Chilling with the dolphins and my inner dragon

1 Day to go

I am sitting on the mighty Nunatak, previous 3 Peaks yacht race winning J120 and our trusty stead for the next five days.  I just have time for a quick update, there is much to do and my mind is wandering badly so don’t expect a quality piece of prose.

I arrived yesterday in a blustery onshore breeze, I was tired but happy to have once again made myself familiar with Nunatak mentally got to grips with the waters of West Wales.  Approaching the lee shore of Barmouth the wind was gusting over 25 knots and a big swell had built in pure terms of seamanship this was not a great entry to be making in these conditions, if anything went wrong the wind and waves would mercilessly push the boat ashore.  I had calculated there would be enough tide to get over the bar when I arrived but rang the harbour master for his opinion and we both agreed due to the swell I should just hang around offshore for a while.  So I chilled in the big waves and two huge dolphins came and chilled with me for a while.  This was the last chilling I would get to do yesterday – probably the last till the end of the race – so I considered myself in good company.

Once into Barmouth the atmosphere changed, a fierce tide and strong winds made boat control and berthing a challenge however in the great spirit of this race, another skipper came across to help me and two boats made mooring up easy.

Once tied up there was little chance for relaxation the boat was swinging round wildly on the mooring and it was too windy on deck to change sails, stress started to push its way up from my toes – too much to do and a desire to be perfectly prepared, it’s a familiar story.

I slept for an hour to recharge my batteries and was then happily distracted by my cool welsh buddy Alice who had hitched a lift out to the boat with much needed chocolate and bananas.  Alice is both a helm for an RNLI rescue boat and is a member of the local mountain rescue team so it was great to hear about her exploits for a bit.  After Alice left I checked my mail and had messages from both Elin and Lowri who I was lucky enough to team up with for the 3 peaks race last year, both of them are extraordinary athletes, adventurers and business women and it is great to know they are cheering me on. On reflection I know some extraordinarily kick arse Welsh women – so for this race I am going to channel my inner dragon.

It’s another day today, I managed to get ashore and have signed on, done the paperwork.  I am now awaiting the arrival of the rest of the team. We will be ready.

The doubt

5 Days to go

I’ve just got back from a hectic few days in Norway, where I was invited to race with Hydra Sailing in the Fæder Race on board their just launched Owen/Clarke Class 40.

Maybe it was crazy to agree to this just one week before our double handed attempt at the 3 Peaks race, but I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity and so flew on Thursday night to Oslo for a race start on Friday.

The Fæder race is incredible. It’s an overnight version of the British Round the Island race, on steroids.  This year around 700 boats started in very light breeze resulting in a good few hours of intense manoeuvrings as boats of all different speeds, types and sizes vied for the limited patches of breeze, often resulting in gentle and very well-mannered bumper cars.  The Norwegians don’t seem to get half as excited as we Brits during close quarters situations.

The race continued through the night mixing, strong tides, tiny channels between islands, thunder, torrential down pours, gusty, shifty winds and boats everywhere.  Navigating this course in a boat designed for offshore and ocean racing was tough.  We changed headsails endlessly and at times were gybing every 3 or 4 minutes.  Hydra, though just launched was fast and well set up, we pushed hard and were the first Class 40 to cross the finish line.

My mind has been on the 3 peaks race almost constantly for the last few months and though I was able to switch off and focus solely on Hydra for the duration of the race, I quickly reverted to thinking about mountains on our spinnaker run back to Central Oslo.

I had been awake all night racing, the need for sleep was creeping up on me and I started to consider how I might feel approaching Whitehaven having sailed for the previous 24 hours and knowing I had a tough 9 hours of exercise ahead.

At that precise moment sailing back to Oslo I knew my body would not be capable of running up a mountain. I was already in a state of mind over matter which I am used to employing in extreme situations when single handing – each physical task is broken down mentally and I have an inner dialogue telling my body what to do as at this level of exhaustion I have limited supply of spontaneous actions.  Was this how I would feel on arrival to ScaFell?  The first seeds of doubt started to creep into my head.

