This article was published in National Geographic Magazine, in the February 1931 issue and it describes the voyage of a great sailship from Australia to England by way of Cape Horn.
By ALAN J. VILLIERS National Geographic Magazine, Feb 1931
THE number of ships that round Cape Horn now is few and becoming steadily fewer. Steamers have no need to go that way. If they are coming from Australia to Europe, Suez and Good Hope are shorter and kinder routes. If they are bound from or to New Zealand, there is Panama. If they are outward or homeward bound in the West Coast trade, Panama Canal, too, is much more convenient, even for the far southern port of Valparaiso. In the unusual event of a steamer passing to the south of the American Continent--say, on passage from Buenos Aires to Talcahuano--nine times out of ten she will use the Magellan passage or, failing that (for visibility is often bad there and currents treacherous), she will pass between Tierra del Fuego and the small island the southern tip of which is the dreaded Horn.
These Germans with the sailers of the Finnish fleet and one or two Swedes. just about comprise the whole of the world's seagoing, square-rigged ships. America still has one or two; but, except for the four-masted Monongahela, which I saw in Port Adelaide in January, 1928, when she was discharging a cargo of lumber there and the full-rigged ship Tusitala, which is a more or less regular user of the Panama Canal, I don't think any are still in commission.
She is prepared to accept a much lower rate of freight than the steamer. She will go to any outlandish port and register no objections to spending six weeks or more over loading. She will discharge her own ballast at her own expense. She does not mind sailing halfway round the world in ballast if only there is the chance of a cargo at the end of it, and she carries her wheat well and delivers it in good condition.
She has the added advantage, some times, of bringing something of a gamble to her charterers. She may load on a falling market and set out with her wheat worth shillings below a payable price. She takes months on her voyage, providing good free warehousing on the way, and sometimes has the luck to arrive in time to take advantage of an upward trend of which there was no sign when she left.
For this reason, shippers still like to take an odd gamble with a sailing ship, particularly in recent seasons, when wheat prices have been so dull that the grower's main hope lies in some unforeseen upward trend when "bottom has been touched."
The Swedish four-masted bark Beatrice in 1930 was chartered to bring home wool from Melbourne to London--a trade which throughout this century had been religiously the exclusive right of the steamer-- simply because she provided long warehousing by the duration of her voyage, and there was a chance that prices would rise while she was on her way.
She was 110 days on the passage, and her charterers had the satisfaction of clearing better prices for the wool they sent in her than they obtained for any they had sent in steamers. The steamers had discharged their wool on a falling market months earlier; the Beatrice arrived to find stocks lower and prices slightly higher. As her freight rate was lower than the steamer's, her chartering was profitable to the wool owners.
But against the lower freight rate has to be offset the tendency on the part of underwriters--natural, perhaps--to charge a higher premium for the insurance of sailing ships' cargoes.
Their masters cannot hold to their sail when strong wind comes, because they know that if they do not shorten down in time, the chances are that they will not be able to shorten down at all. A few lost sails mean a spoilt voyage. Canvas is expensive in these expensive times. The loss of a No. I storm canvas topsail in a big four-masted bark cannot be written off at less than $1,500. Food is expensive, especially in Australia; port charges send sea captains to an early grave. Wharf laborers are refractory; tugboats grossly overcharge poor sailing ships, which are helpless in their hands. The boy crews, though they may be cheap, are apt to melt away in attractive ports and are difficult to replace. Real sailors are scarce; in any case, they will not go in sailing ships.
They are more concerned with the safe delivery of their cargoes and the return to their homes of all those who set out to sea in them than with spectacular and thrilling holding on of sail in heavy gales and forcing the ship in short tacks against head winds. They sail leisurely, and would not run more than nine knots if a gale blew right behind them on a sea of perfect calm, if such a thing were possible. They steer badly and their great back-breaking sails and yards are extremely difficult to handle in anything of a breeze.
They accept their wheat gratefully and are glad of any cargoes. They spend months, and even years, sailing round the seven seas in ballast, hunting for charters they rarely get. If ever they chance upon a charter, they are not fools enough to throw away good money on blown-out sails. Let newspapers rave about the "race" and fools ashore lay bets; they wander placidly and slowly on.
It would not exist if it were not for the Australian grain trade. Ninety per cent of the ships chartered are from the Erikson fleet. There are only three others to be considered--the Swedish training barks C. B. Pedersen and Beatrice and the little Finnish schoolship Favell. Denmark had the big five-master Kobenhavn, but she is lost; England had (in Canada's name) the four-masted bark Garthpool, Lawhill's full sister, but now she is gone, and the race is left to the Finns and the Swedes.
The Beatrice's people were sure they would win. We knew they had a chance, but did not think much of it.
We made for the Horn before the great west winds, passing to the far south of Tasmania and New Zealand. We were lucky and rounded the Horn after 33 days, despite the fact that we were 16 days out before clearing Campbell Island, off the south of New Zealand. From there we ran round the Horn in 17 days, which was famous sailing.
FOR A PICTURE RECORD OF THE SEA
Poor Beatrice did not come in until nearly three weeks later. She had gone the Good Hope way, making across the Indian Ocean in the tail of the southeast trades and round the cape in the Agulhas Current, thinking that she might make a quicker passage that way. But she failed. Really, the chances of a faster passage Good Hope way than the Horn were about even, but luck was on the Herzogin Cecilie's side that voyage and she won. Beatrice was delayed for weeks in light Atlantic trades, where only a few days before we had had strong wind.
I left the Herzogin Cecilie and remained in England a while. Then I went back to Australia and, together with a young reporter-photographer friend, conceived the idea of once more rounding the Horn to get a cinema record of it while the chance remained. It was a stirring opportunity which no film-producing corporation seemed inclined to tackle. We kept our ideas to ourselves, thinking that if we sought to interest some great film concern they would be more inclined to charter a ship and send some expert cameramen and a gang of scene-shifters and whatnot out to sea for a week or two, rather than to commission us to go after the real thing in our own way.