By Naval History and Heritage Command
Finding the right person to command the first U.S. Navy ship to round Cape Horn and sail into the Pacific Ocean required a captain of considerable experience. So it is with little wonder Capt. David Porter was chosen for that daunting task. Certainly little wonder perhaps on Capt. Porter’s part, whose self-confidence and ego, with a great deal of luck, made the trip successful for those who survived the Feb. 14, 1813 passage through the Le Maire Straits into the Pacific Ocean.
While history has put Porter’s face on the success of the frigate Essex crossing into the Pacific Ocean, the unsung heroes, of course, were the Sailors who went through incredible hardships to get the job done. In Porter’s own journal, A Voyage in the South Seas, he documented how his crew suffered through few layovers, light rations, terrible storms and intestinal disruptions from eating too-fresh fruit that didn’t settle well with their diets of salted meat and hard tack.
Passage to the Pacific
After gaining experience fighting Caribbean pirates in the Barbary Wars, Capt. David Porter aboard USS Essex was quick to begin harassing British merchant and warships after the War of 1812 was declared June 12. He and his crew sailed from New York harbor July 3, where for two months the crew had taken 10 prizes, including HMS Alert, the first British warship captured in the war.
Then Porter and Essex were reassigned to join Constitution and Hornet in the South Atlantic, and then sail to Santa Catherina Island to intercept homeward-bound British East India ships. Onboard was Porter’s 11-year-old foster son, David Glasgow Farragut, who would later become the first admiral in the U.S. Navy.
USS Essex and her crew left Oct. 28, 1812, two days after Commodore William Bainbridge’s squadron with Constitution and Hornet. Initially, the trip started well, with Porter’s crew taking the British mail packet Nocton carrying $55,000 in gold bullion. When Constitution and Hornet failed to meet at the rendezvous point, Porter decided the South Atlantic was too dangerous for a single American ship, where few ports would be safe for the ship to harbor. So he strayed from his orders to head further south – into the South Pacific – where Essex could wreak havoc on the British whaling industry. And he would command the first American warship to go around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean.
The frigate left its last port at St. Catherine’s on Jan. 26, 1813. Almost as fast as the gale winds that sped them along, a malady was overtaking the crew. At first Porter’s surgeon thought the vomiting and diarrhea was caused by bad rum laced with lead, otherwise known as “painter’s cholic.” But a quick recovery determined it was the “the overloading the stomach with unripe fruit and vegetables,” Porter noted. Having been in port only seven days in the past three months, Porter was proud none of the crew had scurvy. At the time, only one Marine suffered from a pulmonary complaint. “Indeed the extraordinary health of the crew surprises me, and I can only attribute it to the steady attention to cleanliness, and to their comfort, and to their cheerful disposition,” he later wrote.
The ship sailed into more unsettled waters with strong wind and rain, punctuated by periods of calm. Porter attributed the weather to the upcoming Feb. 1 eclipse of the sun. By Feb. 3, the weather had settled and Porter hoped for a “speedy and pleasant run” to the Le Maire Straits. Having gone so far off their original course, the captain addressed the crew of their mission with a note:
“Sailors and Marines!
“A large increase of the enemy’s force compels us to abandon a coast, that will neither afford us security nor supplies; nor are there any inducements for a longer continuance there. We will, therefore, proceed to annoy them, where we are least expected. What was never performed, by a single ship, we will attempt.
The Pacific Ocean affords us many friendly ports. The unprotected British commerce, on the coast of Chili, Peru and Mexico, will give you an abundant supply of wealth; and the girls of the Sandwich Islands shall reward you for your sufferings during the passage around Cape Horn.”
Porter was pleased the note “procured the happiest effect, as it diffused a general joy throughout the ship” and gave comfort to the captain that he “had nothing to apprehend from their disaffection.”
Porter had a lot on the line, since he had departed from the letter of his instructions and was in “prosecution of a plan which might not prove successful, or meet the approbation of my commanding officer, or the navy department; and, however justifiable my conduct may be, the apprehensions of censure could not otherwise than produce their effect on my mind.”
Since Porter’s decision to venture into the Pacific was his own, and “having taken on myself the responsibility of proceeding into the Pacific, I have, in some measure, engaged to answer for the success of the enterprize, to which every other consideration should now be subservient; and, if we were subject to evils, that no other ship yet had to bear up against, it only required, that we should summon up the more fortitude and determine to subdue them, to trust much to future, and enter boldly into the attempt.”
In other, less-grand, words: Porter took great risk in going against his orders, and only success would keep him out of hot water with his commanding officers. So failure was not an option.
Rounding the Horn
Le Maire Strait is a narrow passage of water created between the coast of Terra del Fuego and a tiny island called Staten Land. It is further south than the Magellan Strait, an intracoastal waterway that cuts through Argentina to the Pacific with protection from stormy seas. Despite the hazy skies and rain that accompanied northward winds, Porter had “confidence of being able to see the land in sufficient time to haul-off to clear it.”
But strong currents, dying kelp and flocks of birds gave Porter pause, so he ordered a good lookout be kept as a precaution. His hunch was right: “We had approached so close to the breakers that we had not room to wear; there was a tremendous sea running, the ship driving forecastle under.; no change of weathering the land, which could not be seen ahead and surrounded by dreadful breakers.”
With a jib “blown to pieces,” Porter held the ship off the lee shore until the wind changed. After an hour, the water began to calm, and the appearance of whales gave Porter hope they were in the Le Maire Strait. By 9 p.m., boosted by the tide, the ship was “swept through with great rapidity” and Essex was clear of the Strait.
Porter’s greatest regret, he noted, was the weather did not permit them the leisure of seeking the Bay of Good Success so “minutely described by the celebrated (Capt. James) Cook,” who had sailed a similar route Jan. 16-20, 1769.
