Friday 25 May 2018

Scottish Islands Peaks Race 2018 - Confessions of a Reluctant Sailor

The Scottish Islands Peaks Race 2018 – Confessions of a Reluctant Sailor

Disorientated, fuzzy-headed, slightly nauseous, not in proper control of my own body, and having lost track of time.  It was in this state that I was invited to take part in the Scottish Islands Peaks Race.  I’d been at the East District League cross country at Stirling University in October 2017, and had gone for a pub crawl afterwards in Bridge of Allan with Jim Hardie and Graham Nash of Carnethy.  Jim and Graham had been the runners for Sundance of Lorn’s successful SIPR effort earlier that year, but Graham had other plans for 2018.  Presumably having exhausted other options, Jim asked if I’d be interested in stepping in.

Even in my drunken state I was extremely wary about committing immediately.  It sounded like a real adventure, and an honour to be invited, but as I told Jim, I had (at that point) never set foot on any of the islands, and suffer from pretty bad motion sickness. As an example, I threw up on a pedalo in Corfu when I was 8.  It’s one thing to sign up for an event and let yourself down; it’s another entirely to let down other people who have invested a huge amount of their own time, effort and money in pursuit of a goal.

But Jim kept working away at me, and I eventually agreed – it felt like an opportunity that might not come around again, and too good to refuse.  Looking back now, it is almost amusing how naïve I was about it.  I didn’t think I was underestimating what was involved (I was extremely apprehensive about it, and fully expected to be as sick as a dog for much of the weekend), but my expectations were still hugely different from the reality. 

There is perhaps an inclination to disregard things that you are not entirely familiar with.  In my job I regularly see or hear colleagues on projects gloss over my contribution (e.g. “we just need a reinsurance contract put in place”), while I probably don’t appreciate just how much heartache is involved in aspects like IT development and build.  I knew the SIPR was a running and sailing event.  But I thought the sailing was more of a given.  I had pored over results from previous years in great detail, so discovered that the sailing was by far the biggest component of the overall time, and Jim and Graham had told me about missed tidal gates adding hours to a leg, but I was still thinking of it as just a matter of when, rather than if, we’d get there eventually.  I suspected that the sailors had to work hard (indeed they would be “active” for far more of the trip than we runners), but was viewing the sail as basically just an unpleasant and slow means of transport to the runs.  The sailors do their bit and then I rely on Jim’s navigational skills to guide me round the runs.  I’m in reasonable shape, and am used to hours on my feet from doing ultras.  What could go wrong?!

Jim got in touch at the end of April to say that our sailors (Skipper Ian Woodman, and his pals Ian Steele and Paul Turner) were planning a shakedown sail on the weekend of 5 and 6 May.  Unfortunately I was taking part in the Glen Lyon Ultra, so couldn’t make it.  Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.

Jim and I elected to drive up to Oban on the Thursday evening, rather than risk arriving late on the Friday morning.  It was probably just as well we had our own transport, rather than taking the train, as our combined luggage suggested we were embarking on a circumnavigation of the globe.  The aforementioned Graham is always supremely organised and takes his preparation to the nth degree (every item photographed and its weight in grams recorded for posterity), so I followed his kit list to the letter.  And then spent most of the Wednesday evening throwing in more for good measure. 

We dropped in on the guys at Woody’s Mum and Dad’s in Connell.  They were busy ferrying equipment out to Sundance, which was anchored in the bay.  It seemed to be a pretty involved process of multiple trips out on the dinghy but, after giving us instructions to pick up a gas canister en route, they said they’d meet us round at the Oban yacht club at around 11pm.

Kit check was ticked off without any drama.  So much so that Jim was happy to pass spare items to Tim and Rory from “Kea” to top up their first aid.  We then had time for a quiet pint while we waited for the Ians and Paul to arrive in Sundance.  Kicking out time came and went with still no sign of the guys, so we did what any rational person would do and toddled along into Oban town to continue drinking.  We eventually met up around midnight with the guys, and I was introduced to the delights of the aft cabin (or “Gimp Locker”), which was to become Jim’s and my temporary home for the next few days.

After a decent enough sleep, Friday morning began with a safety briefing from Woody.  We were shown how to put on our lifevests, what to do in the event of a man overboard (don’t like the sound of that), how to launch the life raft (oh, hell no!), and advised to always have “one hand for the boat” (i.e. a hand on something for balance).   In regards to the life raft, Woody’s sage advice was that it tends to be better to be in the boat unless it’s on fire or sinking. 

