Vito Dumas doubled Cape Horn first 80 years ago

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Vito Dumas in a cover illustration for the Argentine magazine “El Grafico”

Eighty years ago the great feat of Vito Dumas. The lone circumnavigation of the Southern Ocean without a radio, without a life raft. He was the first sailor to round Cape Horn alone, and the feat cost him almost an arm. We retrace the crazy adventure of this forgotten Argentine myth.

Vito Dumas, the indomitable sailor

At a time when the feats to be accomplished seemed to have been exhausted and in a world that preferred to pour all its resources into war, to the south, on the other side of the Eurocentric world, an Argentinean completed one of the great adventures of the nautical world: Vito Dumas, an Argentinean, in 1942 completed the circumnavigation of the Southern Ocean first. Some time ago we listed him among our 30 sailing legends. Today, 80 years after that historic feat, it is time to tell its story.

Who was Vito Dumas

Before he became one of the best-known solo sailors of his day (now perhaps among the “forgotten” greats) who was Vito Dumas?

Dumas was born in Buenos Aires, on September 26, 1900. His life is immediately marked by a strong dedication to sports and exploration: boxer, athlete, aviator, swimmer, and, of course, sailor.

Challenges seem to be his bread and butter, his fuel and the force that pushes him beyond his own limits.

The sea attracted him early on, though not in the practice that made him famous, sailing: in 1923 he tried five times, failing, to swim the Rio de la Plata, the sea that raised and inspired him. Eight years later, in 1931, he would travel to Europe to attempt a similar feat, swimming across the English Channel. This attempt will also fail.

The world, however, is divided into two kinds of people: those for whom every failure is an extra burden that hinders any further attempt, and those for whom failures represent burdens from which one gets rid, information to be exploited for the next attempt, bricks on which to build; Dumas is in the second category.

The Ocean on an 8 m International Tonnage

Finding himself on another continent an ocean away from home and with no money, Dumas cannot pay for his return trip. So he decided to bring his own home: he spotted a boat within his pocket’s reach, an 8-meter International Tonnage (an 11-meter made in 1912 by Bonnin), a racing sailboat totally unsuitable for what he set out to do, named Lehg. With this he set off from Arcachon, France, without any preparation for sailing an ocean, for home, Buenos Aires, where he will arrive after 76 days and 6,500 miles of sailing.

This is the beginning of Vito Dumas’ visceral love for sailing.

The feat that consecrated Vito Dumas

With these premises, which are essential to delineate who Dumas was, it is easier to understand what drove him in the crazy and dreamy (but mostly insane) enterprise of sailing the Antarctic Ocean at that very moment in history.

It is 1942, and Dumas has meanwhile procured a new boat, which he named Lehg II, a 9.50-meter Marconi ketch.

His purpose is simple, to sail around the world while remaining fixed on the 40th degree of southern latitude (the mythical “roaring forties”), known for its fierce and stubborn winds, and always stormy seas and icy waters. If you fall, you are dead. Ironic to think that over 400 years earlier Magellan had decided to call that new portion of the sea “Pacific” because of its calm waters conducive to navigation.

Think of those who embark on this kind of sailing today: ultra-safe aluminum boats, heated interiors, safe and secure deck tops. Here, imagine instead trying to circumnavigate the Antarctic on a 9 1/2-meter wooden barge.

The year 1942 is not one of the most favorable: in fact, almost all the seas of the globe are conflict zones: the North Atlantic is chessboard of war to prevent supplies to the Allies, while in the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Pacific, clashes between aviation and fleets rage, above and below water.

Not even the radio!

This will lead Vito Dumas to choose this specific undertaking; caution will also lead him not to take his radio on board, lest he be mistaken for a vessel intent on espionage activities, a strategy actually used by the Japanese and Germans.

Thus, a small sailboat flying the Argentine flag (at that time still neutral in World War II), set out from Buenos Aires on June 27, 1942, heading east.

Despite the absence of human warfare dangers, the journey is not without danger. On the very first leg of the crossing Dumas, during a repair, seriously injures his hand.

The Lehg II under sail (image source: https://culturamarinara.com/)

He almost lost an arm

Deprived of a radio and necessary medication, the arm begins to swell and become infected due to the sailing conditions. It is not too long before Dumas begins to think seriously about amputation of the limb as an extreme measure to avert gangrene and death. But not knowing whether he would be able to survive the shock and subsequent stump infection he stalls. If one wants to find a sign of predestination in the great deeds of man, that sign in the story of Vito Dumas is at this point. Uncertainty is benevolent to him: the natural rupture of an abscess formed in his arm causes the wound to bleed out naturally, and Dumas can continue his venture, with both arms still in place.

The first sailor to round Cape Horn solo.

In the last part of the crossing, Dumas once again demonstrates his innate seafaring skills: without any other instruments, he orients himself after dubbing Cape Horn (first to succeed in such a solo feat). only with the sextant, thanks to which he is able, even while sailing within sight of the now safe land, to conclude his journey.

He succeeded after making three ports of call, in four stages: a total of 272 days and just over 20,000 miles traveled, from Argentina to the Cape of Good Hope to Australia, Tasmania, via Cape Horn and back to Argentina in 1943.

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Vito Dumas’ Lehg II on arrival in Buenos Aires.

He arrived in Argentina and was enthusiastically welcomed, although later, his person would not enjoy the fame and recognition one might imagine.

The Lehg II on display at the Museo Naval de Tigre

At the age of 65, he died of a stroke in his Buenos Aires home after attempting other feats, none of which, however, could match his record around Antarctica. A feat that remains etched in history.

Peter Fish

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