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From-Multihulls, Volume 10/Number 5

Adventure tinged with a little madness By Captain Mark J. Orr, RCT

One can only describe competitors in this race as adventurers tinged with a little madness. It is either light winds, in which case you row, or heavy winds, in which case you are constantly tired and wet. Why do people try each year to fill the ever-expanding entry list? Probably because this unique race, combining running, sailing and climbing is acquiring a magic of its own and a spirit amongst the competitors that is hard to find on any other offshore race course.

The race was the idea of soldier/sailor Major H. W. Tilman, an Everest mountaineer who believed that the best plans were those that could be written on the back of a matchbox. Major Tilman led many sailing and climbing expeditions, the most notable being his voyage to explore the ice glaciers from aboard a 50-year-old converted Bristol Channel pilot cutter. On his retirement to Barmouth, he evolved the idea of a combined sailing and climbing race which involves the climbing of the highest peaks in Wales, England and Scotland, and sail to ports to disembark runners to do this.

Hence there are stops at Caernarvon, Ravenglass and Fort William, after a start at the attractive North Wales town of Barmouth. His idea caught the imagination of the local community and the first race was held in 1975. Since then, this annual event has grown in size from the original entry of five boats, to 39 this year. With it has evolved the trappings of the offshore race circuit, sponsorship, publicity and technology.

The 1984 Three Peaks Yacht Race had a field of very different yachts, the smallest being a 25’ micro catamaran, the largest a 45’ trimaran. In between were a very mixed bag of monohulls and multihulls. On the monohull side: Beneteau, following their success in gaining second and third places last year with their 26’ First Class design, had sponsored two entries from the Royal Marines and the Belgian Marines. The five’ First Class’ entries dominated the field. Apart from the two Marines’ boats, the Light Infantry had a boat entered and seven RHA completed this merry foursome of service entries, with a civilian entry making up the fifth.

On the multihull side some of the entries looked very powerful: Memec and Chips, three time winner of the race, hoping for a fourth win, could not be underestimated nor, indeed, the Merseyside Police with their big trimaran Royal Insurance. The all woman crew with skipper Stephanie Merry, had an extremely fast and strong boat in Skandia Life that could take line honors, especially if the weather turned nasty. Triple Fantasy, an ex OSTAR entrant and known to be one of the fastest trimarans in the UK could, if sailed well, set new records for the race. Sanskara, a strange looking home built 40’tri, looked powerful and strong, and had a talented crew. Scorpion, a 25’catamaran built for this race and the Round Britain next year could, if the weather was light, be in the frame as well.

The monohull entries included a number of potential winners apart from the five First Classes. Scandecor certainly looked powerful and, for experience, you could not ignore James Thompson’s X95 with race founder Rob Hayworth on board. Merry Fiddler, a Sigma 33, looked as if it would give Innovation (an OOD 34) a good race, and the pair could finish high in the fleet.

One of the unique aspects of the race is the camaraderie between the competitors before and after the event. During the days of preparation, crews were all over Barmouth Harbor working on their boats, helping others, loaning tools, partying, training and having a good time together. The people of Barmouth, with the race as a tourist attraction, open their hearts to the competitors: nothing is too much. One of the local life boat men spent hours crafting two rowing positions for me for no charge. The shops bent over backward to help repair, service or provide equipment for the crews. The Last Inn and the Merioneth Yacht Club help foster the ‘spirit’ of the race with generous ’open’ hours and real sociability. In fact, the days before the race were nearly as arduous as the race itself.

On race day, the skippers gathered for the briefing and were told of the hazards of Ravenglass, and warned not to take any souvenirs from the radioactive contamination on the beach there. They were told of the ‘tricky’ Swellies and the Western Isles, to phone in if retiring, and were given the final starting instructions. At 1600 hours prompt, the local lifeboat led the 39 competitors out to the starting line while the trumpeters of the 2nd Light Infantry were sounding a fanfare across the Harbor that was carried by a freshening Force 5 with rain just pouring down.

Exactly the kind of conditions I didn’t want. The conditions were ideal for the monohulls and the larger multihulls. A low was crossing England, giving strong westerly becoming northwesterly winds. All the signs indicated there would be an increase in wind. The start went especially well for the multihulls, with Skandia Life leading the way. Scorpion, surprisingly, enjoyed the conditions leaping from wave to wave. However, as the wind increased the monos joined the multihulls.

On the first leg to Caernarvon, there are two tidal gates, Bardsey Island and the Menai Straits. These are the first places that start splitting the fleet. Those who make the tides, immediately gain an advantage which they can press home on the mountains. As the fleet approached Bardsey, the wind built to a steady Force 6, with a wind against the tide situation accentuating the size and steepness of the seas. The tide turned against us at 2230 hours in Bardsey Sound, the route most competitors took. The conditions were quite horrific for Scorpion, flying across waves at a steady 9.8 knots, crashing into breaking crests and, generally, going like a racehorse with the bit well and truly between her teeth.

