IACH – International Association Of Cape Horners

I had no knowledge of this fascinating organisation until my husband circumnavigated the world in the last Global Challenge Round-The-World Yacht Race of 2004/5. It is a very exclusive association. Only sailors who have rounded Cape Horn as part of a non-stop passage under sail of at least 3000 nautical miles are eligible and their course must have passed through latitude fifty degrees south in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Cape Horn

The rounding of Cape Horn is sometimes referred to as the Mount Everest of sailing and it is believed that fewer people now qualify for full membership of the IACH than climb to the top of Everest. The Cape is located at 055°58'47''S 067°16'18''W and is named after the city of Hoorn in the Netherlands, although English speaking sailors refer to it as The Horn. It is the southernmost headland of the Tierra Del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile and is located on the small island named Hornos in the Hermite Islands group. It marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage, the strait between South America and Antarctica, which for many years was used on the clipper route by sailing ships trading around the world. These carried grain, wool and gold from Australia to Europe, traded between Europe and the Far East and travelled between the coasts of the United States via the Horn. The area, however, is a particularly hazardous one, due to strong winds and currents, large waves and even icebergs which are prevalent, making it notoriously dangerous for sailors. In 1914 the opening of the Panama Canal greatly reduced the need for vessels to round the Horn but by the late 1960s it had become one of the major challenges in yachting. Recreational sailors continue to use this route, often as part of a circumnavigation of the globe.

The climate in the area is generally cool with an average annual temperature of around 5.2°, an annual rainfall of 1356.9mm, winds averaging 30 kilometres per hour and squalls of over 100 kilometres per hour. There is no dry season, just 278 days of rain and 70 days of snow. Wind conditions are generally severe, particularly in winter and even in summer months the wind can be gale force for up to 5% of the time with very poor visibility. No wonder so many sailing journeys have come to grief there.

Sailing Hazards

Several factors combine to make the passage round Cape Horn one of the most dangerous routes in the world and explain why so many ships have been wrecked and so many sailors have died there: the generally fierce sailing conditions in the Southern Ocean, the geography of the passage and the extreme southern latitude. If you compare it with other well known capes, Cape Agulhas on the southern tip of Africa is 35°S and Stewart Island at the south tip of New Zealand is 47°S. In latitudes below 40° the prevailing winds blowing from west to east are almost uninterrupted by land, giving rise to the "roaring forties", "furious fifties" and "screaming sixties". Rounding the Horn requires yachts to sail through the path of these fierce winds which are further exacerbated at the Horn by the funnelling effect of the Andes and the Antarctic Peninsula which channel the winds into the Drake Passage.

The strong winds give rise to huge waves, attaining enormous size in the Southern Ocean, uninterrupted as they are by land. At the Horn they encounter an area of relatively shallow water to the south, which makes the waves shorter and steeper, increasing the danger for yachts. A further increase of height can be caused if an easterly wind encounters the strong eastward current through the Drake Passage and on top of this there is always the danger of frequent rogue waves which sometimes reach heights of 30 metres, about the height of a 10 story building. The winds and currents create particular problems for vessels attempting an east to west passage. It was particularly difficult for traditional sailing ships, which had problems making headway against the wind. Modern sailing boats are more efficient to windward and can reliably make a westward passage of the Horn, as competitors in the Global Challenge Race have proved.

Ice is always a potential hazard below 40°S and icebergs are always a risk in the area especially in August.


This was the precursor of the IACH, set up in 1936 by a group of French sailing ship Master Mariners. They had all commanded square rigged sailing ships round the Horn or had been members of the crew and had later attained command and their aims were to promote and strengthen the ties of comradeship which bonded these unique sailors and to recognise their skill and courage. They called their organisation the "Amicale Internationale des Capitaines au Long Cours Cap Horniers" – the AICH.

Two years later a first congress was held in St Malo where the membership was still completely French, but numbers were greatly increased. It was not until 1948 that membership was extended to other countries and the AICH became an international association.

It was in 1957 that the British section was founded by Commander Claude Woollard, a retired Royal Navy officer, who was a member of the French section. It was referred to as the International Association of Cape Horners (UK section). The membership was small but met every week to share their experiences and remember their ships and shipmates and their numbers quickly grew. The great days of square-riggers, however, were coming to an end and the last voyage by a potential AICH member was on the "Pamir" in 1949. These vessels are now part of maritime history but the inspiration of the mariners who sailed them has been passed on to a new generation of sailors who have also rounded the infamous Horn.

One of this new generation was a master mariner named Robin Knox-Johnston, who, in 1968/9 took part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, circumnavigating the globe in a solo, non-stop sail. Despite sailing one of the smallest boats in the race and losing his self-steering gear off Australia, he was the only competitor to finish and became the first man to circumnavigate the globe non-stop and single handed. He was invited to join the AICH on the basis of his courage and determination and this paved the way for other sailors and racing crews, who were eligible, to become members.

The first round the world yacht race in which all the vessels started at the same time was in 1973, from Portsmouth. It was sponsored by the brewing company Whitbread and was known as the "Whitbread Round The World Race". The route, under Royal Ocean Racing Club handicap rules, included the 3 Capes, Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn. 19 yachts took part but only 14 completed all 4 legs and the dangers were proved when 3 crew members died in the southern oceans. Although these race crews did not qualify to be Cape Horners in the original sense, a new category of "Yacht Member" was added to the rules of the UK branch and the crews were invited to apply for membership.

Round the world races have now become firmly established. Most have been eastward circumnavigations, sailing with the tides and currents, such as the Volvo Ocean Race, the Jules Verne Challenge and the 5 Oceans Race. Many are solo passages, for example, the Vendee Globe and Around Alone. The only westward races sailing against the prevailing winds and currents were the Global Challenge series. Sadly the last of these was in 2004/5.

The IACH - Today

The modern IACH was born out of the demise of square-riggers and the reluctance of the AICH to change their constitution to include UK Yacht Members as full voting members of the AICH. They had an agreement whereby when the time came that they could no longer muster a crew of square-rig Cape Horners to hoist their flag, it would be lowered for the last time. The UK branch could continue, but not under the AICH name and its aims and values should remain the same. A new flag and regalia were commissioned. A new logo was designed incorporating a square-rigger, to remember the past, an ocean-going yacht, to depict the present and an albatross, the long-distance traveller of the southern ocean.

Traditionally a sailor who had rounded Cape Horn was entitled to wear a gold loop earring in his left ear – the one facing the Horn in an eastward passage. He was also allowed to dine with one foot on the table. Now all Cape Horners can join the IACH and be part of that chivalry which hopefully will continue well into the future.

You can find out more about the IACH by visiting their website http://www.capehorners.org/

Author - Dee White

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