At the other end of the world to us, Cape Horn is a desolate and fearsome place, the most dangerous part of a voyage to bring Copper ore to Swansea.
Bitter winds blow ceaselessly from west to east, and massive green waves, thirty metres high roll across the ocean, so strong they can smash a ship to pieces, in storms that rage all winter long.
The men who sailed those seas were the toughest and most skilled seamen. Their life was hard, but their pride and fellowship were great.
It was the Copper trade with Chile – the terrible journey round Cape Horn, and the perils of the voyage home – which made Swansea’s ships and sailors famous.
To be called a Cape Horner was the highest accolade a seaman could earn. Few ports had more Cape Horners than Swansea in those days.
It was a dangerous, harsh and harrowing life. Men who survived it were tough, rugged, and brave.
It could take many weeks to sail round the Horn. The whole voyage, from Swansea to Chile and back again, might take a year or more.
Cramped into the dark, dank forecastle, or crews quarters aboard ship, fifteen or more men slept in wooden bunks, on mattresses filled with straw, which they called ‘donkey’s breakfast’.
They shared their cabin with the anchor chains, and an oil lamp gave the only light. In rough weather everything got wet, and it was a place for only the strong in body and spirit.
A long hard battle with the elements.
As the Copper trade ships drew near to Cape Horn the crew prepared for the battle ahead. The ship had to be in prime condition to survive the vicious wind and waves.
They would check the sails for tears and damage, and the rigging for frayed or broken ropes. For safety – of a sort – the ship would have life-lines stretched along the deck, for sailors to cling onto in rough seas.
If they survived these terrible conditions – and many did not – then the ship passed the Falkland Islands, heading into westerly winds and waves that ran unhindered for a thousand miles and more… and home.
Round the Horn with icy sails and rigging
Sailors, working high in the rigging, would have clung for their very lives to ice-covered sails and ropes with frozen hands, battered by wind and waves.
Terrible accidents happened. Men fell into the sea, or onto the deck far below, and massive waves could wash them overboard, and snap ships’ masts like matchsticks.
Other hazards lurked, such as thick fogs that came drifting off the land, and blocked out sight and sound. The rocks around that wild coastline, and worse still, icebergs, could – unseen – sink a ship and drown its crew.
Winter was the worst time to make the voyage. Summer weather was not so bad, with lighter, warmer wind, more gentle waves, and then the sailors could see the wild beauty of the Cape Horn coastline. That said, Copper production never stopped, and neither did the voyages.
The living was rough
Fresh food did not last long. For most of the voyage, all the men could eat was salted meat, ships biscuits, dried beans, potatoes, onions and maybe fish, if they had time – or luck – to catch some.
Rats nibbled the stores, and sea water soaked the ship, sometimes putting the Galley fire out, and then nothing could be cooked.
Sailors gave their food strange nicknames. Two examples are “Harriet Lane”, a beef and bean hash, that got the name from a murdered English woman, who was chopped up – sailors said the food looked like Harriet’s remains ! Another name was “Strike me Blind”, a term for rice and raisins.
You’d need a sense of humour and a strong stomach to be able to eat sailors food, even the “hard tack” biscuits had maggots or weevils in, and were best eaten with eyes closed !