BELFAST, Maine — In the 19th century, adventurous Mainers signed up for years-long stints aboard whaling ships or sought passage aboard clipper ships headed to California during the Gold Rush.
There were fortunes aplenty to be made out there, but there was a big obstacle, too: Cape Horn.
The southernmost tip of South America, where the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans meet, was infamous for its strong winds and currents, giant rogue waves and icebergs. A new book by Northport maritime historian Charles Lagerbom, “Maine to Cape Horn: the World’s Most Dangerous Voyage,” details the perils that mariners faced while attempting to round the horn.
“Cape Horn could break anybody, if not physically, maybe mentally,” he said. “It was a challenge. And that’s why you’ve really got to hand it to the people who did it.”
Lagerbom, 57, a history teacher at Belfast Area High School, got into Cape Horn history while researching for his last book, 2020’s “Whaling in Maine.” Though Nantucket and New Bedford, both in Massachusetts, get most of the spotlight for whaling history, Maine was important, too.
“I was blown away by the sheer amount of historic connections, whether it was the ships that were built here, the captains from here, the crews that came from here,” he said.
As he plunged into logbooks and journals, he found story after story about rounding Cape Horn.
The journey began at a latitude of 50 degrees south on one side of the continent of South America and ended at 50 degrees south on the other side of the continent. The trip could be done in as little as 10 days. But most westbound ships took longer, sometimes weeks or even months longer, as they tacked back and forth to fight against the prevailing winds.
Some captains had to ration their crew’s food and water. One ship was limited to just one pint per person per day, Lagerbom said. Crews battened down cargo so it wouldn’t shift enroute, endangering the ship, and kept an eye out for rogue waves, the highest of which has been measured at 98 feet.
Altogether, it’s estimated that by the 20th century, 10,000 sailors had died off Cape Horn.
“Once I got the individual stories of captains or crews or ships, it was just amazing,” Lagerbom said.
The stories he learned made him shiver. There was the Suliote, a bark almost completed by Asa Faunce of Belfast in 1848, when rumors of California gold arrived. He sold 50 berths on the ship for $150 each. They were quickly snapped up by young Maine men, including three — though not all four — members of the Bangor Quartet, a musical group.
“It broke the band up, it was that much of a draw,” Lagerbom said.
Prior to departure, the passengers met at the Hammond Street Church in Bangor for a special sermon, and when the ship launched, the governor of Maine was on hand to cheer it on. The Suliote, under the command of Captain Josiah Simpson, was the first Maine ship to head to California during the Gold Rush.
But Cape Horn exacted its toll.
The ship encountered bad weather while making its way west around the cape. On one dark night in very rough seas, Simpson’s 18-year-old son, Edwin Paul Simpson, was near the wheel when the Suliote gave a sudden lurch and washed him overboard.
Edwin was adrift in the cold ocean, and there was nothing those aboard the ship could do to save him, Lagerbom said. The Suliote couldn’t stop and turn around, and if a lifeboat had been lowered, it would have been swamped immediately.
“He was just bobbing in the waves, getting farther and farther behind,” the historian said. “He was lost at sea. It just destroyed Simpson. He got everybody to California, but he never sailed again.”
So many Maine sailors were lost at sea, in fact, that Lagerbom has heard that a third of the graves in the state from the years 1820 to 1850 are empty.
Cipperly Good, curator of maritime history at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, said that Lagerbom’s book could reawaken interest in maritime adventure for a new generation.
“This is the ultimate tale of man versus nature, trying to round the horn,” she said. “It’s armchair travel. You don’t have to be on the boat rounding the horn, but you can read about it. And it’s a test of human skill, to try and make that passage.”
During the age of sail, cargo moved by water and Maine was at the forefront of commerce.
“If you wanted a well-built ship with a competent captain and crew, then you went to Maine,” Good said. “We were the folks who sailed around the world and carried cargo.”
That’s why it was worth risking the hazards of Cape Horn, even though the trip didn’t always end well.
Take the story of E.H. Harriman of Belfast, who was the captain of the three-masted ship P.R. Hazeltine. When rounding Cape Horn, he ran into terrible storms and tried to cut through a group of islands but ended up wrecking his ship. Two lifeboats managed to carry the people aboard to safety, but the cargo was lost in relatively shallow water.
“Harriman spent the rest of his life trying to get back and save that ship,” Lagerbom said. “He was so afraid of other people getting there first that it ended up breaking him mentally.”
The captain died in the Maine Insane Asylum in Augusta and his Belfast home — now torn down — was known as the “Mad Sea Captain’s House.”
Still, the perils did not keep Mainers from trying their luck at going to sea and rounding the horn.
“I kept finding out that basically it was the sailors’ job,” Lagerbom said. “They knew it was a tough crossing to get around Cape Horn, and they just did it. There aren’t a lot of complaints in the journals. It was all part of the job, and I’ve got to tip my hat to them. Those were some tough Mainers that did that.”
Of those who did make it home, many marked their feat by wearing a gold earring in their left ear. It was also said that Cape Horn survivors earned the right to put a foot up on the table while dining, Lagerbom said.
“Pretty outrageous behavior, but, hey, you earned it, if you survived Cape Horn,” he said. “It’s not like they’re bragging, but it’s such an accomplishment. And I guess other mariners knew that, too. There was always a certain special respect that they had for mariners and captains who had done it, and done it time and time again. That takes a pretty hearty person to do that.”
“Maine to Cape Horn: the World’s Most Dangerous Voyage,” from Arcadia Publishing, is available wherever books are sold. Signed copies are available by emailing Charles Lagerbom at firstname.lastname@example.org.