Doggedly fighting the elements off Cape Horn risked strain on both crew and ship making accidents to both more likely. Whole ships were swallowed off the Horn [as elsewhere], innumerable men swept overboard including whole watches of eight or a dozen men. Davy Jones was no respecter of persons; captains and officers were swept overboard as well as the men. Some idea of why can be got from this photo. This ship was not sinking, merely sailing hard, but anyone on the deck would have had to hold fast! The person at greatest risk was the helmsman who on most ships was forbidden to look behind as the sight of approaching waves was so terrifying that the temptation to save himself by jumping into the rigging was often irresistible! Sometimes this needlessly endangered the ship, as a ship without a helmsman is at risk. One way of keeping a helmsman in his place was lashing him to the wheel. In severe weather there were often two men needed at the wheel.
The nearest and only ‘facilities’ for ships in difficulties in the ‘vicinity’ of Cape Horn which could service or supply a ship or provide medical care, were in the Falkland Islands. However, the islanders there were so notorious for ripping-off the ships' owners that damaged vessels were sometimes abandoned at Port Stanley as being uneconomical to repair.
Sailors are a superstitious breed and nurtured many quaint traditions mostly to assure or avert good or ill luck. Apart from ceremonies associated with ‘first timers’ crossing ‘the line’, some traditions were specific to Cape Horn, e.g. a sailor who had rounded the Horn was entitled to wear a gold loop earring. Tradition had it that this should be worn in the left ear, as that was the ear which faced the Horn in a typical eastbound passage.
This was a relic of the older trade route shown at right which went out to the antipodes, Far East, or west coast of America via the Cape of Good Hope, and came home via Cape Horn. It was comparatively late on that rounding Cape Stiff ‘the wrong way’ became commonplace. Rounding Cape Horn also conferred the immense privilege to sailors of being allowed to dine with one foot on the table; a sailor who had rounded the Cape of Good Hope as well had the inestimable advantage of being permitted to place both feet on the table. This must have put a great strain on the digestion and might account for the foetid atmosphere of the fo'c'sle. Sailors who had sailed around Cape Horn often further advertised the fact by sporting a tattoo of a full-rigged ship. And as mentioned elsewhere, "spitting in the wind" was permissible by anyone who haddoubled Cape Stiff three times.
Cape Horn is associated with a number of notable ships and voyages. Among the earliest adventurers was Sir Francis Drake who followed Magellan's earlier route north of Tierra del Fuego via the channel named after its discoverer. While Drake was thus not properly a Cape Horner, the body of water between Cape Horn and Antarctica is now called Drake Passage; even though he never sailed through it, he correctly surmised it must be there. A true Cape Horner was Lieutenant James Cook who as master of the Endeavour in 1768-71 and then of HMS Resolution in 1772-75 sailed round the Horn in both directions. Having also ‘done’ the Cape of Good Hope he would have been permitted both feet on the table. On Cook's third and fatal voyage in 1776 he had William Bligh aboard HMS Resolution as Sailing Master.
Eleven years later William Bligh had command of the Bounty when she sailed in 1787 from Spithead for Tahiti in search of breadfruit for slaves. For a full month, he, and she, attempted to round Cape Horn, but adverse weather prevented their passage. As many another skipper would do in the years to come, Bligh ordered her turned about, and proceeded east, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and, crossing the Indian Ocean finally arrived at Tahiti where the ship spent some five months during which time a number of the ship's men, including Fletcher Christian, ‘went native’. Bligh set sail for home. Some three weeks later the mutiny occurred and the Bounty was eventually destroyed. So that voyage of the Bounty did not earn anyone an earring, although it did earn some men a hempen halter.
Neither Charles Darwin nor anyone aboard the Beagle in 1831-36 would have been entitled to dine with a foot on the table as the ship sailed some 150 miles to the north of Horn Island and its eponymous Cape and navigated along the southern side of Tierra del Fuego conferring on the route the name of the Beagle Channel. Where this connects to the Pacific Ocean is now called Darwin Sound. Many other intrepid souls continue to venture round Cape Stiff but the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 rendered the route more-or-less obsolete commercially.