> The Scottish Island Peaks Yacht Race Revisited - David Armstrong

Just imagine…. It’s mid-May off the West Coast of Scotland. Early Spring sunshine. Glorious scenery. A weekend sailing between Islands, climbing well-known peaks as you go…..

Sounds wonderful. I had just such an experience in May 1999, accompanied by fellow NFR members Garry Owens as running companion and Matt Simms as one of the three sailors in the team of five. Fond memories often reminisced about.

On that occasion our boat was a 26-foot aluminium racing yacht “Tumbling Dice”, stripped of all creature comforts to minimise weight, and altogether rather cramped and uncomfortable. But nevertheless a truly memorable experience.

In the three years since, I have often thought how nice it would be to do it all over again. Particularly if the boat could be a little more conducive to recovering after the runs, such as some sanitary or washing provision, a means of sleeping that did not involve damp sleeping bags spread over bags of wet sails, a half deflated dingy and plastic crates of equipment and provisions. And an interior which did not have an infinite number of aluminium corners and edges on which to bang your head, shins, elbows, etc every time the boat changed tack. And then of course there was the condensation dripping from the aluminium hull. As I creep ever closer to my 42nd birthday, I wonder whether the chance of taking part once more may have passed me by.

I am no computer buff, and someone once said to me that it was surprising what fun you could have with the Internet. I listened politely as thoughts of “how sad” and “you really must get out more” came to mind.

Time moves on and NFR now has an e-mail group, which enables members to keep in touch with each other, arrange race trips etc and it has proved a great success. I am a regular user and am reluctantly, gradually having to accept that my friend perhaps wasn’t quite so sad after all. But could I really have imagined what would follow from it?

Checking on to the e-group one day, a brand new member, Paul Hainsworth, had been dropped in it by his running companion and was desperately seeking a last minute replacement for the Scottish Island Peaks Race. Four weeks to go. I hadn’t met Paul, but he had just completed this year’s London Marathon in 3.02 and was therefore clearly pretty fit. I doubt very much whether I could have achieved that. Still, I knew I could do the race and the chance that I doubted would ever arise again was too good to pass. I responded immediately and must have been the only one as Paul agreed that I could join the team. My mind started to dream about the scenery, the mountains, the sunshine and what the boat would be like…..

It was about a week later when he dropped the bombshell. There are usually about fifty boats in the race each year. The smallest is about 24 feet and the longest around 50 feet. Our boat is …… “Tumbling Dice”!!!

Matt is not one of our crew this time but is also taking part as one of the sailors on a 24 footer, skippered by a long-time competitor of our skipper Tony Van Hee.

The race itself is very much a joint effort between the sailors and the runners. It starts at 12.00 noon at Oban yacht club with a modest 5 mile run of about 400 feet of ascent designed to provide a stagger to the yachts leaving the harbour. The first sail is to Salen on Mull where the runners run approximately 23 miles with 3,300 feet of ascent up Ben More. This is followed by a sail to Craighouse on Jura where the run is about 17 miles with 5,000 feet of ascent up the three Paps of Jura. The next sail is a bit further and the most hazardous, around the Mull of Kintyre to Arran, where the run is around 20 miles and 3,200 feet from Lamlash to the summit of Goat Fell. The race finishes with a sail from Arran to Troon.

The total sailing is approximately 160 nautical miles and the running, approximately 65 miles with 11,900 feet of total ascent……with a rucksack of compulsory equipment, including sleeping bag, survival bag, extra clothing, emergency food, drinks, headtorch etc.

The race duration very much depends upon prevailing conditions and can vary from around 40 hours for the fast boats with good runners, up to 72 hours for the slower cruisers.

Matt and I travelled up to Troon by car then by train to Glasgow, where we met up with Paul, and on by train to Oban. Registration and race headquarters is at MacTavishes Kitchen on the promenade.

We check weather forecasts and the number of entries, 50, and decide on the approach to the Oban run. It is a tricky balance between maintaining a position fairly high up the field, to give an clean start for the sailing, and going off too fast in advance of the 23 miles that lie ahead on Mull.

The route is an attractive multi terrain course, which starts at the yacht club and leaves Oban southerly rising by road then over tracks and fields. A stiff but fairly short climb at the halfway point takes you on to the cliff tops and the route then undulates northwards through tussocky grass before descending down a wooded gorge to the coastal road and back to the yacht Club. We arrive back in just under 34 minutes.

