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The Three Peaks Yacht Race: Britain’s ultimate outdoor challenge?

15:14 20th May 2013 By Jacob Thrall
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The ‘traditional’ Three Peaks involves driving round the country to run up Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis. But what if you had to do it without engines? You need a boat. Jacob Thrall tells you how.

The calm before. Image by Flickr user Mike Owens

The calm before. Image by Flickr user Mike Owens

The Three Peaks. To most people, this means walking up Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis, the highest mountains in Wales, England and Scotland. To a hard core of traditionalists, it means Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent in Yorkshire.

To a harder core, such squabbling is rather missing the point.

This harder core are the competitors in the Three Peaks Yacht Race. They take in the three big peaks – the national ones – but as the name suggests, it’s not quite that simple. Whereas most folk who take part in Three Peaks challenges hurtle between mountains by car, the Yacht Racers do it by boat. Sailing boat. In fact, other than for manoeuvring in harbours, engines are not allowed at all, in any part of the race.

No engines?

That’s right. Back in the ’70s, a doctor in North Wales was enjoying tales from one of his patients about the adventurous life he had led, and found himself inspired to become adventurous too. That patient was the legendary Bill Tilman: decorated veteran of both World Wars, pioneering Himalayan mountaineer, sailor and all-round man-of-action.

That’s some pretty powerful inspiration. The doctor, Rob Haworth, came up with the idea of sailing up the west coast of Britain, stopping off along the way to summit the highest peaks in Wales, England and Scotland.

Initially just a way for Rob Haworth to spend his holidays, the idea for a race came about when he told his partner, Dr Merfyn Jones, what he fancied doing. Merfyn thought it sounded like a cracking idea for a race and so, in the grand old tradition of plans born from crazy ideas, they quickly set to working out the logistics. The route was planned on the kitchen table, using cooking utensils. The mountains, apparently, were represented by bottles.

The modern race

Spinnaker unfurled for speed. Image by Flickr user Mike Owens

Spinnaker unfurled for speed. Image by Flickr user Mike Owens

Since the race’s inception in 1977, the route and the rules have been shuffled about a bit, but now it shakes out as follows. Starting in Barmouth, a crew of five sails up to Caernarfon, where two runners then set off on foot for the summit of Snowdon, following the Snowdon Ranger Path, then back down the Llanberis Path. Once they rejoin the boat, sail is set for the Cumbrian coast, from where two crew members – potentially a bit seasick and undoubtedly already knackered – set out for the summit of Scafell Pike.

Originally they landed at Ravenglass, which was closer to the mountain, but nowadays it’s Whitehaven. Because of this extra distance, the runners now cycle to and from the mountain rather than doing the whole thing on foot. That’s a nice touch, eh? A thirteen mile bike ride before and after running up and down the highest mountain in England.

After Scafell Pike, they are once again back to the boats to continue heading north, and time is really of the essence. As race record-holding skipper Geoff West puts it:

“It is worth pushing the margins here, we have won in the past by getting in and out on the same tide. Even if your runners nearly kill themselves, getting them back on the boat and out on the one tide can make a winning difference. They have 210 miles to recover.”

The boat then sails on up to Corpach, just north of Fort William, when the runners once again disembark, check in with the marshals, then slog up and down Ben Nevis to finish the race.

Easy for the crew? Er, no

That all makes it sound like the runners put in a load of effort while the boat crew taxi them about the place. For example, the Scafell Pike run takes a good six hours, which gives the sailors a chance for a shower and a leisurely visit to the pub.

But consider how much effort goes into crewing the yacht. Race rules limit the total size of the crew to five, typically three sailors and two runners. That’s on a boat more comfortably crewed by nine. To keep things going without collapsing through sheer exhaustion, the sailors take it in turns for one of them to sleep. So really, that’s two sailors, crewing a nine handed vessel.

This isn’t nice and easy, steady-as-she-goes, open water sailing either. This is coastal sailing, through shallows with complex currents. The nature of the prevailing winds can mean a lot of spinnaker work. For those unfamiliar with sailing, that basically means handling a massive sail and all its attendant ropework, on your own, while also steering the yacht, because the only other crew member who’s not asleep is at the other end of the vessel doing something equally crucial. The job of the sailors is not, by any reckoning, a soft option.

The runners could help out with the sailing, in theory, but it doesn’t tend to work like that. Runners often don’t know a great deal about sailing and aren’t used to being in a cabin which bobs around all over the place. They could get in some practice before the race, but runners are usually out training or competing in other events during their free time. It’s been suggested that they go out and get used to the boat in the week leading up to the race, but being out at sea for a while generally means grabbing food and sleep in sporadic bursts when the opportunity arises. This isn’t great for an athlete’s body which is used to fixed patterns of nutrition and sleep, especially when preparing for a major event.

Ultimately then, this means the runners either spend their time in their bunks with their eyes closed, or sitting on deck in the fresh air, staring fixedly at a point on the horizon and longing for calm.