The fleet at Oban 
(photo: Jim)

While the Ians and Jim attended to some last minute prep (screwing in ceiling panels, drilling holes for lines, etc), Paul and I took a trip to Tesco for a few final provisions.  This was an extremely good gig, as we had time for a bacon and egg roll from the in-store café, followed by a last luxury (stationary) sh1t.

Sundance's battle flag - more Trump-related nonsense.  This time with added aubergine!
(photo: Paul)

After the pre-race briefing (highlight: “there are no stupid questions”… “that’s a stupid question!”), the action commenced at noon with a 4 mile trail run starting and finishing at the yacht club.  Jim made the point that it counts as sailing time, and a few minutes here or there weren’t going to make much difference, so there was no benefit to be had in bursting ourselves.  It was a nice wee route, and we had a steady enough run.  Nothing spectacular, but after being ferried back to the boat by Steeley, Sundance was underway and left the harbour safely in midpack. 

The finish line of the Oban Slip race
(photo: SIPR FB page)

The first few hours on the way to Mull were very enjoyable sailing.  There was warm sunshine, light winds, and benign seas.  We weren’t moving terribly quickly but then nor was anyone else – at least in our class.  We had been placed in category 3 – slow monohulls.  The fast crews were starting to disappear into the distance, but there was no point in worrying about them.  It was enough to be in the mix in our class.  Sorr of Appin and Marisca got away from us a bit, but we were in decent contact with the likes of Ailish II, Bascule, Capricorn, Contender, Dionysus, Fearless Friend, Jjig, and Ledauphin.

This nice gentle introduction gave me an opportunity to take in what was going on, and get a bit of a feeling for what the sailors needed to do.  They were a very well-drilled unit when it came to tacking – each playing a part in releasing a line on one side of the boat, and winching in a line on the other, while the wheel was brought around.  It was also interesting studying the instruments which conveyed information like wind speed and direction, boat speed through the water, boat velocity on your plotted course (or “distance made good”), depth of water, and so on.  It was a bit of a reminder of school maths/ physics concepts of vectors, and the difference between velocity and speed.  I learned about the optimal angle of wind on the sails – the instruments suggested that somewhere between 30 and 60 degrees was good, but Woody explained that 30 degrees was ideal for Sundance.  There seems to be a natural temptation to sail closer to dead ahead when travelling into a headwind, to minimise lateral movement from big tacks, but this was sailing “too close to the wind”, which was liable to make your sails go slack and lose thrust.  So that’s where the saying comes from…

We averaged 3 or 4 knots until we got close to Duart Castle and the Lismore lighthouse (around 8 miles sailed of the 20 or so to Salen on Mull), when suddenly the wind direction seemed to shift and the majority of the boats ahead decided to deploy their spinnakers.  After a bit of discussion, our Jenny sail (the front sail, usually used in addition to the main sail, and necessary for tacking into a headwind) was brought in, and our own spinnaker run up.  Steeley explained that it was like a large umbrella, and its use was dependant on a decent following wind.  Our speed picked up noticeably – Paul on the wheel claimed an early speed record for the trip of 7.2 knots.  It didn’t last for very long though, and the spinnaker was soon being stowed away again.  Jim joked that this was par for the course – “get the spinnaker up”, “get the spinnaker down” being something he’d heard quite a lot of the year before.

(photo: Stephen Lawson)

Unfortunately, the burst of speed was soon to be but a memory.  We became becalmed not long after Duart Castle, still around 10 miles shy of our first destination.  The oars came out and we took turns either rowing or watching the anemometer for any sign of movement.  I must admit to being sceptical as to how much difference two men rowing an 8 ton boat could make but, once we got some momentum, it was possible to achieve around 2 knots.  The Ians commented on how, after a fair bit of trial and error, they’d found the optimal location for the pivot points.

Paul had fired up Spotify so we had some good tunes, and there was good chat too.  This gave us a temporary reprieve from Steeley’s (limited) selection of single lines from songs.  The man doesn’t know a second line.  One of them (“it ain’t easy, livin’ in a bubble”) did accurately describe our lodgings though.

As we got closer to Salen, I was keen to establish what I’d be running up.  Jim seemed to tire of being asked, “Is that Ben More?”  No Nick, that’s a foothill in front of Ben More.  No Nick, that’s a ridge on the way to Ben More.  Etc, etc.

We finally arrived at around 7pm, which was slightly later than last year, and so we’d have a little less daylight to work with than Jim and Graham had had.  After being rowed ashore (Steeley getting us in at a good lick) we were met by the Mull marshal crew which was made up of Jim’s Carnethy team mates, led by Gordon.  Jim was kit-checked by Chris, and I had Digby.  Looking at the results, I see that we were placed 29th out of 33 teams at that point. 

