The Three Peaks Yacht Race 2018

Last year's 3PYR was a memorable one: Particular parts that have stayed with me in the intervening months are:
  1. The time spent on sandbanks, and one particular sandbank which we shared (in close proximity!) with two other boats in the middle of the night
  2. The slow progress and eventual triumph of our passage through the Menai Straits
  3. Completing Ben Nevis with a sailor rather than a runner
  4. Not really winning any trophies!

Those who are familiar with this race will know that 1, 2 and 3 are very regular occurrences, but point 4 is very rare...
There really are plenty of trophies available!
Well, this year everything changed: We didn't hit even one sandbank, we didn't go through the Menai Straits, we didn't go to the top of Ben Nevis, and we won loads of trophies (this pleases the skipper)! As last year I will try to tell the story primarily with photos, and I apologise if I have ordered things incorrectly as I tend to do this after multi-day events...

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Barmouth to Caernarfon.

I actually arrived on Thursday, with our elite support crew Judith. We had a packed car full of bikes, oars, sails, kit, and a weird pedal-powered contraption (henceforth known as "the contraption"). The contraption was conceived by skipper Paul last year as an alternative to rowing in light winds, and was supposed to be designed and built by a University student, who I was to supervise in my day job as a researcher at the University of Sheffield. Unfortunately due to workshop limitations and other challenges I won't mention here, it became apparent with two weeks to go that there would be no officially designed and workshop manufactured contraption. So I got out my welder, scrounged an old steel bike and an outboard motor, and we ended up with something. After a last minute wooden frame added by Pete, the Skipper approved our efforts and we were allowed to leave the contraption on board for the race...

The confounding contraption

We hadn't completely given up on rowing, so we also had some massive carbon fibre shaft oars, posh new sliding rowing seats made from a cross-trainer, and rowlocks fixed to my old van roof bars. By the time my running partner Jon Morgan arrived on Friday afternoon, team Heath Robinson, sorry I mean Team Wild Spirit, were ready to go!

Jon is a great runner, like me a proud member of Dark Peak Fell runners, and an experienced mountain guide with a good few records and impressive summits to his name. We were relatively confident of a good shot at the King of the Mountains title, but you never know who might turn up at the last minute! Our team was completed by three sailors: Paul, Pete and Nick. Paul is the skipper and owner of Wild Spirit, a massively experienced sailor with the sort of beard you would trust when it told you to row towards the Corryvreckan. Pete grew up on the south coast and sailed every type of boat available on every day of the week, now back sailing big boats after a bit of time away he was to be our expert in heroic actions at the front end of the boat. Nick has done the Three Peaks four or five times in the past, he was in charge of route planning and navigation and even before the race had spent time working out the most cunning routes.

Team Wild Spirit: Jon, me, Pete, Paul, Nick
High tide was late this year, but at 5pm we set off. Well, sort of. The radio on the committee boat which should have given us the "Go" signal wasn't working, so there was some confusion about whether we should actually cross the line or not. We crossed it perfectly at 5pm, but when no-one else seemed to follow we looped back round and waited. Everyone else then seemed to head for it so we joined them again, getting a slighty less perfect start than the first one but at least we were racing!

With DBC and AJAX just before the start
The forecast for the race was very little wind for about 48 hours after the start, then gales later in the week. I had absolute faith that our sailors would know what to do with gales, but in very light winds Wild Spirit (as quite a heavy boat) struggles. The obvious solution is rowing, so once the initial wind died, we rowed. We pedalled a little too, and found that we could row consistently at about 0.8 knots, or pedal and row at about 1.3. Due to one late drop-out there were actually only four boats in our class (this year also saw the first "Challenger" class entrants, who are allowed to use their engines at certain points, but compete in a different class): Team Baloo, AJAX (The Army), Digital Build Consultants (The Irish), and us. By Saturday evening we were all rowing through the Bardsey sound. The sunset was stunning, and was followed after a few hours of gentle sailing by an equally stunning sunrise. Through the morning we crept towards Caernarfon, powered by bacon sandwiches, rowing and the spinnaker. We crossed Caernarfon Bar without incident (another sandbank avoided) and soon it was time for Jon and I to get ready to run.

