Rounding a headland can feel almost as significant as making a landfall, and each one has its own character, says Libby Purves
Good to have the pilotage notes on going round Land’s End (p40). No headland is without its nervous moments, especially with cliffs involved, and off-lying rocks suggesting that the land just couldn’t bring itself to give way to the sea. And, of course, there tend to be new winds sneaking at you round the corner. Having headed you all the way, they mysteriously continue to do so even when you’ve turned 50° off the wind, or so you thought.
But there’s always excitement too: there is something bracing about a corner, almost as thrilling as a landfall. Because you have, let’s face it, been travelling for some hours along a coastline at the 5-miles-an-hour speed of the average yacht – so impressive when you think in knots, but still pretty damn slow by modern standards. This has given you rather too much time to get used to one coast and stare longingly at your rocky turning point. You hanker to see beyond it some brand new scenery. You will enter a new land, tick off an achievement. You thank Providence, a soldier’s wind or a faithful engine, for getting you past the inevitable bobbly, boiling, roiling, rolling tide-race. And also start calculating whether you’ve left enough time in your plan to get back round it again and home.
The big one – though my husband tells me it’s rather less spectacular than one would hope – is of course Cape Horn, dividing Atlantic from Pacific. But there are plenty of headlands which can, on the day, feel almost as significant. Go round Portland Bill westward by the inner passage and you open up Chesil Beach and the great sweep of Lyme Bay; now you can look back at that great alligator-head of rock snouting into the turbulent sea and feel a real satisfaction.
Before that there is the majestic spectacle of St Albans and beyond, so finely described by the Victorian pilot-book author and yachtsman Frank Cowper. He wrote, on leaving Poole in an 1890’s sunset ‘Promontory on promontory, peak on peak, the varied coastline wanders away to the golden West. Headlands of many shapes, tossing their summits to the sea like wild waves driven before the roaring blast, grow fainter and fainter in the mellow light…’
It still looks exactly like that, a century later, and the same lift of the heart links us to dear Frank. As for the rounding of Start and Prawle and Bolt and Lizard, you glide into the mistiest legendary land of all, our deep West.
‘It’s an adventure. Good headlands always are’
Up-Channel has its own pleasures, less spectacular but satisfying. Rounding Dungeness is not pretty, but a milestone passed; Beachy Head has its beauties, with the Seven Sisters trailing away apologetically alongside. Go up the east coast, and Flamborough Head and Spurn Point open up the border country, preparing you for the Firths and Noss Head, a lump of Scotland against which I seem to have an ongoing grudge. Faint memories of spilt tea, anyway.
If you really want a sense of voyage, though, a dramatic turning point and change of fortunes, I suppose it must be Cape St Vincent – turn left for the Med, or right for the homeward run. Or try Western Ireland: once past the Old Head of Kinsale, resisting temptation to nip in for some oysters, getting past modest Toe Head opens up a new country and adventure. Carry on west and northward round the Mizen, which never disappoints, and there’s a sense of proper independence. Rather like the frisson you get in Scotland, when you read up on Ardnamurchan point and your eye falls on the pilot book’s stern warning that ‘yachts venturing north of Ardnamurchan should be self-sufficient in supplies and repairs’.
Brrr. Thrilling. Norwegians, emerging from the comfort of the inner passage up their ragged coast, feel the same about the Stadt, the necessary offshore passage, and sometimes go round it in convoys.
Because it’s an adventure. Good headlands always are: gateways into a new land, new rocks, new horizons.