Dee Caffari and Pip Hare recount their different experiences on one of the world's greatest endurance races, the Three Peaks Yacht Race.
We had got away from Barmouth well in the light and fickle winds and were leading the Three Peaks Yacht Race fleet. I had a smile on my face. Our navigator, Libby Greenhalgh – we raced together in the Volvo Ocean Race aboard Team SCA – knew where she wanted to position us. Our first obstacle was a reef that had only a couple of gaps where we could pass through. In theory, at this state of the tide we should be able to pass over the top, but it was a high risk strategy.
We saw the girls on Team Aparito tack behind us. We checked the chart. On the AIS we could see they had missed the gap. Another gain to us.
The Officer Training Corps students from Southampton gained inside us and we were no longer in the lead. The chase was on. There had been bar talk before we left about sailing inside the island Carreg Ddu, but we were in good pressure. The students stayed close to shore, we stayed offshore and when later we looked over our shoulders we saw the entire fleet skimming the rocks and beaches. Our hearts sank. It was our first rookie mistake.
Rethinking my racing
This race is not, as we realised, about good pressure and sailing distances; this race is about local knowledge, experience and squeezing out the smallest of gains whenever possible.
This race is one of the most interesting and challenging a sailor can do. It takes crews from Barmouth to Fort William to scale Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis, the highest mountains of Wales, England and Scotland. The course has huge tidal flows so escaping the worst of them will always pay. We realised then this was a long race.
The Three Peaks Yacht Race had been on my bucket list for a long time. I found myself ticking it off this year to help out as patron of Sail 4 Cancer. I jumped at the opportunity and started to organise a team to take it on.
The course is around a part of the coast that I have not sailed before. It is a complex area with strong tides and many shallows and hazards. It is not for the faint-hearted and so my first priority was to get a sailor/navigator on board who I trusted and would be up for the challenge. Libby Greenhalgh agreed to join the team.
I now needed some mountain goats to tackle the three highest peaks. Traharn Chidley is an endurance athlete with a very emotional backstory. She has used sport, predominantly mountain biking and fell running, to get her life back and overcome the trauma of domestic abuse. She was up for tackling Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis.
Matthew Hinge came to the team with a charitable grant from the Rothschild Foundation. He wanted to take on a challenge well beyond anything he had done before. He was running Snowdon and then would join Libby and me sailing the boat. Finally, Rob Barnes, an ultra-runner, was happy to lead the team during the mountain stages.
Sailing instructions (or lack thereof)
We arrived into what felt like a time warp. Barmouth is a beautiful village on the Welsh coast, but I had to rethink everything I knew about yacht racing. There were no Sailing Instructions or Notice of Race to speak of. Instead we had some guidelines and rules for the transitions of sailing to running/cycling. There was no time check and no communications on a specified VHF channel. We started the race with flares being fired from the start boat in extremely light conditions.
The unusual and often difficult aspect of this event is that you can move your boat by the act of rowing. I often found myself working really hard to get the boat sailing in light conditions, only to look over and see another boat rowing along at pace. I would then kick myself as I had forgotten this – rowing was not really on my radar. But then the Three Peaks is so much more than a sailing race.
At that first headland I made my first major error. We watched the entire fleet skirt the coastline riding a back-eddy, flying past us on the inside. We were sailing, but against a really strong foul tide. On our final approach to Caernarfon Bar we were able to make up some ground before dropping our runners off to summit Snowdon.
This is the start of the Menai Strait. It is hazardous. You have a ripping tide to deal with while you drop your runners on a slippery platform, then you anchor and the sailors try to rest. With a call 30 minutes before the runners return, you weigh anchor and get ready for the pick-up. Some boats dragged their anchors and became entangled, meaning their rest time was massively reduced.
The choice now is yours. You can sail round Anglesey or you can brave the narrow Menai Strait. The notes say that no one has ever gained from sailing round the outside so on you go to take on the Strait, with its shallows and the notoriously tidal area named The Swellies. The fleet had not gone far as the tide was against us as we collected our runners. Rowing was the only means of maintaining any forward momentum.
We tried rowing and sailing when possible, tacking our way along the Menai Strait. A boat close by just rowed in a straight line and achieved the same gains as us. Those who had done this before were to be seen anchored enjoying breakfast before weighing anchor at the tide change and then rowing past us with the current at a rate of knots.
This section is wonderfully scenic, but also very technical. Time and time again I said to Libby how relieved I was to be doing this in daylight in light winds. I was actually happy to be rowing the 13 miles out of the Strait.
We left Puffin Island to starboard and found some breeze and started sailing again. This was definitely our strength. We sailed through the fleet until yet again we made a rookie mistake. Sailing around the gas rigs and wind farms in this area we found we could make a direct course at speed to Whitehaven. So why were the others still heading offshore?
We closed the headland to the south, got a massive header and suddenly the wind shut down. Oars were yet again deployed. As we closed the headland we saw the rest of the fleet sailing towards Whitehaven and coming in ahead of us. Everyone was affected by the shutdown, but they seemed to be able to hold the wind for a little longer.
Now we were rowing against the clock. If we didn’t make Whitehaven in time, we would have to wait for enough tide to lock in and drop off our runners. Tidal range alone gave those ahead of us a huge advantage, nothing to do with sailing or running. I was beyond frustrated at this point.
The bottom on the approach to Whitehaven sea lock is sand and many talked of ploughing a furrow to the lock and, by doing so, getting in earlier. When you charter a boat it is not a nice feeling bumping along the bottom, no matter what you have been told.
Once in, runners are dropped off. They cycle 18 miles, lock the bikes, then run as fast as they can to the summit of Scafell Pike before descending as quickly as their legs can carry them. Collect bikes and return. In total, this is around 54 miles. The time they take allows the sailing crew to shower, eat and rest before the final and longest leg to Fort William. A recovery from the 26 miles we’d rowed from the last leg was needed at this stage.