Arriving at Salen
(photo: Digby Maass)

Having gotten a little chilly on the boat, I started running with two tops on, but it was a lovely warm early summer’s evening on land.  I stopped within the first mile to take off one of the tops. 

We made good progress on the largely flat 8 miles of running out to the start of the climb.  We passed our first other team at around 2 miles in.  We then saw a single runner heading back towards Salen.  It was odd that he was on his own rather than in a pair, so we asked if he was ok and he said yes.  A little later we came to two boys idly lobbing stones into a loch.  I should make clear at this point that they were very polite and well-behaved young men.  They explained that their teacher was ill and was going to fetch the boat to take them back (which explained the single runner).  Because Jim and I are puerile, infantile and had little better to do to pass the time, we started suggesting more and more extreme maladies that might be afflicting the teacher – moving on quickly from catastrophic diarrhoea, we eventually settled on that Amazonian parasitic fish (the Candiru) that swims up the urethra.  Global warming having led them to Scotland’s West coast.  Oh, and in a later retelling on the boat, the boys had graduated to panning in the windows of a nearby digger (they definitely didn’t).  On the Thursday night in Oban, Jim and I had talked about scoring some mind-altering drugs (“jellies!!!”) to help the runs pass more smoothly.  On this evidence, none were required.

The 8 miles of decent running was a bit of a surprise to me.  I knew that the total route was around 24 miles, so started thinking that we therefore had only around 4 miles of climb to come, and we’d then be on the downward/homeward 12 mile stretch.  No bother!

The run became more of a steady trudge as we entered the first valley proper and started making our way up the valley side to the ridge leading to Ben More.  By this point we’d dropped off the first of our six tokens on an orienteering control point.  We did a bit more passing on the way up, taking a further three teams.  Jim then played a blinder in having us leave the ridge and contour round a rise, avoiding a nasty traverse of a scree field and an unnecessary ascent and descent.  We saw a further couple of teams slipping and sliding around above us, sending rocks tumbling, but happily not in our direction.  We then had to make our way up a steep section to rejoin the ridge (a fairly sharp arête, with quite pronounced drop-offs on both sides) that led on to the final push to the summit.  This involved some quite hairy rock scrambling.  I was feeling a little woozy from the constant dosing of Stugeron (or was it vertigo?), so didn’t dare to look anywhere much other than at Jim’s heels or where I was putting my own feet.  If Woody’s earlier advice had been “one hand for the boat”, then my own advice to myself was now “two hands for the mountain”.  It was a relief to deposit our second token at the summit cairn.

I was glad that we took a much more moderate route off the hill.  The descent down a scree field was good fun, once I remembered the technique – a bit like surfing/sliding down a sand dune.  There was a slightly unnecessary descent down into a gully to place another token, which then meant a bit of a climb back out, before crossing over the shoulder of a couple of ridges towards the correct exit valley.

We’d talked about a crashed plane earlier on the boat, and occasionally came across fragments of wreckage.  Steeley had advised us to watch out for ghosts angrily asking, “are you the navigator?”

We knew that there was another control point just before we should start our descent proper.  Both thinking that we’d seen it, we ran quickly over to what turned out to be a dead sheep.  We didn’t reckon the marshals would give us much credit for popping a token on the remains of its tail.  On retracing our steps we wondered how the hell we’d managed to run a matter of yards either side of the big obvious white and orange thing.

Darkness was falling fast now though.  While extremely grateful that we’d had good light for the tricky ascent, this gave us some difficulty in finding the narrow loose trod on the return down the valley.  Shadows would convince you that you were on a path of some description, only to stumble in heavy claggy tussocky undergrowth, and then see something that looked better ten metres higher or lower.

Nevertheless, there were various headtorches visible in the distance on the other side of the valley, and it felt like we were gaining on them.

As more of a road runner than a fell runner, I was looking forward to returning to the tarmac for the last few miles.  Jim commented that we had both grown quite quiet by now – there is sometimes a tendency to fold in on yourself a little towards the end of long runs.

We arrived back to the finish in a little under 5 hours’ running time.  We were slower than Jim and Graham had been in 2017, but they had had an hour’s more light.  This moved Sundance up to 20th overall on aggregate time, and saw us ranked 15th overall and 5th in our class for the Ben More run.  As only one team in our class started after us (therefore also experiencing darkness on a significant section of the run) and ran quicker, that felt like an acceptable effort. 

