Under Vigil of the Albatross: Cape Horn Sailing

Queequeg launches from the wave’s crest, tickling the sea’s frothy beard with sleek hulls. Like a young thoroughbred welcoming Spring’s arrival, she stretches her ethereal wings into the sea spray, flaunting her speed and agility. When gravity prevails, Queequeg dips her bow into the breaking surf and plunges into a rugged trough below. The insatiable terrain allows only a brief interlude, before once more demanding obedience, and our climb begins again.

We skirt the border between catastrophe and adventure, as we slowly thread our way through the wilderness of the southern seas. Every rushing wave draws us closer to the climax of our South American circumnavigation – Cape Horn. Branded both a seaman’s Mount Everest and a Dead Man’s Road, it’s a heroic conquest ringed by a sailor’s graveyard and a place where nature still retains power over mankind.

From the helm, I ignore the salt’s sting on wind-burned cheeks and glance towards port, searching the gray facade for our newest crew members. Perhaps sensing my intention, the pair breaks through the ocean’s cloak, hurtling downward with their magnificent wings locked open like switchblades. They sweep to catch crosswinds cast by our bountiful sails and reach the pinnacle of our mast, before flipping downward to hover near Queequeg’s broad beam.

The enigmatic Southern Royal Albatrosses appeared astern when we dropped below fifty degrees latitude and entered the Drake Passage. Oblivious to the region’s infallible threat of gales, they maintain a constant vigil between Queequeg and Chile’s Patagonian coastline – providing us a welcome distraction from this ominous stretch of sea. Here, where the wind whips without obstruction, they soar for incredible undulations by merrily steering the glider which they inhabit. In what remains a foreign territory for most, they alone are at peace and are masters of this untamed domain.

My father, Queequeg’s Captain, laughs when he suggests that these albatrosses regard our Queequeg as their “Queen Bird” and are paying homage to the great body invading their pond. As a lover of folklore, I tend to favor the seaman’s legend that they are the souls of lost sailors wanting to pilot and protect us as we sail around the Horn. I talk to them, mostly at night when the lonely hours are shrouded in an eremitic, inky cape. With the birds gently trailing abreast the cockpit, I find comfort in their familiarity and know the spirits of the shipwrecked sailors are listening.

As we probe further into the Antarctic Convergence, the wind strengthens,encouraging the once manageable swells into fifty-five foot waves. It becomes apocalyptic sailing as we maneuver through the fast-moving, always toppling five-story waves. The albatrosses become agitated and push forward to scout a safe path ahead and, finding none, fly back to fuss over our vulnerability.

There is no pattern to the tempest’s fury, and Queequeg is shoved, pushed, lifted and dropped. Black, thundering walls simultaneously slam us on the bow and on the beam Like a hapless boxer, we stand in a ring ruthlessly and relentlessly punched by a tougher opponent – with no referee to stop.

With our sentinels looking on, chaos erupts and Queequeg is knocked down by a rogue wave forty miles off Cape Horn’s rocky outcrop.Our mast tips dangerously beneath Poseidon’s lair, and we engage in a frantic battle until the victor slowly pulls herself upright. I catch brief flashes of white wings looping overhead as we frantically deploy our sea anchor. They perform a frenzied cirque-de-soleil, confused by the uneven wind patterns and upset by our peril. But with Queequeg safely anchored, we leave them, certain they will seek solace from the gale, and close the hatch to ride out the storm inside.

Wrapped in Queequeg’s warmth, we fall into exhausted, dreamless slumbers as the squall’s venom blankets the radar screen, and the floor moves beneath us. Twelve hours later, with the ardor of the Horn behind us, we step topside to a pink-streaked horizon. The ocean’s assault is calm, the tempest subdued. As we check the lines, I spy the albatross pair calmly guarding the buoy over the sea anchor. Finally at rest, they are content to observe as we hoist the foresail and point our bow northwest towards the Falkland Islands.

Amenable breezes fill our sails, but our escorts float placidly on the blue-bonnet chasm and show no intent to follow. Though we part ways toward warmer currents and yielding waters, they alone will remind us not only to heed the power of the sea but also to celebrate the intoxicating call of the wild. The albatrosses fade in our wake, yet their siren-like beauty forever encapsulates the spirits of those, both past and present, who embarked on adventures and lived lives far from the ordinary.

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