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Ushuaia Penitentiary

The prison and penitentiary for recurrent convicts in Ushuaia, was created to populate the southern lands through a system of colonies. In this way, with the penitentiary as its penal epicenter, a small village began to grow. This village, Ushuaia, was founded by Commodore Augusto Lasserre on October 12th, 1884. The penitentiary functioned during just over half a century (1896 - 1947), and among it's best known convicts were the anarchist Simon Radowitsky, and Cayetano Santos Godino ( "El Petiso orejudo" -Stout with large ears-). The writer Ricardo Rojas was confined to the Ushuaia Penitentiary in 1934 for political reasons after the "coup d'etat" of 1930 when President Hipólito Yrigoyen was ousted. Although there is no documentation to prove it, it is believed that the famous tango singer, Carlos Gardel spent some time in the Ushuaia Penitentiary cells.
Exhibited is clothing used by the guards and the convicts of the Ushuaia Penitentiary, which covered just over half a century of Tierra del Fuego's history.

Presence of "Julio Popper" in Tierra del Fuego
One of the most interesting happenings in the history of Tierra del Fuego was the presence of "Julio Popper", a Rumanian engineer. After having traveled during his youth through different parts of the world ( Egypt, Japan, China, India, Siberia, United States, Cuba, Mexico and Brazil), he arrived in Argentina in 1885, and in 1888 he came to Tierra del Fuego, settling at "El Páramo" (bare and cold region), on the north east coast near San Sebastián Bay. There he built and worked gold mines. As an example of the power and the influence he had in this area, he coined his own money and stamps, and had his own small army uniformed as Prussian soldiers to defend himself from marauders who came, attracted by the desire for gold.

La Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego (SETF)

The First Fifty Years (1893--1943)

[This summary is based largely on an authorized history of the company, published in 1943.]

Origins: The inspiration for creating the largest sheep-ranching enterprise in Southern Patagonia is due to José Nogueira, one of the early settlers in Punta Arenas. In the year 1880, only 3 years after Henry Reynard introduced the first flock of sheep from the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) into Magallanes, Nogueira brought another consignment of sheep to Pecket Harbour. Sheep were sheared annually, and their wool was graded, baled and shipped overseas, where the fleeces commanded high prices.

Around this date, Chile and Argentina began to explore the interior of the island of Tierra del Fuego, and found large expanses of grass-covered steppe, similar to the "pampa" north of the Magellan Strait. The success of his ranching enterprise convinced Nogueira and others of the economic potential of these "empty lands". In 1889, both he and his brother-in-law, Mauricio Braun, obtained concessions of land in Tierra del Fuego from the Chilean government, measuring 180,000 and 170,000 hectares (ha) respectively. Then, in 1890, Nogueira successfully petitioned, for a 20-year concession of 1,000,000ha (over 3,400 square miles), also in Tierra del Fuego. The authorizing legislation required that the operating company be established within 3 years.

Birth of the Company: Raising the share capital proved difficult. The scale of the operation was unprecedented, and the long-term profitability of sheep ranching was uncertain. Locally, there were simply not sufficient investment funds (as late as 1895, the region had only 5,170 inhabitants). In Santiago, the Territory (until recently a penal colony) was essentially unknown. Overseas investors were reluctant to invest in the region until the Chilean and Argentinean governments solved their border disputes. Then, in 1891, Chile was unsettled by a civil war, which led to the resignation of President Balmaceda. Finally, early in 1893, Nogueira died.

It was Nogueira's widow, Sara Braun, in conjunction with her brother Mauricio Braun, who led the project to fruition. The latter lobbied successfully with the Peter H. McClelland (British), general manager in Chile for the powerful trading house of Duncan, Fox & Co., and the necessary backing was found in Santiago.

And so, the "Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego" was legally constituted in Valparaíso on August 31st, 1893, with Peter McClelland as President, and Mauricio Braun as Director General, operating from Punta Arenas. The authorized share capital was CH$1,250,000, of which the largest initial shareholders were all from Magallanes - Sara Braun (14%), Mauricio Braun (11%) and José Menéndez (8%).

