Three Peaks Yacht Race

Let's be clear from the start - the Three Peaks Yacht Race is a bizarre event. Many aspects of it just would be very different if you designed the race today, but then you probably wouldn't do that anyway. It's a wonderful event, run by a group of really dedicated and hardworking organisers, but it's a serious undertaking: It's a long way, there isn't much sleep to be had, and if you're not standing on the walls and hanging on while using the toilet, you're going slowly. And if you're going slowly, you're about to be rowing.

That all makes it sound like it's not fun, but that isn't true: It's amazing fun! This year I was racing with skipper Paul Jackson (father in law), navigator Nick Ridgeway, sailor Craig Williamson, and running with Dave Robinette. This was the team assembled for the 2020 race which finally took place last week. We were racing as many times before on Wild Spirit. WS is a very solid and pretty heavy boat and really does well in heavy weather.

The forecast didn't look good for us - very light winds were forecast. It looked for a long time like we'd be rowing off the start line. Not ideal.

 

The view from Wild Spirit in Barmouth harbour before the start

Let's rewind a little. The race starts in Barmouth, from where we sail to Caernarfon. The runners jump off, run in, up, down, and out of Snowdon, then we sail on to Whitehaven. Here we again jump off, grab our bikes from the support crew and ride to Black Sail Pass YHA, run to the summit of Scafell and back, then ride home to Whitehaven. Once we get out of the lock gate we embark on the biggest sailing leg up to Corpach, then we jump off one last time and run up and down Ben Nevis to cross the finish line. Here's a helpful map:

Before the start: Barmouth

After a weird year it was great to be back in Barmouth. Sadly the yacht club couldn't host us for food as usual but familiar faces were around and we got stuck into the familiar chaos of getting stuff to and from a boat moored a couple of hundred metres out in the harbour. The two water taxi drivers are busy from early in the morning till 11 at night ferrying sailors and kit, and helping get provisions onto the boat and unecessary stuff off. Paul, Nick and Craig had sailed up from Plymouth over the previous week so there was plenty to sort out. My main job was to get the rowing gear on and in a reasonable position.

Ready to Row!

Having had 3 years to perfect the design of the sliding seats and rowlock mounts, I'd finished varnishing the wood the night before I left Cornwall, but by Saturday lunchtime they were on and in position. Now we just had to hope we didn't need them!

Leg 1: Barmouth to Caernarfon

The lifeboat led us out from our line of moorings (as in first picture) towards the start line. The start of a sailing race seems to involve sailing as close as possible to other boats without hitting them, and getting as close to the start line as possible without crossing it, while some people on a motorboat blow a horn at random intervals. There's often quite a lot of swearing, some emergency direction changes and some very intense clock watching.

Then you start. HOPEFULLY the wind fills the sails as you turn to cross the line, we frantically winch to pull the sails into position to generate some power, and we hurtle off towards Caernarfon... We didn't hurtle, but at least we weren't rowing...

I suspect tea was probably made next (sailors like tea) and for a while everything settled down. The next challenge was Bardsey Sound (Swnt Enlli). We went through in about 6th place, behind Team Joy, White Clouds, That's Not My Dog (a team of Olympic dinghy sailors on board Geoff West's Lightning Reflex), Bare Necessities (with Chris Near running, but it's a fast catamaran, which basically means it doesn't count in the sailing race), and The Forty Somethings (with the famous Max Wainwright as a runner!)

Bardsey Sound

Having navigated Bardsey Sound by about 9pm on Saturday, we continued (presumably with more tea) up the north coast of the Llŷn peninsula. The next challenge was Caernarfon Bar, a sandbank somewhere near the entrance to Caernarfon harbour. The first teams (Joy and TNMD) arrived in Caernarfon at about 4am. We arrived at about 5:30 and set off running in 6th position. The first five were on the hill, including Team Aurora who unfortunately set off up the wrong way...

