Cape Horn by Herman Melville
(From White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War.)
Through drizzling fogs and vapors, and under damp, double-topsails,
our wet-decked frigate drew nearer and nearer to the squally Cape.
Who has not heard of it? Cape Horn, Cape Horn—a horn indeed, that has
tossed many a good ship. Was the descent of Orpheus, Ulysses, or Dante
into Hell, one whit more hardy and sublime than the first navigator’s
weathering of that terrible Cape. Turned on her heel by a fierce west
wind, many an outward-bound ship has been driven across the southern
Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope—that way to seek a passage to the
Pacific. And that stormy Cape, I doubt not, has sent many a fine craft
to the bottom, and told no tales. At those ends of the earth are no
chronicles. What signify the broken spars and shrouds that, day after
day, are driven before the prows of more fortunate vessels? or the
tall masts, imbedded in icebergs, that are found floating by? They but
hint the old story—of ships that have sailed from their ports, and
never more have been heard of.
Impracticable Cape! You may approach it from this direction or that—in
any way you please, from the east or from the west; with the wind
astern, or abeam, or on the quarter; and still Cape Horn is Cape Horn.
Cape Horn it is that takes the conceit out of fresh-water sailors, and
steeps in a still salter brine the saltest. Woe betide the tyro; the
fool-hardy, Heaven preserve!
Your Mediterranean captain, who with a cargo of oranges has hitherto
made merry runs across the Atlantic, without so much as furling a
t’-gallant-sail, oftentimes, off Cape Horn, receives a lesson which he
carries to the grave; though the grave—as is too often the
case—follows so hard on the lesson that no benefit comes from the
Other strangers who draw nigh to this Patagonian termination of our
Continent, with their souls full of its shipwrecks and
disasters—topsails cautiously reefed and everything guarded snug—these
strangers at first unexpectedly encountering a tolerably smooth sea,
rashly conclude that the Cape, after all, is but a bugbear; they have
been imposed upon by fables, and founderings and sinkings hereabouts
are all cock-and-bull stories.
“Out reefs, my hearties; fore and aft set t’-gallant-sails! stand by
to give her the fore-topmast stun’-sail!”
But, Captain Rash, those sails of yours were much safer in the
sailmaker’s loft. For now, while the heedless craft is bounding over
the billows, a black cloud rises out of the sea; the sun drops down
from the sky; and horrible mist far and wide spreads over the water.
“Hands by the halyards! Let go! Clew up!”
For ere the ropes’ ends can be cast off from the pins, the tornado is
blowing down to the bottom of their throats. The masts are willows,
the sails ribbons, the cordage wool; the whole ship is brewed into the
yeast of the gale.
And now, if, when the first green sea breaks over him, Captain Rash is
not swept overboard, he has his hands full to be sure. In all
probability his three masts have gone by the board, and, ravelled into
list, his sails are floating in the air. Or, perhaps, the ship
broaches to, or is brought by the lee. In either case, Heaven help the
sailors, their wives and their little ones; and Heaven help the
Familiarity with danger makes a brave man braver, but less daring.
Thus with seamen: he who goes the oftenest round Cape Horn goes the
most circumspectly. A veteran mariner is never deceived by the
treacherous breezes which sometimes waft him pleasantly toward the
latitude of the Cape. No sooner does he come within a certain distance
of it—previously fixed in his own mind—than all hands are turned to
setting the ship in storm trim; and never mind how light the breeze,
down come his t’-gallant-yards. He “bends” his strongest storm-sails,
and lashes everything on deck securely. The ship is then ready for the
worst; and if, in reeling round the headland, she receives a
broadside, it generally goes well with her. If ill, all hands go to
the bottom with quiet consciences.
Among sea-captains, there are some who seem to regard the genius of
the Cape as a wilful, capricious jade, that must be courted and coaxed
into complaisance. First, they come along under easy sails; do not
steer boldly for the headland, but tack this way and that—sidling up
to it. Now they woo the Jezebel with t’-gallant-studding-sail; anon,
they deprecate her wrath with double-reefed-topsails. When, at length,
her inappeasable fury is fairly aroused, and all round the dismantled
ship the storm howls and howls for days together, they still persevere
in their efforts. First, they try unconditional submission; furling
every rag and heaving to; lying like a log, for the tempest to toss
wheresoever it pleases.
This failing, they set a spencer or trysail, and shift on the other
tack. Equally vain! The gale sings as hoarsely as before. At last, the
wind comes round fair; they drop the foresail; square the yards, and
scud before it; their implacable foe chasing them with tornadoes, as
if to show her insensibility to the last.