Aidan was the unlucky sailor designated as the dingy rower throughout and he was waiting exactly where we had planned as we arrived back in around 15th position. Skilled sailing by Tony and Angus whipped us away quickly and we left the start in 5th place with the added benefit of clean winds.

Brisk south-easterlies meant that we arrived at Mull much more quickly than we had hoped. The sail was only 2 hours 50 minutes. 23 miles and 3,300 feet awaited.

The first 5 miles or so are on road from Salen to Knock and then around 2½ miles of track along Loch Ba to the first checkpoint. We counted the clips and we were 6th. The route then turns right up Glen Clachaig, which in its early stages is quite gradual but becomes boggier and then steeper. We traversed below A Chioch and onto the ridge up to the summit checkpoint. The views were magnificent in all directions although conditions were very windy.

The third checkpoint involves dropping off the summit northwards to a stream head, climbing back up over a crest and then a long traverse over rough and wet ground to the fourth checkpoint on the shoulder between A Chioch and Bienn Fhada. The decent from there back down the other side of Glen Clachaig is steep and then very tussocky making quick progress difficult. The final checkpoint is the same as the first after which you retrace your route back to Salen. By the time we arrived back it was no longer possible to assess positions but we thought that we had slipped two or three places on the mountain. Our time was 5.09.

Aidan was again waiting in the dingy and Tony was keen to make a flying pickup by sailing past as we rowed. Paul was able grab the boat but instead of pulling us alongside the force simply pulled him out of the dingy, to form a human bridge with his hands on the boat rail and his toes on the dingy! It all looked a bit too painful at the end of 23 miles but he managed to haul himself on board without getting too wet or injured and we were able to think about food and some recovery. Its 8.45pm and 28 miles and around 3,700 feet are behind us.

The sail to Jura was rough and fast. Because of the wind direction our tack changed frequently and we seemed to spend the whole journey at a 45 degree angle one way or the other. We managed some food but attempts to sleep were in vain. At one point Paul was hit in the stomach by a flying pressure cooker half full of pasta and that helped us appreciate the real and unforeseen dangers of the whole situation!! Angus, one of our sailors, is an anaesthetist but I didn’t think putting someone to sleep with a flying pressure cooker was a recognised technique. Perhaps a last-resort trick of the trade!

We arrived at Jura at 6.21am. Just over 9 hours of recovery time. We feared that it may not be enough. Conditions were appalling. Wind, rain and cloud cover at around 400 feet.

The first 1½ miles are on the coastal road and then about 3½ miles across rugged and rocky fell to the first Pap, Bienn Chaolais. The route takes the right ridge path where two or three other teams could be seen on the approach and lower slopes below the mist. We battled our way to the top where it was windier than the AGM of the Baked Beans Appreciation Society. For those who have been in the Scouts they will know that force 8 blows the clothes off the washing line and that force 9 blows away the washing line. This must have been a 10! We could barely stand up and descended as quickly as we could to the second checkpoint in the valley.

By now I was in the early stages of hypothermia and couldn’t stop shivering. The only kit items that I wasn’t wearing were my sleeping bag and survival bag and if I’d thought I could run in them I’d have worn them too. We concentrated on taking in food and fluids whilst we were at a lower level and then set off up Beinn an Oir, hoping that the extra effort of ascending would generate heat to take away the shivering.

This was the recurring theme for the remainder of the route. Rain blown in on driving winds through cloud. Paul’s navigation skills thankfully ensure that we stayed on the correct route. He’d done the Jura route twice before in darkness so 30 feet visibility in cloud was a luxury to him. As we descended Beinn Shiantaidh we finally warmed up a little as the remainder of the route was at lower level out of the cloud and the worst of the wind. The 3½ mile run back on the road lasted an eternity but Craighouse harbour was a welcoming sight after 6 hours 21 minutes of purgatory. Even the 45 degree existence on the boat seemed appealing after that!!

Of course our delight at seeing the boat was quickly dispelled by the reality of being on it. Within minutes we were bouncing along in seas as rough as before. Following the sheer depletion that our bodies had just endured it was too much to take. We had barely been on board five minutes before we were forced to partake in that notorious Scottish Island Peaks team bonding exercise of sharing an Asda carrier bag!! Fortunately Paul had brought his London Marathon space blanket, which we used to try to retain some of the tiny amount of body heat we could generate and try to start our recovery in advance of reaching Arran.

