Scottish Island Peaks Race

May 2019

When I took over as Chairman one area that I was keen to engage with the OS community on was encouraging our members to take on ‘Challenges’. I was therefore delighted to be invited to race in the Scottish Islands Peaks Race with an old friend from my year at Stowe (2001).

Stepping off the train at Oban, a small, slight figure appeared with a wide grin, balding head and scraggy goatie. Roderick ‘Roddy’ Mclauchlan (Temple 01), our skipper for the forthcoming race, hadn’t changed since I’d seen him 18 years ago, running the bar at a charity ball which doubled up as my 18th birthday party. That said, it quickly felt as though I’d seen him yesterday and, thankfully, that continued throughout what was to be quite a test of an old friendship over the coming week.

The Scottish Islands Peaks Race (SIPR or Peaks Race) is run every year in mid-May out of Oban on the west coast of Scotland. It involves a combination of sailing and running around some of the famous islands and their respective Munros. It wasn’t an area I had been to in some thirty plus years having spent a couple of weeks dodging ticks and searching for Nessie on a family caravaning holiday when I was about 8 years old. This time, I had flown up to Glasgow with the first of our runners, Max Wilcocks. An Old Stoic of sorts, he had attended Stowe for a year before heading off to spread his sporting wings at another place called Wellington and had subsequently gone on to play professional rugby for Harlequins before taking early retirement through injury. He has now made a career out of running, social media and film, much of which he does himself whilst running in long-distance and extreme running races all over the world. Max was one of two runners, with Roddy and I joining a third as the sailing crew.

Having given myself the job title ‘head kitchen wench’ for the trip, and ordered as much peanut butter and pasta as we could fit in the small galley kitchen as possible, I was pretty miffed when our second runner turned up laden with as much food as he could carry to add to the food shop. We really didn’t have room for it and a lot of it required fridge space which we didn’t have. James was ex-military with a dodgy knee who had re-trained as a doctor and had no intention of going hungry. Food-gate aside he was the steady-Eddie of the team with a gentle sense of humour and a diesel engine that wasn’t going to run out of fuel any time soon.

Then there was our old sea dog Joey who had been drafted in at the last minute to provide some SIPR experience having completed the race so many times he was unable to remember his tally of race participations, let alone completions. Fitted with a catheter and the ability to survive on about 2 hours sleep a night, Joey also had a strong stomach and extensive knowledge of the Western Isles having sailed his own boats around the area for over 30 years.

The boat, recently re-rigged and polished to within an inch of her life by Roddy, was aptly named ‘Stoic’. A racy Salona 34 with a huge bulb on the bottom of her keel which was painted bright orange, this was her first real endurance race.

The Peaks race started with a 10km ‘warm up’ in Oban, a frantic and sometimes wayward row out to the sailing boats and then a sail up the Sound of Mull to drop the runners off at Salen before a 23 mile run up Ben More on Mull. The sailors sat and watched the wind drop to nothing whilst I cooked up the first of many carb-fuelled meals for the runner’s return, enjoying a beautiful sunset over Loch Arran and the Sound of Mull looking up to Tobermory. As we lost the last of the light around 11pm, news of Max and James’ return came in via Instagram – Max’s social media obsession taking precedent over any direct communication with his crew – and we prepared to set sail so as to ensure we didn’t have the engine on as the runners came aboard. Once aboard the crew then dealt with the lack of wind available for the following hour or so. Roddy and I took turns to row in the dinghy, strapped on to the back of Stoic. Whilst this may have seemed futile, it gave us about a knot (1 nautical mile an hour) of speed and meant that we could attempt to keep up with those boats who had gone to more extreme lengths to counter any lack of wind which they may experience during the race.

That said, by midnight the wind had soon picked up and Roddy was packed off for his 3 hour sleep whilst Joey and I enjoyed our watch racing down the Sound of Mull into squally showers and a brisk wind on our nose. Stoic was a dream to sail, pointing high and racing along at over 7 knots into the night on our way to Jura.

