From Cape Finisterre on the north western tip of Spain to Cape Horn at the tip of Tierra del Fuego, the sailors of the Vendée Globe pass several world renowned Capes, each an emblematic landmark in its own right. Often the Cape in question marks the end of a continent, but inevitably each has its own maritime history which enhances their reputation. And during the Vendée Globe the passage of each Cape is always important chance to tick off another phase of the notoriously tough solo passage around the world
Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, Cape Horn: the trio of the three great capes of the southern oceans should be really complemented by a fourth one, Cape Finisterre. Even if it is only one or two days of sailing from Sables d'Olonne, nevertheless it marks a really important stage of the course, both on the way out and on the way homewards to the finish line.
Farewell to Europe
Finisterre bids farewell to Europe. Cape Finisterre (not to be confused with the French department of Finistère), is actually not the most westerly point of continental Europe, that is Cape Saint-Vincent in the north of Portugal’s Algarve.
But the passage of Cape Finisterre usually marks the exit of the Bay of Biscay and the strong SW’ly winds which blow there. Once around Cape Finisterre the skippers can hope for a rapid shift in direction of the winds along the Iberian Peninsula, catching the Portuguese trade winds, the powerful northerly winds which will allow them to accelerate south in a brisk, but often stable regime which allows some routine and respite after Biscay.
Cape Finisterre is a granite promontory on the end of the Costa da Morte, whose name alone highlights its feared reputation. Over 140 metres above sea level, Cape Finisterre has an imposing lighthouse. On land it is of course home to another huge odyssey as the pilgrims come there from Santiago de Compostela to burn their clothes or their shoes or leave them as an offering at dusk.
There is not usually a special offering made here by the Vendée Globe skippers, a sigh of relief for sure, having made a good start around the world when the Cape disappears literally or figuratively in the wake.
Good Hope, Aptly Named.
Without doubt as the Cape of Good Hope bears its name because of its location as the theoretical turning point east from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and so into the Southern Ocean. In truth the Cape of Good Hope neither marks the tip of the African continent nor does it constitute the transition between the Atlantic and Indian. It is the Cape Agulhas, some 150 kilometers to the south east.
But for the historical great explorers, the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope became the first major turning point east. And so when the Portuguese merchant convoys on their way to India passed the Cape of Good Hope they could finally put a little easting into their course.
And now for the sailors of the Vendée Globe, the Cape of Good Hope marks their entry into the Southern Ocean. For the next several weeks they will have to contend with the unique challenges of the Indian Ocean and then the Pacific, racing far from any outside assistance. It is always with some apprehension and adrenaline that skippers pass this entry point. But it is very, very rare for the skippers to actually pass close to the Cape because of the contrary Agulhas current which also kicks up a nasty sea as it is against the prevailing wind and also the shortest route course around the world is over a thousand miles south of the Cape.
Leeuwin, Lesser Nnown But a Key Milestone
Cape Leeuwin is at the southwestern tip of the Australian mainland. Vendée Globe sailors are not done with the Indian Ocean until the longitude of Tasmania has been crossed and between the two, it is almost 2,000 miles that solo sailors will have to cover before their entry into the Pacific. But it is a key milestone to pass and mentally the sailors feel closer to land again after the frozen wastes of that stretch of the Indian Ocean. In agreement with the maritime authorities there the Vendée Globe course sets a southern limit which must not be crossed when the fleet is south of the Australian continent. This is required by the MRCC to keep the fleet within reach if rescue is required. This is precipitated in part after the incident in 2008 whenYann Eliès was the victim of a very serious accident. He could have been recovered by an Australian Navy frigate quicker had the route passed further north.
The passing of the longitude of Leeuwin serves as a reference point for the records for sailing in the Southern Ocean.
Horn, Nothing Short of Deliverance
To cross Cape Horn is every ocean racer’s Holy Grail. At the Horn the Vendée Globe is far from but the sailors are leaving what Titouan Lamazou called the oppressive grey of the "shadowy lands" for what should be warmer and less windy latitudes. Above all they are emerging from the maritime desert of the south where the competitors can only rely on themselves to be back in closer touch with the South American continent.
Crossing Cape Horn is an opportunity to pass the very southernmost latitude of the course. And is usually accompanied by some kind of celebration marking deliverance from the south and the passage of the iconic, lonely rocky islet. The big bonus is seeing Cape Horn itself and being able to take photos or video images of the passage. In theory life is getting a little less wild, even though there are still three weeks to one month still at sea before reaching the finish in Les Sables d'Olonne.
The temptation is to come and sail as close as possible to Horn Island, to pass the foot of the cliffs of Tierra del Fuego, to have the chance to see the lighthouse guarded by a Chilean soldier and his family. Today it does not feel quite as lonely as cruises are organized to reach Cape Horn from Ushuaia or Puerto Williams. When the weather permits semi-rigid inflatables then land on the island at the end of the world. That maybe the case but true Cape Horners have passed the Southern Oceans under their keels (or foils as the case may be) and will forever covet the memories of their passage of the most famous Cape of all