First Operations: Straight away, in the summer of 1893-94, Mauricio Braun set about establishing the Company's first "estancia" at "Caleta Josefina", on the north shore of Useless Bay (Bahía Inútil). Like much of the island, therewas no local infrastructure: there were roads to be made; fences to be laid out, and houses, sheds, barns etc. to be built. All construction materials (much, of course, previously imported from overseas), had to be transported by sea from Punta Arenas: this was dangerous, and some precious supplies were lost.

Despite the hazards and setbacks, a good start was made; and in 1894 the Company appointed Alexander A. Cameron (New Zealander) as Manager ("Administrador") of Estancia Caleta Josefina. The same year, work began on Estancia San Sebastián, on the east coast of the island, with Norman G. Wood (British?) as its appointed Manager. Paid-up share capital arrived slowly, constraining the Company's ability to acquire additional livestock. By 1897, however, both Estancias were fully operational, with a total of 72,000 sheep; and a modest dividend was declared.

The Human Cost: Sadly, this development had a darker side. In keeping with the expansionist, colonial attitudes of the era, the licitation process had taken no account of the indigenous peoples, whose traditional lands were to be developed. Friction with the local tribes was inevitable, and predictably unequal: they were viewed as intruders and obstacles to business success. To protect the newly arrived sheep, natives were displaced: some were gathered by missionaries into reservations, while others were killed outright by bounty hunters. Like native groups elsewhere, they succumbed rapidly to the overwhelming pressures: and public opinion held the Company largely responsible for the outcome.

Profitability and Expansion: Economically, the Company was demonstrably successful, and its operations continued to expand. By 1901, it owned 216,000 sheep, 4,500 cattle and 1,300 horses. All the original shares had been taken up, and the Board prepared for further growth, by authorizing an increase of share capital to CH$5,000,000. It also diversified operations by building a fat-rendering plant ("grasería") at Rio McClelland (near to Ea. San Sebastián), with capacity for 40,000 sheep annually.

By this time, the economic returns of sheep ranching had been amply demonstrated throughout Southern Patagonia, and investor interest was high. In 1905-06, the Chilean Government held a successful series of public auctions of lands in continental Patagonia and in Ultima Esperanza. More than half-way through its 20-year concession, land ownership was increasingly important to the long-term existence of Company. In these auctions, and via subsequent private purchases, the Company acquired ownership of 380,000ha outside its leased tract in Tierra del Fuego.

Recognizing that the primary market for its products was Great Britain, and wishing to avoid the uncertainties of exchange rate fluctuations, the Company redenominated its share capital in pounds sterling. Also in 1905, and doubtless aware of the importance of good contacts within the financial and political establishment, it established its Commercial Management office at Valparaíso, with Francisco Valdés Vergara as Director General; and an Agency in Santiago. The new position of General Manager ("Administrador General"), stationed in Punta Arenas, was awarded to Alexander Cameron, who held it until 1915.

Growth by Acquisition: In 1906, the Company purchased the "Sociedad La Riqueza de Magallanes". By this operation, it acquired the concessions on 440,000ha of productive lands in Tierra del Fuego and Chilean Patagonia, plus another 600,000ha of marginal economic value in Isla Riesco.

In 1906-07, 106,000ha in Ultima Esperanza were bought from private owners. These lands, together with 66,000ha acquired later in Argentina, were the foundation of what would later become the Estancia "Fuentes de Coyle", in Santa Cruz province. [Two further land purchases were made in Argentina, in 1933 and 1940 respectively, totally 141,000 ha.]

For long-term business stability, it was important to reduce the proportion of leased land. The 1910 acquisition of "Sociedad Ganadera de Magallanes" furthered this objective by adding 349,000ha of owned land, plus a second fat-rendering and meat-packing plant, at Punta Delgada. The costs of this purchase were met through an increase of share capital to £1,500,000. The Company now operated 2,900,000 ha, of which one third was owned outright: 750,000ha in Chile, 181,000ha in Argentina. By 1910, "The Explotadora" had become the largest, and the most powerful, ranching company in the region.