But I had been awake for around 30 hours in one stretch and the day before had flown out to Norway in the evening and only made it to bed at 1 in the morning. I knew I was dehydrated and hadn’t drunk enough during the race – I had not planned to run after the Fæder race, I had used all the energy I had to keep awake and keep driving the boat overnight with the knowledge I could collapse after the finish with a job well done.

Last week I had tired legs, I ran a training half marathon distance at the beginning of the week, did some hill training following that and then worked on hill sprints on my bike.  I spoke to Charles mid week and told him I had low energy and was struggling to feel the joy even on short runs and he told me to stop training.  The dice have been rolled, there is no more to do, I can’t get any fitter now so it is time to rest and just let it happen.

I am not a natural athlete.  I love most sports but have always had to work really hard to achieve any sort of results I am proud of.  I have been training for the running sections of the 3 peaks race for just under a year and it has been tough to maintain any sort of form when the programme has been interspersed with Atlantic deliveries and offshore events where I sometimes don’t run or even walk for weeks at a time.  The recces have given me the confidence to know I can run up and down the mountains but what is in question is whether I will have the energy after sailing as well.

The 3 peaks race is going to be a long game but the ScaFell leg will be make or break. I know how I don’t want to feel when I arrive in Whitehaven and mine and Charles’ job is going to be to manage our nutrition, hydration and sleep to such an extent that we arrive as fresh as possible. That will  mean sleeping regardless of my inner niggles telling me to get on deck and sail that boat fast.  The tidal gate at Whitehaven is significant to overall performance but one might argue if we arrive on the first tide but too exhausted to run up the mountain it might be game over anyway. These are decisions to be made along the way – as a team Charles and I are going to have to constantly monitor our levels of fatigue and make good strategic calls along the way about how we as a team are going to succeed.

And finally a gentle reminder that we will be using the event to raise money for the Fairlight School Big Playground Adventure which is a project giving under privileged children a much needed outdoor space in which to Play and Learn; this will be the only opportunity some of these young children have to be outside.  You can find out more about the project through my blog here; and you can donate to the Big Playground Adventure through our just giving page.  A big Thank You to those who have already donated.

9 Days to Go

I am not normally one to hammer things home but in less than 10 days’ time Charles Hill and I are going to attempt to complete the legendary 3 Peaks Yacht Race double handed (Yes – that means with a team of only the two of us) for the first time ever in the Race’s 40 year history.

This race attempt has been dominating my physical and mental energy since my first determined training run to see if I might get fit enough to take on the mountains in July last year.

Now with the clock finally counting down it is nearly time to face up to the challenge ahead and it is BIG!

Here is a brief outline of what is normally achieved by a crew of 5 and what we must deliver as a pair come the 17th June.

 

Barmouth to Caernarfon – Sailing

62 Miles of sailing – big tidal gates and a shifting sand bar to cross at the entrance to Caernarfon.

Snowdon – Running

24 Miles – on the road to the South side of Snowdon, up the Ranger Path, then down the North side to LLanberis and back again on the road

Caernafon to Whitehaven – Sailing and Rowing

About 100 miles of sailing including a transit of the Menai Straits with some of the UKs strongest tidal currents.  If there is no wind on this tree lined passage then rowing through may be the only option.  Once out the other side we will have the first opportunity for each of us to sleep while the other races the yacht. 

Scafell – Cycling and Running 

The round trip to the summit of Scafell is around 40 miles and this is the longest and most challenging of the land legs. We will cycle to Ennerdale from Whitehaven, then transition to running and must go over the 400m high Black Sail Pass before summiting Scafell and returning to the bikes once again over the Black Sail Pass.

This leg took us just under 9 hours in our recce but in the race we will have run a marathon the day before and only slept for around 5 hours in recovery.

Whitehaven to Fort William – Sailing Rowing, Sailing Rowing, Sailing Rowing

227 miles of tidal gates, wind holes, and challenging navigation.  We expect to row some of this leg, and in 2013 had to row the full final 2 miles up the canal to the finish; but we must use the time to sleep and recover as much as possible after our Scafell ordeal.