Other ships, without encountering these terrible gales, spend week
after week endeavoring to turn this boisterous world-corner against a
continual head-wind. Tacking hither and thither, in the language of
sailors they polish the Cape by beating about its edges so long.
Le Mair and Schouten, two Dutchmen, were the first navigators who
weathered Cape Horn. Previous to this, passages have been made to the
Pacific by the Straits of Magellan; nor, indeed, at that period, was
it known to a certainty that there was any other route, or that the
land now called Terra del Fuego was an island. A few leagues southward
from Terra del Fuego is a cluster of small islands, the Diegoes;
between which and the former island are the Straits of Le Mair, so
called in honor of their discoverer, who first sailed through them
into the Pacific. Le Mair and Schouten, in their small, clumsy
vessels, encountered a series of tremendous gales, the prelude to the
long train of similar hardships which most of their followers have
experienced. It is a significant fact, that Schouten’s vessel, the
Horne, which gave its name to the Cape, was almost lost in weathering
The next navigator round the Cape was Sir Francis Drake, who, on
Raleigh’s Expedition, beholding for the first time, from the Isthmus
of Darien, the “goodly South Sea,” like a true-born Englishman, vowed,
please God, to sail an English ship thereon; which the gallant sailor
did, to the sore discomfort of the Spaniards on the coasts of Chile
But perhaps the greatest hardships on record, in making this
celebrated passage, were those experienced by Lord Anson’s squadron in
1736. Three remarkable and most interesting narratives record their
disasters and sufferings. The first, jointly written by the carpenter
and gunner of the Wager; the second by young Byron, a midshipman in
the same ship; the third, by the chaplain of the Centurion.
White-Jacket has them all; and they are fine reading of a boisterous
March night, with the casement rattling in your ear, and the
chimney-stacks blowing down upon the pavement, bubbling with
But if you want the best idea of Cape Horn, get my friend Dana’s
unmatchable “Two Years Before the Mast.” But you can read, and so you
must have read it. His chapters describing Cape Horn must have been
written with an icicle.
At the present day the horrors of the Cape have somewhat abated. This
is owing to a growing familiarity with it; but, more than all, to the
improved condition of ships in all respects, and the means now
generally in use of preserving the health of the crews in times of
severe and prolonged exposure....
Ere the calm had yet left us, a sail had been discerned from the
fore-topmasthead, at a great distance, probably three leagues or more.
At first it was a mere speck, altogether out of sight from the deck.
By the force of attraction, or something equally inscrutable, two
ships in a calm, and equally affected by the currents, will always
approximate more or less. Though there was not a breath of wind, it
was not a great while before the strange sail was descried from our
bulwarks; gradually it drew still nearer.
What was she, and whence? There is no object which so excites interest
and conjecture, and, at the same time, baffles both, as a sail, seen
as a mere speck on these remote seas off Cape Horn.
A breeze! a breeze! for lo! the stranger is now perceptibly nearing
the frigate; the officer’s spyglass pronounces her a full-rigged ship,
with all sail set, and coming right down to us, though in our own
vicinity the calm still reigns.
She is bringing the wind with her. Hurrah! Ay, there it is! Behold how
mincingly it creeps over the sea, just ruffling and crisping it.
Our top-men were at once sent aloft to loose the sails, and presently
they faintly began to distend. As yet we hardly had steerage-way.
Toward sunset the stranger bore down before the wind, a complete
pyramid of canvas. Never before, I venture to say, was Cape Horn so
audaciously insulted. Stun’-sails alow and aloft; royals, moonsails,
and everything else. She glided under our stern, within hailing
distance, and the signal-quarter-master ran up our ensign to the gaff.
“Ship ahoy!” cried the lieutenant of the watch, through his trumpet.
“Halloa!” bawled an old fellow in a green jacket, clapping one hand to
his mouth, while he held on with the other to the mizzen-shrouds.
“What ship’s that?”
“The Sultan, Indiaman, from New York, and bound to Callao and Canton,
sixty days out, all well. What frigate’s that?”
“The United States ship Neversink, homeward bound.”
“Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!” yelled our enthusiastic countryman,
transported with patriotism.
By this time the Sultan had swept past, but the lieutenant of the
watch could not withhold a parting admonition.
“D’ye hear? You’d better take in some of your flying-kites there. Look
out for Cape Horn!”
