NORTHPORT — In the 1800s and 1900s, sailors, including those from Maine and on Maine-built ships, doubling Cape Horn endured rough waves that could measure 98 feet and powered through heavy gale winds, according to maritime historian Charles H. Lagerbom. Captains faced mutiny and charges of abuse and murder; ship owners either reaped financial riches or suffered catastrophic monetary losses.
The stories of those challenges, all part of trading and the California gold rush, are chronicled by Lagerbom, a history teacher at Belfast Area High School and resident of Northport, in his third book Maine to Cape Horn: The World’s Most Dangerous Voyage due for release Monday, August 2.
Doubling Cape Horn, in fact, has a prominent place in Maine’s maritime history. Maine Cape Horners, Lagerbom details in his book, were celebrated with a golden earring, if they survived the daunting trek through “the most dangerous [stretch of water] on the planet” that could take, depending on weather and boat conditions, approximately 130 to 190 days to complete.
Should they perish, the earring would cover the costs of their funeral, if their body was ever to be recovered from the waters. (Lagerbom also noted in the book survivors were entitled to kicking back and put one of their feet on the table while dining, and could put both up should they also round the Cape of Good Hope.)
As he researched his 2020 book Whaling in Maine, Lagerbom repeatedly came across references of Maine-built ships enduring brutal weather conditions as they sailed from Maine, down around Cape Horn by Chile, and over to California, Asia and Australia.
“The more I came across stories and connections of Maine vessels and Maine captains and crews with the Cape, I realized here was another great story of Maine maritime history,” said Lagerbom, who has been a guest lecturer on cruise ships in Chile, Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula.
With a bulk of material for his latest book in hand at the end of writing Whaling in Maine Lagerbom was thrilled to tackle another passion project for his third book and worked his way around cemeteries, museums and historical societies across Maine to conduct research and collect photographs and documents.
Lagerbom noted the research process, spanning last summer into the winter, was an interesting process and everyone he encountered along the way, including those at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport and the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, were incredibly helpful.
He did, however, at times, struggle to find illustrations, photos, maps and other ways to add visual elements to the stories he unraveled. This challenge, though, was one he enjoyed and one that helped him establish connections that resulted in artwork, philately, songs and poetry of Cape Horn. Lagerbom, in fact, dedicated a chapter detailing how the Cape Horn voyages have been commemorated in various artistic mediums.
As part of his research, he ventured to Cape Horn himself to better understand and appreciate the region so intertwined with Maine’s maritime history, despite being 7,000 miles away from Cutler, Maine, where the two share the 67° west longitude line – at opposite ends of the globe.
Though Lagerbom sailed through the waters with a little more luxury than the mariners of days past, he appreciated the opportunity to get a slight sense of the conditions the mariners sailing through the area endured and experienced.
“I was on a cruise ship, so when the winds and waves picked up and skies darkened, I could simply step inside the lounge and have a drink,” Lagerbom commented. “But being out on the water and seeing the actual Cape Horn, you could feel the place on a visceral level, that was very special. As I mentioned in the book, there is something poignant about the place, a heavy sense of what has transpired there over the years.”
Between sailing through the same waters and digging into a plethora of firsthand accounts of the adversity mariners faced while rounding Cape Horn, Lagerbom developed a profound appreciation, he said, of what Mainers are capable and what they can endure and overcome, especially on the waters.
“And what made it more significant was that they were sailing Cape Horn simply because that was the job. And it had to get done,” he said.
He, in fact, hopes readers will conclude the book both informed and entertained by the exploits, voyages and intriguing cast of characters chronicled in-depth throughout the book. (As one of the few to read a copy of the book ahead of its release, this reporter can confirm there are many entertaining stories, including the story of the St. Mary in chapter five that had me rooting for North Haven native Captain Jesse Thayer Carver all the way through — well, I’ll save the rest for you to read.)
“For a moment or two, you might even be able to imagine yourselves in their oilskins and seaboots climbing the ice-rimmed rigging of a full rigged sailing ship up into the darkness of a howling Cape Horn 'snorter' as the vessel sways and lurches beneath you and recognize what an exclusive fraternity it was for those who experienced it,” said Lagerbom.
If you enjoy Whaling in Maine or Maine to Cape Horn, keep an eye out for more works from Lagerbom in the future. He noted, in an interview, there is much more about Maine’s maritime history of interest to him. In fact, he is currently working to find ships wrecked in the Midcoast waters and Maine-built ships wrecked in other areas such as Nantucket Sound.
“There is something about a shipwreck that evokes all kinds of emotions, including the re-finding of it in modern times, even diving down upon it,” he said, while every so slightly hinting Maine shipwrecks may just be the theme of his next book.