The Years of Maturity: Holding Ground: The original concession of lands in Tierra del Fuego was set to expire in 1913.Despite rising pressures to speed up the process of colonization by making more land available to private individuals, the government renewed the Company's lease on 1,370,000ha for a further 15 years. There were conditions, however. The Company was now required to pay a rent; they had to agree to make available, on demand, 200,000ha for sale to small landowners; and at least 80% of the share capital had to be Chilean-owned.

Then, as later, popular pressures in Chile were strong to reduce the power of the traditional "hacienda" landowners. In the centre of the country, land reform was justifiable both on social and economic grounds. But the "Explotadora" (a name which, unfortunately, suggests "exploitation"), consistently maintained that this politico-economic model was inappropriate for southern Patagonia: the weather was too harsh, and the soils were poor. A family in the Central Valley, with rich soil and a benign climate, might subsist comfortably on a few hectares. But, in a region where the stock-raiser needs to allocate 1-2 hectares per sheep, only ranches in the tens of thousands of hectares are viable. Evidence was presented to show that the typical small operator, working lands previously leased to the Company, had poorer yields of meat and wool, was unprofitable and (worst of all) degraded the land's carrying capacity by over-grazing. Undoubtedly, lack of capital played a part: more so, perhaps, there was a lack of business and technical experience.

In any case, as evidence of sound livestock management (Corriedale sheep), the upward trend in the following table is obvious:

per capita wool yield (lbs.)
head of sheep     yield
1893-94    6,930      5.79
1903-04    420,204      6.99
1913-14    1,163,968      7.55
1924-25    1,213,178      8.26
1934-35    1,293,873      8.69
1942-43    1,154,728      9.95

In 1924, four years prior to the expiration of the Tierra del Fuego lease, the Chilean government found itself in urgent fiscal difficulties (perhaps linked to the collapse of the salitre market). At this date, the Company owned no fewer than 1,860,000 sheep, and had large cash reserves: there was an opportunity for mutual benefit. A commission was despatched to Magallanes to review the ranching operations: it concluded that large companies were the best model, and recommended renewal of the existing leases with the "Explotadora" and the "Sociedad Ganadera Gente Grande". Making a full rental pre-payment of £1,204,000 (about half of its reserves), the Company was granted a 16-year extension. In return, it agreed to cede a further 226,000ha in 1928. The Ponsonby concession (600,000ha in Isla Riesco) was also returned to the state in 1930.

In 1938, six years prior to the expiration of this latest lease, the Chilean budget was strained, this time by the need to buy weapons for the armed forces. Once again, the Company successfully obtained a second early renewal, this time for 13 years (to 1957). In return, the Company pre-paid £699,000 in rental, returned another 242,000ha to the state, and agreed to subsidize the (national railway's) shipping service to Magallanes. They had held their ground.

Reference: "Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego 1893-1943", Fernando Durán, Valparaíso, 1943
Last updated: 23-V-2002

Tierra del Fuego

At the very tip of southern South America, mere miles away from Antarctica, the land breaks up into islands and archipelagos. One of these archipelagos calls to the adventurous, the pioneer, the person willing to brave hardships and adverse climates. This is Tierra del Fuego, Land of Fire, (map) named for the constant fires that warmed the indigenous hunting and gathering peoples who wore little clothing.

It was a territory unto itself until 1881 when it was divided between Chile and Argentina (map). Chile now owns over half the Isla Grande, the big island, and much of the surrounding archipelago. The northern part of Isla Grande is more or less level, covered with grasslands. The southern part is broken up into islands, mountains, including the Cordillera Darwin which runs east-west, and is densely forested.

Situated between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, Tierra del Fuego is buffeted by constant winds from both directions. It is cold. Very cold. It's best to plan your visit from the middle of November to the end of March, but still be prepared for cold and rain.

