The old saying is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. In the case of Dallas Murphy’s new book, Rounding the Horn: Being the Story of Williwaws and Windjammers, Drake, Darwin, Murdered Missionaries and Naked Natives – A Deck’s-Eye View of Cape Horn, a more apt expression would be that you can’t judge a book by its title. Despite being saddled with a rather absurd and antiquated title, this tale is neither of those things. Instead, it is an informative, well-researched look into the history of sailing around Cape Horn that manages to educate without sounding fussy or stale.
The bulk of Rounding the Horn is simply the history of the exploration of Cape Horn. Murphy maps the first attempts to cross the continent by land and then focuses on the revolutionary men, such as Magellan and Drake, who first dared to think that the continent could be circumnavigated. Of course, that trip was not without its danger, as well. Scurvy, mutiny, and the worst weather conditions on the planet were just a few of the highlights these explorers could look forward to. Looking back from the twenty-first century, Murphy also tells the bits of exploration history that typically are left out of text books – the feuds, piracy, murders, and wanton destruction that often accompanied these daring trips. Rounding the Horn also devotes several chapters to the trips that were not heroic, but silly – such as the 1905 attempted rounding by the British Isles, which took seventy-one days to make the trip and lost a good portion of its crew doing so. The juxtaposition of the truly historic and the truly pitiable creates an accurate picture of the dangers of the rounding.
Murphy balances the straight history of the Horn with his own recent trip to the southernmost tip of South America. His boyish enthusiasm for sailing, breathless descriptions of the harsh beauty of the place, and wonder at “being the first” to sail into an unmapped bay on the Hardy Peninsula are interwoven with and balance the processional of historic events. It is through Murphy’s firsthand experiences rounding the horn that the reader learns of some of the more bizarre attributes of the area. For example, the aforementioned williwaws (in the title) occur when cold, heavy air pools on the windward side of a mountain. It eventually “overflows” and barrels down the side of the mountain – and smashes into whatever ships happen to be floating nearby. Murphy rightly holds these deadly winds in awe and can’t help but pass that feeling along to the reader. Another Cape Horn oddity is that “there are magnetic anomalies out near False Cape Horn. The compass goes wandering off about forty degrees.” (105) An interesting abnormality nowadays, but certainly deadly to the first explorers trying to make their way west.
My only complaint with Rounding the Horn is that occasionally, in his enthusiasm for the sailing that he so clearly loves, Murphy presupposes the reader knows more about ships than the average “landlubber” would ever know. My knowledge of ships starts with “starboard” and ends with “port.” There were a few times when Murphy skimmed over what to him were obvious details, but to the landlocked, might seem frustratingly obscure. This is a small matter, though, that detracts little from the tale.
Overall, this is an excellent book. The history is told in a clear and straightforward manner, and Murphy’s own experiences give the story a personal touch. I came away from Rounding the Horn: Being the Story of Williwaws and Windjammers, Drake, Darwin, Murdered Missionaries and Naked Natives – A Deck’s-Eye View of Cape Horn with a wealth of knowledge and a new respect for the first men who dared to tackle such a brutal trip. Even if I did wish the book had a shorter title.