This was where the first casualty, Dobbin, a 30’catamaran, lost her mast and retired back to Barmouth. Bardsey was a fight against tide, won by tacking up the steep cliffs of Bardsey Head and edging around the point to beat up the coast to Caernarvon. Fortunately, as dawn broke, the wind moderated to a pleasant Force 5, so we could enjoy the sail and get to the Menai Straits before 0500 hours. The beauty of the muItihuII is its shallow draft. Just as it looked like we would miss the tide, the bank which all monohulls had to beat around, proved our saviour. Drawing only 18 inches, Scorpion flew across this bank that shallows to 3 feet at one nerve-wracking section.

Thus we made up four places in the fleet, cheated the tide and were able to beat up the Strait in a dying wind. We dropped off our runners at the fuel jetty at 0522, a total sail of 11 hours and 52 minutes to cover some 60 miles. It was with some surprise that we found we were lying 13th, and only a half-hour behind First Class Marines. Despite the atrocious conditions with strong winds on the nose, the first boats in were multihulls with the women leading the way in Skandia Life, in the time of 9 hours, 38 minutes. As the runners started the 24 mile climb up Snowdon, the salt stained sailors reflected on a very hard and demanding first leg, that had tested boats and crews. Most boats had some damage to repair. On Scorpion it was tightening the rudder head mounting bolts, the rigging and checking over the sails. Then came a good wash and rest.

The runners faced a demanding time, it was quite blustery at the top and, typically, wet! Despite having been cooped up on the boat for nearly 12 hours, they produced the creditable time of 4 hours and 34 minutes, averaging 51/2 miles an hour. When Cpl. Hill and Cpl. Iddon returned to the boat, they hardly seemed tired.

The Menai Straits divide Anglesey from mainland Wales. It is a fearsome stretch of narrow and, in places, shallow water requires careful navigation and precise timing. The Swellies, some 5 n.m. north of Caernarvon, are the most critical point. These rocks have claimed many a yacht as the tides flow through there at up to 8 knots, and have been described as taking a yacht through a whitewater slalom course. To attempt passage at the wrong time is a great risk. At the proper time, a two-hour period on each tide, they present few problems. As the runners returned to their respective boats, the flood tide was rushing in. The skippers whose runners returned early had all decided to take the longer route, around Anglesey, as opposed to going through the Swellies, which would mean waiting for the tide.

When Scorpion's runners came back, the three First Classes had already started up the Straits. We made ready to go as soon as the tide was weak enough for us to be able to row up the shore, as we were having outboard motor problems. This would save us time sailing up the Swellies in the dying wind. Approaching the Swellies we learned that we were one hour behind the Marines and two other First Classes. Much cheered by this and the breath of wind, we sailed under spinnaker up the Straits, dropping it to row through the Swellies.

As we cleared the Straits, we started a fine reach to Ravenglass in a northwesterly Force 4. To say that we roared along would be an understatement. Speeds of 14 knots were not unusual. Despite a lumpy sea, we raced along never lifting a hull in the steadily increasing wind. It was the sail of a lifetime, multihull sailing at its best. At an average speed of 11 knots, it was not long before we started catching the monohulls. We sailed past Lakeland Seventh and had the Belgian Marines in sight. They were flying their spinnaker beautifully, in very difficult conditions. As we passed her we could make out First Class Marines several miles ahead.

In the dying light we passed the Selker Light buoy, seven miles from Ravenglass, realizing that we had a chance of setting a new record for the leg. On the way in we overtook the Marines, now beating, having gone too far south of the rhumb line. Andy Stevenson, our navigator, had got it just right. With the wind increasing again, we apprehensively approached Ravenglass.

This is not an easy harbor to approach, the local pilot warns against entry at night or in westerly winds, both of which we were doing. It is unlit, and in the pitch darkness of an overcast moonless night we made our approach. We could make out the surf line and sat off until we could make out the spit of land we had to head for to make our 90degree turn to port, which would see us safely in the main channel.

Having done our educated guesswork, I shall not forget saying to Andy "are you sure this is Ravenglass?" and we went for it. The surf, though interesting, was not too bad, it was of fairly even frequency so the helmsman had a chance to regain control before being swept along again. Just as we thought we had made it, we felt the sand slow the hull and we came to a stop. Over the side we went and pushed the boat clear. Scorpion being so light, pushed off easily. We had missed the channel by about l0 feet. Once in it, we motored into the harbor to find we were the first in.

Behind us could be seen a group of three tricolor lights, getting ready to make their approach. We went to the press tent and confirmed we had broken the old record by one and one half-hours with our time of 14 hours and 5 minutes. By the time we had dropped off our runners, the wind had reached Force 6 and the seas on the sandbar were building. The tide in the estuary was also falling, making the bar more treacherous and entry virtually impossible. Only three boats got in with us, Sanskara, which had struck the bank but managed to get off; First Class Marines used a large search light and got in without too much trouble; and Merry Fiddler, the Sigma.