The land areas are scenic, the waters teeming with fish and marine wildlife. Trekkers, mountain climbers, fishing fans, sailors and bikers will enjoy the challenges of Tierra del Fuego, but all visitors need to be aware of storms and wind. At the southernmost tip of the archipelago is Cape Horn. The cape was first rounded on January 26, 1616 by a Dutch navigator who named it Kaap Hoorn after the city of Hoorn - or so the story goes. What is fact, however, is that subsequent sailors documented the difficulties of rounding the tip of South America.

You may want to stay at an estancia outside Ushuaia. These farm/ranches were established many years ago, and some now offer a taste or rural life. The oldest of these is the Estancia Harberton, founded by an English missionary. A Literary Journey to Fireland tells the history of Thomas Bridges whose descendants own and operate the estancia now.

In Ushuaia, capital of the Argentine province, you'll find lodgings, restaurants and a lot of scenery to photograph. Browse through Tierra del Fuego: all you have to know before traveling for very practical information about the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego. Cruise ships sailing southern waters often put in at Ushuaia and local tour agencies provide off-ship excursions to nearby attractions. Virtual tour of Tierra Del Fuego:


by Adam Freedman

Now that virtually every inch of the planet has been charted and tamed, some part of our collective psyche has become bored. Witness the explosive growth of the "adventure tourism" industry. By the score, people are paying top dollar to go to places that still bear the cachet of being wild and inaccessible: the Sahara, say, or the Amazon—or Tierra del Fuego.

A more comfortable route to the age of exploration is by reading the classic Uttermost Part of the Earth: E. Lucas Bridges' rip-roaring account of his life among the indians of Tierra del Fuego. First published in 1948, Uttermost records an era when a few people still lived as pioneers—not to escape urban ennui but out of necessity.

Bridges' engaging style also speaks from a different era: you know you're in the hands of a high Edwardian writer when the author is not even born until sixty-seven pages into his memoir. Before that, one gets an overview of "Fireland" and the Bridges family antecedents. The modest author has no significance outside his context.

Lucas Bridges was born in 1874, the third child of the Rev. Thomas Bridges, who, just a few years earlier, had founded Ushuaia as a mission station. Lucas' playmates were Yahgan indians; he learned to speak their language, play their games and wear moccasins.

His Ushuaia—of plucky English missionaries, docile indians, and a bored Argentine prefect—has little to do with today's city of 40,000 souls. But here and there, one finds remnants of Bridges' Fireland even today. As I read Uttermost, my mind kept returning to my own visit to Tierra del Fuego last year.

From my hotel, I take a street that leads to the shore. "On the right-hand side of that road," Bridges writes, "as one walked up from the beach, were several houses of corrugated iron lined with wood." I meet up with Alejandro—a friend of a friend who lives in Ushuaia—in one of those brightly-painted corrugated iron cottages. Today, it is pizzeria.

In exquisite detail, Bridges describes the advance of civilization, and its discontents. From the very beginning, "the inhabitants [of Ushuaia] had followed, however unintentionally, what is said to be the general rule—that the wealth and luxury of a town spread westward, while poverty is to be found in the eastern quarters. The eastern and northeastern slums of Ushuaia were made up of wigwams . . ."

We get into Alejandro's jeep and drive through the eastern outskirts of Ushuaia, past abandoned factories. There is a vast shanty town; blue smoke curls up from cinder block shacks and dark indian faces peer out of makeshift windows. But who are they? They cannot be Yahgans. "They're squatters," says Alejandro, "Bolivians, mainly."

After 15 years of missionary work, Lucas' father acquired 20,000 hectares of Fireland from the Argentine government and founded Estancia Harberton. A large pre-fabricated house was imported from England and erected on the shore of a sheltered harbor selected by the Yahgans.

The ship's loudspeaker announces our arrival at Harberton. It is the first sign of civilization since leaving Ushuaia. Miraculously, carved out of the windswept banks is a little piece of Devonshire. There is a large, white farmhouse with green shutters, neat garden, and white picket fence; beyond that, a shearing station and supply houses.