Ben Nevis – Just a bit of running

The mighty Ben!  We set off at sea level by the entrance to the Caledonian canal and must make the climb of 1344m and back down again to finish the race. By this point I know we will be physically and mentally exhausted but the finish will be in our sights.

There has been a big work up to this event and over the next couple of days I will be introducing you to our shore team and blogging about some of the training challenges, physical and mental I have faced in the last year.

I don’t often fund raise alongside my racing but for this special attempt Charles and I have decided to support the Fairlight School Big Playground Adventure which hopes to provide a safe outdoor space for underprivileged young children to grow their own dreams.  If you are inspired please visit our Just Giving page or if you wish to speak about making a larger donation then contact me directly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beating

Beating:  Sailing to windward.

‘We were on the beat’, ‘ I was beating to Poole’ ‘it’s a beat’ – one of those nautical terms that just makes no sense if overheard in a conversation by a non-sailor.  But as Phorty drops of the crest of another wave with a bone shattering slam ‘beating’ is exactly the word to conjure up our trip back across the Atlantic from Bermuda.

We are currently 300 miles off the west coast of Ireland having been pushed all the way north by persistent and strong Easterly winds making entry through the Western approaches to the English Channel anything but easy going.  Since departing Bermuda some 13 days ago we have been battling our way into headwinds for pretty much the entire time.

Down below we move around like foul weather clad orangutans, the constant heeling and bucking of the boat on the waves makes standing up without holding on an impossibility so we hang off ropes secured to the cabin top, walking our way forward or aft using arms not legs to keep us steady.  One handed tea making has become a refined skill amongst our delivery crew of three, as well as dressing, washing and any other daily tasks you could imagine, which become a major mission when you can’t stand up.  The rigid structure of Phorty’s hull transfers energy directly to the interior so badly stacked sail bags and sleeping people slowly bounce out of there allocated spaces and end up in a heap on the leeward side of the boat.  A wave caught on the outside of the hull can be felt like a kidney punch to the person sleeping on the inside. But sleep still comes if you are tired enough.

On deck the waves pour constantly down the deck though sitting inside the cuddy we are kept safe from the elements.  The autopilot does not care for our comfort and will drive Phorty straight off the face of waves mercilessly following instructions to the letter.  A human hand on the helm produces a more gentle ride and I have spent hours now mesmerised by the form of the waves, the oncoming gusts and keeping a steady and smooth course. Occasionally we will scuttle up to the mast and put a reef in as the heel on the boat becomes too much, only to drop it out a few hours later always searching for a better speed.

We were given some respite from this sheeted in, heeled over state by the passage of a little low pressure system mid Altantic, which snuck up behind to blow us on our way.  This time sails were eased to half way, we reached across messy seas with gusts up to 40 knots and our mainsail reefed down to the max.  In these conditions the autopilots sadistic approach was too much to bear so we took it in turns to hand steer picking our way through the onslaught of waves approaching from different directions.  Being on the helm then, sitting out on the very side of the boat, was like being jetted with a fire hose for hours and hours on end.  The half-height combing behind the helming position stopped us from being washed off the deck but at the end of a watch my torso felt like it had been beaten and my right eye was red from the constant barrage of salt water that had been directed at it.

My new drysuit is without a doubt my current favourite thing.  When I am wearing it I feel invincible.  Yes I will go onto the foredeck and pull that sail down, or tidy those ropes – you can’t get me waves! No more soggy trouser bottoms from crawling on a wave drenched deck.

It has been a tough delivery that is for sure but Phorty has coped with the conditions well and as always I have learned a huge amount.  I am sure it sounds horrendous to some (ok maybe to most) but to sail this boat is a real privilege for me. In order to achieve performance sacrifices must be made, the boat is built to race, to be strong, to be light and were comfort is important you will find it (such as in the helming position) but nowhere else.  For me this is no problem, I will never complain about conditions on board because this boat is made to race and if I want to experience what it can do then I must embrace all that it is.

 

So beating does not seem such a jibberish word all in all. We have been given a beating all the way across the Altantic.  My rough and calloused hands, the ribs starting to show through my skin and weary back an shoulders all profess to that; but we are not beaten.  We have snuck around the top of these easterly winds and tonight will drop down from the north with a following wind to make Lands End by Tuesday.

