It may be the most notorious ocean passage in the world, and for centuries it evoked dread in the hearts of sailors. But those who survived a trip around Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Pacific slosh violently into each other, had bragging rights for life. Along this passage, the Tierra del Fuego, or “land of fire,” where Chile and Argentina converge at the bottom of the world, got its name from early sailors who saw the fires of the people who lived here burning on shore. For some 8,000 years, until as recently as the end of the 19th century, this was the home of the Yaghan and other indigenous groups.áMagellan and Drake left their mark and names here, as did Darwin, who sailed through here on the HMS Beagle. The great clipper ships of ’49er lore later fought their way through fierce waves carrying gold between California and the East Coast in that era before the Panama Canal. Just as Richard Henry Dana, Jr., described in his masterful Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840, a journey today around the Cape at the very bottom of the Tierra is shaped by capricious weather, as powerful winds and shallow waters can produce waves that reach as high as 30 meters (100 feet).
Thanks to its location — on one of the southernmost points in South America — Cape Horn has played a major role in navigational history. The Strait of Magellan to the north was discovered first, but that route’s narrow width was challenging to navigate. Cape Horn, discovered by the Dutch in 1615, became the primary route for trade ships traveling from Europe or the east side of the Americas to the American West Coast.
Cape Horn marks the entrance/exit to the Drake Passage, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet. Until the Panama Canal opened in 1914, this was one of the planet’s major shipping routes. Strong winds, currents, waves and icebergs made the passage fairly treacherous in the days of sailing ships. Even today, “rounding the Horn” remains a challenge for the many yacht races that pass through its icy waters. Hornos, the island where Cape Horn is located, may look desolate and treeless, but it’s home to a vast number of gulls and other seabirds.