Thomas Bridges spent his remaining years at Harberton. After his death, the thriving estancia eventually devolved upon his son Will (Lucas' younger brother, described in Uttermost as an incorrigible troublemaker). Years later, the economics of sheep shearing turned against Fireland. Today, Harberton survives on tourism and is run by Will's grandson, Thomas Goodall

A small confitería for day-trippers has been added at the back of the house. I take a cup of tea from the serving table and give my money to a tall weather-beaten man in dungarees and flannel shirt. As he hands me back the change, one of the tour guides calls out to him: "hey, Tommy!" Only then do I realize that it is Thomas Goodall, great grandson of Rev. Bridges, manning the till. I want to acknowledge my admiration for the family but don't know what to say. Besides, the next customer is waiting to pay.

The isolation of Tierra del Fuego, both terrible and sublime, is constantly in the background of Uttermost. The closest contact with civilization was the Malvinas chain, 400 miles away and itself only a transit point to Britain. Such ordinary goods as chocolate, coffee, and rifles, became priceless treasures. Above all, books were savored, read and re-read aloud in Harberton's drawing room. Tierra del Fuego is a harsh place for the literary-minded.

Alejandro invites me to dinner at his house. A friend comes by and he and Alejandro swap novels; dog-eared books that appear to have been swapped and lent numerous times. "I read a lot," Alejandro tells me, "but it's difficult to find good books here. I have Saki on mail order . . . "

There was no regular mail in those early days. When Rev. Bridges went away to Punta Arenas, Buenos Aires, or London, an anxiety would fall over the house as Mrs. Bridges stared into the empty expanse awaiting word of her husband.

The next day, I strike up a conversation with a woman who works at the Museo Del Fin Del Mundo. "What with telephones, fax, and email," I say, "do you feel connected to the rest of the world, or do you feel far away?"  She looks out to the water. "I feel far away. Very far away."

Although Lucas Bridges grew up with the Yahgans, his great ambition, and the central drama of Uttermost is his effort to integrate himself with the Ona tribe. The Ona were an inland tribe of fierce hunters, much feared by the mussel-eating Yahgans. As Bridges placidly puts it, "unlike the Ona . . ., the Yahgans disapproved of homicide."

Bridges becomes the first white man to make peaceful contact with the Ona. He is completely enraptured by the romantic life of these tall, powerful nomads, with guanaco skins aristocratically flung over their shoulders. Little by little, he learns their language and gains their respect by joining their hunting parties wearing nothing but moccasins and a guanaco skin against the freezing cold. He is invited to the heart of Ona land and is initiated into the "Lodge," the secret society of Ona men.

Bridges longs to start an estancia in Ona land. The Ona encourage him to do so; they know the white man is coming and much prefer him to the others. Bridges selects a parcel of land and starts work on a track between Harberton and his home-to-be. The distance is 50 miles as the crow flies, but the terrain is an obstacle course of mountains, rivers, bogs, and thickets. After a year of back-breaking labor, Bridges and his Ona helpers finished the zigzagging track. Even with the track, it was a two-to-three day journey, with the traveler having to wade across numerous streams.

Alejandro proposes an excursion to Lake Fagnano in the former Ona land. I eagerly accept. It won't be terribly comfortable, Alejandro warns me as we get into the jeep, most of it is gravel road, very bumpy to drive on. We're there and back in an afternoon.

In a few years, Bridges makes the estancia in Ona land, christened "Viamonte," into a great commercial success with over 80,000 sheep. And then something very odd happens: Lucas Bridges goes across the world to join the British Army in the First World War. Nothing in Uttermost prepares the contemporary reader for the idea that Bridges – an Argentine citizen, born at Ushuaia and raised with the indians – had always considered himself an Englishman. It seems forced, like Senegalese schoolchildren reciting "our ancestors, the Gauls." But Bridges' narrative is so effortless, one accepts that he truly saw himself as a child of the Empire.

Bridges survived the war, and went on to have further adventures and, finally, to pen his memoirs. And a good thing too, for under that guanaco skin beat the heart, if not exactly of an Englishman, at least of a great English writer.

