The Screaming Sixties

Cape Horn
The “Screaming Sixties” on Cape Horn have been known to create waves as high as a ten-storey building

No, this blog is not about rock ’n roll fans screaming their heads off when the Beatles broke into “Oh yeah I’ll, tell you something, I wanna hold your hand.”

It’s about Cabo Hornos. Which has no connection to the Beatles. Not that we know of, anyway.

The “Screaming Sixties” are the gale-force 60-miles/hour winds around Cape Horn, a rocky headland on Hornos Island where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans join forces, winds and waves howling and colliding.

Magellan (the older one) was the first European to experience them back in 1520 when the strait he discovered that led to the Pacific revolutionized trade between Asia and Europe. But it wasn’t until a century later that Willem Schouten, captain of the Eendracht, realized that the wall of cliffs could be rounded and made the first recorded voyage through the passage. Cape Horn gets its name from Willem’s Dutch hometown, Hoorn. But when the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, the number of commercial ships rounding Cape Horn steeply declined. There’s not much traffic here these days. (And someone told us the Stella Australis is the only cruise ship authorized to land at Cape Horn.)

Aboard the nimble Stella Australis were Americans, Russians, Brits, Germans, Swiss…and we two Canadians—most of us in our sixties. We’d been warned that rough seas could cancel our landing at Cape Horn, ”the end of the world.” The previous Australis ship in the area a few days before has hadn’t been able to land and a member of the crew, afloat in a zodiac between the ship and Cape Horn, was signalling, “No,” to the captain.

In the northern boundary of Drake Passage, the Stella Australis waited, drifting about its anchor, the captain weighing the risks, we passengers hopeful, the whole uncertainty adding a frisson of anticipation that was rather exhilarating in a world where travel is becalmed by predictable places and controlled itineraries. We were as anticipatory as teenagers at a sixties rock concert waiting for the band to come onstage.

And then out came the zodiacs, the plank and the blue carpet and cheers from the 70 or so of us waiting on deck.

And onshore, wind and more wind!

Climbing up those 160 steps was hard work! There’s only one other place (also at the end of earth) that we’ve visited where we had to pay such strict obedience to the wind to stay upright. When the fierce gales grabbed us on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, Grandpa MacLeod’s birthplace, I realized the wisdom of our clan’s motto: “Hold Fast!”

Cousin Norah (MacLeod) Law and her husband Bill on the Isle of Lewis in the calm winds of July

There’s quite a lot to see on Cape Horn and since we had limited time that morning, Magellan and I hurried up the long, wooden boardwalk that leads to the Cape Horn Memorial.

Twenty-two feet high, the memorial designed by Chilean artist José Balcells Eyquem depicts a ghostly white albatross in flight. (This albatross, steel-plated, is engineered to withstand 200 mile/hour winds!) José’s albatross is holding a hook-shaped device in its beak. That’s because sailors used to capture these birds using a hook fitted with salt pork. When the hook lodged, they’d play with the albatross—kind of like flying a kite. They never killed one, believing these beautiful birds embodied the spirit of sailors lost at sea. Thousands of sailors have perished in their attempts to circumnavigate Cape Horn—more than 800 ships have wrecked in the area since 1616, turning it into a mariner’s graveyard for more than 10,000 souls lost at sea.

On the island, there’s also a secluded lighthouse, the tiny Stella-Maris Chapel and a shop and house for the resident caretakers, members of the Chilean Navy, who sign up for a one-year December-to-December posting. “It’s popular,” the current manager, about 40 years old, told us. “About 500 families apply.” The couple’s 12-year-old son was kept busy ringing up sales of hats, postcards and T-shirts.

All too soon it was time to work our way back down the narrow 160 steps. To the tune of the Screaming Sixties—the wind had picked up. Magellan noticed two Londoners we’d met briefly on our first day at sea having difficulty: Jeannie, an older, frail woman and her even-older husband Robert unable to be of much assistance. A rock-star hero, Magellan said, “Here, take my hand. I used to be a boy scout.” Jeannie explained it wasn’t just the wind and her nervousness holding her back. She had had six knee operations. And was attempting those stairs with two artificial knees that have damaged the nerves in her legs, limiting her proprioception. On the slow walk down, Jeannie told us that her interest in this trip stemmed back to a distant relative whose last name was Ainsworth, the name of the first bay the Stella Australis landed on—and one of the most spectacular spots in Patagonia—see our blog with a photo of Ainsworth Bay. Curious, when writing this, I Googled Ainsworth. He served aboard the HMS Adventure in the 1820s, during the first Beagle Expedition, and  died on nearby Isla Dawson. Jeannie had been modest about her ancestors. But not in her profuse thanks to Magellan. Nor was Robert. “This is the first trip on our bucket list so we don’t want it to be our last,” he said, shaking Magellan’s hand.


We trusted the advice of our friends Arlene and Mike when we booked a four-day cruise on the Stella Australis and agree with them that it’s a great way to see this end of the world.

8 Responses

  1. Our son Paul tells the story of his Norwegian Great Grandparents having immigrated to North Dakota from Norway; but then finding out there was a place colder a bleaker so they soon pulled up stakes and moved to Prince Albert.

    Seems like it’s a common story for us Saskatchewanians…

    1. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if we didn’t get to land on Cape Horn but like you, I’m still thrilled by the memories of being there.

  2. I think that would be a super spot for a golf course – 600 yard drives with the wind and use your putter into the wind…… Might even straighten out my slice / hook with the cross winds…..

  3. Love the pictures especially of Bill, has the look of a Scottish Rock Star.
    Indeed the Butt Of Lewis is a wee bit windy at times, the original MacLeod Croft area brings new meaning to windy, no wonder the house walls are about 3 feet thick and made of stone.
    Cape Horn is worthy of an adventure trip regardless of the wind, very awesome. Cheers.

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