Cape Horn may be tougher

The rounding of Cape Horn is one of the most delicate and meteorologically complex stages of the Barcelona World Race. In the next race, as the southern autumn sets in, the IMOCAs will take on the legendary cape in what may be the more treacherous conditions than in previous editions.

News MAR 2, 2018 12:29

So, why don’t round the world regattas such as the Vendée Globe and the Barcelona World Race start during the pleasant month of May and finish in the warm summer of European ports? The answer is simple and straightforward: at that time of year, the Southern Ocean is treacherous, and sailing during the southern autumn and winter can be a risky business. At Cape Horn, even more so.


Why? Firstly, because the average wind force and frequency of squalls is higher during this time of year, also meaning bigger swell. The second reason is that the water temperature of the waves washing over the deck can easily be as low as 4ºC at 40-45º S latitudes, which makes for very, very tough on-board conditions indeed, especially taking into consideration the icy Antarctic winds being blown in by the storms. Therein lies the third reason: the colder the air, the denser it is, which means it weighs more and therefore impacts more heavily on the sails making sailing more gruelling for both sailor and yacht

In the Vendée Globe, which starts around the middle of November, the IMOCAs reach Cape Horn during the second half of December and early January, so the first half of the southern summer. During the past two editions of the Barcelona World Race, which started on the 31st December, the fleet rounded Cape Horn between the last week of February and the middle of March (the anniversary we are celebrating!), therefore in the second half of the southern summer.

The latest of the Barcelona World Race yachts to ever round Cape Horn was We Are Water on the 29th of March 2011. Jaume Mumbrú and Cali Sanmartí found themselves grappling with some ferocious conditions at the start of the southern autumn, with winds of 45 knots and gusts of up to 60 and 65 knots. They were forced to sail in defensive mode and even so suffered damage to their boom. They were hit with harsh winds coming in from the south, which blew across swell coming in from the NW creating cross currents which were incredibly difficult to navigate. You can take a look in the following video (Spanish):

Incredible, right? Well, the chances of the entire IMOCA fleet going up against similar conditions as those endured by We Are Water in 2011 are the same. The race start on the 12th of January, coupled with the Sydney stopover mean that the boats will reach the cape towards the end of March, a period of the year which no IMOCA round the world challenge has embraced in the South Pacific so far, let alone including a rounding of Cape Horn.

This is why the FNOB has commissioned a study to meteorologist Marcel van Triest to evaluate the dates of passage round the cape according to the characteristics of the boats. Van Triest concludes that before April 1 all ships will have rounded Horn, except for some exception due to damage, thus avoiding the toughest of the austral autumn.

The rounding of Cape Horn is also meteorologically tricky due to the geographical features of the landmark. It sits at 55°58’ S, the southernmost latitude of the entire regatta. The Andes mountain range is also the source of compression of north-easterly winds which speed up and generate some angry seas. As if that weren’t enough to deal with, the water depth climbs suddenly from 4,000 metres to just 500 metres within a few kilometres. That rapid shift in depth produces huge swell which also generate cross currents and occasionally pyramid-shaped waves.