Fuegian (Firelander) to the Bones

 by Kaitlin Quistgard - Buenos Aires - 9 June 1996
The following interview with Natalie Goodall was conducted during a trip to Tierra del Fuego by the author in December 1994.
Natalie Goodall first visited The Uttermost Part of the Earth over three decades ago after a chance encounter with the Lucas Bridges's book describing turn-of-the-century Tierra del Fuego. Shortly thereafter she married into the Bridges family and became part of the region's lifeblood,  raising fifth-generation Fuegian children.

A biologist recognized internationally for her work on the region's mammals, Natalie is also known by tourists from around the world as the American patrona at Estancia Harberton, the island's oldest farm.

On a warm spring morning Natalie greets a boatload of visitors with a brief lecture on the history of Tierra del Fuego, easily repeating the tale of the white man's arrival and the destruction of the Indians, in fluent Spanish with an Ohio accent, after delivering the first round in English. She smiles easily and welcomes questions in the outdoor lecture hall where camera-toting tourists perch on log benches and orca vertebrae.

However, Natalie would be happier if she could close the gates to guests and get down to work. "I'm very much a part-time scientist," she admitted wistfully in an impromptu interview in the flower-filled garden. "Now with tourism and things it's a bit harder. We used to go bone collecting all the time, but now it's just two or three times a year."

No hoodoo voodoo practitioner, the bones Natalie collects belong to citations, or small marine mammals, which she finds washed up on the beaches along the northern coast of Tierra del Fuego. "We also pick up seals and birds. The bird collection has turned out to be quite important for visiting scientists," she said.

Goodall has had 14 grants from the National Geographic Society for Research and Exploration. The Society has requested that she send Fuegian specimens to different museums around the world. "But I think it makes more sense to keep them all here. It's easier for interested scientists to come and see it all in one place," she explained.

And it's quite a place. Her husband built the bone house at Harberton after an apartment building went up alongside their house in Ushuaia, where she spends winters researching and writing. "You can't boil bones there anymore. It smells too bad," she explained as she started up her truck and made good on her invitation to visit the new bone house.

"We simmer them carefully in big pots, clean off the dead meat, being very careful not to lose teeth or small bones -- Look, a condor," she interrupted herself momentarily then warned, "it's rather smelly in here."

Several small whale skeletons are laid out in a grassy paddock alongside the bone house and two uncleaned whale skulls, mummified by the strong sun, lean against the wooden fence. Inside two still-fleshy skulls are soaking in buckets, filling the air with a putrid scent. The walls are lined with catalogued boxes. Goodall grabs a box of bones and counts the rings of a dolphin's teeth to figure its age. Her fingers glide over smooth bones as she fits vertebra in place to reconstruct a skeleton.

"The object is to learn as much as you can. Scientists come here from all over the world to study animals, measure whales, etc. And I have done about 35 publications mostly on dolphins and some plants." Her voice is eager, but already other duties are calling and she must head back to the house.

"I have three or four books underway," she laughs as the truck bumps along. One is the revision of Tierra del Fuego , a history-biology-geology-travel guide first published in 1979. With a "who knows when" deadline, she has begun work on a revision in two volumes. "One will be more touristy -- from Santa Cruz south -- and the second more a history of the farms and the work at the research center opened in Ushuaia in 1982," she said.

"We're working on Thomas Bridges' diaries too and the project is nearly finished. It will be several volumes. And then I'm doing a cookbook -- my adaptation of Argentine, Chilean and British recipes. The most famous though is my grandmother's chocolate cake, which we serve here in the tea room and everyone always asks how to make."

Juggling so many books and research and the farm itself has made it difficult for Goodall to complete any one project. "I take care of the garden and house and the tourists and then when the generator goes on at seven or eight I have to be inspired to sit down at my computer and work until midnight," she laughs. "Last night instead of paying bills and writing letters to send off with people on the boat who are going to the U.S., we put together a dolphin."

By now she is in the hallway of the original English pre-fab house --  the island's first European dwelling. Visitors who have completed their tour peek through the kitchen windows as they head to the public tea room.

