The Three Peaks Yacht Race is one of the oldest and most remarkable multi-sport endurance races in the world. Over 4-5 days of racing, crews of five sail over 400 nautical miles in some of Europe’s toughest coastal waters, plus land legs featuring the highest peaks of Wales, England and Scotland and amounting to nearly 100 miles or cycling and running. The small crew and gruelling schedule mean managing the energy levels, morale and fitness of both runners and sailors is just as important as tactical racing.
EX YEOMAN AMPHIBIAN 2018 was Royal Yeomanry led, and named Team AJAX for our boat, a J109 class yacht belonging to The Royal Armoured Corps Yacht Club. Following in the footsteps of the 2017 team we aimed to retain the Tilman Trophy (for the first team to finish with at least 4/5 members summiting a mountain) and to equal or better our 5th place finish. A training weekend in May was organised to get to know each other and the boat, and by June when Ajax arrived for the start in Barmouth she was fitted out with new sails and a more detailed tidal atlas of the Scottish coast. During the scrutineering day we removed all non-essential comforts to lighten her and ensured she was 100% race-ready. However, we did have to fit some unorthodox equipment not normally found on racing yachts: rollocks and two 12ft oars. Rowing enables the crew to keep moving in the event of difficult tides or lack of wind, and is another unique feature of the race.
The crew was drawn predominantly from the Royal Yeomanry: 2Lt Monty Mackie (Skipper), Lt Alastair Coombe (2017 veteran) and LCpl Kirsty Chambers (Army Hockey player) together with Maj Tony Dickinson (Mate and seasoned fell runner) from the Royal Wessex Yeomanry and Sgt Chris Farrell (secret weapon) from the Royal Dragoon Guards. Our enthusiastic (and vital) shore crew SSgt Nicholls and LCpl Green also joined us from the RY. We had the youngest Skipper (notably in his first race as such) and the lowest aggregate crew age in the race. Whilst Skipper and Mate were experienced yachtsmen and would oversee the sailing and navigation, I had done little beyond completing the 2017 race, and Sgt Farrell and LCpl Chambers had logged even fewer hours, making their stalwart sailing in challenging conditions yet more impressive, particularly as all would summit at least one of the mountains to compete for the Tilman Trophy.
We sailed out of Barmouth to the start line with the other seven boats (four in the race and three in the new ‘challenge’ class) accompanied by the RNLI Lifeboat, a slightly mad paddle boarder and the Barmouth rhythmic drummers. The start was a messy democratic affair as nobody heard the gun. “We’ll start if you will” was shouted out to the nearest vessels, and we were off. Ajax is a fast boat and although the wind was unexpectedly northerly we kept out in the front pack. But this would not be the easy run to Caernarfon of previous years, and after only a few hours of good sailing, even our accompanying dolphins could not help us when the wind died. Before we had even rounded the Ilyn Peninsula, we watched in horror as we saw the Irish boat (Digital Build Consultants) put out her oars and knew we would have to do the same. By the time we reached the dangerous and shifting bar outside Caernarfon 20 hours later, we had rowed for a total of 12 miles. Luckily, there was none of the drama of last year’s grounding and 2Lt Mackie carefully navigated us through the narrow channel to the small pier where Sgt Farrell and I leapt off in second place but with the next three boats just behind.
Six hours later we were back on board after a punishing 25 miles up Snowdon on the hottest day of the year thus far. Sgt Farrell was managing sprains in both calves and I had suffered a lot in the heat. Although we had been overtaken by the phenomenal running of Wild Spirit’s Jon Morgan and Stuart ‘Shelf’ Walker and by Team Baloo (Tilman Trophy contenders), their boats had made a slow exit from Caernarfon and were still in sight as we came back out of the bar. That we were still in the race was largely down to the brilliant shore crew providing food, water and morale in spades. The unseasonal northerly winds rendered the notorious Menai Straights completely impassable and, for the first time ever, all racing boats went the long way around Anglesey.
At last and with steady winds the race to Whitehaven harbour was on, and over the next 100 miles the lead fluctuated between the front four boats. During this leg, the simpler navigation meant we could established a watch system to ensure everyone was rested and fed ahead of the next stage. Unfortunately for us, the Irish team used local knowledge to push out nearly to the Isle of Man, picked up the strongest winds and arrived first to the harbour. Whitehaven has a tidal lock, meaning any team arriving on the wrong tide could be locked out, thereby losing hours to the other boats. Wild Spirit arrived second and we followed in an hour behind at 2000. Our mountain team, LCpl Chambers and Maj Dickinson, rushed up the dock, picked up their bikes from the support crew and were surprised to find the Wild Spirt team still at the kit check. Apparently 12 hours of sharp chop and sea sickness had been too much for the fell runners who had needed time to recover.
