Five Men in a Boat
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Five Men in a Boat

Five Men in a Boat

In his next Great British Adventure, Pete Woodward races up the west coast of the UK in the legendary Three Peaks Yacht Race.

Adventure racing is experiencing a boom with mud races, ultra-running, triathlon and a whole host of multisport events being held in our national parks and beauty spots. Behind the noisy clamour announcing the many exciting newcomers is a less well known classic multiday challenge from 1977 that remains one of the best. The Three Peaks Yacht Race speeds through some of the most beautiful and challenging of British environments. This incredible race sees teams of up to five sailing from Barmouth, in mid-Wales, to Fort William, in Scotland, interspersed with land legs visiting the tops of the highest peaks in Wales, England and Scotland. The race is continuous and teams of two runners hop off the boat at the nearest coastal access points to the mountains, before running and cycling to the mountaintops and back. Billed as one of the oldest and most remarkable endurance races in the world, it is difficult to disagree. The route takes in some of the most treacherous waters around our coast, with a long list of infamous whirlpools, eddies and sandbars littering the route.

Tales of beached yachts were rife in the Barmouth Yacht Club bar on the night before the race. A tough group of skippers have the event in their blood and have competed against each other over many years. Most of them have had brushes with disaster and are delighted to elaborate over a pint. The runs are no less treacherous, with their long distances on our highest mountains in all conditions, often in the middle of the night.

The history of the race is woven with sporting legends; sailing royalty such as Robin Knox-Johnston, visiting international skippers and tough veteran sailors such as multiple winner Geoff West. Fell-running legends include Helen Diamantides (previous record holder for the Everest base camp to Kathmandu route), Joss Naylor and more recently the multiple winner of the Spine Race, Pavel Paloncy.

The race was conceived by Rob Haworth of Barmouth, who was the doctor of H.W. (Bill) Tillman, an explorer, climber and sailor from the town. Rob had spent many hours talking to Tillman about his adventures and the idea was conceived as a holiday to do a ‘mini Tillman’. The idea to turn it into a race came from Rob’s partner, Dr Merfyn Jones. When Rob described his idea on a winter’s evening in 1976, Merfyn heard him out before responding, ‘Wouldn’t it make a marvellous race?’ The race grew from that night, with the local community becoming involved and Tillman himself invited to be president. It has grown since, with the maximum number of teams now being limited to 35, because of space restrictions at the harbours. Tillman was unfortunately lost on an expedition to the Southern Ocean in 1977 at the age of 80.

With a race so challenging and rich in history, it took very little time for me to decide when the opportunity arose to race in Geoff West’s ‘Wight Rose’ team, running alongside Pavel Paloncy. The team had a multitude of previous accolades from the race; Geoff has won it outright four times, twice with Pavel. Jon, an experienced skipper in his seventies, has completed it many times on his own boat, while Phil, another experienced sailor, has won it before with Geoff. Unsurprisingly, we were race number 1; no pressure! Should we not be successful there was no question about where the weak link would be. As a result, I had raced hard all winter, painfully building running speed and endurance and relearning how to avoid seasickness the hard way, in a series of snatched sailing opportunities. As the days grew longer and the time came, I rattled through the Welsh countryside on a slow train under a damp grey sky.

I rolled into Barmouth on the mountain bike that I would need for the race in the Lake District, pulling a bulging suitcase along with me. Geoff’s yacht, the 38ft Lightning Reflex, was moored directly in front of the Merioneth yacht club in Barmouth. I lowered the bike onto the deck and stowed my kit amongst the debris of the delivery voyage from the Isle of Wight. Bean cans, sleeping bags and empty bottles of wine were strewn around the cabin of what Geoff fondly refers to as his ‘Racing Wreck’. With no sign of life aboard, I was fairly certain that I would locate the crew in the yacht club bar and set off in that direction, whilst having a quick glance at my phone.

Our race slowly unravelled from that point. Pavel, who had messaged earlier in the day to say he wasn’t feeling quite right but was on his way from Prague, had collapsed on the way to the airport. Rather than being on the last leg of his journey through Wales, he was recovering in a hospital bed on the other side of Europe. Pavel is not known as the ‘Beast from the East’ in running circles for nothing and he immediately started explaining how there was a flight in the morning and that it was still theoretically possible to make it to the start line on Saturday evening. As much as we wanted to race with Pavel, going from a hospital bed one night to a racing yacht bound for the trails of Snowdonia the next clearly isn’t the brightest of ideas and sense prevailed. A glum Friday evening in the pub followed, with many running friends providing the obvious response to being asked to take a week off work with no notice. Just as we thought that we would be watching the fleet disappear from Barmouth, Geoff had a phone call from Andy Sanderson, a local runner with whom he had previously won the race about ten years previously. The jungle drums had been answered and we were back in the race!

