Skip to main content
Original Issue


A Cape Horn kayak expedition was no paddle in the park

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 Bahía 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?

He decided to push on toward the Horn, but after half a mile Rice realized he had made the wrong decision. He turned around and paddled as hard as he could back toward Isla Herschel. Soon the ocean was roiled by strong winds and 10-foot waves. Rice aimed for an opening in the jagged cliffs on the island while maneuvering around the white-caps that were breaking over the back of his kayak. It took him two hours to reach safety.

He climbed onto a boulder and stared at Cape Horn in the distance. Had one of those waves upset his kayak, Rice might never have come up from the frigid water. Several hours passed before he could set up camp on the island. Storms would force him to remain there for the next 4½ days.

It was dusk on Jan. 16 when Rice finally made it to the shore of Horn Island, five miles northeast of the Horn. Tired, hungry and lonely after two weeks at sea, he pushed his kayak toward a rickety staircase that ran up a cliff. Piled up at the base of the stairs were several recently used propane tanks. Rice climbed the stairs and followed a path that led to a hut. He looked through the window and saw three men playing cards.

The men turned out to be Chilean sailors who did maintenance on the Cape Horn lighthouse. One of the men spoke some English, and Rice explained his voyage. For four days he stayed with them, and was served rice, beans and bread as storms raged around the hut. On the fifth morning the sailor told him, "Amigo, now or never."

The wind was blowing 25 knots as Rice started out. Having rested and eaten well, he felt strong. His vigor was quickly tested, as eight-foot waves began striking the kayak. Ahead lay the Horn; to the left, the open ocean; to the right, high cliffs; and behind him were the oncoming waves.

For five miles waves broke over both ends of the kayak. At last he spotted a bay where he could duck in and rest, but he quickly discovered that the waves were not getting any smaller, so he left that haven, paddled one more mile and finally rounded the Horn.

Now in the Pacific Ocean, Rice stopped for a moment and looked up at the massive cliff. Surprisingly, he felt no great exhilaration, no flash of insight. Instead, he heard a cautionary voice. "You're lucky to be alive," it said, just as one of many small whirlwinds whipped across the water and flipped his paddle into his face.

In mountain climbing, often the most dangerous part of an expedition is the descent; after reaching the summit, the climber is not as sharp as he was on the ascent. And so Rice, who treated the voyage as if it were a mountain climb, made every effort to maintain caution on his return voyage. But the elements conspired against him. Fighting high winds and waves, he headed back toward the hut near the lighthouse. Four miles from the staircase leading to the hut, the kayak flipped over. The frame of the boat broke, and Rice, tethered to the kayak with a lifeline, was thrown violently underwater. He struggled to the shore with the boat and. leaving it behind, hiked to the hut. A day later the sailors helped him retrieve the kayak, which he repaired with duct tape.

Two days later, on Jan. 19, he set off again, vowing to remain patient till the end. But he pushed himself too hard, and by dusk he had covered 31 miles in deteriorating conditions. Rice repeatedly overruled his own good judgment, which told him to stop for the night. When the waves reached 10 feet, it was too late. He tried to turn toward an island but was broadsided by a breaking wave. The kayak rolled over, and Rice was swept overboard again.

For 15 minutes he trod water in the thrashing waves, trying to get back into the boat. But the kayak kept rolling over, and he kept sliding back into the sea. He then had to swim to the kayak and, submerging his entire body, roll it upright. The cockpit was filled with water, and despite his dry suit, Rice's limbs were growing numb. He knew he was close to hypothermia—in a few minutes he would be immobile. Desperate, he swam to the front of the kayak, opened an air float that was attached to his spare paddle, inflated the float with his breath and closed the valve. As he blew into the small hole, freezing salt water flew up his nose and into his lungs.

Rice then jabbed the fiat end of the paddle beneath some gear stowed on deck so that the air float cantilevered out over the water like an outrigger. With the kayak finally stable. Rice pulled himself onto the deck, lifted his numb legs into the cockpit and slid in.

Using a small pump, he squeezed furiously to bail out the boat, which was still out of control in the 10-foot waves. A few minutes later, he began to paddle, searching through the darkness and driving rain for a place to land. He was terrified, for he had become too weak to survive another capsizing. Three hours later he spotted a cove and pulled in.

By morning the storm had passed, and over the next four days Rice covered 60 miles in unusually calm weather. He was two miles east of Puerto Williams, paddling into 20-knot winds, when unexpected visitors appeared from behind.

Above Rice, several men stood on the deck of a 90-foot cargo ship. Although he couldn't understand their Spanish, it was clear they were offering him a ride to Puerto Williams. Tired, low on food and in pain, he opted for a 30-minute ride over a two-hour paddle. As he sipped cocoa in the warm cabin, the sailors radioed Puerto Williams.

Rice arrived at the dock to the cheers of dozens of people, many of them the same navy men who had doubted him four weeks earlier. Nearby, torpedo boats blasted their horns. He had become a hero when the sailors in the hut had radioed to Puerto Williams the news of his rounding.

One problem remained. When he capsized after rounding Cape Horn. Rice surfaced with a mouthful of gravel, two cracked teeth and an exposed nerve. Now his jaw had swollen, and he needed to see a doctor or dentist. The nearest one was in Ushuaia, Argentina, 60 miles west up the Beagle Channel. So once again, Rice loaded up his kayak. Blessed with atypical easterly winds and with some painkillers, Rice set sail under moonlight. After paddling the last 10 miles, he reached Ushuaia by noon the next day. At a hospital there he underwent a root-canal procedure.

His mouth feeling better, he continued west up the Beagle Channel for 40 miles, becoming the first person to sail-kayak solo in the glacier-filled, mountainous region of Tierra del Fuego. Three weeks later he paddled and sailed back to Puerto Williams, where he began his journey home.

Rice was recognized at airline counters in Punta Arenas and Santiago, both in Chile. The attention he received seemed strange. For weeks he had been virtually alone, and though he was proud to have accomplished his goal, many of his memories of Cape Horn were sobering ones. He understood that with a different twist of fate he could still be all alone, floating face down in the frigid sea. New York City's JFK Airport, where he would pass unnoticed among thousands of other weary travelers, seemed an appropriate destination.

Dan Morse is a police reporter for "The Alabama Journal" in Montgomery.