October 2004

John Detrixhe

nonfiction

Rounding the Horn by Dallas Murphy

Cape Horn is as remote as it is enchanting. A “pyramid of naked rock” situated at the southern tip of South America, for centuries Cape Horn functioned as the only passage around the American continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The Panama Canal changed that, but Cape Horn remains for many sailors, if not a place for testing, a place to be remembered and respected.

One of those sailors is Offshore magazine columnist Dallas Murphy. Though his writing is similar to Jon Krakauer’s, Rounding the Horn is not as skillfully rendered as Eiger Dreams or Into Thin Air. What Murphy has in common with Krakauer is enthusiasm for his pursuit and the knowledge to back it up, and that is when Murphy is at his best. Unfortunately, many of the best parts of the book are wedged between chapters that have little relation to one another.

In a general sense, Horn consists of two intertwined narratives: Murphy’s experience aboard the Pelagic, a boat captained by a Brit named Hamish Laird, during his voyage to Cape Horn, and a historical account of Cape Horn. Murphy mentions in the Introduction that his visit to Cape Horn is not the subject of the book. But having read the book, one wonders what exactly is the subject of Horn. It is a good, if marginalized, personal narrative, a fair account of Cape Horn history, an outline of sailing and meteorology, and a poor history of western civilization. Was it any one or two of those things -- particularly a fully explored personal narrative and a discussion of specific Cape Horn history -- it probably would have been more successful.

Murphy’s credentials are those of a sailor and writer, and it is easy to take him seriously when he is discussing the three stages of death at sea -- overdue, missing, and lost -- but not so much so when he speculates on, say, the Mariners versus the Clovis Firsters theories of “the peopling of the Americas,” or cultural relativity. The bibliography is extensive and helps qualify Murphy’s speculation, but regularly quoting experts would be stronger.

One of Murphy’s best scenes is at the yacht club in Ushuaia, Argentina prior to departure to Cape Horn. The yacht club, literally at the end of the civilized world, with the exclusivity of a base camp in the Himalayas, is really just the mess room aboard a badly listing boat named the Micalvi. In just a few paragraphs the scene tells the reader so much about the region and an international subculture of explorers. But the strength of the scene only illustrates the subsequent chapters’ inadequacies. In chapters two through five, Murphy pontificates on William Jones’s voyage aboard the British Isles in 1905, Antarctica and Southern Ocean weather, Christopher Columbus, and Sir Francis Drake respectively. Murphy returns to his discussion of Hamish and the Pelagic in chapter six, but by that time it is nearly forgotten by the reader. Worse yet, chapters two through five read like undergraduate reportage -- homework accomplished, though the talent was elsewhere.

That said, Murphy’s prose is not without charm. His descriptions of the ocean and atmosphere are haunting, vivid, and appropriate to geography that is, as Murphy often writes, sublime:

“The haze that had materialized with full dark suddenly lifted -- maybe it had never been there at all, another atmospheric trick. The taut horizon distinguished water from air, and the sky filled with stars we’d never seen before except on charts. A strange, indistinct brightness arced over out masthead light like a scattering of luminescent powder […]”

Unfortunately, however, refinement is often an issue, such as in Murphy’s discussion of Antarctica, in which he explains no less than five times over four consecutive paragraphs that Antarctica is a “frozen continent,” that it “never melts,” that it is “composed of ice,” and, finally, that it is “permanently locked in ice.”

As well, in many instances Murphy struggles with tense: “Hamish, approving, thanked us and went below to make popcorn (he says Americans don’t know how to make popcorn), a much anticipated evening ritual.” It is technically incorrect, and even granting the author license to certain liberties with his prose, the tense fluctuates so regularly that it is distracting and reduces the reader’s faith in Murphy’s work. It is especially disappointing because it detracts from some great moments.

There is an element to Murphy’s writing that should not be underestimated. Though he is perhaps not an accomplished prose stylist, in his personal narrative are recorded many beautiful moments. As well, Murphy is clearly enamored with sailing, and his enthusiasm is infectious. But unfortunately the best parts of the book are encumbered with awkward chapters whose relation to the story is tangential at best, and Horn remains an adventure story waiting to happen.

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 by Dallas Murphy
Basic Books
ISBN: 0465047599
358 Pages