Irish creeping through Bardsey sound as the sun sets
We landed behind Baloo, AJAX and The Irish, but were feeling reasonably confident. The Snowdon run is the longest of the lot at 40km, about 25km of which is made up of busy road runs in and out. I've only ever done this in the middle of the night before - during the day it was a bit terrifying at times! It was nice to see Steve Franklin though - cheers for the shout Steve!

After the road run up the A4056, we were glad to be on the hill. We climbed well, grateful for a bit of breeze on the hill; having passed Baloo and AJAX on the way up we hoped we might find the Irish and manage to get back to Caernarfon first. Snowdon is a lovely mountain, but there's nowhere for a discreet wee, so after reaching the top and pressing the tracker button to report to the organisers I was keen to find a little sheltered spot on the descent. I found one on the railway track (this is not as dangerous as it sounds - the Snowdon train can be heard miles away and moves at the speed of a hungover snail), then headed off after Jon. At this point we saw the runners from Baloo on their way up, and realised we had managed to make a bit of a silly mistake... Yes, not for the first time in my life, I'd started descending the wrong side of the mountain. Still, we hadn't got far and were soon on our way down the hard stony track to Llanberis. Cheers Baloo for reminding us what we'd done!

Jon on Snowdon
We passed the Irish at the bottom of the track, with just 14km or so of tarmac to go back to the boat. This passed fairly quickly and without too much discomfort, and we managed to find a reasonable route back in to the marina. To the rapturous applause of our team we jumped joyously back on board after about 4:16 and dived below for milkshake.

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Caernarfon to Whitehaven.

We left Caernarfon on Sunday evening, straight back out into another stunning evening but unfortunately another largely windless one. We put up the spinnaker but by the time the wind arrived we had lost our lead and the Irish had caught up. We both (in fact all the teams in our class did) decided to go around Anglesey rather than through the Menai Straits. It's rare that this is the best route, but it was the only option this year.

Our sailors worked really hard to stay with the lighter boats on the leg around Anglesey and up towards Whitehaven. Jon and I helped where we could, slept a bit when not on watch (a lot more than the sailors did!), watched the amazing scenery go by, and chatted about races we'd done. Jon told me all about the climbing on the north of Anglesey and I eulogised about the Manx Mountain Marathon as we passed the Isle of Man.

Before it got a bit lumpy

By Monday evening we were approaching Whitehaven, but the wind had picked up in the last few hours and Jon was feeling a little unwell. We realised that there was actually no need to jump off the boat and up the hill immediately, even if we absolutely gutted ourselves we wouldn't make it back in a single tide, so we'd be waiting for the lock gates to open before we could leave anyway. We therefore decided to wait a little while before going to allow Jon's innards to settle down.

Waiting in Whitehaven

Settle they did and off we went on one of the most fun bits of the whole race - the bike ride from Whitehaven to Black Sail Hut. It's a great cycle route from the middle of the town out through smaller places and eventually to Ennerdale, then up the rocky track to Black Sail. It took us about 1:40 on the way up and 1:25 later on the way down.

At Black Sail we locked up the bikes (not because we deemed it necessary, but it's in the kit list!) and headed off up and over Black Sail Pass.

Black Sail Pass
The Scafell run is not the longest but has the most climb since it goes up and over Black Sail Pass, down in to Wasdale, then up to Scafell, back down to Wasdale and back up and over Black Sail again. It's a great route for fellrunner, and is the only one of the three that offers the opportunity to get your shoes muddy! We were having a great time and were in a jolly good mood when we met the marshals at Wasdale for our compulsary 5 minute break. They were lovely and gave us Oranges and cookies, then we headed off up the big one.

Somewhere on the way up we put torches on, and as it got dark we could see lights in front of us... We'd passed the others on the bikes, so it was the Irish. We reached the summit within seconds of each other and had a quick chat. Unfortunately their names escape me but the Digital Build Consultants runners were top guys - we're looking forward to catching up at the race dinner in November.

Torches on!
All that remained now was to descend Scafell, up and over Black Sail and drop down to our bikes. I was already looking forward to the ride back in to Whitehaven - it's even better in that direction!

We got back to the boat very early on Tuesday morning, after about 7 hours of full-on athletic effort and general heroism. In contrast, here's the skippers view of the previous few hours...
Shelf and Jon were off up the mountain whilst the three sailors plus Judith, our support team, went for a steak and a couple of pints before a sleep.
Unbelievable. Anyway, with a clearer idea of who was actually pulling their weight in this team, Jon and I decided to have a sit down for the next couple of days while we embarked on the longest sailing leg of the race.