Paul was on chauffeur duty back to Sundance.  After a bit of food, just enough time to dust some of the mud off, and get a change of clothes, we were retiring into our sleeping bags in the Gimp Locker.  Leaving Ian, Ian and Paul to the next leg of the voyage.

Following some congratulatory and slightly hubristic chat before going to sleep, I’d hoped/expected to be waking up not far from Craighouse.  We’d optimistically pencilled in a possible start for the Paps run at around 2pm.  And it felt like we were making good progress during the night – I definitely remember some hard tacks that flung me from one side of the bunk to the other, and the sound of wind and rushing waves was very encouraging.

It was therefore strange to wake at 7am to almost perfect peace and quiet – bobbing around off Duart Castle, once more.  The water was flat calm and the anemometer immobile.  Somehow, despite working all night, the sailors had only gained around 12 miles in 7 hours. 

(photo: Paul)

We were certainly not alone – slightly to the rear of the usual suspects in the slower section of Class 3.  And we would all remain becalmed for the best part of 5 hours in total.  We were the first of the fleet to get the oars out, and managed to row past 6 other boats.  This inspired some of the other crews to follow suit with the oars but, I must say, without the same success as we enjoyed. 

We were all on the lookout for any sign of a breeze, trying to move towards any patch of water where there was a hint of a ripple.  Eventually we saw the sails of Ailish II (the most advanced of the pack) start to fill.  “They’ve got wind. They’ve got wind!!! Row there. Row there!!!”

Hugely thankful to be under way again, but by now it was touch and go whether we’d make the tidal gate in the Sound of Luing.  Keeping our options open, and loathe to sit anchored for up to 6 hours waiting for the tide to turn, we agreed with Woody’s suggestion that we head for the West coast of Jura.  This was very much the long way round.  It is around 40 or so miles from Duart Castle to the start of the Sound of Islay, which is similar to the distance from Duart Castle to Craighouse through the Sound of Luing.  However, after reaching Islay, there is then a further 20 miles to cover to get round and back up to Craighouse.  It is also more exposed – with Colonsay offering only limited protection from the full weight of the Atlantic swell.  In theory we could come back towards Luing through the Gulf of Corryvreckan, but it is home to the famous whirlpool, and at one time the Admiralty considered it “unnavigable”.  A number of boats seemed to be hedging their bets, only to change their mind at the last minute and head for the inland passage.  We were ploughing our own lonely furrow. 

Life on the ocean wave
(photo: Jim)

We certainly got good wind on that side – peaking at 35 – 40 knots at times.  And we took one single tack to run pretty much the whole length of Jura.  It looks great on the “Yellow Brick” tracker.  But the swell was now huge, and we were crashing through the waves given we were heading pretty much straight into the strong southerly/south easterly.  Although the sun was still out, both the boat and crew were starting to take a bit of punishment.  I focussed my gaze intently on the distant shore in an attempt to avert sickness, and Steeley joked that he would test me later on the features along that stretch of coast. 

I think it is a pretty good litmus test when even the sailors get sick – Paul being the first to succumb. I took a small measure of pride in having held out that far.

And then a line to the Jenny sail snapped, leaving it flapping around and (to my untrained eyes) in danger of ripping itself to bits.  Woody had to tether on and head to the prow to try to gather it back in by hand.  All while the ship was pitching up and down violently in the roiling ocean.  No doubting his bravery - there weren’t many offers from the rest of us to help!  And he got soaked repeatedly by the freezing water as he hadn’t had time to put on his oilskins when the rope snapped.  We persevered with just the main sail for what I think was a couple of hours (it was difficult to accurately judge the passage of time at this point), before deciding to motor into the shelter of Loch Tarbert to take stock and effect repairs. 

The Ians cut and retied the line to the Jenny, while Paul managed to bodge a fix for a sheared bracket to the spray hood.  Playing more to our own strengths, Jim and I did the dishes from earlier and put one of Woody’s excellent pasta bakes in the oven.

After eating there was a team discussion.  Battered and bruised, I reckon everyone was already thinking of abandoning, but didn’t want to say it.  We agreed to motor back to our last “sailed to” position and recommence under sail.  We’d play it by ear once we got to Craighouse, but concerns were expressed that we were already in danger of running out of time.  We all had Monday off work, but had hoped to arrive in Troon on Sunday evening in time for celebratory beers.  At this rate, with the Paps likely to be done entirely in darkness, and a potentially even more difficult journey around the Mull of Kintyre, we’d be lucky to finish on Tuesday.  That wasn’t really going to cut it.

