By this time, composite ships –i.e., made of wood with an iron framing— were already sailing and were immediately followed by hulls completely made of steel and rivets.
The age of navigation was starting. On the one
hand, the swift sailing clippers and, on the other, the steamers trying
to replace the former. The discovery of gold in California (U.S.A.) promoted
a great migration of colonists as, even though men went ahead on their
own, their families followed some time later. There were several routes.
Crossing the States could take five months and they could lose their heads.
Another possibility was to cross the Mexican territory, or go down to
Panama and cross the isthmus to embark toward the north.
The option considered to be the safest and most popular was to embark and sail via the south of South America either through the Strait of Magellan or doubling Cape Horn. There is a very interesting narrative in which a passenger of a brig tells us about the experience of crossing the Strait of Magellan in 1849, during the heyday of the Californian gold rush. This brig took six months and a half to sail from the east to the west coast.
The trip doubling Cape Horn
could take between one hundred and two hundred days from New York
to San Francisco.
The record of six days for this part of the voyage belongs to the clipper Young America; the Flying Fish did it in seven days, the same as the clippers Flying Cloud and the Robin Hood. The Flying Dutchman (twice), the Herald of the Morning, the Stag Hound and the Sword Fish took eight. The following are registered with nine days –the Mary L. Sutton, the Sovereign of the Seas, and the Great Republic. The Atlanta, the Golden City, the Hornet, the Typhoon, the Whistler, the Sweepstakes, and the Snap Dragon (bark) follow with ten days. This list is long and, from this information, we can come to the following conclusions: they were outstanding ships and these marks were only possible with favorable conditions –quite rare in the area.
In less than 110 days, one hundred and thirty voyages took place. Three ships share the same record of 89 days –the Flying Cloud, from New York to San Francisco in 1851; again the Flying Cloud, from New York to San Francisco in 1854; and the Andrew Jakson, also from New York to the Golden Gate in 1860.
Let us imagine the advertising stir the Flying Cloud and her shipowners arose.
There were also extremely slow voyages such as the Arthur’s that took 200 days from New York to the Golden Gate (1851); the Cornwails’ of 204 days; and the Henry Allen’s with 225 days; all of them during the same year.
The largest ship (in terms of burden capacity) was the Great Republic which took nine days to sail from 50º South in the Atlantic and 50º South in the Pacific.
There were other records such as the Eduard Sewall’s that sailed past 50º South in the Atlantic on 7 March 1914 to cross 50º South in the Pacific on 12 May (sixty seven days later). This is a clear instance of what bad weather, or rather, adverse weather can do.
In 1849, the first year of the gold rush in California, eight hundred ships doubled Cape Horn and crossed the Pacific sailing north up to the eastern coast of the United States of America. They entered the San Francisco bay between two high barren headlands. This formation was known all over the world as the Golden Gate and, today, the famous suspension bridge of San Francisco –which is being reinforced for earthquakes - is named after it.
Then came the discovery of gold in Australia. Immigrants who arrived in New York after a short trip of thirty days from northern Europe found large posters encouraging them to look for gold in California or Australia or for a job on the western coast of the States. Ships set sail every day, most of them via the route of Cape Horn, until combined ships (steam and sails) started to advertise their safety and speed.
Trade with Japan and China is ever-frequent and, in a short time, it becomes intensive. In order to provide steamers with coal, hundreds of clippers are sent to establish depots.
A true communication war breaks out. With the inauguration of the railway (1870) that crosses the United States of America, voyages via Cape Horn plummet. But almost at the same time, nickel trade from New Caledonia starts and it has to sail through Cape Horn. On the other hand, trying to make distances shorter, the Suez Canal is opened, but trade with nitrate from Peru also begins. The world is boiling with trade and transport (and communication) go through the Great Cape Hornier.
Strange though it seems, atomic bomb included, these ships went on sailing up to after World War II. There was even a famous German corsair that acted during World War I with a sailing ship. He was Count Felix Von Luckner –he not only caught sailing vessels but he also got a good number of steamer preys. It was during the two wars, and especially WWII, that most of the last cargo sailing ships sunk.
A special case was the Pamir, owned by the company “Laeisz”, whose main feature was that all of its ships had names beginning with P. This tall ship went on sailing as a carrier until the “Carrie” hurricane made her disappear near the Azores on 22 September 1957. There are outstanding films of this ship doubling Cape Horn shot in the 1930s. She usually visited the port of Buenos Aires; of course, she was towed.
But let us go back to Tierra del Fuego and the Strait of Magellan. Now steamers and combined ships no longer had to stand off-and-on and the Strait of Magellan was far safer and there was shelter from huge waves; but ships required large amounts of coal. They needed so much that, if they loaded the complete amount required to sail round America, they had no space for cargo. This is how Sandy Point became more and more important for southern navigation. In fact, it became the center of this activity, while Ushuaia (founded in 1884) received two or three ships per month toward the end of the 19th C, Punta Arenas received two a day with a peak of three a day in 1910.
With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 (Chile bet this would never happen), the restless activity of Punta Arenas dropped and, in 1920, only three ships entered per month. During the steam age, the austral route was still the preferred one by tall ships; both propulsion systems coexisted for over sixty years. In fact, the canal killed both routes and, at the same time, rescue companies.