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Whitehaven to Corpach.

Paul made sure we left Whitehaven lock with the same recorded time as the Irish, so we were really racing to the finish. The Three Peaks Yacht Race moved to the international IRC handicap system a few years ago, meaning that the actual winner may not be the first boat to cross the line, but there's still huge pride at stake for the "Line Honours" winner. Throughout Tuesday, Tuesday night and Wednesday, we had a really close race with DBC.

The sailors did an awesome job - The Irish were apparently using some posh new navigation software (and were also great sailors), so we just tried to keep up with them. As we rounded the Mull of Galloway there was a big tide against us and they pulled out a little lead, but Paul steered us inshore to a tidal eddy which was just about moving in the other direction and we caught up again.

We approached the Mull of Kintyre just as it started to get light, the sailors reckoned the Irish were about 3 miles away, which after this distance is basically nothing! We went closer to Gigha than them and gained a little more, then they took a wide line out towards the Corryvreckan while we stayed in the main channel. After this and some genius navigation by Nick through the sound of Luing we were basically neck and neck as we got close to Corran Narrows... Someone radioed the ferry to warn them of the battle heading towards them and they decided to wait for us, so the sailors had clear water to have a proper race!

The Irish through the kitchen window!

Jon and I stayed out of the way as the sailors were clearly having a lovely time... Both boats were sailing with spinnakers up in almost 30 knots of wind. We took ours down a little before the narrows themselves as the Irish broached three or four times, but it was soon back up when conditions allowed and we were flying again.

As the wind changed in favour of our symmetric sails (they had asymmetric sails so needed to tack, whereas we could sail in a straight line) it looked like we might manage to cross the line first.

With much whoopin' and a'hollarin' we did, just a few seconds before Digital Build Consultants. Not bad after 300 miles of racing!

VICTORY + Close race = Happy Skipper!
All that remained now was for Jon and I to go for a wee run up the Ben. We knew it was windy up there, and maybe a bit wet, but the conditions were forecast to only get worse and we were keen to get going up there as soon as possible!

However, as we got ready to dismount (with DBC's runners on board too, due to a rope around their prop... But that's another story) we were told by the organisers that we weren't allowed to run and would have to wait till tomorrow (Thursday) at 2pm, at the earliest! Boo!

Having been keen to finish off what had been a great race so far we were a bit disappointed, but the organisers had made their decision and we could see why. So we headed to the pub with everyone else to celebrate the (nearly) end of the race...

On thursday, after some discussion, it was decided that we would have a mass start race from Corpach to the first major bridge on the Ben Nevis climb. This cut out most of the hill as the bridge is at about 300m, but it crucially did mean that everyone could race. It didn't seem fair that Baloo and AJAX wouldn't get to complete the race after so much great sailing, just because they had to leave for other commitments before the weather would allow us up the Ben.

So at 2pm, Jon and I found ourselves on an unexpected startline, ready for an unexpectedly short and fast road / trail race!

"Mass" start race startline
The Army took an early lead for the cameras, then the Irish and us passed them, after which we passed the Irish. Soon we had a little gap on the others and pressed on through the village of Caol and the little bit of fiddly navigation before the road and track up to the Ben Nevis Inn. Here we saw Rob Howard for the last time on official duties. We reached the turnaround point, pressed the tracker and headed for home. The Irish were not far off the top when we passed them, followed by Baloo, then the Army. We also saw the guys from Smithers Purslow (one of the challenge teams) on the track to the Inn, they had all decided to climb the hill together and were having a great time!

The final descent
Soon we were back in Corpach and after the run in along the seafront we rejoined the canal and ran down to cross the finish line.

The final leg ended up being 17.5km with 514m ascent, and took us 1:30. We were chuffed to finish first again and it felt great to have ticked off the final part of the race. Now we could celebrate properly!

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Well.... What a race!
Mega thanks to Jon for being a great running partner, and to Paul, Pete and Nick for awesome sailing! Thanks to Scott Running and Team Accelerate-Scott for my shoes and kit (I wore Kinabalu for the first two runs, and Supertrac RC for the final one).

Finally, thanks to Rob Howard for some of the above photos, and for being a great guy and supporting this race. The race needs more entries, if you are a runner and would like to take part, get over to the website ( and register yourself as a runner interested in a team!


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