 

beating beating

Foul winds, Foul Fuel

The route back from the Caribbean is seldom simple; it is a question of planning a strategy to dodge around weather systems, avoiding the headwinds, skirting around the windless holes then waiting for the perfect low pressure system to sweep you east without beating you up on the way. We left Antigua with a grand plan in mind; to head north out of the easterlies and then motor directly through the centre of a high pressure system above us. Once this was cleared we would hook into a low and ride our way home. Simple but effective. Like all great plans, it didn’t turn out that way and somewhere on day 4 of our trip things took an unusual turn and the last week has been poles apart from what I had hoped. Objectives for yacht deliveries are completely different to racing. My main aims for this passage are naturally to keep my crew safe, then to minimise wear, tear and damage to the boat and sails then finally to get back to the UK as quickly as I can. When I look at the weather I am not only looking for a quick route but also an easy one, I will avoid excessive wind and waves and aim to motor through areas of calm as much as fuel supplies will allow. For this trip Phorty is using old sails which is also limiting our performance – I have only a small jib and small spinnaker available to use. The good new ones are kept for racing best. At times deliveries can be painfully slow, especially if you know just how much potential the boat has to go faster; I find it quite hard and have to mentally sit on my hands to stop them from searching out big spinnakers or shaking out reefs when actually we are going fast enough already. So.. back to day 4 of our delivery and we are making our way north, under motor with a blistering hot sun baking down on the deck. And then all of a sudden we are not. With a faltering put putting, the engine grinds to a halt and we are left wallowing – a heavily laden boat with small delivery sails in a big sloppy and windless ocean. Somewhere along the lines we must have picked up some dirty fuel and the engine could no longer be relied upon to either charge our batteries or fire up in an emergency situation such as man overboard. There was only one solution available, which was to sail to Bermuda some 400 miles to the North West then drain our tank, change the fuel filters and start the trip over again. The biggest hurdle being actually getting to Bermuda from the wind hole we were firmly stuck in. It took three days of trying, of hoping every time a ripple appeared on the horizon that this would be the breeze filling in then the disappointment as the boat slapped and slammed and the sails hung loose when the wind fizzled out to nothing again. To make matters worse we were due to make our Bermuda landfall just after sunset on a Saturday night so the hope of getting professional help on the island on a Sunday was limited and we would need to spend the night stooging around outside the island in the dark, as to sail between the reefs with no engine at night would not have been a smart idea. In an effort to try and organise some help for a quick turn around, back in the UK Ash started to ring around various contacts to find out where was the best place to go in Bermuda to sort our problems out and if there was anyone who might be able to help out on a Sunday. After a great flurry of contact – many thanks to everyone who offered advice – we came back with the answer that Bermuda is basically closed on a Sunday. No one could even think about whether they could help us until Monday morning. As the sun rose on Sunday we came to the realisation we were on our own, rolled up our sleeves and decided to nail this problem. With the help and guidance of the Duty Officer at the wonderful Bermuda Harbour Radio we sailed in through Town Cut to St Georges harbour then picked up a tow from a passing fisherman and finally we made it to the shore. The mission would now begin and I had a problem solving ace crew for the job. I pulled apart the stern locker to find an oil extraction pump and some old garden hose which was then duly cobbled together to drain the tank. Diane led a mission to find a disposal place for the old fuel and a garage to get some new stuff. After two hours of pumping, rinsing, cleaning and walking backwards and forwards with jerry cans the engine started again and we left it purring away for a couple of hours, watching from a quayside restaurant while inhaling a burger and chips that was long overdue. And so that evening we once more set off to sail back to England. The forecast is slightly different and we are one crew down as Poppy flew home from Bermuda, but three days into the next leg of our trip and I am pleased to report there is nothing to report. The worlds of racing and deliveries require different temperaments – to mix them up would bring failure on both counts. However there is one stand out attribute that is required across the board when ocean sailing and that is to take adversity on the chin. Things go wrong, sometimes fault can be attributed, and sometimes it just happens. For every problem that gets thrown into your path a solution must be found, circumstances must be endured or embraced, there is seldom time for self-pity or lamentation and rarely anyone else to play the fairy godmother and make your problems go away. If you can do all this and still find the time to enjoy a stint on the helm or marvel at a beautiful sunset then life cannot be bad at all.

