James Stevens stands by as Yachtmaster Coastal Laura McLachlan attempts to plan, sail and skipper her first passage round a headland

How to plan and sail a passage round a headland

There’s a lot to consider when rounding a headland. Waves bend around the point. The wind bends too, and can increase in strength as it’s squeezed by the headland. There’s also a good chance shoals off the point will create overfalls. Planning is all-important so YM asked Laura McLachlan, a newly qualified Yachtmaster Coastal, to skipper a Hallberg-Rassy 34, Tamora, for the first time around a well-known headland: Portland Bill.


According to Tom Cunliffe, Portland Bill can become ‘the most dangerous extended area of broken water in the English Channel’

Click here to watch Stuart Morris’ video, shot during a storm in 2009, and see just how violent conditions can get off Portland Bill in strong wind against tide conditions

Portland Bill is the gateway to the pleasures of sailing in the West Country for the Solent sailor, but rounding it can be intimidating for the inexperienced skipper. As instructors at the National Sailing Centre in Cowes, we used to call Portland Bill the ‘Day Skipper’s Cape Horn.’

Tom Cunliffe, author of the Shell Channel Pilot, describes this place as ‘the most dangerous extended area of broken water in the English Channel. Quite substantial vessels drawn into it have been known to disappear without trace.’

It has a fearsome reputation. There is a ferocious tidal stream off the Bill reaching seven knots at springs. This creates a race with heavy overfalls, particularly in wind-against-tide conditions, which moves menacingly around the Bill as the state of tide changes. Overfalls can extend up to seven miles offshore.

As if this were not enough there is the difficulty for westbound yacht skippers that once round the Bill there is about 45 miles across Lyme Bay to go before reaching the sheltered harbours of Dartmouth or Tor Bay. Plus, the strong tidal stream off the Bill means that, once you’re round, changing your mind isn’t really an option.

That said, hundreds of yachtsmen and women, some in surprisingly small boats, safely make the passage year after year, but I am sure they were all anxious the first time – or for that matter on subsequent roundings as well.

Read James’ advice and find out how Laura fared in the December 2015 issue of Yachting Monthly

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