Snowdon Run:

Here we go then, time to run! The Snowdon run is a tough mixture. 13 km fast road in, steep up, steep unforgiving down, and 14 km fast road out again. We were lucky to start as early in the morning as we did, meaning that the road was quiet. Later in the day running along the A4086 can get a bit hairy!

The A4086

4:20 kilometers are fast for me, but it was coolish and the sailing had been relatively good to our weedy landlubber stomachs, so we ran well. We hit the climb after 57 minutes and immediately took the opportunity to eat! We ran the shallow bits and walked the steep bits, and after pretty much exactly another hour we were at the summit. The organisers had requested that we press the magic button on the tracker and take a selfie at each summit. Unfortunately the selfie camera on my phone doesn't work, so we ended up with this:

After Snowdon we swapped. Dave did the photos and I did the tracker.

Anyway, time to descend! My primary objective here was to remain upright, because the Llanberis track is very much not bouncy. There were a few more people about now, mostly unhappy looking three-peakers. We had passed the runners from Aurora just before the summit and hoped we might catch another team or two. We both survived the descent - at one point Dave landed an incredible double-footed trip very much in the style of a gymnast dismounting a pommel horse, which was pretty spectacular. We picked up a couple of beer cans on the descent because some people are too important to carry their own rubbish.

Distant descending Dave

It was hot by we got into Llanberis. Now 26km in and having taken 2:30, I was thinking we were on for a pretty good time. The run back in isn't quite 10 miles but it's a bit of a slog. We managed to maintain 4:20 - 4:30s until the confusing outskirts of Caernarfon. I've done this race enough times to know the way in, but apparently I don't, so we lost a couple of minutes with some fine nav through the town centre. We eventually made it back to the fuel pontoon in 3:39. I think that's the fastest I've ever done that leg, and it was enough to win it for us.

Leg 2: Caernarfon to Whitehaven:

Finishing the first run leg feels good. You feel slightly less useless on the boat because you proved you can do the bit you said you could do, and if you run well the sailors are generally pleased and nice to you for a while. That said, the sailors have to concentrate on the next bit, because it's time for...

The 👹

Menai 👿

Straits 😱

AAAARGH! It's narrow, there's lots of stuff to hit, the tide never goes the right way, there's too much or not enough wind, and there are other boats everywhere. I think Craig counted 83 tacks as we made our way through the straits. We were now either 4th or 5th, because Bare Necessities (the fancy catamaran) had opted for the route around the outside of Anglesey rather than the straits, so their position would become clear later. We had a cracking race with Aurora all the way through, tacking side by side and changing places a couple of times. As a runner you really need to trust your sailors as you head towards another boat, a rock or the bank, then tack at the last possible second before heading towards a new rock, the other bank, or the same boat again!

The crew on Aurora have produced a video of the "Battle of the Swellies", as the area is also known, showing just how close we were racing.

Boatially distancing with Aurora

 

Eventually we emerged from the Swellies, slightly behnd Aurora after some brilliant sailing from them, but ready for the next long leg up to Whitehaven. Things briefly settled down again for Dave and I. We made tea and probably all had some food as we raced north. By the time we passed the Isle of Man at 9pm on Sunday night we had sneaked past Aurora again and were 5th behind TNMD, Bare Necessities (having returned from going round the outside), Team Joy and White Clouds.

As we closed in on Whitehaven Bare Necessities and TNMD were neck-and-neck. They arrived at about 3am. We were a couple of hours behind. So many times, the race has restarted at Whitehaven. This is because of the lock gate. The water outside the lock gate is very shallow so only passable at certain times of tide. Often a boat can make it in and drop off their runners, but once the runners return they won't be able to get out for a few hours or more, allowing others to catch up. In theory, if you arrive just as the harbour is accessible and run/ride really fast, you can get out again on the same tide. Doing this is likely to win you the race!

This is what we'd hoped to try this year. Bare Necessities were able to get in at about 4am (due to their shallow draft). White Clouds, TNMD and Joy got in at about 5, and we were half an hour or so behind. This gave us about 6 and a half hours to ride from Whitehaven to Black Sail YHA, run over to Wasdale then up and down Scafell, then reverse the journey. It would be tight but perhaps possible...