And Breathe…..

I am a bit of a yes woman.
I like to say yes to most things, whether they are invitations to dinner or crazy endurance challenges. Saying yes feeds my appetite for experience and also guards against that nagging feeling that somewhere along the line I might miss out. Saying yes pushes me along, it encourages me to use my time as productively as I can, to work, to learn, to experience and to spend time with the people I love. However, packing so much in just before heading off on a Trans-Atlantic crossing can result in one crazy Pip, ricocheting between countries and activities, trying desperately hard to keep all of those balls from crashing down around me. In the last couple of weeks I have managed to pack in a lifejacket test for Yachting World magazine, a snowboarding trip, a pit stop in Sweden to review the new Hallberg-Rassy 44 and an all-day running and biking event – all the while planning provisions, spares and repairs for the delivery of Phorty back across the Atlantic. I arrived in Antigua with delivery crew on the 28th and since then we have worked and prepared in a suffocating humidity to make sure we and the boat would be ready for whatever the ocean throws at us in the next couple of weeks. My crew settled in quickly and it has been wonderful to team up with fellow mini sailor Diane Reid, who I have not really spent any time with since our 2013 race; as well as Charles who is my co-skipper for the upcoming double handed attempt at the 3 Peaks Yacht Race and his daughter Poppy. When we finally cast off the lines and sailed out of Falmouth harbour to start our 3500 mile journey back to the UK the cool breeze was a welcome to us all. Immediately the frenzied activity of the past few weeks has been caught up on a warm Caribbean wind, my shoulders are relaxing and my gaze is on the wonderful empty ocean that lies ahead. I love sailing across oceans, this will be my 11th trans-Atlantic and I felt just as excited and nervous when leaving the dock as I did on the first. Not only will I have time ahead to indulge in sailing this wonderful boat (every day is a school day on board) but also to reset the pace of life, to focus on just one thing and start to breathe again.

Proud to Support the Big Playground Adventure

I have had a strong connection with the outdoors my whole life.  Being outside, feeling the raw elements of the British weather on my skin, has always had a positive impact on me both physically and mentally.  I have my best thoughts when I am out in the open air and just going outside for a walk, run or sail can dramatically change my mood and my energy.

I was lucky to have been brought up in a family where being outdoors was part of what we did.  After school my Mum gave us two choices, be inside and do your homework or go outside and run around.  We spent family holidays messing around on the water or walking in the hills so perhaps it is not surprising I turned out this way.  I first hand understand how vital outdoor activities are to the physical and mental well-being of any person, especially when they are young.

 

With my sister Rachael enjoying the outdoors

When I think of childhood it is a lot about running round outside, playing games and getting dirty but for many children in the UK now this could not be further from the truth.  In a growing number of areas around the country children are living in overcrowded accommodation with no access to gardens or green space where they can safely play.  Home life is limited to being indoors and so their only chance of safe outdoor play time is at school where often facilities and space are limited.

I know all this because I have a sister, Rachael, who is a dedicated and passionate teacher at a primary school whose pupils largely come from homes like this and Fairlight Primary and Nursery School want to change the lives of their pupils for the better.

The Big Playground Adventure Appeal is seeking to raise £67,000 to build an amazing outdoor learning area, complete with adventure trail equipment, outdoor classroom facilities and sheltered areas where children can play and learn throughout the school day.  The schools vision is that ‘every individual child achieves’ and the new outdoor area will support that vision by:

  • improving outdoor provision for disadvantaged children
  • improving the physical fitness and mental well being of all children in their school
  • improving learning outcomes in particular for disadvantaged children through outdoor learning opportunities

As Charles Hill my co-skipper in the 3 Peaks Yacht Race and I both greatly understand the link between achievement and outdoor activities we both felt a great affinity towards the Fairlight project and have decided to use our unique race attempt to fund raise for this project.

