Walking down the steps here in Seattle today with the easterly winds rushing up from the Sound brought to mind thoughts of the roaring forties, furious fifties and the screaming sixties. If you have a sailing tradition in your family then you’ve already identified these as names of the prevailing winds that, in the days when long distance journeys involved masts & canvas, dictated how, when and where trade and travel could happen. For the most part, winds between latitude 40 North (Philadelphia, Athens, Beijing) and 40 South (Wellington, Stanley, Concepcion) blow to the west due to the effects of the polar vortices. Head outside this range and you’ll find the winds blowing primarily to the east, and if you limit your travels to the southern latitudes you’ll find the windspeed increasingly aerobic. The cause of this makes perfect sense if you look at a globe; unlike the northern hemisphere the southern latitudes have less land mass to disrupt the flow, thus the further south the stronger the wind.
There are some mornings where the energy around traveling seems particularly challenging, whether it’s traffic on I-5, congestion on the Burke Gilman or a “crewing issue” on board a ferry boat. Whilst you’re getting frustrated, perhaps there’s a chance that you should be grateful for the size of your obstacles, after all there’s very little probability that you’ll wind up…ahem…dead on your commute. Not so for the folks working the Clipper Route in the 1800s. Their “commute” typically started by heading south out of a port in Western Europe on a voyage of little adventure and great riches, though in retrospect those adjectives were oft swapped. Hearkening back to the meteorological lesson of paragraph one, clippers proceeded west on the prevailing winds into the Atlantic heading generally southwest before making the southern turn at the Saint Peter & Paul Rocks and pursuing a more southerly course down past the eastern “horn” of South America. Depending on the time of year, at about 40 days into the voyage the clipper would hit the roaring forties and start heading east at a rapid clip such that they’d be passing south of the Cape of Good Hope about ten days later.
Cape Hope is, contrary to most expectations, not the southernmost tip of Africa and is marked with a wildlife preserve, really nasty weather and a lot of wrecked ships. Ships passing through latitude 36 S frequently encountered high winds and navigational hazards such as, what’s the technical term, ah yes, big rocks. Controlled by the Portuguese, the Dutch, French and English – much to the dismay of the native Khoikhoi peoples – formal control was ceded to the Union of South Africa in 1910, and has remained with the now Republic of South Africa ever since. Cape Horn is also the home port of the mythical Flying Dutchman, a Dutch man-of-war mythically lost off the cape and with a crew of sinners, now doomed to sail the seven seas forevermore with no hope of making port. This is, though, one tourist attraction best left unseen as the sight of it is considered a portent of doom for all involved. Side note: yes, this is the source of Disney and Spongebob’s Davy Jones pirate attraction, deep sigh.
Having rounded the Cape, yon clipper skipper would proceed Northeast or East depending on the cargo and the port(s) of call. Popular destinations were the East Indies and Australia, with Sydney being a frequent destination. In context, the speeds here can be considered breathtaking for their day: Cutty Sark did the Plymouth-Sydney run of 13,750 miles in 72 days, and Thermopylae made the 13,150 mile run to Melbourne in 61 days. Yes, yes, I know the Millennium Falcon did the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, but rumors abound that it was faked on a scale akin to Capricorn One. Time to head home! Set a course due East…err, what?
Yes, Dorothy, the fastest way home is to continue East dipping as far South into the furious fifties as your skipper’s nerve and the iceberg population would allow. Currents and winds strengthened to the South, and as long as your ship didn’t pull a Titanic you could count on seeing your favorite rocking chair in Plymouth some 14,750 miles and 100 days later. The Cutty Sark did it in 84 days and Thermopylae in 77 days, but the greyhound of the group was Lightning that did the slightly longer journey to Liverpool in a scant 65 days. All of these ships did, though, take advantage of the “easy route” by passing Cape Horn at 56 S from West to East.
Cape Horn is still regarded as the test of any sailor’s mettle and features prominently in most modern yachting challenges. And by yachting I’m not referring to the nonsensical legal battles surrounding the now-silly America’s Cup, I’m talking about the handful of intrepid adventurers (aka “the lunatics”) setting sail in carbon fibre and kevlar replicas of a small skiff and channeling their inner Magellan. These adventurers more typically take the more difficult East to West passage, commonly referred to as the “Everest of sailing” and in doing so commonly confront Easterly winds in excess of 75 mph and rogue waves up to 100 ft in height. Yowza. No wonder the phrase “Rounding the Horn and heading for home” has entered our lexicon, once you’ve passed the Horn there’s really nothing else left that’s gonna scare you.
In shorthand, the clipper route is best summarized as: head West to the rocks, turn South until it gets breezy, head East and look for Hope on the port side. Watch out for the guys drinking Fosters and then left at the Horn before the long run home.