After an afternoon of getting shipshape, we motored below the harbour arm and hoisted the sail in the freshening evening breeze. The first leg is the sail from Barmouth, around the Llyn peninsula to Caernarfon for the 26-mile return run to the top of Snowdon. With the Barmouth lifeboat escorting the fleet, we started well and raced into second place towards the Bardsey Sound. Night fell and we passed within touching distance of the steep cliffs to the north of the sound before hoisting the spinnaker and racing hard under a bright moon. Andy and I got some sleep and woke early on the Sunday morning with the team approaching Caernarfon. A small fleet of boats had grouped as we all waited for the tide to give us the depth to cross the infamous Caernarfon bar.

Andy had had a rough night. He had started to feel a bit queasy as we had turned in, he had been seasick for most of the night and looked pale and tired. After a scramble off the boat and up a rusty ladder at the end of a jetty in Caernarfon, we set off in the early morning light along the quiet roads of North Wales. Andy was running well despite lack of sleep, and we passed a couple of teams who had reached the jetty ahead of us. The Snowdon Ranger path was quiet this early and we had the northern side of the mountain to ourselves apart from the distant figures of the Belgian team, Denebola Adventures, ahead of us. We climbed steadily along the rocky trail and reached the summit at the same time as Denebola, taking our summit photo together before we set off for a hard downhill run to the road. We made good time and raced back onto the jetty with a respectable running leg time, before scrambling back onto the boat.

The sailing leg to Whitehaven in the Lake District is dominated by a decision to be made on the way out of Caernarfon; whether to turn left and sail around the outside of Anglesey, longer but less treacherous, or head right for the infamous Menai Straits and the Swellies. Our sailors were raring to go after a rest and some breakfast and there was no debate; we headed for the Swellies, known well to Geoff as the place he was beached in 2017.

With our predicted arrival in Whitehaven around 1 a.m. and the wind picking up and making a lumpy crossing of the Irish Sea likely, Andy and I headed downstairs immediately to get our kit sorted before we entered the eddies and back currents of the Menai Straits. The mood on board was light and positive; we were placed well and the sailors were confident that, with help from a few of their nuggets of local sailing information, we were looking good overall. Andy still looked pale but having run well, was looking forward to some rest to recover from his night long ordeal. With our kit packed, I refreshed my memory of the route up Scafell Pike whilst Andy nipped to the loo. He emerged looking white and shocked, reporting so much blood in his urine that it was almost pure blood.

Within an hour, we were sat in Bangor Hospital waitingroom, race over, worrying about Andy’s health. Fortunately, after being kept in overnight and given a warning to take it easy for a few weeks, he was released feeling much better. As was Pavel in Prague: both are back in tip-top form.

In the chaos of getting Andy to hospital, the team had dropped us off at a shallow jetty but had to immediately retreat back to sea to avoid getting stuck with the falling tide. Jon’s wife rushed Andy and I to the hospital in their campervan. We self-consciously sat in the waitingroom with the fumes of our running kit earning us plenty of extra space. Andy’s wife arrived a little while later and revealed that this was not the first time that she had had to retrieve him from Bangor Hospital after a race. He clearly has form! With Andy in hospital and the boat stuck at sea, Jon’s wife and I spent a long wet Sunday afternoon sat in the van overlooking Caernarfon harbour and watching the competition slowly disappear over the horizon. Later that evening, we reflected with a beer on an eventful and enjoyable, if not entirely successful, weekend.

The race carried on over the Irish Sea to the Lake District without us, with boats assisted by strong following winds and stormy conditions through the night. After running 26 miles up Snowdon and back, the runners were back in action again within fifteen hours, cycling to Black Sail hut and then running to the top of Scafell Pike and back, mostly in the pitch dark. The route of the longest sailing leg then wove past the Mull of Kintyre, through the Gulf of Corryvreckan and the islands of western Scotland before finishing at Corpach for the eighteen-mile run to the top of Ben Nevis and back; an incredible adventure. After a close race, the overall winners were the Peaky Blinders in a fast time of three days, six hours and 50 minutes.

As we sipped our beers that night in Wales, we all vowed that, with unfinished business, we’ll be back in the future.

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