of the rough conditions that made sailing around this small island at the end of the word so famous.

But on the day of our passage, the skies turned grey and winds began to pick up. This was looking a bit more like it! But the threat of rough weather didn’t deter anyone. As I walked through the ship to get to my viewing spot, I was struck by the eerily quiet atmosphere of the ship. Lounges were empty – obviously everyone was outside for the big event.

Once outdoors myself, I could see the seas getting rougher and felt an arctic chill in the wind. The ship pitched up and down, and I could feel the salty spray hit my face. Then a wave crashed over the bow of the ship. Now this is the experience we were here for!

Through the fog and mist we could just make out the shape of land. Today, after so many years, I remember mostly the anticipation, the sense of adventure, the gusty winds and the rough seas. If it were not for the photo taken of me with the actual land mass in the background, I don’t know if I would recall actually seeing Cape Horn. I simply remember the experience.

Early the next morning, I was up on deck for the arrival of the ship to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. The previous day’s storm had brought a dusting of snow atop the mountains framing the picturesque town. It was a beautiful morning. Upon berthing, all were ready to go ashore to continue their shore side adventures; whether it was exploring the town, the marine life along the Beagle Channel or the national park.

Back onboard that afternoon, together with the shipboard shore excursion manager, we took our paperwork out on deck so that we could enjoy the scenic glacier cruising through the Beagle Channel with its stunning mountains lining either side of the passage. It was sunny, but the crisp air soon drove us back indoor to complete our work.

After waving  passengers off on their tours in Punta Arenas, I left Pacific Princess to continue my advance work. I would meet up with the ship again in Puerto Montt.  I left the ship and my colleagues onboard knowing that our first ever passage of Cape Horn had been a success.  Our advance work had paid off and our passengers had a wonderful time.  Fifteen years later we now sail on a full season of Cape Horn cruises every year, still offering passengers a memorable experience.

Today, I don’t wear a gold earring, nor eat with a foot on the table. For me this unexpected opportunity still lives as one of my most unforgettable travel memories, and I still have the picture from that trip, just as I still have the photo my mother sent. The two images represent two very different shipboard adventures (and two very different ways to arrive in Chile by sea) but both have prominent places in my list of travel experiences that have shaped my life.