Southern Exposure 15: Cape Horn and the Falkland Islands

Ah, Cape Horn, the southern most tip of Tierra del Fuego, the Holy Grail of long distance sailing and circumnavigation! The Zaandam rounded the Horn on November 9 at just after seven in the morning under gray skies, drizzle, and near freezing temperatures. Winds were not howling—only around 20 knots, and the waves of the following seas were manageable compared to what we had experienced a few days before. Just as we passed the tip of the cape, the ship’s horn sounded a long blast, and in the crowded Crow’s Nest the hundreds of passengers who had gotten up early to witness this historic moment, watched in reverent silence.

 So just how big a deal was this?

Short answer: not much. Just anther big, gray rock with jagged edges, rising just over a thousand feet into the sky. A small house and chapel are positioned at one end where there is also a famous statue of an albatross. The island is on Chilean land, not Argentine, and it is staffed 24/7/365 where a lighthouse attendant is on duty for three months at a time. If the island was not at the end of the Earth, few would even know that it existed.

But wait: Being at the end of the Earth is what this is all about. Starting shortly after the time when the elusive passage to the Far East was discovered and rounded by a Dutchman in 1616 , it  transformed world trade. Between that time and 1914 when the Panama Canal first opened, it was the preferred route for trade between the East and West and safer than the Straight of Magellan, which is too narrow for a vessel under sail to manage easily. Over a thousand ships have been lost trying to make the rounding. Over 1,500 sailors have perished. This is a sailor’s graveyard. You tell  someone who has rounded under sail that it is not a big deal and see how far you get.

Tradition has it that any sailor who makes the rounding earns the right to wear an earring in whichever ear was closest to the Horn (East to West–the right ear– is the upwind and more challenging rounding.) and to eat dinner with one leg resting on the table. If he (or she) rounds both Cape  Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, it is two earrings and two legs on the table.

So yes, this is a big deal—even for us docile passengers sipping our morning coffee and seated in the cozy Crow’s Nest, peering out the window. And we actually were lucky to be able to round in fairly decent weather, not the experience of many vessels. Gales are present about ten percent of the time in summer and a third of the time in winter when it is not unusual to experience wave heights of over 100 feet. You try telling anyone on any vessel that has crossed under those conditions that it is no big deal and see how far you get. We passengers aboard the Zaandam were lucky on November 9, 2019.

When the horn of the Zaandam blasted, we were suddenly in the Atlantic Ocean. Good bye to those huge Pacific swells and frigid currents and as far as I was concerned, good riddance—except, of course, there was no magical change in conditions as the ship changed course and headed northeast toward the Falkland Islands.   After another full day at sea we arrived at Port Stanley– the capital of the Falkland Islands and its only settlement– anchoring almost alone except for one other cruise ship about our size.

Talk about isolated! The Falkland Islands consist of two larger islands and several hundred smaller ones. Antarctica is 800 miles to the south, Argentina about 350 miles to the west. The total local population is under 3,000, the vast majority living in Port Stanley. If there is a tree on this lonely, desolate island, I did not see it. Outside the port area where several hundred modest houses are clustered, there are rocky mountains, most under a thousand feet, and vast areas of open tundra and grasslands—perfect for sheep and, as it turns out, penguins. The Falklands is home to over 500,000 of the former and more than a million of the latter.

I have never been to Scotland but imagine that part of the world to look a lot like what we saw in the Falkland Islands, which may explain why the island is part of the British Commonwealth.  It was not until the early Nineteenth Century before anyone lived on the island; but as shipping grew, it was  ideally positioned to assist, provision, and repair  vessels coming to and from Cape Horn. People started moving there, mainly from Great Britain. 

