The traditional clipper route followed the winds of the roaring forties south of the great capes. Due to the significant hazards they presented to shipping, the great capes became significant landmarks in ocean voyaging. The great capes became common points of reference, though other nearby capes (Cape Agulhas in South Africa, South East Cape in Tasmania, Cape Froward in the Magellan Strait) may have been more southern or shared in notability.
Today, the great capes feature prominently in ocean yacht racing, with many races and individual sailors following the clipper route. A circumnavigation via the great capes is considered to be a noteworthy achievement. Sailor Joshua Slocum completed the first solo circumnavigation of the world in 1895–98, and the Joshua Slocum Society International presented its Level 3 Golden Circle Award to sailors who solo circumnavigated passing the great capes.
In his book The Long Way, Bernard Moitessier tries to express the significance to a sailor of the great capes:
- A sailor's geography is not always that of the cartographer, for whom a cape is a cape, with a latitude and longitude. For the sailor, a great cape is both a very simple and an extremely complicated whole of rocks, currents, breaking seas and huge waves, fair winds and gales, joys and fears, fatigue, dreams, painful hands, empty stomachs, wonderful moments, and suffering at times.
- A great cape, for us, can't be expressed in longitude and latitude alone. A great cape has a soul, with very soft, very violent shadows and colours. A soul as smooth as a child's, as hard as a criminal's. And that is why we go.
Five southernmost capes
Other southern capes mark significant points of passage through the southern oceans. The five southernmost capes refer to the five geographically southern mainland (or large island) points on the earth.
Sailors circumnavigating the world, such as Kay Cottee and Gerry Hughes, have used these five southernmost capes as goals on their route. Cottee was the first female sailor to sail single-handed, non-stop below the five southernmost capes, completing the task during her 1987–88 journey. Hughes became the world's first profoundly deaf yachtsman to sail single handed around the world, passing the five southernmost capes during his 2012–13 journey.
|Cape Horn||Chile||Hornos Island; Southernmost point in the Tierra del Fuego islands of South America and the official dividing point between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Roughly 2 degrees of latitude farther south than Chile's Cape Froward, the southernmost point on the mainland of South America, in the Magellan Strait.|
|Cape Agulhas||South Africa||From Portuguese Cabo das Agulhas, for "Cape of Needles"; Southernmost point of Africa and the official dividing point between the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Roughly 19 minutes of latitude farther south than the more commonly cited Cape of Good Hope.|
|Cape Leeuwin||Australia||Most south-westerly mainland point of the Australian Continent, in the state of Western Australia|
|South East Cape||Australia||Southernmost point of the main island of Tasmania, roughly 4° 30′ farther south than South Point, Victoria, the most southern mainland point of Australia, on the north side of the Bass Strait separating Tasmania from the southeast Australian mainland|
|South West Cape||New Zealand||On Stewart Island; Southernmost point of the main islands of New Zealand|
- The Circumnavigators, by Don Holm; Around the Three Capes. Prentice-Hall, NY, 1974. ISBN 0-13-134452-8 Retrieved February 5, 2006.
- Along the Clipper Way, Francis Chichester; page 78. Hodder & Stoughton, 1966. ISBN 0-340-00191-7
- Slocum Awards: Golden Circle Award, from the Joshua Slocum Society International. Retrieved February 13, 2006.
- The Long Way, by Bernard Moitessier; page 141. Sheridan House, 1995. ISBN 0-924486-84-8
- Australian Women's Register (2008). "Cottee, Kay (1954-)". Trove. National Library of Australia. Retrieved 21 December 2013.
- "Disability News: Gerry Hughes Becomes First Deaf Person to Sail Round the World". Able News. BBC News. Retrieved 4 December 2015.