So, while we four groups thanked our luck to have gained a critical advantage the rest of the fleet faced a night of woe, as they became witnesses to several accidents. Ares had misjudged her approach and went aground in heavy surf on the north side of the channel. Skandia Life was misled by a green light on the shore, and went too close to the south bank, also going aground. She was being battered badly in the surf and, despite the womens' sterling efforts of laying kedge anchors, she could not get off. Once the tide had fallen, they put out another anchor but not far enough out to get them off. They managed to get out on the next tide. Triple Fantasy also had difficulty getting in, and in anchoring offshore to await favourable conditions, Derek Connors trapped his thumb and it was severed above the top joint. He was taken off to hospital, and they retired. To this tale of woe can be added that several boats went aground and that each crew had their own battle to fight in what became Force 9 conditions.

On the mountain conditions were terrible. The Scafell Pike climb is the longest of the three. It is the most unpopular with the climbers and the conditions this year made it treacherous. Strong winds, misting driving rain and virtually no visibility near the summit drained the runners and made them draw on their reserve energies. Scorpion's runners were making good time to the summit, took their map out to check their route in the mist and had it blown out of their hands. They had to retrace their route to the bottom and start up again. By the time they returned to the boat they been gone 9 hours and 24 minutes. In spite of the weather, the Marines produced the excellent time of 6 hours, 15 minutes for the 32 miles. The leading runners had run over 65 miles in 24 hours.

On Monday morning, as the other boats were arriving in Ravenglass on the new tide, the leaders were preparing to leave. The wind was ferocious, causing Scorpion to drag her 20lb. COR. The surf on the bar was enormous. Sanskara decided to follow First Class Marines out through the surf.We decided to stay, we were still repairing damage and had just fitted a new rudder. The crewmen were tired and the fear of sustaining further damage, by crashing through the surf again, kept us in Ravenglass waiting for the next tide.

It was this decision that was to cost us our place among the first ten. Out at sea, a real battle developed between Sanskara and the Marines, with each going well. Once the tide turned, boats prepared to leave Ravenglass and there was a race within the race, among this second part of the fleet. The conditions still represented a hard beat up to the Mull of Galloway. We made several mistakes on this leg, the first was to go too far across to Ireland and then get caught against the tide of the Mull.

For all boats this leg was a battle against exhaustion, with very tired crews trying to get the best out of their boats, and to be cautious with their navigation and seamanship. The next day was one of very mixed winds, one moment a full sail, the next to number 2 genoa and 2 reefs. At one stage it was the storm jib alone. A very frustrating day. However slow our progress northward, it was with relief that we rounded the Mull of Kintyre at 1200 hours and entered the Western Isles, although in the wind and rain they did not look their best. Once around the Mull, we could bear away and start going like a train what the boat was best at.

We made good progress up the Kintyre Peninsula and had soon passed the Gulf of Corryvrechan, into Luing Sound and, thence, the Sound of Jura. We passed through the very short darkness, making good headway past Kerrara and passed Lismore. The warmth of the morning was welcome to a very tired crew who seemed to be living on a diet of Complan and HiVit drinks. Once past Lismore Island, we had the Corran Narrows in sight. As if to spite us, the wind started to die and we had counted on it to see us through before the change of tide. Instead we ended up rowing for two hours. We had a good lightwind duel with the X95 Lowe Contour through the Narrows, but she managed to pull away from us. Once through, we had fairly good wind down to the finish at Corpach Loch, at the beginning of the Caledonian Canal. As if to give us the final kick in the teeth, the outboard decided not to start, so we had to sail up to the jetty against the tide, in order to drop off our runners.

Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom, is the runner's favorite. Since it is straight up, there is no long approach as at Scafell and Snowdon. The 17 and a half-mile run took our runners 41/2 hours, a fairly slow run for them which reflected the drain of energy suffered during the race. However, due to their efforts they maintained our 20th position overall. By the time they finished, we had moved Scorpion into the upper lock, where the rest of the competitors had moored to find that the Marines already had their boat on the trailer.

The overall winner was Sanskara, 2 hours and 29 minutes in front of the Marines; Merry Fiddler was third. Scorpion finished 20th, some 34 hours behind the leaders. Nonetheless, we felt to have finished at all was quite an achievement.

The Three Peaks Race is a classic, it is so demanding on both boat and crew. If the weather is light, your row if it's heavy, you race for days in testy conditions where navigation is crucial. But, the race is fun! It is very satisfying, and the joy of sharing the experience with the other competitors is unforgettable.

Will Scorpion be back for it next year? Yes, if I can get a sponsor I shall have a bigger boat, if not, I shall use my 25foot catamaran. Is a multihull the right boat for the race? Any boat that has a lifting keel, or shallow draft, is the right boat. It depends on the weather, and it takes a brave man to predict that!