Porter wrote that “no part of the world presents a more horrible aspect than Staten Land,” with its dreadful” coastline, “violence of wind” and “foaming of the breakers.” Seeing the verdant hills of Terra del Fuego, Porter added no one could “conceive the excess of our joy in discovering the land, unless he, in an instant, has been snatched from the danger of destruction which seemed pending over him.”
Being off by just a mile farther north, Porter admitted he would have steered a course “that would have entangled us in the night with the rocks and breakers about Cape Horn; and had this happened, thick and hazy as the weather continued, our destruction would have been inevitable….”
Although Porter’s ship had survived its journey through the Strait, they had simply crossed from one treacherous situation into “that part of the ocean so celebrated and dreaded for the violent gales and tremendous irregular seas which prevail.”
As the 14-year-old frigate headed into the unknown, Porter contemplated the journey ahead and the shape of his ship, which hadn’t seen an overhaul in five years and suffered from numerous leaks.
“We had no certainly of meeting with provisions or stores, or a hospitable reception in any port should we arrive in the Pacific, and should we fail in our attempts to get round, we have no port that we can go into to recruit our stock; we are beyond the reach of assistance from every quarter, and remain solitary and dependent on our own resources, and the precarious supplies which the enemy may afford; and should we go into port, we have not ground tackle on which we can rely.”
Porter noted all those who had gone before him, such as British Commodore Lord George Anson, known for his circumnavigation of the world in 1740 during Great Britain’s war against Spain. Anson spent a year planning the route, traveling on a larger ship, escorted by a fleet of six ships of war with 1,800 men. While going through the passage, Anson lost four ships, with the remaining three suffering “miserably shattered hulks” and only 335 crew surviving. Just one ship made it back to England with 188 crew.
Spanish Adm. José Alfonso Pizarro, who sailed in pursuit of Lord Anson, twice attempted to take passage through the Le Maire Strait and Cape Horn, along with a fleet of six men-of-war-ships and 3,000 men, but failed both times, after losing several ships.
The mistakes of those before him did little to keep Porter from his quest: “But instead of deterring me from the attempt, or damping my ardour, served only to rouse my ambition and induced me to redouble my precautions and my efforts to arrive in this sea, where Lord Anson has rendered himself so justly celebrated by his indefatigable perseverance and ultimate success against the Spaniards.” And he added, “make the name of the Essex as well-known in the Pacific Ocean as that of the Centurion (Anson’s 60-gun flagship).”
After preparing the ship for impending disaster, Essex entered “the bourn of all our dread” with a pleasant breeze and smooth seas. As the crew was “felicitating ourselves on our fortune and pleasant passage” through the straits, Porter wisely decided to keep the ship “aloof” from the land, steering more southward.
And so it was on Feb. 14, with a clear horizon, moderate winds and the sun shining brightly, USS Essex sailed into the Pacific. But with the cape in sight, so, too, were black clouds. Yet in the moment of having achieved what no Navy warship had done before, the crew rejoiced. “It was everything we had expected and pictured to ourselves, so we could not but smile at our own credulity and folly,” Porter recalled. The disasters and misfortunes written by other captains were due to their own “imprudencies and mismanagements.”
“We flattered ourselves with the belief that fortune would be more favourable to our enterprize than he had been to theirs,” Porter wrote.
But while celebrating their cleverness, the black clouds hanging over Cape Horn burst upon the ship, bringing with it violent winds, a dangerous sea that “threatened to jerk away our masts at every roll of the ship.”
Essex would suffer gale after gale over the next two weeks as they traveled north, including one on Feb. 28 that “blew with a fury far exceeding anything we had yet experienced bringing with it such a tremendous sea, as to threaten us every moment with destruction, and appalled the stoutest heart on board. To attempt to convey an idea of the fury of this gale by description would be fruitless; let it suffice to say that is was rarely equaled, and I am sure never was exceeded.”
Porter wrote the gale continued to batter Essex March 1-2 and taking a toll on his crew. “Many had been severely bruised by being thrown by the violent jerks of the ship down the hatchways.”
Porter had suffered three falls himself that kept him from going on deck. “The oldest seaman in the ship had never experienced anything to equal the gale,” Porter wrote.
Just as the crew felt the worst of the storm was over, at 3 a.m. on March 3, “an enormous sea broke over the ship, and for an instant destroyed every hope” the ship would survive. The gun-deck ports burst, boats washed away and the ship was water-logged and deluged. The Marine, who had been confined for pulmonary disease, died at the height of the storm. But then the gale began to abate and the crew quickly went about repairs. Porter rewarded those who worked the hardest by advancing them one grade, “rebuking … the others for their timidity.”
Porter recorded the crew was in better shape than when they started, with the exception of the Marine, Lewis Price, who was quickly buried at sea. The surgeon recorded several contusions of the hand, wrist and arm, shoulder and foot, one who suffered from diarrhea, another with an ulcer on the leg, two with pain in their sides, one with pain in the bowels, a sprained ankle, two with rheumatism and one with venereal disease. Porter was pleased to note not a single case of scurvy.
Porter took pride in pointing out Essex went through the Le Maire Strait, around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean up to the parallel of the Magellan Strait in just 13 days a month later in the season than the celebrated French captain Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse did in 14 days Jan. 25-Feb. 9, 1785.
“And as my passage, against violent gales, was made in one day less than his, I am at a loss to conceive what should have occasioned his delay,” Porter wrote.
By March 5, the ship sailed into calmer waters, and the next day anchored about two miles off the Island of Mocha off the coast of Chile. But Porter, his crew and Essex had woes yet to come. More on that as the story continues in March!