Cape Cornwall

November 1985  (The Cornishman 14.11.1985)

It was a breezy summer this year, but it takes a real winter’s storm to remind us that Cornwall is first in line for the big Atlantic depressions that track across millions of  square miles of ocean. Cape Cornwall takes the weather on the nose and in the early hours of last Saturday morning you could tell there was a real storm in progress despite it being fairly calm at sea level. There is often a night-time lull during big storms; but you can still hear the deep and persistent roaring of the wind high overhead and the matching roar of water breaking on the shoreline.

At dawn the wind came back to earth. Low water coincided with first light and the offshore ground was at odds with the sea. The rocky outliers of the Brisons were ringed with boiling surf. There was a rout of broken water all the way down The Ridge, the mile-long reef that runs south east to the rocks of the inner Greeb. Off Land’s End, a matching line of white water laced the shoal ground from the Longships to the Kettle’s Bottom rock. Storm waves are extraordinary in the true sense of the word; they have a rhythm that is coldly predictable. Each one is a potential killer pushed on by the one behind, until Cornwall stops them in their tracks.

A few miles to the north a squall ghosted in towards Pendeen Watch. Its front-running wind shaved the crests from the biggest waves without diminishing their height or mass; but the crests were blown apart completely when the wind tucked in with increased force behind the squall. Long ribbons of foam streaked the surface of the sea and a lone seal showed itself for an instant amid the white water, unfazed and in its element. Farther out a brace of gannets cruised steadily upwind towards The Brisons, where great wings of spray flared to either side. The sea surged halfway up the cliff at Kenidjack Castle’s headland, then drained back like quicksilver. Great slabs of storm cloud filled the sky, the air was fresh and sharp, and for a thousand miles out there was more energy on the loose than it takes to light up London.

CAPE CORNWALL: November 2015                          

Thirty years ago, Cape Cornwall was my responsibility; my downright duty; especially when there was a gale of wind…

This was in the days when all coastal lookouts were still under the aegis of the Coastguard Service. I was a paid ‘Auxiliary’ coastguard at the time. In November 1985, on the day of the big wind described above, I was on early morning watch at Cape – an eight-hour stint perched on the seaward slopes of the hill, head to wind, in what seemed like a garden shed. The main equipment was a chart and a hand held two- way radio. I think there may have been a kettle. At times it felt like being at sea.

I covered watches at Cape only a few times and they were always ‘interesting’. Main watches for Auxiliaries were at Porthgwarra’s Gwennap Head on the south coast of Penwith where the 24-hour lookout was a luxury pad compared with Cape’s. Among other duties at Gwennap, we reported quite complex weather data every three hours or so. We even kicked off the fog signal at the unmanned Tater-du lighthouse on demand, using an odd contraption that resembled something out of Doctor Who’s back catalogue merged with a fruit machine. There was a phone connection to the inside of the lighthouse and once the signal was activated you lifted the handset and listened until you heard the moan of the seventy two speakers that projected the signal. I wondered sometimes, especially in the early hours, what my reaction might be if a disembodied voice answered.

We were paid an extra 50p each time we were told to activate the signal by the Lizard coastguard, regardless of disparate conditions. It might be dense fog at Lizard and clear as gin at Tater-du. 50p  for fog, regardless.

Cape watches were uncomplicated. The job was simply to keep watch and to alert Falmouth Coastguard Ops centre of any untoward events out there in the baleful ocean. I remember fighting my way along the approach track to the Cape in the early hours feeling totally exhilarated, even when I had to hand-and-knee my way up the steps to the lookout in the full force of the furious storm. I was thinking, ‘This’ll make a very nice Coast & Country piece for next week’s Cornishman’.

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