What I soon learnt, having not done more than day racing and regattas, is that the 3 hour watch system between only 3 crew, becomes pretty brutal on the lack of sleep front quite quickly. The first night wasn’t too bad and, with only a couple of hours of darkness, we were soon enjoying views of Fladda (recognisable by its crisp white lighthouse), Lunga and Scarba and many other small Scottish Isles which I had never heard of on our way to Craighouse on Jura. As the sun came up (of sorts, this was Scotland after all, it got light at least), the desire to fight sleep slipped away and we focussed on our approach to the natural bay of Craighouse. The runners awoke after a decent night’s sleep and started fuelling for their next run effort which was probably the most arduous of their running efforts, up and over the ‘Paps’ of Jura (including Beinn an Oir) and some 19 more miles to cover.

Once we’d seen them off I set about preparing a fry up to celebrate our first night at sea, although soon discovered that, with the assistance of our high maintenance running squad and a lack of Glaswegian Showers taking place on board, we had run out of water. Luckily some of the other crews were still awake and we set about trying to get their attention. In normal circumstances we could have rowed ashore but unfortunately our tender was now sitting on the quayside outside the famous whisky factory awaiting the runner’s return. Knowing that we had another 24 hours sailing ahead of us we needed water for drinking at the very least and having prepared every receptacle we had on board a friendly competitor turned up with 2 huge jerry cans that we lugged aboard in return for an extra round of sausages and bacon with fried bread and lashings of ketchup provided as payment for his efforts. After some cups of tea we set about winding down in an attempt to get some shut-eye before the runners returned circa 4 hours later.

‘Damn, my knee hurts’, said James on his return, ‘Yeah, I’ve had a lot of that over the last 2 hours,’ said Max, rolling his eyes. At the grand old age of 44 some of the old aches and pains were getting the better of James, who re-fuelled and went to bed pretty quickly. It was mid to late afternoon and we were now setting off on another overnight sail but this time, around a rather more fearsome stretch of water, the Mull of Kintyre. This area of sea is known for some fierce conditions as water funnels through the straights between Scotland and Ireland, and yet is open to the onslaught of weather systems from the Atlantic Ocean. Joey seemed particularly concerned at the prospect of getting round it, although most of the drama took place before we got anywhere near it. As we set off from Jura we had a gentle 12-15 knots of breeze coming straight over our stern and, as soon as we were out of the harbour, we rigged the spinnaker, ready to hoist and run down towards the open sea. This all happened without incident, until the spinnaker took hold and then, with a loud ‘twang’ suddenly flopped into the sea on the starboard side of the boat. ‘All hands on deck’ cried Joey as Roddy tried to pull a sodden sail back on board by himself initially before all sorts of expletives and confusion commenced as to why we’d lost the spinnaker so early on. We then experienced the sort of classic scenario that often follows on from an incident like this when the whole crew gets tunnel vision dealing with the issue at hand. Before we had got the spinnaker situation under control, having taken our eye off the navigation task for a moment, found that we had hit a buoy, wrapping the rope around the huge keel bulb and unable to shake it off. Some swift manoeuvring by Roddy averted any further disaster and we were soon free to get the headsail up and continue on our way without the spinnaker. There was disappointment amongst the crew as we knew the spinnaker was critical for some extra knots of speed going downwind, especially in the light conditions that were forecast. For those sailors amongst our readership we had, unfortunately, lost our spinnaker block on the top of the mast, the fallout from a rushed re-rigging in the weeks before the race. So we were without spinnaker for the rest of the race.

On we sailed to the Mull of Kintyre, which we were due to hit as darkness fell. With Joey and I back on watch, we had ourselves clipped on using our harnesses for fear of hitting conditions which this area of sea was able to spring upon the average sailor with very little warning. As we rounded the headland, call me a drama queen, but I was very disappointed to find that we’d been through the worst of it with no incident whatsoever. Joey disappeared down below to recharge his batteries and Roddy re-appeared to help get us through the graveyard slot from midnight to 3am. Despite much conversation, some on-deck exercises dealing with a knee injury that I had and multiple cups of tea we were wrestling the urge to fall asleep. Not helped by the lack of wind and a tide running contrary to our direction of sail, we were running again but making very little progress. The darkness was oppressive and, despite our best efforts, we committed the cardinal sin on watch and both fell asleep. We were woken by what can only be described as the least dramatic crash jibe I’ve ever experienced. I was completely out of it at this stage having given up the fight to resist sleep. I vaguely remember Roddy standing up, turning 360 degrees to check we hadn’t hit anything, and then sitting down only for both of us to commit cardinal sin no.2, and fall back asleep again. Luckily Joey re-appeared as fresh as a daisy after some 2 hours sleep to relieve me. I woke up in glorious sunshine as we passed Sands Lighthouse and watch as the wind dwindled to nothing. Luckily the runners had, again, had an excellent night’s sleep due to the calm conditions so we were able to put them on rowing duty in an attempt to get to the moorings in Arran and have them close enough to row to shore for their final run.