But the friendly advice was lost in the now increasing wind. With a
suddenness by no means unusual in these latitudes, the light breeze
soon became a succession of sharp squalls, and our sail-proud
braggadocio of an Indiaman was observed to let everything go by the
run, his t’gallant-stun’-sails and flying-jib taking quick leave of
the spars; the flying-jib was swept into the air, rolled together for
a few minutes, and tossed about in the squalls like a football. But
the wind played no such pranks with the more prudently managed canvas
of the Neversink, though before many hours it was stirring times with
About midnight, when the starboard watch, to which I belonged, was
below, the boatswain’s whistle was heard, followed by the shrill cry
of “All hands take in sail! jump, men, and save the ship!”
Springing from our hammocks, we found the frigate leaning over to it
so steeply, that it was with difficulty we could climb the ladders
leading to the upper deck.
Here the scene was awful. The vessel seemed to be sailing on her side.
The main-deck guns had several days previous been run in and housed,
and the portholes closed, but the lee carronades on the quarter-deck
and forecastle were plunging through the sea, which undulated over
them in milk-white billows of foam. With every lurch to leeward the
yard-arm-ends seemed to dip in the sea, while forward the spray dashed
over the bows in cataracts, and drenched the men who were on the
fore-yard. By this time the deck was alive with the whole strength of
the ship’s company, five hundred men, officers and all, mostly
clinging to the weather bulwarks. The occasional phosphorescence of
the yeasting sea cast a glare upon their uplifted faces, as a night
fire in a populous city lights up the panic-stricken crowd.
In a sudden gale, or when a large quantity of sail is suddenly to be
furled, it is the custom for the first lieutenant to take the trumpet
from whoever happens then to be officer of the deck. But Mad Jack had
the trumpet that watch; nor did the first lieutenant now seek to wrest
it from his hands. Every eye was upon him, as if we had chosen him
from among us all, to decide this battle with the elements, by single
combat with the spirit of the Cape; for Mad Jack was the saving genius
of the ship, and so proved himself that night. I owe this right hand,
that at this moment is flying over my sheet, and all my present being
to Mad Jack. The ship’s bows were now butting, battering, ramming and
thundering over and upon the head seas, and with a horrible wallowing
sound our whole hull was rolling in the trough of the foam. The gale
came athwart the deck, and every sail seemed bursting with its wild
All the quartermasters, and several of the forecastle-men, were
swarming round the double-wheel on the quarter-deck, some jumping up
and down, with their hands upon the spokes; for the whole helm and
galvanized keel were fiercely feverish with the life imparted to them
by the tempest.
“Hard up the helm!” shouted Captain Claret, bursting from his cabin
like a ghost, in his nightdress.
“Curse you!” raged Mad Jack to the quartermasters; “hard down, hard
down, I say.”
Contrary orders! But Mad Jack’s were obeyed. His object was to throw
the ship into the wind, so as the better to admit of close-reefing the
topsails. But though the halyards were let go, it was impossible to
clew down the yards, owing to the enormous horizontal strain on the
canvas. It now blew a hurricane. The spray flew over the ship in
floods. The gigantic masts seemed about to snap under the world-wide
strain of the three entire topsails.
“Clew down! clew down!” shouted Mad Jack, husky with excitement, and
in a frenzy, beating his trumpet against one of the shrouds. But,
owing to the slant of the ship, the thing could not be done. It was
obvious that before many minutes something must go—either sails,
rigging, or sticks; perhaps the hull itself, and all hands.
Presently a voice from the top exclaimed that there was a rent in the
main-topsail. And instantly we heard a report like two or three
muskets discharged together; the vast sail was rent up and down like
the veil of the Temple. This saved the mainmast; for the yard was now
clewed down with comparative ease, and the top-men laid out to stow
the shattered canvas. Soon the two remaining topsails were also clewed
down and close reefed.
Above all the roar of the tempest and the shouts of the crew, was
heard the dismal tolling of the ship’s bell—almost as large as that of
a village church—which the violent rolling of the ship was
occasioning. Imagination cannot conceive the horror of such a sound in
a night tempest at sea.
“Stop that ghost!” roared Mad Jack; “away, one of you, and wrench off
But no sooner was this ghost gagged than a still more appalling sound
was heard, the rolling to and fro of the heavy shot, which, on the
gun-deck, had broken loose from the gun-racks, and converted that part
of the ship into an immense bowling-alley. Some hands were sent down
to secure them; but it was as much as their lives were worth. Several
were maimed; and the midshipmen who were ordered to see the duty
performed reported it impossible, until the storm had abated.