Paul couldn’t face food but managed to get some sleep. I realised that no matter how bad I felt I couldn’t attempt another long run without food and concentrated on eating first. I hoped that with food inside me I would have a better chance of warming up and sleeping. I managed to pull myself round and then got about 4 hours sleep and a couple more of rest. Paul similarly. This was all the more remarkable because we were rounding the Mull of Kintyre at this stage and the boat was having a rough time. At one stage we were leaning so much that the sail hit the water and almost pulled us over. Paul was hit by a second flying object, as a winch handle, weighing similar to a lump hammer, fell into the cabin onto his arm!

We made it to Lamlash on Arran at 06.21 on Sunday. We hoped that a sequence was not developing here. Arriving Jura at 06.21. The Jura run taking 6 hours 21 and now landing at Arran at 06.21. Surely not; this one is only 20 miles or so and should be no more than 5 hours even taking account of what has gone before.

We set off with cloud levels every bit as low as on Jura and wind almost as strong but at least it wasn’t raining. The first seven or eight miles are no harder than any training run we would do locally and by the time we reached the mountain approach there were signs of the clouds breaking up. It was almost pleasant, running along Brodick seafront at 7.15am.

The track up Goat Fell is well-defined and quite gradual. Even so there were only spasmodic bursts of running once the path started to climb. I was suffering from sore Achilles, a sore left knee and a sore right hip. Uphill actions seemed to aggravate all of them.

We reached the cloud cover about two-thirds of the way up and the chill started to bite. There is a checkpoint on the ridge below the summit to ensure no one uses the alternative scree path route. We couldn’t find it in the mist and quickly realised that several others were having similar problems. We decided to press on and find it on the descent.

The final stages steepen and the views from the top are wonderful. But not today. We could have been on any mountaintop anywhere. It was too cold to stand around to stare at mist and so we deposited our tag, took the obligatory summit photo, which will look just like all the others, and set off down to find the ridge checkpoint. It was easy to find on the descent and we could see why no one could find it on the way up; it was hidden on the up side behind a rock. They may as well have buried it. Once we had deposited our tag we were able to run once more and made our way back to Brodick and towards Lamlash.

We could sense that we were almost finished and its amazing how complacency can effect concentration. We had navigated the Paps of Jura in almost zero visability and we couldn’t even take the correct road junction from Brodick to Lamlash! All of a sudden the road ran out and we couldn’t understand why. A quick check of the map soon sorted the problem and we set off across a couple of fields to the correct road to avoid a mile and a half of retracing our steps. What a wonderful sight as we descended the fields toward Lamlash and saw the boats. So much so, that we almost forgot to leave our last tag at the final checkpoint on the road a mile from the end. Now that would have been a disaster. We finish in 4.54.

Altogether a total of 65 miles run and 11,900 feet of ascent in 45 hours. Now we could enjoy the sail back to Troon without having to prepare for another one.

But I’d forgotten about the sting in the tail. The race isn’t over until the team checks into the harbour office in Troon yacht club. One last row for Aidan, and then a sprint, (ha ha), along the pontoons for Paul and me to confirm our arrival.

Our total race time was 48 hours and 50 seconds. 15th overall and 9th in class. For such a small boat in such difficult conditions it was an admirable feat of sailing. Especially when we heard that at least two boats had been de-masted and several others had been forced out with various other problems.

I have concentrated more on the experiences of the race from the perspective of the running members of the team, as that was my direct experience. But it must be recognised that, in the conditions that we faced throughout that race, the sailors suffered every bit as much, or possibly even more than the runners. In calm seas they can alternate and get some rest. In rough seas like these they are all required at all times and spend the whole race on deck getting soaked by rain and sea and battered by the wind. Food is intermittent and most only manage an hour or two of sleep whilst they await the return of the runners from Jura and Arran. They certainly have my utmost respect and admiration.

Matt’s 24 feet boat had arrived about an hour before us, with the difference accounted for by the faster times of their runners. We took the chance to see what conditions were like inside a 24 footer compared to ours. What a difference 2 feet can make! We left feeling thankful for the luxury that we had experienced by comparison and humming “Rub a dub dub………”

David Armstrong

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