To be fair to Max, we didn’t once hear him moan, except when we told him that we didn’t have enough water for him to take a shower. We encouraged them to have a rinse with baby-wipes so that they were comfortable but knew the facilities would be good in Troon once we got there. James on the other hand was starting to really struggle, his knee filling with fluid. He was not looking forward to the final 15 miles on Arran which, whilst the shortest total distance, were some of the toughest when compounded with the previous 3 runs. The sailors enjoyed a power nap and some leftover carbs knowing that we only had a couple of hours to Troon and a decent night’s sleep ahead of us. The runners powered through the final miles, although at a slower pace as we watched James hobble along the sea front, really struggling by this point and receiving little sympathy from Max.

The final sail across to Troon was uneventful. Welcomed by a spectacular 100ft super yacht and some comedy antics from Roddy and Max in their attempts to locate the finish line never has a shower been so welcome nor a beer tasted so good. I can confirm that the espresso martini tasted less good. The first person I bumped into on the pontoon in Troon was an old uni mate who was on his 18th Peaks race, so we enjoyed sharing tactics and stories with his and other crews in the marina bar on a celebratory dinner of chips.

We slept like Egyptian Gods that night, waving off the runners the following day to get back to Glasgow before the hard core sailors set about getting the boat back to Oban. The weather had been relatively kind to us and this looked set to continue as we made plans to sail up to Jura and spend the night in a secluded bay at anchor. Unfortunately, as we approached the Mull of Kintyre in slightly more wind than the previous rounding, I went down below to make my 78th cup of tea to find the contents of the heads swilling around the bottom of the boat. I think this was the closest I got to seeing a full-scale sense of humour failure from Roddy, insistent that it was not his sh*t that was on show. This was also the closest that I got to succumbing to sea sickness, as I went about trying to mop up the worst of the excrement before the galley and dining area became unbearable to reside in. I had every plan to sleep down below that night. Roddy rolled up his sleeves to discover on further investigation that due to a blockage and the pressure that this had caused in the holding tank, the lid of said tank had burst as a result with further excrement filling one of the rear lockers.

Off the back of this finding and with no immediate solution to the problem as we rounded the Mull of Kintyre in relatively benign conditions again, we made the decision to sail direct to Oban, going back to our 3 hour watch system and sailing another 22 hours through the night. Having prepared for another decent night’s sleep I have to admit to being completely broken and was accused by Joey of not getting up at 3am when he came to wake me up for my watch. By the time I got to Oban, despite the beautifully calm conditions and spectacular sunrise, I was delirious and, as the staff of Dunstaffnage Marina went to work sorting the blockage out (including Roddy’s brother in diving mask and wetsuit…), I passed out in the bunks in an attempt to feel human again. I awoke to find little progress and our, soon-to-be-hero, Hugh from the marina up to his elbows in nasties. Hamish, despite a number of dunkings in the cool Scottish waters, still hadn’t identified the source of the blockage until there was a heroic cry followed by multiple growns of disgust as a large lump of wet wipes was forced out of the bowels of the boat. There now resides a large sign in the loo of Stoic asking occupants not to flush anything down the loo.

And so ended Stoic’s first attempt at the Scottish Islands Peaks Race in 2019. In a blaze of sh*t rather than glory but having achieved a respectable 13th in her class of 20 with 3.5 legs, as James hobbled on to the train back to Glasgow, and a spinnaker for a grand total of about 10 minutes. The plan is to enter it next year with an OS sailor from the Arrow Trophy team and improve on our efforts which, for a first attempt, was not too shabby in our humble opinion. I should also add that plenty of boats didn’t even make it round the MoK due to wind and tide conditions, so we did well to finish by all accounts. There will be running slots up for grabs if you can demonstrate your fell running experience and the reliability of your ‘diesel engine’…. Please do get in touch with the OS office if you would like to put your name in the hat.

Hannah Durden (Nugent 01)

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