If you are inspired by our own efforts in chasing down a so-far never attempted endurance challenge then please help the staff and parents of Fairlight School give their pupils a chance to feel just some of what so many of us take for granted – and donate to the appeal through our Just Giving page.

If just putting money into a generic pot is not your thing then Fairlight could also offer the opportunity to buy selected equipment directly or even fund selected areas and would be happy to recognise any donations.  If this sounds more your bag then please get in touch with me or the school directly.

Before I sign off let’s just put one thing straight – in case of any misconceptions.  Yes, Fairlight School is in Brighton and this is not necessarily an area we may associate with deprivation.  But surely we are all aware that every city has many faces, many different districts with a vast disparity of wealth across a relatively small area, if you still need more convincing you can find out more information about the project here.

If like me you want to help give the children of Fairlight a chance to benefit from time spent in a safe outdoor environment then please donate to the appeal.

The BIG Outdoor Learning Adventure

 

Fairlight Primary and Nursery is an inner city school with 420 pupils ranging from 3 to 11 years. We are looking for funding to develop our outdoor environment to help us realise our school vision EVERY INDIVIDUAL CHILD ACHIEVES.

Our Aim

  • to develop an inspiring outdoor learning environment which will support every individual child and enable them to achieve their full potential in all areas of learning

It’s goals:

  • to improve outdoor provision for disadvantaged children
  • to improve the physical fitness and mental well being of all children in our school
  • to improve learning outcomes in particular for disadvantaged children through outdoor learning opportunities

Why should you help us?

Fairlight is a school which has an extremely diverse population. This is a fact which we celebrate but also comes with many challenges. A significant proportion of children who attend our school come from disadvantaged backgrounds, they do not have the money or resources to attend out of school clubs and activities, they  are often living in very poor and overcrowded accommodation, with no or little outdoor space and indoor living areas that have been changed into bedrooms. Living in these environments can lead to both physical and mental health issues, however stimulating outdoor provision is well documented to have therapeutic benefits to children, there have been numerous studies into the benefits of outdoor learning and it’s potential to improve all aspects of children’s well-being: physical, emotional, social, and cognitive. In our area of the city there are a limited number of safe outdoor spaces that groups serving children affected by economic issues would be able to afford, therefore development of our playground would enable us to open up these opportunities further and to improve its use not only for our pupils but also the wider community. 23% of the children in Fairlight have English as an additional language and 26 different languages are spoken at the school at the current time. This is 80% more than other schools in Brighton and 78% more than schools nationally (Arbor 2016). Many of these children have come to us directly from abroad either due to immigration because of poor circumstances in their home country or as refugees. These children often have little or no English language however the language of play is universal. So by ensuring our playground is a safe, stimulating and welcoming environment we will not only be supporting their physical and mental wellbeing, but also their language development too.

What our children say

Recently our Governors completed a large project to readdress our school vision and what it actually means to different to our stakeholders. The children overwhelmingly spoke about the outdoor environment, how important it was to them and how much they wanted to be able to learn more through being outside. We have a strong School Council who have already done a huge amount of work with our pupils, seeking their opinions on the environment and how it can be improved. They have visited other schools to look at possibilities and also discussed ways that they can raise funds to support the project.

What we need

We are looking for funding towards developing different areas of our playground over the next 18 months:

£20 000 will enable us to put in new multi-use sports goals and adventure trail equipment which will help improve the physical fitness of our pupils and enable them to take part in different sporting activities both during and outside of school times.

£25 000 will build an new mezzanine floor, creating space for another class to be able to work in the outdoor environment, in particular looking at science projects and large scale design and technology.

£17 000 will build a new enclosed sheltered area which can be used as a separate outdoor learning area both during the school day and then as an area for an additional club or group outside of school hours

£5000 will help us to develop our outdoor area for our youngest children (3 to 5 years) providing much needed play shelters which can be used in many ways to support their learning and development.