"It's not something we like doing," she says of receiving paying guests. "When the road opened in 1978 (allowing cars to reach Harberton by road) people just started showing up, because it's the oldest farm here. Everybody said they had to use the bathroom so they could come in and see the house. Eventually we built bathrooms outside and then we converted the patio into a tea room."

While it may not be her role of choice, Goodall is warm and charming when greeting her guests. As many as six young women work as bilingual guides in the summer, so even when the boats and buses are gone, home is no longer a quiet place, but Goodall is  forgiving. "Tierra del Fuego has given me an awful lot -- my husband, my family, my work," she smiles.

Tales Of The Notorious Cape

    9 February 2002 -- No other stretch of water on this planet has cost so many lives of brave seaman, has challenged and broken the best and rewarded the ones who succeeded with the highest honours. Rounding Cape Horn is regarded as the pinnacle of round the world racing in the days when the shipping lanes of the world prefer to lead through the Panama Canal.

Rounding Cape Horn (or Cape Hoorn as originally named) is still the ultimate achievement for every sailor on the planet. No other stretch of water on this planet has cost so many lives of brave seaman, has challenged and broken the best and rewarded the ones who succeeded with the highest honours. Rounding Cape Horn is regarded as the pinnacle of round the world racing in the days when the shipping lanes of the world prefer to lead through the Panama Canal. The crews in the Volvo Ocean Race are the heirs of the sailors of the old days, “when the ships were of wood and the men of steel”.

The sailing history of Cape Horn started less than 30 years after Christopher Columbus succeeded in his first Atlantic crossing. Spain’s King Charles approved Magellan's plan to get to the Spice Islands by sailing west and granted him generous funds on March 22, 1518. In September 1519, he set sail with 270 men, crossed the Atlantic and followed the South American coastline to Patagonia. There he spent the cold winter months and finally in the latter half of August 1520, Magellan decided it was time to move south to look for a passage. Eventually in October, the fleet sighted a strait and started through it. Magellan named it the Strait of All Saints, but it later was named after him. The strait was a tricky passage that took the fleet 38 days to pass through. While sailing at night, the crew saw countless fires from distant Indian camps. They called the land Tierra del Fuego (land of fire). During the last week of November the three ships emerged from the strait to the open sea of the Pacific. On September 6, 1522, almost three years from the day it began its historic journey, the Victoria and 18 crew members, (without Ferdinand Magellan, who was killed in the Pacific Ocean) arrived in Spain. It was the first vessel to circumnavigate the globe.

50 years later, Francis Drake set sail from England in [1577] with 165 crewmen and five ships for the first English led circumnavigation. Drake's voyage helped to give a more accurate picture of the true geography of the world. During the course of the voyage, Drake discovered that Tierra del Fuego, the land seen to the south of the Magellan Strait, was not part of a southern continent as had been believed previously, but an archipelago, or group of islands. Francis Fletcher, the chaplain on Drake's ship described it like this :

"In passing along we plainly discovered that same Terra Australis to be no continent, but broken islands and large passages amongst them..."

This meant that if the American continent was not connected to a southern continent, the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans met at Cape Horn. It should be possible to sail ships around the bottom of South America, south of Tierra. This was the Cape Horn route, eventually discovered in 1616. The Dutch navigator Willem Cornelis Schouten, the first to sail around the cape (1616), named it for his birthplace, Hoorn, Netherlands.

While Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe, sailing along a more southern course, James Cook and his "Resolution" safely rounded the cape and continued its journey to explore Oceania. The stretch of water around Cape Horn became really crowded from the start of the Gold Rush in California until the completion of the railway lines. The clippers sailed one after the other along the New York-San Francisco route, the same route followed by the best sailors today. That was the era of the "cap horners", of those who had rounded the terrible Cape Horn.  Many vessels have rounded the cape, but many others have failed. William Bligh, who later demonstrated to be an able seaman when captain of the Bounty, failed to round the cape in 1788. He reached Polynesia by rounding the Cape of Good Hope. 

