The Scottish Three Peaks Race is for teams of hill runners and sailors over a long weekend around the beautiful West Coast of Scotland. The Race starts in Oban with a short hill run, then a sail to Salen on Mull, a wee jog over Ben More, another sail to Craighouse on Jura, run the Paps, sail to Arran, run Goat Fell, then sail home to Troon. Sounds easy huh? The sailing course of 160 nautical miles includes the strong tides and overfalls of the Corryvreckan and the Mull of Kintyre whilst the runners cover 60 miles and 11,500 ft of climbing.Robert had attempted the race a few times before, but was forced to retire for various reasons, including lack of wind, a runner having a near heart attack, and err.. hitting a rock. It was my idea to have another crack at it, and put an email out to my friends to see if anyone had the necessary running experience. Ben and Bruce are both members of my dive club, and both fancied the challenge. So, after some discussions, the team was sorted. Robert, Jen and I would take care of the sailing, and the two lads would 'jog up the hills' ;-)
The runners trained for several months. A healthy diet, regular runs, and runs up Arthurs Seat at the weekends. In fact, one weekend, we took the guys over to Arran to get them used to sailing, and an opportunity for them to try the Goat Fell run.
The weekend really started for us on the Thursday night. We all met at the boat after work, and by 10 o'clock, we were underway towards Oban, to put us in position for the race on Saturday morning. The trip up was mostly under engine sadly, as there was hardly any wind. It was olny around 2pm on Friday that we got some wind. We met another competitor, a multi-hull, on the way up. The wind was getting stronger, and both him and us were carrying a bit more sail than we should. Sadly, he was flying his spinnaker, and although it was going well for a while, he eventually put it away. Unfortunately, it got put away a bit sooner than he expected, as it had torn in the strong winds. We were all shocked to see it go, as it would no doubt severely limit their chance of winning in the race. In light airs, without a spinnaker, well... you would be a slow as us!
Saturday morning was a different picture. It was blowing a steady force 5/6, and the forecast was for it to increase. In fact, so much so that the organisers had already decided to end the race at Jura for safety. They were concerned that rounding the Mull in strong winds could lead to a disaster of Fastnet proportions. As it would transpire, the weather man's predictions were to be proven right.
The runners finished their first run in Oban around 1230, and we had them back on the boat, by dinghy, around 1245. It was then full steam ahead to Salem, on Mull. Looking around, it was clear to see we weren't used to racing. As a crew, we normally very cautious, and would happily do a few knots less speed if it meant easier handling or a potentially safer passage. Robert pushed us past our normal 'line', and rightly encouraged to push things a bit further than normal. After all, like he said, this was a race - not just a bimble around the Clyde. With a solid sailing crew, and no newbies, we pushed ahead, and soon made up on the other boats.
It was absolute carnage. The wind was up to force 8, gusting 9. Several boats dropped out, with the rest of them sailing with minimal canvas. As the biggest boat in the fleet, Honu was perfectly designed for this kind of weather and took it in her stride. We were heavily reefed, but we were still doing 8-9 knots without really trying. Around us there were loads of boats. Looking ahead, you could identify the patches of strong winds by watching boats get gusted and round to wind. We held our coast, pinching through the gusts, and generally doing well.
We didn't really have any trouble until we reached Salem bay. There were strong winds, 40-50 knots over the bow, and our job now was to get our two runners from the boat, into the dinghy, and then for them to run ashore. We initially had problems getting the runners into the dinghy because we just couldn't sail slow enough. Even with just a hanky of sail out, we were still doing over a knot - enough to make the dinghy want to plow into bow-first into the sea. Our second problem was that due to our large draft, and lack of local knowledge, we were incredibly hesitant to venture too far towards the beach. We eventually got the runners ashore around 4pm, and proceeded to drop our hook in the bay.
It was a long wait. The runners expected their run to take about 6-7 hours, so they weren't due back until late evening - perhaps 11pm. By 8pm, conditions had gotten worse, and we were glued to the VHF listening to the unfolding drama. Several runners had to be taken off the hill, a few boats couldn't get good holding in the bay, and there had been an incident that had left a runner in the water for 5-10 minutes. Thankfully, a couple of boats were quickly on the case and managed to get him onboard. All of a sudden, we realised that a fun challenge had turned into something altogether different.
The organisers ended up calling the race off. Quite rightly so, they were worried about the weather, and concerned that further accidents could happen. A few of the "regulars" were a little upset - particularly because this was the 25th anniversary - but, safety has to come first.
By midnight, we were increasingly worried about our lads. We had given them a handheld VHF radio in order to contact us, but their mobiles were out of battery - so we had no way of initiating contact with them. For hours we tried hailing them, and asked assistance from the race organisers. They were working on getting all the runners off the hill, and arranging temporary accomodation if necessary. To cut a long story short, we eventually got a call from Bruce on the VHF around 3am. They had been severely hampered by the conditions, and Ben had developed a problem with his leg. We directed the organisers to their location, and they sent a landrover to collect them. Sadly, the lads had already made to within a mile of the bay - so it was somewhat too little too late. After some discussion, it was agreed that it was too risky to attempt a dinghy ride in the pitch black with still 40-50 knots of wind. Instead, the lads camped in the landrover and awaiting a call the next morning, when we hoped the conditions would be more favourable.
It was such a relief to get the guys back on board. For the first time in my life, I think I really understood how my parents felt when I didn't come on time. I was confident that Ben and Bruce were more than able to deal with even the most demanding conditions, without confirmation of their whereabouts, or their condition - well ... i was worried.
By 7pm on Sunday, we were back in Troon after quite a challenging sail home. The wind was reasonably strong, but the seas had been whipped into a frenzy, and so we slowly sliced our way south and then back round the Mull.
We still haven't agreed whether we'll go back and do the 2008 race. In some ways, we acheived our goal - we (technically) finished the race, and more precisely, didn't drop out. However, because the race was called off, we still really get any further than the Mull run ... which is err... no further than Robert has ever got. Who knows ... maybe next year?