In olden days, French sailors setting forth from the major ports of Saint Malo, Honfluer or Le Havre would pass over the top of Brittany and reach its furthest north western corner before setting out for the fishing grounds off North America or other distant seas and ports. That point of land in Brittany is known as Finistère, from the Latin Finis Terrae meaning the “end of the earth”. In Breton, the name is Penn ar Bed, meaning “the head/end of the world”.
For the sailors, this was the last land they would see before journey’s end and for some it would be the last dry earth they would ever see. Each would watch it pass with the combination of fear, excitement, nostalgia and longing that their experience allowed, then turn their attention to whatever task needed doing. The sea calls and land is for lubbers.
This recognition of what was being left behind was not unique to Brittany. In Galicia Spain, their most western point of land is Cabo (Cape) Finisterre. And in England, the southwestern corner is known as Land’s End, or in the Welsh language that shares so much with Breton it is known as Pedn-an-Wlas meaning “the head/end of the country”. Sailors around the world give one last look to land as they journey into the unknown, with that familiar mix of relief and longing as they are freed of the complicated obligations of a life on shore and settle in to focus on the simple, focused task of keeping the boat moving fast and those on her safe.
Today, the Route du Rhum fleet passes Finistère and leaves Brittany and France behind. What lies ahead will be revealed in the coming days and the next time we will smell or see land will likely be Guadeloupe. And I feel fine.