The tumultuous passage between South America and Antarctica is a notorious graveyard of ships and mariners, known for ferocious winds and towering waves that heave upward unexpectedly and collide with each other, forming even larger waves.
"From now on I'll start planning tactically and mentally for the rounding," said Brad Van Liew, who enjoys a commanding lead in the third of five stages. "I think about rounding Cape Horn every single day. The closer you get to it the more you think about it, but it's been there in my mind all along. There's no way to shut it off."
Four sailors are competing this year in a race billed as "the ultimate solo challenge," a competition held every four years and one that boasts a history rich with drama, which has involved capsized vessels, high-seas rescues and two incidents in which sailors were lost at sea and presumed drowned.
As of Thursday morning Van Liew, who won the race in 2003, was 1,700 miles from Cape Horn. He anticipates arriving in the region as early as Sunday.
Van Liew, 43, who lives in Charleston, S.C., was 100 miles miles ahead of runner-up Zbigniew Gutkowski, a Polish sailor, and 232 miles ahead of Derek Hatfield, a Canadian. Chris Stanmore-Major of England is fourth, 460 miles behind the leader, but this week suffered a rip in his mainsail and is attempting repairs on deck in frigid weather.
The third stage covers 5,800 miles from Wellington, New Zealand, to the resort city of Punta del Este, Uruguay.
At Cape Horn, within the 400-mile gap between continents, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans converge and the sea floor rises abruptly, often creating shifting seas even in calm weather.
When Van Liew arrives, aboard his 60-foot Team Lazarus racing yacht, he can expect 50-mph winds and 30-foot seas. If that prediction holds, conditions will be tranquil compared to what he endured there in the same race in 1999.
He recalled that experience as a "living hell" that lasted several days. It was marked by "horrific" seas whipped by 100-mph winds. Waves towered above his 80-foot mast. He had taken down all sails to protect his rigging and endured repeated knockdowns -- his mast slamming from side to side onto the water -- that seemed to have no end.
Hatfield may also be experiencing great trepidation. In 2003, the year Van Liew won, the got caught in 40-foot seas and 80-mph winds. His 40-foot sailboat pitch-poled, essentially doing a forward cartwheel, and lost its mast. Hatfield also was able to make repairs and continue racing.
In 1998, Isabelle Autissier had to be rescued near Cape Horn after her boat was damaged so badly, after being rolled, that it sank. In 1994, Harry Mitchell suffered the ultimate fate, going down with his boat after it had sank. That year, only 12 of 20 boats finished. In 1986, famous French sailor Jacques de Roux was likewise lost at sea.
This year the field consisted of only five vessels at the start, shrunken from previous years largely because of the global recession, but one competitor pulled out early because of equipment issues.
In all, the race, which began and will end in La Rochelle, France, will have covered 30,000 miles. All competitors are sailing ECO 60s racing yachts, which are of equal length. From Punta del Este the route swings northerly and covers 5,700 miles to Charleston, S.C., and from there it's across the Atlantic, 3,600 miles to La Rochelle.
But first, there's an important landmark to skirt safely by. Sharing more thoughts on Cape Horn, Van Liew wrote on his blog: "What some may not realize is that rounding Cape Horn can be quite spectacular and awesome.
"For one, the accomplishment is like summiting Mt. Everest for sailors. If you are lucky enough to actually see it (usually masked in fog or too stormy to get the visual) it really does look like a rock sticking out of the bottom of the Earth. I am hoping for that beautiful clear shot, and no surprises. We'll see."
-- Pete Thomas
-- Images of Brad Van Liew and his boat, Le Pingouin, are courtesy of Ainhoa Sanchez/ VELUX 5 OCEANS