Scafell Run

The ride in was good.The cycle path out of Whitehaven is enjoyable in the early morning while it's quiet and we pressed on nicely up to the side of Ennerdale water. Here we there was a route change - due to forestry work the race would now go up the southern side of the valley instead of the normal northern side. Not a big change, but a rougher route. The rocky rooty route was a bit tough on skinny tyres. Dave had brought 42mm tyres which were about perfect. I had 28s which were a bit narrow. Perfect for the road section and I reckon they would've been OK on the normal route through Ennerdale, but on this side I struggled a bit. I had one puncture but we quickly sorted it and were grateful to leave our bikes at Black Sail and head off up the pass.

Looking back down Ennerdale

We climbed well and got to Wasdale head in just under 45 minutes. Here we had a compulsary 5 minute stop with the lovely marshals, and were delighted to accept their flapjack and juice. The Three Peaks marshals are some of the loveliest I have ever met. We gave them our estimated time for the summit and back (an ambitious 1:30) and set off up. Dave set a great pace and climbed really well. I did my best to keep up and secretly hoped his prediction that I'd be quicker on the descent would come true!

Significantly better summit Selfie (by Dave)

We hit the top in just under an hour, then turned to descend. Thank goodness Dave was right - only very slightly, but I could run at 99% rather than 100% for a little while and had a tiny bit of recovery. We cruised into Wasdale after about 1:28, feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. Another quick helping of Flapjack and we set off back up Black Sail.

Nearly back at the bikes

At the top we saw Ricky Lightfoot run across towards Pillar. I shouted at him like a fanboy and was definately not cool.

3 hours and 7 minutes after leaving, we were back at Black Sail Hut. All that remained now was to ride back well, and we might just make it on that tide...

Then it aaaaaaaaaaall went a bit pear-shaped! Not long into the ride I got my first puncture. We stopped, patched it (having used my spare tube on the way out), put it back in and pressed on. The midges were annoying when we stopped but all was sorted in a couple of minutes and we were back on the road.

Then it happened again, this time the front wheel. We patched it again and I vowed to ride a bit more slowly in order to preserve the last patch. After about 15 minutes being midge-fodder we didn't really want to stop again.

Aaaand then it happened AGAIN! Now things were getting a bit desperate. We fixed it with the final patch and put the wheel back on. Just as I put the front wheel back on, there was a loud hissing from the back wheel - one of the previous repairs had blown again. We were now getting eaten alive, very annoyed, hemorrhaging time, and had no tubes or patches left. Dave tried in vain to get his wide tube to fit but it wasn't happening. I changed back from bike shoes to run shoes in anticipation of a bike-carrying run. We'd now lost half an hour in stops and more in slowness, but it looked like getting a lot worse.

Dave's suggestion saved the day. It wasn't perfect, but stuffing all the (punctured) tubes we had into the inner tube bulked it up enough to give it some shape and hold the tyre on the rim. Gingerly I rode on along the track. If this didn't work I was carrying!

Downhill but not enjoyable this time!

It was incredibly bumpy on account of having three valves stuffed in my tyre, but it did just about work. The ride back took us nearly 2 and a quarter hours (about an hour slower than we had hoped), so we made it back well after the cut-off for escaping Whitehaven on one tide. Bare Necessities had done so, but the only thing that made me feel slightly better was that almost everyone else had the same problem, so we were actually only 3rd in on the leg. However, it would lose of the overall King of the Mountains title.

Leg 3: Whitehaven to Corpach

We now had a few hours at Whitehaven waiting for the tide to rise so we could get out. TNMD, White Clouds, Joy and Aurora were in the same position. The sailors slept, Dave and I ate quite a lot and chatted to support crew Judith, then Craig, Dave and I ventured to Whitehaven Tesco. I bought toothpaste (a welcome upgrade from the soap I had been using).