The four-masted vessel "Edward Sewall” rounding of the cape lasted from March 10th to  May 8th in 1904.  "Cambronne" took 92 days to go from one to the other ocean. The rounding of this Cape has not been more perilous than other well-known capes around the world, yet the passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean is complete only after having sailed the 1,000 miles or so that separate the Falkland Islands from Wellington, along the Chilean coast. Whoever arrived from the Pacific Ocean had to overcome the danger represented by the false Cabo de Hornos as  the Chileans, who own the area, call it.   This cape is sighted twenty miles ahead and, when  surrounded by big breakers and foamy waves that  carry powered snow along their crests, it may  confuse the helmsman who may choose the  tragically wrong route.

Joshua Slocum onboard "Spray" was not the first yachtsman to round the cape, he preferred to go through the Magellan's Strait despite the difficulties and the hostile natives. The first yachtsman who really tried circumnavigation was the Australian Clio Smenton who, as a prize after the wreckage of his "Pandora", received a copy of Slocum's boat.  The first yachtsman who really conquered the great Cape Horn was Connor O'Brien, who rounded it with three friends on board the 42-footer "Saoirse", during the circumnavigation between 1923 and 1925 becoming the first cap-horner in history.

Prior to the first Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973 -74, less than 10 private sports yachts had ever rounded Cape Horn successfully. But thanks to the Royal Navy the racers were not entirely alone. HMS Endurance was stationed nearby to keep a watch on the racers as they rounded the Horn. Happily, she wasn't needed. One by one the battered Whitbread boats made their way past the treacherous Horn and headed north. By the time the entire fleet had rounded they had more than doubled the number of sporting yachts to do so.

In the 1977 - 78 race GBII (Great Britain II) had the honour of rounding the Cape first, being pushed from astern by a Force 7 gale. Flyer was next, rounding in a blinding snowstorm. By 18 January, most of the fleet was safely around the Horn and heading for Rio. The Roaring 40s weren't ready to quit, though, and 33 Export had no sooner rounded than she got another blast. Whilst running under a spinnaker the boat suddenly broached. Water surged across her decks, slamming crewman Eric Letrosne against life-rails with such force it fractured his leg. It was an ugly break. When the call for medical help went out, Japy-Hermes, with Dr. Sarbarly aboard, responded. When it proved too rough to transfer Letrosne to Japy-Hermes, Sarbarly swam through the ice-cold water to 33 Export to treat him.

The next race saw the first modern maxi yachts battling around Cape Horn. Flyer, the yacht of the eventual winner Cornelis van Rietschoten rounded the Cape Horn in January 13, 1982 just 30 minutes in front of his main rival Ceramco with Peter Blake in charge. They raced the leg from Auckland to Mar del Plata within sight of each other for most of the time.

In 1985 -86, The first boat to round Cape Horn was UBS Switzerland, on 4 March. One by one they rounded. In order were Cote d'Or, Atlantic Privateer, Drum and Lion New Zealand. As they sailed north toward Punta del Este, the boats were rewarded for the ordeal thy had to endure through the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn with such natural wonders as Halley's Comet, and hundreds of dolphins, from which streamed green trails of phosphorescence at night.

In his last Whitbread Round the World Race, Peter Blake crowned his historic victory with leading around Cape Horn. The two New Zealand yachts Steinlager II and Fisher & Paykel rounded Cape Horn on 22 February. The other Maxis followed a day behind, and three days behind them came Maiden and Esprit de Liberté. It was a uneventful rounding by Cape Horn standards. The weather, though mostly grey and cold, was not its usual vicious self.

When the boats finally reached the dreaded Cape in the 1993 -94 race, it failed to live up to its fearsome reputation. In fact, the fleet experienced some of the best weather of the trip so far. The sun was out, and winds were moderate. NZ Endeavour rounded the Cape first, with Tokio the first V.O.60, then called the Whitbread 60 in history three miles behind. Yamaha with Ross Field as skipper was the second V.O.60 to round.

In the last edition of the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1997-98, Paul Cayard described "Cape Horn is my Mount Everest. It came out of the fog, this rugged land with waves crossing in different directions. The mystery of the Cape evaporated as we sailed from the Southern Ocean into the South Atlantic."