The tide was against us on the approach to the Sound of Islay, and took an age to turn.  The lighthouse at Ruvaal and the distillery at Bunnahabhain remained frustratingly out of reach for some time.  When it did turn, the combination of good wind and the following tide of around 6 knots saw us set a new Sundance speed record of 11.4 knots, with Woody at the helm.  It felt suitably quick.

But the boat was still pitching about quite strongly in the waves.  In the blackness Paul (who’d by now taken over the wheel from Woody) couldn’t see much of what was coming towards him, so struggled to minimise their impact.  And I could no longer see the horizon, rapidly leading to sickness. 

There was a bit of a funny moment (not remotely enjoyed at the time) when I rushed down into the main cabin to throw up in the toilet and shouted “has anyone got a headtorch?”  Jim pointed out that I already had one on my head. 

In the end the sail from Mull to Jura took 26 hours, arriving in Craighouse at 2am on the Sunday morning.  The sailors in particular were absolutely exhausted; a combination of hard graft and very little sleep.  Steeley reckoned he’d had only an hour since waking in Oban on the Friday morning.  It was at this point that we took the decision to abandon.  Even still, we didn’t go ashore for another 7 hours, spent trying to sleep but mostly being thrown around in the Gimp Locker.  I was therefore on a boat for 33 hours straight.  That is my longest ever.  I could still feel the motion of the waves two days later. 

We weren’t the only ones to find the Mull to Jura sail tough.  In total, 10 boats withdrew at or on the way to Jura (in addition to one that had withdrawn on Mull), including 6 of the 11 in our class.  Only Dionysus arrived after us – at around 8am on Sunday morning.  And all credit to them, their runners (Brigid and Lizzie) had a go at the Paps run before discretion won out over valour/ stubbornness/ stupidity/ hypothermia (delete as appropriate).  We spoke to them after they had retreated to the warmth of the village hall, and they had the haunted air of survivors from the First World War trenches. Thousand yard stares were de rigueur.

Over (excellent) breakfast doubler rolls (I had one bacon and egg, and one lorne sausage and black pudding for those interested) in the Antlers café in Craighouse, we discussed our options for getting back to Oban.  I think I had some kind of PTSD going on.  I was very keen to avoid experiencing the same feelings of sickness again (“don’t make me go back on the boat, don’t make me go back on the boat”).  Jim and I explored various possibilities including a ferry to Tayvallich and then bus to Oban, and I spoke to a chap from Bascule who was heading to Islay for a £60 flight he’d found on Skyscanner.  None of it was going to work though and, very reluctantly, we agreed to sail back up to Oban with the guys.

As it turned out, and as promised by Steeley, it was much easier going heading north with the wind behind and the waves running in the right direction.  My spirits even improved to the point that I was able to go below deck and put a brew on!

We got back into Oban just before 7pm on Sunday evening.  After a quick change and “Glasgow shower”, we headed out for food and beer.  It was really good to have a few pints with the guys and pick over the events of the weekend.  It was definitely the right decision to sail back up.  We needed something positive by way of closure. 

The issue of whether we should try again next year came up.  I don’t want to make any rash decisions on that, so will not give an answer yet.  But there is definitely an itch, and it is only likely to grow more urgent as time passes, and (as seems to happen) the memories of the bad bits fade to leave only the good.

So, ultimately a failed attempt.  Failing without learning something must be the worst kind of failure there is.  But what did I learn?

·         Top tip: if you are thinking about entering this race, take part in a shakedown sail, particularly if you are a non-sailor!  You need to have experienced the reality, and prepare yourself accordingly ahead of the event.

·         Sailing has a lot in common with camping.  An all-pervading dampness is almost a certainty in Scotland.  Trying to keep kit dry is virtually a full-time occupation.  I became obsessed with my 80 litre dry bag and an infinite number of sandwich bags for individual items.  Getting up in the middle of a cold rainy night to go for a pee on a boat is also not vastly different from having to leave the warmth of your sleeping bag and tent for the same purpose.

·         Sailing can actually, with the right company and the right weather, be fun.  As someone who has always hated boats and dreaded sailing, that is quite a revelation.

·         Sailing can be f*cking atrocious too.  That came as less of a surprise.

·         Don’t underestimate the sailing. 

·         Don’t underestimate the sailors.

Well done to all who finished, and commiserations to those who didn’t – it seems to have been a tough year.  Thanks to the marshals and organisers for putting on a terrific event.  And thanks to tremendous team mates – a great bunch of guys and it’s just a shame we couldn’t manage it.  At least, not this year… 

Battle damage!
(photo: Paul)

Sundance's intrepid crew
(photo/selfie: Jim)

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