The most terrific job of all was to furl the mainsail, which, at the
commencement of the squalls, had been clewed up, coaxed and quieted as
much as possible with the bunt-lines and slab-lines. Mad Jack waited
some time for a lull, ere he gave an order so perilous to be executed;
for to furl this enormous sail in such a gale, required at least fifty
men on the yard, whose weight, superadded to that of the ponderous
stick itself, still further jeopardized their lives. But there was no
prospect of a cessation of the gale, and the order was at last given.
At this time a hurricane of slanting sleet and hail was descending
upon us; the rigging was coated with a thin glare of ice, formed
within the hour.
“Aloft, main-yard men! and all you main-top men! and furl the
mainsail!” cried Mad Jack.
I dashed down my hat, slipped out of my quilted jacket in an instant,
kicked the shoes from my feet, and, with a crowd of others, sprang for
the rigging. Above the bulwarks (which in a frigate are so high as to
afford much protection to those on deck) the gale was horrible. The
sheer force of the wind flattened out to the rigging as we ascended,
and every hand seemed congealing to the icy shrouds by which we held.
“Up, up, my brave hearties!” shouted Mad Jack; and up we got, some way
or other, all of us, and groped our way out on the yard-arms.
“Hold on, every mother’s son!” cried an old quarter-gunner at my side.
He was bawling at the top of his compass; but in the gale, he seemed
to be whispering, and I only heard him from his being right to
windward of me.
But his hint was unnecessary; I dug my nails into the jackstays, and
swore that nothing but death should part me and them until I was able
to turn round and look to windward. As yet this was impossible; I
could scarcely hear the man to leeward at my elbow; the wind seemed to
snatch the words from his mouth and fly away with them to the South
All this while the sail itself was flying about, sometimes catching
over our heads, and threatening to tear us from the yard in spite of
all our hugging. For about three-quarters of an hour we thus hung
suspended right over the rampant billows, which curled their very
crests under the feet of some four or five of us clinging to the lee
yard-arm, as if to float us from our place.
Presently, the word passed along the yard from windward, that we were
ordered to come down and leave the sail to blow, since it could not be
furled. A midshipman, it seemed, had been sent up by the officer of
the deck to give the order, as no trumpet could be heard where we
Those on the weather yard-arm managed to crawl upon the spar and
scramble down the rigging; but with us, upon the extreme leeward side,
this feat was out of the question; it was literally like climbing a
precipice to get to windward in order to reach the shrouds; besides,
the entire yard was now encased in ice, and our hands and feet were so
numb that we dared not trust our lives to them. Nevertheless, by
assisting each other, we contrived to throw ourselves prostrate along
the yard, and embrace it with our arms and legs. In this position the
studding-sail-booms greatly assisted in securing our hold. Strange as
it may appear, I do not suppose that, at this moment, the slightest
sensation of fear was felt by one man on that yard. We clung to it
with might and main; but this was instinct. The truth is, that in
circumstances like these the sense of fear is annihilated in the
unutterable sights that fill all the eye, and the sounds that fill all
the ear. You become identified with the tempest; your insignificance
is lost in the riot of the stormy universe around.
Below us, our noble frigate seemed thrice its real length—a vast black
wedge, opposing its widest end to the combined fury of the sea and
At length the first fury of the gale began to abate, and we at once
fell to pounding our hands, as a preliminary operation to going to
work; for a gang of men had now ascended to help secure what was left
of the sail. We somehow packed it away at last, and came down.
At noon the next day, the gale so moderated that we shook two reefs
out of the topsails, set new courses, and stood due east, with the
Thus all the fine weather we encountered, after first weighing anchor
on the pleasant Spanish coast, was but the prelude to this one
terrific night, more especially that treacherous calm immediately
preceding it. But how could we reach our long-promised homes without
encountering Cape Horn? By what possibility avoid it? And though some
ships have weathered it without these perils, yet by far the greater
part must encounter them. Lucky it is that it comes about midway in
the homeward-bound passage, so that the sailors have time to prepare
for it, and time to recover from it after it is astern.
But, sailor or landsman, there is some sort of a Cape Horn for all.
Boys! beware of it; prepare for it in time. Graybeards! thank God it
is passed. And ye lucky livers, to whom, by some rare fatality, your
Cape Horns are placid as Lake Lemans, flatter not yourselves that good
luck is judgment and discretion; for all the yolk in your eggs, you
might have foundered and gone down, had the Spirit of the Cape said