During the early years several countries claimed sovereignty over the islands including Argentina and the U.K. This dispute went on for decades as both stubbornly claimed sovereignty  even though the people who settled there were English speakers. If you did not know where you were, you would swear you were in an English or Scottish village. The dispute continued on again and off again for more decades until the famous war of 1982 when the Argentine navy invaded the Falklands on April 2 and occupied the islands, declaring the Falklands belonged  solely to Argentina. That lasted for only 74 days, the time it took for the British to get down to the territory and retaliate. In a matter of days the Brits arrived with superior air support, British warships, and several thousand British troops. Two and a half months later the Argentines surrendered and withdrew, their tail between their legs.  Several civilians and almost a thousand military personnel had lost their lives—two times as many Argentines as Brits. 

The worst part of the legacy of this war were the  more than thirty thousand land mines that the Argentines buried in an effort to halt the British invasion. Though most land mines have now been removed or disarmed, some remain including  mines still buried on some of the island’s most beautiful, white sand beeches, making them off limits.

The 1982 war continues to be a very big deal for the residents of the islands. Several statues and memorials have been erected  in Stanley, and there was much talk about it from people we talked with or listened to while we were on land. Several years ago when there was a referendum in the Falklands regarding preference for rule by the U.K. versus Argentina, sticking with the  Brits won 99.8% of the vote. Following the vote, two of the three who voted for Argentina later recanted explaining that they did not understand the question. Case closed, at least for now, or so it appears. Argentina, however, still refuses to acknowledge the validity of the Falklands as a British territory, and U.N. resolutions continue to call for negotiations between the two countries. There are 1,500 British military permanently stationed on the islands just in case.

Despite its starkness, there is a beauty about this place, and you definitely get the idea that people who live here love it. Though it is hundreds of miles north of where we were at the southern tip of South America, the climate is similar with high temperatures the day we visited not getting above the mid 40s. So the decisive factor would surely not appear to be the weather. Perhaps there is something appealing about the isolation and being part a small but stalwart community, hunkering down and surviving the challenging conditions. Wimps need not apply.

And they have a role model: the penguins! There are over a million of these stoical creatures on the island. While Embry  went on a hike,  I joined one of the many penguin tours, this one to a remote location accessible only via four wheel drive vehicles.  I boarded a minibus with about 20 other tourists (Most were Brits from the other cruise ship anchored in the harbor.). We rode for about a half hour  along vast, empty fields of rock and tundra and then turned onto a dirt road where we hopped off and piled into five Land Rovers, which sloshed and bounced along through pastures where sheep were grazing alongside their small lambs. About fifteen minutes later we arrived at Bluff Cove, where there were several Gentoo Penguin rookeries and one King Penguin rookery. All totaled I would guess there  were several hundred birds nesting and half again as many standing. The ones standing would occasionally poke their beaks into the air, make a kind of gasping noise, flap their arm-like wings, then calm down and wobble around a bit, before returning to their position next to their mate, awaiting their turn on the nest. 

Now is this a hard life or what? Sitting or standing there in the  cold  waiting for an egg to hatch and then risking your life in the frigid  ocean searching for fish to bring home to your mate, while realizing you could be lunch for a hungry sea lion just waiting for you to jump in? Are they having a good time? Do they actually enjoy this? What about when the gale force winds come or when it starts to snow? How do they do this, day after day, year after year, lifetime after lifetime?

Well, hats off to them! Like the human residents of the Falkland Islands, they tough it out, hunker down and live the life they were programmed to live as best as they can. In that regard you could say they are kind of like us humans—except a whole lot cuter.

At the end of the day, the Zaandam weighed anchor and headed west. In two days we will arrive in Montevideo, Uruguay. We are now on the last leg—only a week left on the cruise.

5 thoughts on “Southern Exposure 15: Cape Horn and the Falkland Islands

  1. Our son and his family travel to the Falkland Islands on Christmas Day this year! With us, Jonathan has already visited the Shetland Isles which appear to be very similar.

  2. Bravo, intrepid travelers! The most interesting thing I’ve ever read about the Falklands. Makes my time in Scotland seem downright tropical, by comparison. (There were exactly 14 clear, warm days that. Just one question remains: If there has ever been anything approaching a warm summer’s day in the Falklands,I hope they celebrate it as a holiday!

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