National Geographic Expeditions expert Tim Weed journeyed to the end of the Earth this Winter to explore the historic whaling grounds of the old Nantucketers
A shiver of unease coursed through me as I boarded the Stella Australis, the small passenger ship that would convey my companions and me on an expedition to Cape Horn, the tip of South America, and then on through the Strait of Magellan. From the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, Cape Horn was the crux point in the clipper routes that carried much of the world’s trade. Any Nantucket ship that wanted to fish the productive southern Pacific whaling grounds had to round the Cape, braving waters that were among the most hazardous in the world. Now I was endeavoring to sail in their historic wake.
Our voyage began 6,636 miles from Nantucket in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. I’d long wanted to embark on this adventure. For one thing, Cape Horn was a legendary point on the world map of Nantucket history. The first Yankee sailing ship to round the Cape was a Nantucket whaling vessel, the Beaver, on a seventeen-month voyage crewed by seventeen men and commanded by Captain Worth, in 1791. Thirty-nine years later, another famous Nantucket ship, the Essex — the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea — was detained for five weeks east of Tierra del Fuego by high seas and ferocious westerly gales. The Essex managed to round the Cape without incident, only to be attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in the Southern Pacific.
As Frederick C. Sanford wrote in the Nantucket Inquirer in 1852, these early adventurers made it around Cape Horn “in a class of vessels that would be considered unsafe at this day to perform a summer voyage across the Atlantic, small in size, not exceeding 250 tonnes in burthen, heavy, dull sailers, without copper on their bottoms, poorly and scantily fitted indeed, but manned with men of iron nerve, and an energy that knew no turning…” If these early Nantucketers could do it under those conditions, then by God, I told myself, I could do it, too. The truth was, given technological advancements, it wasn’t actually the prospect of a shipwreck that worried me. My limited seafaring experience had taught me that I was prone to seasickness.
The icy winds of the Southern Ocean gain strength as they funnel through the narrow Drake Passage between the Andes and the Antarctic Peninsula. Off Tierra del Fuego, these winds give rise to large swells, swells that can gain volume as they careen around an ocean far from the mitigating influence of any extended coast. Near the Horn, the free-ranging waves encounter an area of shallow water, which magnifies their intensity, making them shorter and steeper and increasing the risk to ships.
In addition to “normal” waves, the area just west of the Horn is infamous for producing rogue waves, known to reach heights of up to one hundred feet. And then there are the icebergs. The fear and awe with which this far end of the earth was justifiably beheld — and the costs associated with the loss of so many vessels — were major reasons for the push to build the Panama Canal.
Built in 2010, our vessel, the Stella Australis, is a high-end, impeccably run passenger ship, with five decks, a hundred comfortable cabins, and gourmet meals served in a dining room lined with picture windows overlooking some of the most remote and spectacular scenery in the world. There is even an on-board gym. The ship, operated by an able Chilean crew, is outfitted with a full fleet of Zodiacs and the latest navigational and communications technology. We made a Zodiac landing at the lushly forested bay of Wulaia where the Beagle dropped off several natives of Tierra del Fuego whom it had picked up on a previous voyage. We made another landing that brought us to the foot of the magnificent Aguila glacier.
It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers,” wrote Charles Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle, “and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.”
Our intention was to land at Cape Horn itself as well, although the chief of the expedition staff warned us that because of the rough waters, this might not be possible to do. The crew would navigate through the night, timing our arrival for a crack-of-dawn attempt. As we got closer, lying in bed in my spacious cabin, I could feel the swells getting higher. But the sensation was soothing, a gently cycling roll. When the call came to don the safety gear and scramble aft to form groups for the Zodiacs, I was pleased to note that I didn’t feel the slightest bit queasy.
The landing itself was thrilling and went off without a hitch. We hiked up over the sub-Antarctic tundra to visit the little chapel there and get our passports stamped at the end of the world. Looking back at the Stella Australis floating high on these extreme southern waters with her fleet of Zodiacs zipping back and forth to the landing point, I felt a stirring of satisfaction that was similar, perhaps, to what those early Nantucketers must have experienced upon successfully rounding the Cape.
Later, during another fine gourmet dinner aboard, we enjoyed the exhilarating spectacle of a pair of austral dolphins cavorting just a few yards from our tables. In the end, we spotted thirty species of birds in Tierra del Fuego, including such rare treats as the Antarctic tern, the Andean condor, and the black-browed albatross. A particular delight was a Zodiac landing on Isla de Magdalena, an important nesting ground for Magellanic penguins. It was riveting to watch the tuxedoed birds waddle down to the water, linger a moment in the surf, and bolt away into the frigid water like slick, well-dressed torpedoes.
As we made the final reach up the Magellan Strait toward the disembarkation point, I sat in my cabin with a quiet stomach, gazing out at the passing landforms and reveling in the gently rocking ship. No doubt a voyage through these waters was a very different experience for those early Nantucket sailors, who were more concerned with raw survival than watching birds or sipping wine or hopping in and out of Zodiacs. But it was nonetheless an unforgettable experience. On this increasingly overcrowded planet, it is a lasting joy to see firsthand that there is still room for such a vast and glorious wilderness.