Toughest 48 hours as Volvo fleet and major storm approach Cape Horn

ALICANTE, Spain, March 28 (Reuters) – The Volvo Ocean Race fleet, battered but unbroken as they battle through the Southern Ocean, face the toughest 48 hours of the nine-month marathon as they approach Cape Horn on Monday. The region is the only time in the 38,738-nautical mile race where the boats are likely to see icebergs, despite the ice limits set by organisers, and a huge storm is building up behind to chase them on their way (see details here).

Early on Saturday (0640 UTC), the Chinese boat Dongfeng Race Team, skippered by Frenchman Charles Caudrelier, led the leg from Auckland to Itajaí, Brazil, but by less than 10nm from four other crews. Caudrelier admitted that the stress has become “wearing’ on his eight-man team. “I think it’s unique in the history of the Volvo Ocean Race (launched in 1973) to have a fleet battling like this in these latitudes,” he wrote in his blog on Saturday. Tomorrow, we’ll be even further south and the water temperature is going to drop. I’m expecting the hardest part of this race in the next 48 hours.”

Dongfeng were one of three boats to crash over on their sides midway through the Southern Ocean on the 6,776nm leg – a so-called ‘Chinese gybe’. Thankfully, all the crews avoided anything more serious than cuts and bruises and damage to boats have been repaired on the move.

After some 3,000nm miles of sailing in the toughest leg of the race, Dongfeng lead by just 5.1nm from Dutch boat Team Brunel (Bouwe Bekking/NED) with overall leaders Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (Ian Walker/GBR), MAPFRE (Iker Martínez/ESP) and Team Alvimedica (Charlie Enright/USA) no more than 4nm further adrift.

The all women’s crew of Team SCA (Sam Davies/GBR) were nearly 100nm behind that pack, but gaining all the time in stronger winds. They and MAPFRE also suffered Chinese gybes on Tuesday. The leg is expected to conclude around April 5-6 after three weeks of sailing from New Zealand.

In all, the boats will sail nine legs and visit 11 ports. They finish the race on June 27 in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Everything you need to know about Cape Horn 

They said it: Cape Horn “is enough to make a landsman dream for a week about shipwrecks, peril and death” – Charles Darwin.

Something to write home about. Cape Horn, close to the southern-most tip of South America, is regarded by sailors as the most iconic and feared landmark in the world.

What makes it so challenging? It's cold, it's bleak and it's dangerous. It's home to biblical storms and gale force winds, making visibility difficult. Lying just 500 miles from Antarctica, look out for the odd iceberg too.

Making history. The first to make it around was Dutch mariner Willem Schouten, who named it after Hoorn, his hometown in the north of the Netherlands.

Only the toughest. Even today, more people have reached the summit of Everest than have sailed around Cape Horn.

Middle of nowhere. The need for ships to round Cape Horn was greatly reduced by the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, which makes a modern-day visit there even more special. There are no commercial routes around the Horn, and modern ships are rarely seen.

Location, location, location. Set your sat nav to 55°58′48′S 067°17′21′W. 

Lest we forget. On Hoorn island, there's a large sculpture by Chilean artist José Balcells featuring an albatross in remembrance of the sailors who died while attempting to round the Horn.

Rich traditions. Sailors celebrate a successful rounding of Cape Horn in many ways, including lighting up cigars and pouring a small bottle of alcohol into the sea to toast those who didn't make it, and thank King Neptune for a safe passage.

Waves bigger than houses. The strong winds of the Southern Ocean mean equally large waves, and, free of any interruption from land, these waves roll at a great height, some even 30m tall. But south of the Horn, the waves become shorter and steeper, which can be a nightmare for passing boats.

Gold rush. During the 1800s, Cape Horn was deemed so dangerous that the Spanish dragged their plundered gold across land rather than risk shipping it around the landmark. The current has thrown many sailors and ships onto the rocks.

Permanent reminders. Those who have successfully made it around the landmark are entitled to wear a gold hoop earring in whichever ear passed closest to Cape Horn. Also, if you see someone with a tattoo of a full-rigged ship, give him a pat on the back. According to maritime tradition, it means he’s been around the Horn!

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