Row, row, row your boat

Calm of course means more effort: if you’re on a sailing boat which isn’t allowed to use its engine, then when the wind drops, you row. Just how up for this the runners appear to be is a source of amazement for Geoff the skipper:

“The runners’ competitive nature seems to kick in, they seem to relish the exercise, even though they may well have done the equivalent of a couple of marathon runs with another to come.

“I don’t know how they keep their enthusiasm. Perhaps it is happy endorphins blocking the pain, perhaps they are so fit that rowing a boat for hours is just light exercise? I remember attempting to row against the tide, waiting to catch a gust of wind to get us past the Britannia Bridge across to Anglesey, and after an hour of rowing we were still by the same bit of tree root. No complaints at all.”

Some end up as converts. Maybe the challenges of sailing appeal to the bloody minded determination of the endurance athlete? The two runners who were on Geoff’s boat for the 1990 race are now both yachtmasters.

Are you ready? Image by Flickr user MrFreekie

Are you ready? Image by Flickr user MrFreekie

The Facts

The Three Peaks Yacht Race

Route: Barmouth to Caernarfon, Whitehaven & Fort William, taking in Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis

Distance:
  • Sailing: 389 nautical miles
  • Running: 72 miles
  • Cycling: 26 miles

Ascent: 4,267 metres (14,000 feet)

Record Time:
  • Overall Race Record: 2 days, 14 hours, 22 minutes, achieved by team Lightning Reflex, skippered by Geoff West, in 2002.
  • King of the Mountains (fastest aggregate time for all three peaks): 13 hours, 5 minutes by Chris Sellens & Allan Smalls of GFT Adventure, 2009

Typical Time: About 4 days. Last year’s winner – Kugel Motion – did it in 4 days, 13 hours, 1 minute. King of the Mountains went to Richard Mortiboys and Tim Austin from the We Love MCR team, with a time of 14 hours and 51 minutes.

Difficulty: 9/10

Overview

Just one of the various elements of this race would be a challenge for most people. Three mountain marathons in three days, one of which is bracketed by 26 miles of cycling. The rest of the time is spent sleep deprived, on an under-crewed boat in difficult waters, sometimes shallow enough to rip the bottom out of your hull if you’re not very careful. No engines are allowed so if there’s no wind in the sails, it’s all hands to the oars. Then again, it was inspired by a man who survived the Battle of the Somme, cycled across Africa and put up the first ascent of Nanda Devi, at that point the highest mountain anybody had ever climbed: it was never going to be a walk in the park.

When

The 2013 race starts June 15

What do I Need?

A boat, a bike and a pair of trainers.

There are prescribed kit lists for the race, both for the yachts and for the runners, available here (Appendix 2 for the boat, Appendix 3 for runners). For the runners it’s all the sort of stuff you’d imagine you’d need for running in the mountains: decent footwear, warm/waterproof clothing, survival equipment, navigation gear and the like. Bear in mind, part of the cycling leg of the Scafell Pike route is on a forestry track, not suitable for bikes with racing tyres.

The yacht list is considerably longer. You’ll need a permanently installed manual bilge pump, a foghorn and a variety of flares, for example. Chances are though, if you’re the skipper of a racing yacht, you’ll know what being compliant with the regulations for a Category 3 Offshore Race entails.

How to Prepare

It depends what you’re doing. If you’re doing the land-based bits, then practice lots of running, up and down mountains if possible. Training on the actual routes themselves is ideal, but you can’t be based near all three of them, so that involves quite a bit of travel.

Practice cycling and running on the same day. For anyone serious about cycling, two thirteen mile blasts is pretty small potatoes, but if you’re not used to getting straight on the bike after another mountain marathon, you could come a cropper.

If it’s at all possible, get out on the boat together as a team. As mentioned before, this doesn’t always work out, but it does make a difference. The year Geoff West’s crew smashed the race record by over half a day, the crew had been out sailing together first.

For the sailors, in addition to having proper info about the waters you’re sailing in, make sure you’re used to this sort of sailing. This is extremely important: the first year Geoff took part, he wasn’t used to navigating such constrained waters. The boat, with its cracked ribs, did not make it to the finish, and went home on the back of a truck.

Heed this advice

Keep up with eating and sleeping, or by the end of the race you’ll be making daft decisions. Races have been lost by front-running crews slipping up due to tiredness.

Similar Events

The Tasmania Three Peaks Yacht Race: Same idea, but on the other side of the world. Starting from northern Tasmania, crews sail over to Flinders Island then down the east coast to Hobart, stopping to take in Mount Strzelecki, Mount Freycinet and Mount Wellington.

The South West Three Peaks Yacht Race: A sort of miniaturized version of the race which sees its inception on the English south west coast this June. The first leg is from St. Mawes to Newlyn, then on to Fowey, and finally Plymouth. The “peaks” are Land’s End, Brown Willy (the highest point in Cornwall) and High Whillays (the highest point in Devon).

Further Info

www.threepeaksyachtrace.co.uk: The online home of the Three Peaks Yacht race, with rules, team profiles, galleries, links to blogs, and loads more info.

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