“How many years have we been working on getting here?”
Team Alvimedica’s Mark Towill, smiles with a childlike awe on deck as Southern Ocean spray high fives his face.
To his right, his skipper – and best friend – Charlie Enright laughs. “A third of my life,” he replies.
“And I’m old now – 30. It’s been a long time coming!”
It’s Day 13 of Leg 5, but as the pair look out over the fabled Cape Horn – the southernmost tip of South America, just 500nm from Antarctica, they realise that the foundations of this moment were laid long before this.
Ever since they decided that they wanted to turn their dream of racing around the planet into a reality two years ago, it’s been a crazy ride for the pair.
But for a moment, that runaway rollercoaster stopped – it was time to enjoy the view.
“This is a life moment,” continues Mark. “One of those days that you’ll never forget. The realisation of a dream.”
Before him, a towering jut of rock stands proud and still, despite the wobbleboard sea trembling at its feet.
For the adventurers of the sea, this remote outcrop at 55.9800° S, 67.2892° W is the ultimate stage.
“I just want to say thanks to my mum!” adds Charlie. “We’ve been through the part of the race that has been the most scary to watch so thanks and keep your chin up.”
It sounds almost like a winning speech at the Oscars – and as his orange boat rounds this iconic landmark in first place, the wind whistles and claps as standing ovation across its sails.
Wave after wave rolls out like a long red carpet to welcome these esteemed guests. In a race that’s so often all about the journey, finally, a moment to appreciate the destination.
“We can see Team Alvimedica, and Cape Horn is right here on our left, about eight miles away,” says Ian Walker onboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.
Azzam’s golden, falcon-fuelled sails fly as the bow slices through thick blue crush. “I’ve never seen it – it’s a great feeling onboard! We’ve been trashing the boat the past few days.
“I’m just happy to get here safely – that’s the main thing. There is still a long way to go but it’s a big relief. We’re in good shape.”
This time last race, Ian and co were in a very different mood – desperately figuring out their options after sustaining structural damage to their boat some 1,700 miles from land.
That’s what makes this place so special. It’s so remote, so extreme, that in a world of instant satisfaction, of fibre broadband, of Google Images, Twitter and Snapchat, it still holds a certain mystique. A certain romance.
It also holds a real allure to these sailors. “All the guys who go around here are crazy,” laughs skipper Bouwe Bekking onboard Team Brunel. “You have to be a bit nuts for it. It’s a special place.
For bowman Gerd-Jan Poortman in particular, this journey was as much a personal voyage as a professional one.
Before yesterday, he had failed to make it around the Horn twice – once breaking his back, once breaking a mast.
And as the sharp rockface came into view, his face beamed. “I’m speechless!”
“Amazing day, Cape Horn,” he smiles, punching the air. “Thanks to my mum and dad, my wife and kids for making this possible.”
Until you’ve conquered the Horn, you can’t really consider yourself to be a true offshore sailor. It’s also a symbolic place – a hurdle to overcome, both emotionally and physically.
After over a week of surviving the worst that the Southern Ocean can dish out – from 10 metre waves to ice cold chills, 50 knot winds and deadly icebergs – leaving the Horn behind symbolises something of a new dawn.
What greets the sailors is often calmer, warmer – and most importantly, each mile is a mile closer to home.
“It’s nice to go around and leave the hard part behind,” adds Bouwe. “The boats are getting pushed – we’ve had the pedal down most of the time 100%. The racing has been amazing.”
Spanish boat MAPFRE rounded the southernmost tip of South America with their Dutch counterparts in view – and skipper Iker Martinez stressed that the main priority for sailing the toughest ocean of all was to get around in one piece.
“Everyone is in good shape which is the most important,” he said, waves surging up over the sides of his red arrow. “This is one of the legs where you’re happy when you finish.
“We chose to be a little bit conservative – that’s the difference between being super good to being third. But we’re super happy.”
Not so lucky was Dongfeng Race Team. Just hours before they would’ve rounded Cape Horn, angry winds snapped their mast into two like a breadstick – and they had to divert towards Ushuaia, Argentina.
“Yesterday, our mast broke just a couple of hundred miles from Cape Horn – breaking also the dreams of the crew,” wrote Charles Caudrelier this morning.
“We’ve taken a big punch, but it’s not a knockout. We haven’t abandoned this leg yet, and will be at the start of the next one to win it.”
“It’s also the first time Wolf and I experienced a dismast. We were both astonished – there was a moment we didn’t have a clue what we should do.”
He pauses. “When the accident happened, I just wanted to to let my family to know that I’m safe. Everyone’s reaction after what happened made me feel warm and touched.
“I didn’t cry, I was just sad. But I wouldn’t feel ashamed to cry, because the journey of this leg is marvellous.
“We are learning something new about the ocean everyday, we respect the ocean, and also looking forward for the next challenge.”
Some 300 nm from Cape Horn is Team SCA, who are also suffering problems onboard, having been hamstrung somewhat by a broken sail – meaning that they’re sailing with the wrong sail for these conditions.
“We’ve made a game plan to get to Cape Horn in one piece and then race,” says skipper Sam Davies.
“Not saying that we aren’t racing but we’re missing a sail and now we can’t take any more risks with the sails that are left – we need them on the way from Cape Horn to Itajaí.
“And these remaining sails are tricky ones to use in these gusty conditions.”
She smiles. “We’ve had some fantastic sailing that we’ll remember for a long time. We’ve had some scary moments too, and it’s so, so cold!”
Who’d have thought that it would take visiting the bottom of the world to feel so on top of it?
by Jonno Turner