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Many years ago when I was a kid, enjoyed listening to stories from my uncles and grandparents and the authentic 'characters' they knew, characters I got to know and listen to when I visited my various relatives. I enjoyed their stories so much that I eventually tried to tell a few of them myself, while trying to imitate the styles these storytellers used. I later learned that most all storytellers do things like that.
My family had a nice television set by the time I got interested in storytelling but there was very little on TV that I wanted to watch in those days so I'd often go down to Grandfather's house instead and sit and listen to him and the other old men who gathered there to tell their stories.
One topic that came up more than once was Cape Horn, that far away point of land on the tip of South America. Grandfather's friends enjoyed telling stories about the various Maine ships that had sailed around 'The Horn' over the years.
If you want to see some beautiful paintings of ships rounding The Horn you should visit the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath.
Anyway, Cape Horn is known in geographical circles (and when it comes to our planet - Earth - everything has something to do with 'circles') as the southernmost point of the Americas.
John, what does all this have to do with Maine? I hear someone ask.
Good question. Just by coincidence The Horn lies due south of our own port of Eastport, which, as any Maine geography fan knows, is the easternmost city in these United States.
Where else are you going to learn things like this? Just one more reason why you have to read this column each week.
But I digress.
According to the stories I heard as a youth 'The Horn' was the most dreaded stretch of ocean headlands on earth because of the almost endless storms that raged between the two oceans. The Horn was also well within the southern ice line, which meant glaciers, and that only added to the adventure of sailing around it. Many fine ships, including many Maine vessels, went to the bottom in their attempts to round the horn.
According to Charles Scribner's Sons "Dictionary of American History" Cape Horn was first noted by Dutch navigators Jakob Le Maire and William Schouten who spotted it on a voyage to the East Indies in 1616. They were the first Europeans to enter the Pacific Ocean by way of Cape Horn. Before then all other European explorers used the fun-filled Straits of Magellan.
As a young student of geography I always thought Cape Horn was named after the musical instrument - the horn - since the tip of South America always looked to me like the mouthpiece of a horn. But the name has nothing to do with its horn-like shape. Schouten named the point Cape Horn (Kaap Hoorn in Dutch) after the town of Hoorn, in Holland, where he was born.
It was during these storytelling session at Grandfather's house that I heard other stories about the ships that ventured around The Horn only to meet winds that would start as squalls and increase rapidly to gales. Before long these gales would be blowing with hurricane force. There were stories of upper topsails on square riggers being blown away and vessels with heavy cargoes that labored in heavy seas as their decks were continually flooded.
I also learned of the Clipper Ship Snow Squall, which made many trips around the Horn from New York to California. Launched in South Portland in 1851 the Snow Squall eventually went aground in the Falkland Islands.
After it was discovered that she was the world's only surviving Clipper Ship a large portion of the clipper's bow was salvaged and brought back to Maine from the Falkland Islands in 1987
Like I said above, to learn more about Maine ships and their adventures around The Horn you'll have to visit the Maine Maritime since my grandfather passed away in 1962.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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