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Just this Side of Panic

By Skip Novak
American Skip Novak, 48, has sailed four Whitbread Round The World Races, survived 300,000 bluewater miles and helped set two ocean crossing records. For The Race, Novak is co-skipper aboard the 110-foot maxi-cat Innovation Explorer. While he and the crew of Innovation Explorer (which includes his wife, Helena) race one of the fastest boats ever built through the sticky calms of the equator and the howling storms of the Southern Ocean, Novak will post regular updates to Outside Online.

Aboard Innovation Explorer, February 14, 2001

During the last two off watches I have slept as only one can sleep after rounding Cape Horn. A great burden is off our collective shoulders now that we are free of the furies of the Southern Ocean and again in the relative millpond that is the South Atlantic Ocean.

Two days ago the drama began when we approached the continental shelf of Chile, west of Cape Horn. It had been blowing 30 to 35 knots with a fair sea running but the wind direction was right astern out of the west, so we elected to take a gybe to the northeast to set ourselves up for the final run in.

The problem with running close in to the Horn is that within a distance of only ten miles the ocean floor rises from 4000 meters deep up to 80 meters -- shallow enough for the huge ocean swells to pick up the bottom, producing irregular or 'rogue' waves. These can be twice the height of the normal waves and break badly, especially in the presence of a cross swell. This area is well known as a hazard to big ships so we were not taking it lightly, particularly since our catamaran had yet to really experience any dangerous sea conditions during our Southern Ocean tour. It's as if the last 100 miles had the final sting that we always knew was coming.

But what really got us worrying was the Chilean weather forecast, which predicted 60 to 80 knots at Cape Horn at the exact time we were expecting to round! I have spent 11 seasons in the Cape Horn area chartering my expedition sailing vessel Pelagic ( and I knew that the Chileans always exaggerate the wind speeds, but 60 knots is common and 80 does happen a few times a year so it was not without possibility. Our own weather routing and research showing a maximum of 60 knots gave us scant comfort.

Just before the shelf, we shortened down to three reefs and a staysail, which took about ten knots off the boatspeed, making our repeated collisions with waves just acceptable and safe. Gybing back southeast we sailed onto the shelf in 40 knots gusting 50 in a dead westerly, but with a welcome sun breaking through what was a continuous pattern of squall after squall.

On the next gybe in we fetched up close to the western end of Isla Hermite, a mite too close as it turned out. On the way back out we just managed to just clear some breaking rocks off the southwest end of Horn Island -- and I mean "just." Any closer and we would have had to drop our staysail in a panic.

When you are travelling at 20 to 30 knots in 50 to 60 knots of wind, the experience of a Cape Horn rounding doesn't last long. In a jiffy, the 'the Rock' was well astern, bathed in a warm afternoon sun. We ran a bit further on starboard before taking the port board up towards Staten Island and quickly found some sea shelter. The Southern Ocean was behind us, but will never be forgotten.

We are running north now, north up the Atlantic towards home, in pursuit of the blue boat Club Med, a distant 900 miles ahead. But wiyh 7000 miles to go, anything can happen.

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