The most remote of the peaks, Scafell requires a 20 mile bike ride, then a run over the Black Sail Pass just to reach its foot. The total running distance is only 13 miles; it’s the 1800m of elevation that makes it brutal. To make things worse, by the time the Scafell pair were off their bikes and running, it was completely dark, and navigation was now more important than speed as a wrong turn on rocky slopes could be disastrous. Through sheer grit and determination (LCpl Chambers commented that she had not only visited ‘Clip’, but had been appointed Mayor during her stay) they made it to the summit before retracing their steps back down the mountain, where the boundless enthusiasm of our support crew gave them the boost they needed to return to the boat in time to sail straight out, retaining our lead over Baloo. It was a monumental 12 hour effort from them both, but the sailing crew had not just been sitting in the pub. Forecasts indicated that Storm Hector was fast approaching, so we had been readying the trysail and storm jib (really more a Kevlar reinforced tea-towel than a sail); this was now a race against the weather as well as the other boats.
During the night we were overtaken by Baloo as they made better use of back eddies around the Mull of Galloway, and Wild Spirit and the Irish pushed further ahead in a dramatic race that would see them arriving at Corpach just 30 seconds apart. By mid-morning as we raced up the Sound of Jura we came to a decision point: sneak through the Sound of Islay to the West of Jura (a move that had proved so successful in 2017) or take the direct but more technical route though the Sound of Luing past the dreaded Corryvreckan (the third largest whirlpool in the world). Suddenly, the wind increased, ripping the spinnaker and without the fast kite our only chance of catching Baloo was the short route. As the gusts steadily increased to 30 knots we reefed the main and changed the jib, not an easy task but one that we had warmed to over the race because with roller broken (pre-race damage) frequent sail changes were needed. Even so, as Storm Hector slammed into us at around 1700 all hands were called back on deck. Suddenly as I eased the overpowered mainsail the stopper knot came undone and the whole main sheet started unravelling. We grabbed the flailing mass of ropes to stop it running completely out but even with three of us on the line we could not pull the boom back in. Eventually we managed to winch it in, but by the time we had dropped the main, lashed it to the boom and changed to just the storm jib the tide had pushed us back a mile. The wind continued to build and build, and we were informed that the Ben Nevis run had been postponed due to deteriorating conditions and 100 mph winds at the summit. For the rest of the night we flew up Loch Linnhe and through the Corran Narrows at 9 knots. Maj Dickinson, who was at the helm for the strongest wind, said that “surfing the yacht down waves with 65 knot gusts was an experience I’ll never forget”.
Arriving at Fort William we found the finish line in tatters and Baloo moored outside Corpach Lock, it having been too rough for them to enter the Lock to join the other boats, who had arrived before the worst of the storm. The Committee decided that the race would be concluded by a “mass start” to the aluminium bridge at 300m on Ben Nevis, the first-time weather has forced an alternative run route in 41 years. To the soaked cheers of friends and supporters 2Lt Mackie and I charged off the line, briefly leading before the faster athletes streamed past. The 11 miles took exactly 2 hours and we crossed the finish line exhausted, but proudly flying the RAC and RY flags. In the end Wild Sprit deservedly won line honours and Baloo took the Tilman Trophy.
Just finishing the 2018 Three Peaks Yacht Race was a massive achievement. The hot weather on Snowdon, the darkness on Scafell and battling though the storm means that our 4th place overall, in 4 days 19 hours, and 2nd in the Tilman Trophy is an immensely satisfying result. We couldn’t fail to be impressed by the camaraderie and good will shared between all teams and feel proud to part of the history of the race. Indeed, we still collect the Colin Prescott Walker Trophy for the youngest crew to finish, the Light Infantry Bugle (fastest military team), the Kamminga Kloggs (slowest land time!) and the Last Inn Cup (as unsurprisingly all boats behind us abandoned).
We must thank the Ulysses Trust, General Dynamics Land Systems UK, the Royal Armoured Corps Yacht Club, and the Royal Yeomanry for so generously backing our campaign, and the race committee for running the event and ensuring the safety of all crews. A special mention must go to Cpl Matt Cattell for his preparation of Ajax following his experience as Skipper in 2017; his efforts not only helped us, but drew the praise of the scrutineering committee and contributed to the ‘Best Dressed’ yacht award. Also thanks to the Queen’s Own Yeomanry and RY teams who delivered and collected Ajax, many of them learning to sail in the process. The testing physical elements and mental stamina required for the race provide perfectly pitched ‘cross’ training for military teams and I can only recommend more take up the challenge in future.
Author: Lt Alastair Coombe, RY