June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
A Photographic Portfolio
“Again, the seas smashed over her. In a sudden shift of maddened wind, the whole mainmast went overboard—sails, yards, rigging, everything. As the dismasted hull floundered in the tumult of freezing waters, the broken spars flailed the hull, leaks started, the sea came down below. The pumps were smashed. … Soundings showed three feet of water down below, rising. Again, she had to turn back, this time to the Falkland Islands. It was for the last time.”
Alan Villiers was writing of the full-rigged ship Wavertree , which made its final attempt to round Cape Horn in 1910, but his words could have been an obituary for any one of the hundreds—indeed, thousands—of ships beaten back or destroyed by the most treacherous ocean passage in the world, with unpredictable gales piling up seas the height of apartment buildings. Yet until the completion of the Panama Canal in 1915, it was the only link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as indispensable as it was dangerous—particularly in the nineteenth century, when the West Coast of America became one of the greatest regions of ocean-going commerce on earth. Of the ships defeated by the howling elements of the Cape, most were lost without a trace. Many, however, limped back to safety or a final resting place in the Falkland Islands four hundred miles to the northeast; the bones of some remain remarkably intact today, specters from the last and most adventurous age of sail.