After a very memorable ‘blind first date’ teaming up with the hugely experienced skipper and crew of Swansea based yacht Aurora for the 2019 edition of the Scottish Islands Peaks race, hill runners Alastair Pringle and Bill Breckenridge dusted down their sea legs for a second time to take on another similarly unorthodox adventure race.
The 43rd edition of the 3 Peaks Yacht Race (Three peaks | Barmouth to Fort William Three Peaks Yacht Race | Wales) started its voyage in the picturesque seaside town of Barmouth in Wales. The concept is simple…teams of 3 sailors and 2 runners then sail to Fort William depositing their runners along the route at predefined locations to run up the highest peaks of Wales, England & Scotland. The boats are graded according to speed and time-handicapped accordingly.
After a fan fare start on Saturday afternoon ( 19th July) the 16 boats had a relatively short sail up the coast to Caernarfon depositing their runners ashore to scale Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales, by Sunday morning. Most of this 40k route is on road and pavement, not the natural habitat for a hill runner and its safe to say it wasn’t their finest hour!
No time for wallowing though as wind (or lack of it!!) and tides are the main opponents in this race with the running component dwarfed by the challenge of sailing (and potentially rowing!) non-stop for almost 400 miles. That said the 3 excursions on land are not insignificant with a total of 90k running, 70k cycling and 5000m of climb over 3-4 days.
Near perfect conditions greeted the runners on their return to the boat in Caernarfon on Sunday afternoon with a stiff head wind making for an action-packed sail through the Menai Straights as Aurora skipper Oscar Chess and crew David Charles and Will Harrison went head-to-head with ‘Wild Spirit’ in one of the narrowest and shallowest channels of water in the British Isles! It was a true test of nerve and skill and despite sailing an older and slower boat Aurora overtook its nearest rival to arrive in the Irish Sea first.
It was another sleepless night for the sailors before Aurora arrived at Whitehaven at 8.30 am on Monday to be greeted by support team Gordon Allen with bikes at the ready. The highest peak in England, Scafell Pike, is situated in the Lake district so runners are allowed to cycle the first 35k before starting the 20k running section. Spirits were high as the runners returned 6.5 hours later after some solid running and, unlike many other teams, a puncture-free cycle.
While the runners could relax a bit knowing that it might be 48 hours before they were required to run again the sailors were faced with their longest sailing leg. At this point Aurora was positioned well, lying in 5th position on the water but crucially 1st position under handicap. Our good fortune, like the wind, was about to run out though! With tide against us and wind all but disappeared Aurora was forced to row into shallower water off the Mull of Kintyre before setting anchor and waiting impatiently for conditions to change. 6 hours passed before a light wind had returned and sails could be hoisted. Unfortunately, we had dropped a few places and the next 24 hours were spent frustrated by a lack of wind and challenging tides. However, we were not the only ones suffering with several boats further back in the fleet having to retire altogether.
Multi day racing of any sort seems a bit like a parallel universe where the normal passage of time becomes a little unhinged as one day merges into the next. It felt like we had just left mid Wales and yet it was now Wednesday afternoon as we approached Fort William. The 4 days had passed in a flash and even though we still had to run almost 30k up and down Ben Nevis a feeling of disappointment that the adventure was almost over was tangible.
It was just after 6.30pm before we hit dry land at Corpach, the cloud at sea level but warm and sticky…a typical summers evening in Lochaber! Finally, the sailors could relax and break open a few beers while they waited for the runners to fulfil the final part of the deal. By this point the hill seemed to be swaying more than the boat but less than 4 hours later it was all over with a rapturous team, support crew and local midge population assembled at the finish line to celebrate an amazing adventure.
A huge thankyou must be given to the race organisers for having the courage to stage the event despite the ongoing Covid restrictions and an even bigger thankyou to everyone who donated to our Just Giving page raising funds for Multiple Sclerosis. Over £2300 and counting…you can still donate here
Report by Bill Breckenridge
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