A time reference for your runners is essential here. If they are not going to make the tide then they can relax and take it a little easier on the way down. With a draught of 2.3m, we were caught once again waiting for the tide. As one of the last boats to leave Whitehaven we had ground to make up. Those ahead had an advantage, but we were leaving with breeze and I knew I could make up the miles.
With the spinnaker hoisted we sailed the 40 miles to the headland at speed. After just five hours we had passed three boats and the next two were in our sights. Spinnaker down and the start of a long stretch upwind. There were 130 miles to go. On the penultimate night we sailed between Ireland and Scotland with a beautiful sunset at about 2230. It was flat water and we were sailing direct to the Mull of Kintyre. This was the last rest the sailors got.
As the channels between the islands grew smaller we were sailing upwind, tacking against the strong currents. The wind increased until we had a small No 3 jib and a reef in the mainsail. The wind comes at you with a katabatic force, but we were into a routine and were determined. By this stage we could see the boat ahead, which had departed Whitehaven five hours before us. Now they were only about 45 minutes ahead and we were gaining.
Our poor runners were just surviving. They rolled from the side of the hull to the leecloth with each tack, trying to sleep or just rest. They were all looking a little green around the gills. It was not the greatest preparation for the mountain run ahead. They were not eating enough and not drinking enough. Anything to avoid the need to go to the toilet or move unnecessarily around the boat.
With a wind speed of 40 knots and strong tide the final few miles were tough. Loch Linnhe was brutal, but not as bad as the narrow entrance at Clovullin. We made 71 tacks in 16 hours and were relieved to reach Fort William.
Now there was only the ascent of Ben Nevis to go. Their sea legs made the runners feel wobbly, a sensation that had not disappeared by the following day and a night’s sleep in a real bed. This led to a few falls during the descent, but a 4h 11m mountain stage allowed us to enjoy our final and best leg of the race, finishing in 3rd place.
We got 4th place overall in the race. With our rookie mistakes and a disastrous dead time owing to the tide in Whitehaven it was very acceptable. But being the racer I am, I already know how we could have done better.
So will I be back? Well this event is ever so slightly addictive, so I will have to return to get it right.
If this has whetted your appetite to enter next year for the 40th anniversary event starting on 17 June, then my words of advice are: pick a boat with the right draught, the right IRC handicap, make sure you can row effectively and efficiently, and do your pilotage well in advance.
Then go out and have the best race of your life; it will be unlike any you have done before.
About the Three Peaks Yacht Race
Celebrating 39 years this year, the Three Peaks Yacht Race is ranked among the ten most difficult endurance races in the world, alongside the Marathon des Sables and the New Zealand Coast to Coast.
It involves teams of five sailing from Barmouth to Caernarfon in Wales, where two of the team must run to the top of Snowdon and back. The team must then sail to Whitehaven in Cumbria, where again two of the team must cycle and run to the summit of Scafell Pike. Finally, the teams sail to Fort William in Scotland where the final challenge is to run to the top of Ben Nevis and back.
In total the team must sail 389 miles, climb 11,176ft, run 72 miles and cycle 26 miles. It is not an event to be underestimated and next year will be the 40th anniversary. www.threepeaksyachtrace.co.uk
Our runners returned from Scafell exhausted after 9.5 hours of cycling and running. Team Aparito was lying in 4th place and we needed to do something big to overtake three boats that had already left Whitehaven and give our runners the two-hour head start they needed by Ben Nevis.
By the Mull of Galloway we were under spinnaker, runners tucked up below recovering and the three sailors trimming the boat as hard as we could. We had overtaken two boats and could see the outline of the leader in the moonlight. Gaining on them fast, we decided to pass inshore, right under the cliffs of the Mull. There was palpable tension as we scraped our way along the shore. Gusts were rolling down the cliffs, heeling the boat and rounding us up. We worked intensely.
The strategy paid off and with the sunrise we were leading the fleet. Then all our efforts vaporised as the wind disappeared and our rivals on Pure Attitude sailed effortlessly up behind.
We scrambled into our rowing seats, choking on the disappointment that such hard work could be so cruelly undone. For the next couple of hours we ghosted between wind holes – rowing to the next set of ripples, then letting the sails take the strain before the wind ran out.
We were all starting to suffer. I had blisters on my palms from the rough wooden oars, Nikki and Elin’s backs were hurting, none of us had slept, but we rowed through the pain determined to keep our lead.
When the new breeze arrived the tide was against us and yet again it was time to fight for every metre, short tacking up the shoreline, sometimes going about only a few metres from the shore. We made close to 100 tacks that afternoon.
Through the evening the wind increased and we beat our way north in lumpy seas. By now we had gained a decent lead. As we crossed the sailing finish line our hearts were in our mouths. As our runners, Jo and Lowri, set off, the summit was no longer visible; it was raining and the wind was building. We sailors waited at the pontoon, agitated and powerless. But At 1049 Jo and Lowri ran over the finish line and Team Aparito had won line honours for Leg 3. Our overall place on handicap would be 2nd overall with Pure Attitude taking 1st.
This race was a feat of incredible endurance from beginning to end: sailing, rowing, running, cycling, navigating, weather routeing and strategy are mixed with sleep deprivation. We also fielded a team of talented and determined athletes who all just happened to be women. We raced on equal terms and loved every minute.
Apart from Pip, Team Aparito included solo sailor Nikki Curwen, ocean rower and adventurer Elin Haf Davies, ultra-marathon runner Lowri Morgan and rower, runner and Ironman contestant Jo Jackson.