The Bottom of the World

I'm not sure where this started--it might have been from reading Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner years ago, or perhaps Melville's Moby Dick, or maybe even watching Master and Commander--but for the last several years I've been fascinated with the seas off southern South America, and especially dipping below Cape Horn to the bottom of the world. Seas you can stroll beside in southern California are fine, but there must be a special kind of terrifying beauty about waters that can be so monstrous (I remember first sensing this watching the bay north of Vancouver).

So it was a special treat when a friend gave me a copy of Hal Roth's sailing memoir, Two Against Cape Horn (1978), which documents the voyage of Hal and Margaret Roth from southern California down the west coast to South America, through the coastal channels of Chile, and final around Cape Horn itself before heading home via the eastern seaboard. It is a remarkable tale, including vignettes of intriguing people, history of sailors who first ventured around the cape (including Darwin's voyage on the Beagle), creative frugality and learning to live off the gifts of land (wild celery) and sea (mussells everywhere)--and even the account of their own shipwreck which left them utterly dependend upon the hospitality of Chilean natives and the navy. That, perhaps, was one of the most intriguing aspects of the story. There is something about such lone voyages--like all of the lone adventures of the wealthy, whether climbing moutains or sailing around the world alone--which are the height of modern (and American) individualism, a John-Wayne-ish swagger of independence. Perhaps unwittingly, Roth's story shows this all to be a lie: nobody sails around the cape "alone."