At the time he didn't find it funny, but the skipper now fondly remembers what happened next. As the clock ticked down to the first locking out we got ready to leave our berth and head for the lock. So did TNMD, White Clouds, etc. etc. We radio'd the lock keeper to check when he'd let us in. He told us he couldn't let us in because we hadn't paid. We protested that of course we had. He said I can't let you in till I have an email from the office confirming you've paid. We phoned the office. The office was closed so the phone was redirected. To the lock keeper. We explained that an email didn't look likely unless he was going to send it to himself, and could he please let us in, which he did.

Once we were all in, the water was raised and the doors finally opened, all hell broke loose in a sort of slow way. TNMD shot off out of the lock, and ran aground. Joy did pretty much the same thing. White Clouds tried to go round them, and ran aground. We waited slightly then did some sort of cunning route around them. The was some chat amongst the sea dogs that TNMD had been a bit reckless and caused a blockage, but to me it looked like everyone was doing exactly the same.

We headed off into the Irish Sea to the sound of a very irate commercial skipper on the radio... I can't help thinking that the Whitehaven lock keeper must dread the day we arrive!

Around the Mull of Galloway

By 1:30 on Tuesday morning we were close to the usual four, and a little behind Bare Necessities as we rounded the Mull of Galloway. It had been a straight run from Whitehaven, but after turning at the bottom of the Mull it was time to tack again. Here we had a navigational decision to make: Do we follow the others and most likely hold onto 5th, or do we try to do something different. We went for the second option and headed over almost to Ireland!

Our Irish day trip

For the next 12 hours we tacked up the Irish coast, then finally headed back across around 3pm on Tuesday. We ended up, predictably, very close to Aurora. TNMD, Joy and White Clouds had pulled away from us. The gamble hadn't quite paid off this time.

There was some sloooow sailing up the Mull of Kintyre. We had the oars out for a few hours of on-and-off rowing, and the sort of tense sailing where you don't dare move to go for a wee until you REALLY need a wee. It was tense, but we fared better than Aurora, who were further in to the mull and hit even worse conditions (they did a little pirouette at one point). Once they got going again we took a few great shots of them as the sun set. It was a beautiful evening to be on a boat.

Amazing Tuesday sunset

 Next, we decided to take another unusual route. Instead of the normal route up the east side of Jura and Islay, we decided to sail through the Sound of Islay, the narrow channel between the two. This was in search of better tide (or perhaps better wind. One of the two always seems to be trying to take you in the wrong direction).

By about 4am on Wednesday we were back on the conventional route. Aurora were a long way back after some tough sailing in light conditions, Bare Necessities were a few miles from Corpach, TNMD and Joy were still locked in battle, now in Loch Linhe, and White Clouds were somewhere between us and them. It turned out that TNMD had lost their electrics overnight and had to follow Joy all night! Sadly for Team Joy, once daylight came the youngsters apparenty nipped past them.

By the early morning we sailed past Mull, and decided (AGAIN!) to take an unusual route, one I've only just spotted while writing this. We went east of Lismore island:

Wild Spirit goes unusual again

The route wasn't that unconventional compared to the whole race, with quite a few going the same way over the following days, but we were the only of the top 6 teams to do so. The gap to White Clouds remained fairly steady so perhaps it was the right choice.

As we popped out and entered Loch Linhe, everyone in front had begun the climb up Ben Nevis. It would be five hours of frustrating sailing before we got there. Dave and I had plenty of time to prepare for our final run. We knew now that we had won Snowdon but lost a huge amount of time on Scafell. To stand a chance of winning the overall King of the Mountains we would need an amazing run on Ben Nevis. It was probably not possible but we were going to give it a go!

By midday we were through the Corran Narrows. After some more tense slow sailing and light wind spinnaker stuff we'd made it through before the tide turned so the sailors were delighted. I think we probably had tea to celebrate. It was lovely to see Judith and my Mum and Dad waving from the ferry jetty as we passed by. Another job for the runners' list: "Wave to well-wishers".

