LESSON 49 Weathering cape horn
The first introduction of my reader to the good ship Wales, whereby we pass to the Pacific, is as she is lying at the islands called Foul Weather Group, or the Falkland Islands.(1) Cape Horn(2) weather here begins, and the ship and her company put on their Cape Horn suit. This group of islands is so near the gate of the Pacific, though belonging to the Atlantic side, that an account of a ramble over the moss-covered rocks and penguin(3) roosts of the uninhabited land off which we now lie is no inappropriate introduction to the island world(4) we are just entering.
Selecting a small indentation or bight in the cliff as a landing-place, what was our surprise to find what we had thought a facing of white stone to be innumerable penguins, standing erect, in the rank and file of battle array, upon the declivity of the rocks, and occupying at least two acres, in dense columns, away back to the moss and grass!……
To those who have never seen a picture of the penguin, it would be impossible to convey an idea by description of this odd amphibious(5) creature. It has the head, bill, and two web-feet of a bird, and stands erect on land, sometimes two and a half or three feet in height. Penguins have no wings, nor proper feathers, but a covering intermediate between fur and feather, and two fins or flippers like the seal. Their motion on land is by successive hops, in the most awkward manner conceivable. When going down a declivity, the centre of gravity is often thrown too far forward, and away they tumble, and scramble, and roll, till they get to the sea, in which they dive and swim with great celerity.
They are often seen singly, or two or three together, far out at sea. Their cry or bark is like the inarticulate human voice; and when all is clear and calm, and no object can be seen around the horizon, it will sometimes startle and appal one, sounding as it does, from the surface of the ocean, like the cry of a man in distress. Near the penguin quarter of this island were thousands of ducks sitting upon their eggs, which sailors and passengers destroyed with remorseless cruelty, shooting and knocking down the birds by hundreds in barbarous sport……
A month from the Falkland Islands, and this is the first day of smooth sea and warm sun we have enjoyed during all that time! Long and cold have been the days we have spent battling with the rough winds and mountainous seas off Cape Horn. Between south-west and south-east gales on the one side of the Cape, and north-west on the other, our course has been zig-zag and slow. Happily we have escaped injury, except the loss of a jib-boom,(6) and our ship remains tight in spite of all the straining.
We congratulate ourselves on having weathered the Cape in less time than it often takes, though it was more than is sometimes the fortune of the Cape Hern navigator. One of our seamen had twice before tried the passage, but without success; and after fifty-four days of most fatiguing warfare with contrary winds, his brig opened at the bow, and the crew were compelled to put about and run for Rio Janeiro,(7) where the damaged vessel and cargo were sold for the benefit of the underwriters,(8) and the voyage was abandoned.
A frigate was once fifty days off the Cape; yet it is not uncommon for vessels to make the Cape once, and after four or five weeks' sailing, to make it again. Hope is predominant that our tempestuous weather is over, and that a fortnight at the utmost will bring us to port. While the inmates of the cabin, like birds after a storm, are sunning themselves on deck, let those of my readers who purpose traversing with me the Island World take a leisurely survey of our first fortnight in the Pacific.
We little thought that doubling Cape Horn in summer would be so full of difficulty. Now we doubt whether it would be worse in mid-winter. It would seem as if the genii of storms ruled the realm. The ancients, had they known it, would have located the cave of Æolus(9) at the end of Tierra del Fuego,(10) in the side of one of those burning mountains. Auster(11) and Eurus, and Boreas and Euroclydon, and all the intermediate winds of the thirty-two points of the compass, seem to have arranged their forces so as most advantageously to dispute every inch of the way with the bold navigator.
Four other ships, which we caught sight of at different times, were contesting the passage in like manner with ourselves, through cold, and sleet, and opposing seas. All of us, we argued, cannot be baffled, and our own chance is as good as any. Patience held out with most. At every abatement of the gale, and interval of sunshine, the sailors would cheerfully hang up their sea-soaked clothes, joke over the perils of the storm, and equip themselves anew for reefing and tacking.(12)
It was truly pitiable, sometimes, at the hours for changing watches, to see the top of a sea break over the bow or quarter, and wet them all while pulling at the ropes; so that the watch just called must stay wet during their four hours of duty, and the watch going below must turn in dripping. A landsman could hardly help trembling for their safety, when they were ordered aloft to furl, while the ship was rolling so violently, and the wind blowing in such gusts of fury, that it seemed almost impossible for the to pmasts and yards to sustain the shocks.
For several days we were reduced to close-reefed fore and main topsails, the ship meantime rolling so tremendously that a man incurred no small risk of broken bones who should attempt to cross the deck, or stand for a moment anywhere without being firmly braced, or having a rope to hold by.
We did not get sight of the redoubtable Cape, but were driven off to the parallel of 60°, near the South Shetlands,(13) and afterwards made the land of Cape Desolation, on the western side of Tierra del Fuego. Discoverers have rightly named it, for we thought land had never seemed so bleak and desolate, snow lying between the hills and in the hollows of the mountains in this July of the South.
What birds are found in large numbers on the Falkland Islands? On what element are penguins most at home? How do they move on land?What does their cry resemble?