On Dec. 27, 1988, on a windswept airfield in Puerto Williams, Chile, Howard Rice faced a concerned contingent from the Chilean navy. He had flown from New York City to Puerto Williams, a 6,500-mile trip, with a plan in mind to take a 15-foot sail-kayak around Cape Horn, the 1,300-foot-high headland that looms above the confluence of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans 110 miles south of Puerto Williams. The storied Cape Horn is the southernmost point in South America.
The skeptical Chilean officers asked Rice where his kayak was. Rice reached into his duffel bags, pulled out the various parts of his German-built collapsible Klepper kayak and carefully explained the strength of the wooden frame, canvas body and rubber bottom. The navy men looked at each other. One finally spoke, telling Rice he would die on the treacherous stretch of water known as the Bah�a Nassau before he ever reached Cape Horn.
The Horn has claimed hundreds of ships and the lives of thousands of sailors over the years. A solo rounding by sail-kayak had never been done before, and the navy wasn't about to let the 34-year-old Rice leave from Puerto Williams, even though he was an experienced expedition leader and had obtained permission through the proper channels in Chile before heading south. As part of a sea-rescue force, not a fighting one, the officers knew they would have to come to Rice's aid if he ran into trouble. Six days later, with the navy still saying no, the MV Heraclitus, a research ship bound for Antarctica, docked in Puerto Williams. Rice introduced himself to the crew and, after a day and a half of negotiating with the captain of the Heraclitus and the Chilean navy, he was permitted to leave port on the research ship, which agreed to drop him at Cape Ross, 60 miles north of the Horn, if the weather was good.
Stored in Rice's kayak were $5,000 worth of expedition equipment (including a satellite-locator beacon, a mountaineering altimeter, a self-rescue inflatable outrigger and a self-rescue sail system, both custom designed), a 28-day supply of food, charts, five Mozart tapes and a waterproof Walkman. He disembarked at Cape Ross on Isla Grevy, and as the vessel disappeared, Rice began to feel his stomach ease into his throat. The problems of Puerto Williams were behind him, and he was now alone. Completely alone. Perhaps the navy was right; perhaps he was no match for what lay ahead.
He sat on the shore of the island for more than an hour, too stunned to move, overwhelmed by the enormity of his undertaking. Four years earlier, he had become convinced that he could round Cape Horn in the Klepper, a craft that is more durable than a fiberglass kayak.
An experienced sailor, Rice had started kayaking in 1980, and in 1985 he completed a 30-day trip around the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas. He is a professional guide for mountain climbing and outdoor expeditions and is president of his own company, LookFar Expeditions. For the previous 12 months, Rice had devoted himself to training—paddling, lifting weights and running—for the Cape Horn trip, splitting his time between New York City and Cross Village, Mich., a small town on Lake Michigan. But he hadn't anticipated the drama of this day—Jan. 5, 1989.
Eventually he stood, pushed his kayak into the water, got in and paddled 100 feet. The sea was calm, so he hoisted one of his two nine-foot masts and began sailing toward Cape Horn at about five knots. Sailing to save his strength, he was able to cover 13 miles on the first day. He wanted to go farther, but the skies indicated a storm was on the way, so he went ashore on a small island and set up camp.
The next morning he awoke to what sounded like an airplane touching down over his tent. Outside, 65-knot winds whipped the sea into whitecaps. Rice knew that patience was a key to survival, so he merely cursed to himself and crawled back into the tent. For four days he waited, eating sparingly to save food for the days ahead. He tried to listen to Mozart, but mostly he heard the wind.
He set out on the fifth day, braving 20-knot winds and five-foot waves. To help ward off the elements, Rice wore an outer suit of coated nylon over expedition-weight underwear and a full bunting suit. As he paddled, he steered close to the rocky shoreline of the island when he could, but when he had to swing wide to avoid the punishing waves, the winds took over. Several times he was pushed a mile into the open sea by the powerful winds and had to fight his way back.
Two days later he reached Isla Herschel, and through his binoculars, across 11 miles of open sea, he finally spotted Cape Horn, which rises from the southern tip of Horn Island. The skies to the west were threatening. Should he try to beat the storm, or camp on the island?