Around 2pm we made it to Corpach. The four ahead had been up and down. We hoped we could beat them on the hill, but it was the team "Bee and the Bros" somewhere behind us that we were really worried about.

Ben Nevis Run

We jumped off the boat, completed our final 5 minute kit check with lovely marshals, then gave them an ambitious estimate for our up and down time. I think we said 3 hours...

The plan was 30 mins to the bottom of hill, 1:15 to the top, 45 minutes down, 30 mins back.

We set off at a pace comensurate with achieving this, and it quickly became apparent that I was likely to be the limiting factor.

 

The run out to the bottom was OK, we found our way, got our running legs back and ran a decent pace. I think Dave could've been quicker but he was at least trying. The run in only includes about 30m of elevation gain (to the Achintee house bothy) but is 7km. It took us 29 minutes. At the bottom we saw Dad again, and soon after saw Rob Howard of Sleepmonsters, who as ever was doing an awesome job of covering the race. I honestly don't know how Rob and his colleague (sorry I don't know your name!) managed to get everywhere they did - they probably worked harder than we did!

 

The Ben Nevis climb isn't really that technical, it's just a lot of climbing. We summited after 1:49. Slightly behind schedule but loads quicker than I've ever done it before. We took the requisite selfie and turned to descend. I secretly hoped that I would be slightly stronger on the descent after being the weaker on the climb.


Nearby pedestrian insisted on taking our "selfie" for us

 If I was, it was hardly noticable. In fact, Dave and I were about the closest matched pair I have been part of for a long time. He was slightly stronger than me overall throughout the race, but there wasn't much in it and we set some times I'm pretty proud of. He can cook too, which the sailors liked.

The descent went well. No-one crashed, though we both had moments, and we were back through the bothy car park pretty much bang on 2:30. I had a sneaking suspicion that the run in was going to hurt...

Dave: Man of Steel.
Stu: Pale-legged flailing man

It did! It took us slightly over 30 minutes, giving us a final time of 3:04 (33 mins quicker than the next team). I spent most of the time in a very dark little bubble trying to keep my legs turning over as fast as I could and looking forward to not running. But eventually, as always, the end arrived.

We had finished! Not just the run but the whole race. Thank flip for that.

 

How did we do?

In this race more than any other, it can actually be quite difficult to work out where you finished! Having dissected the spreadsheets made available, here are our results:

  • Barmouth - Caernarfon: 5th
  • Snowdon run: 1st (3:38)
  • Caernarfon - Whitehaven: 3rd
  • Scafell run/ride: 3rd (7:49)
  • Whitehaven - Corpach: 4th
  • Ben Nevis run: 1st (3:04)
And overall...
  • 4th (Joy, White Clouds, TNMD)
  • King of the Mountains: 2nd (Bee and the Bros)

So that's that, another epic Three Peaks Yacht Race completed! It wasn't the clean sweep of 2018 but I ran much much better than that year, and any previous year. Massive thanks to Dave for being a bit quicker than me and being willing to really go for it to set some quick times this year! If I'd brought the right tyres we would've been the Kings of the Mountains, but I bet we would've run the Ben in 3:04.

Congratulations to everyone who took part, and to Team Joy for the overall win, and Bee and the Bros for King of the Mountains.

Classic warm beer finishline photo
 

Paul, Nick and Craig were a mega sailing team - so much to do and so little sleep! Congratulations on a great race in mostly unsuitable conditions for Wild Spirit and thanks for getting us to the bottom of the hills. Look forward to sailing with you again.

Huge thanks are of course also due to Judith for being a fantastic support crew. Often undervalued but hard work. Thanks to everyone who cheered us on via the tracker, my Mum and Dad for coming to cheer in person, and to Scott and Accelerate for supplying my short shorts.

Skipper, runners, support crew (that's not our dog)
 

Finally, thanks to the organisers, sponsors, marshals and Rob and team for managing to put on a great race this year despite all the blah blah. I'm not sure, but perhaps I'll see you again for one more Three Peaks adventure...

The end


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