 

 

The monster awakens – going for broke in 2017

If there is one thing I know about myself it’s that I thrive on challenge; I constantly need to be questioning and testing the limits of my own abilities both physically and mentally. I love to learn, to better myself and then ultimately to put it all to the test.

The last couple of years have been more focused on mental challenges than the physical.  Last year after seven years of study I finally gained my undergraduate degree with the Open University and since 2013 I have enjoyed a job working with the innovative Community Safety team at the RNLI thinking up new ways to save lives around our coasts.  But in the middle of last year I realised the challenge had gone from my life; I was starting to feel at a physical and intellectual standstill and so it was time for a change.

So here we are in 2017 and I have got challenge in spades.

Firstly at the end of last year I was asked to skipper the 3rd generation Class 40 ‘PHOR-TY’ and I jumped at the chance to get back into competing at international level, offshore racing.  The purchase of the yacht went through in early December and then saw me hightailing it from France to the Caribbean over Christmas and New Year so we could attend our first race of the year, the Caribbean 600 last month.

six17-2355

Despite having to learn on the job and only just getting to know the boat the team were lucky enough to be joined by the super talented Sam Goodchild for this race and after four days of battling it out in unusually light winds managed to win our first race by a 40 minute lead against stiff competition.

At the end of this month I will head back out to the Caribbean with a delivery crew to deliver PHORTY back across the Atlantic for a full programme of double handed offshore and ocean racing in Europe – all finishing with my second attempt at the Transat-Jacques Vabre from France to Brazil, one of Ocean Racing’s most prestigious events.  I am really looking forward to the amazing competition the Class 40 fleet will offer and to immense amount of learning and adaption that will be required to race this boat at the level of which it is capable.

You find out more about team PHORTY here.

I suppose you might think a full programme of Ocean racing would give my brain, my heart and my body the fix they are looking for but there is another project which has really got under my skin and has also come to fruition this year.

final interviewSince doing the amazing 3 Peaks Yacht Race for the first time in 2013 I have upheld this event to be one of the toughest endurance challenges I’ve ever come across – and it’s exciting and fun.  Last year I was lucky enough to, for a second time, win Line honours in the event with the incredible bunch of female athletes that made up team Aparito.  In both of these events I was struck by how similar I felt in mentality to the runners and subsequently listening to an interview with Lowri Morgan on the Tough Girl podcast I felt it could have been me talking about sailing.

In 2014 I had a crack at running an ultra-marathon, finishing but in a disappointing time due to injury and this led to the creeping, sneaking feeling that I fancied running in the 3 Peaks Yacht Race.

At some point between 2014 and 2016 I decided that just running wasn’t going to be tough enough and started to wonder if it would be possible to do both.  The race has always required a crew of five with two runners for each mountain, this gives the runners time to rest and recover while the sailors race between legs.  I started to think about the practicalities of taking on this course with a crew of two  – it would be possible but would absolutely push the limits of human endurance – and so the idea took form. I just needed a co-skipper and a water tight proposal to put in front of the committee.

From June 2016 this crazy idea grew in stature, I found my co-skipper in the hard core fell runner Charles Hill who ran for our entry in 2013 and is also an accomplished sailor.  At the beginning of this year we submitted a proposal for a double handed entry to the Three peaks yacht race committee and I am delighted/terrified to say they accepted our entry.

A chilly and windy Snowdon recce in February

Now every spare minute I can find is being spent training for the big one, trying to run as much as possible, to practice on hills, to recce the courses and of course not to injure myself in the process. Just thinking about the race gives me butterflies; I know it can be done but I also know this is going to be the hardest event I have attempted to date.

As an added bonus Charles and I have decided to use the event to raise money for a project being set up by my sister to create a much needed outdoor space for children to play, relax and just be safely outside in an area deprived of any such facilities.  You can find out more and donate to The Big Playground Adventure appeal here.

I must admit to wondering at what point this monster inside me that craves pushing to the limits will be satisfied.  I have always been a big dreamer and inevitably when a dream becomes big enough I will put it out into the world and then chase it down until it becomes a reality.  It is this thing that makes me feel most alive.

One thing is for sure, the Three Peaks Yacht Race double handed has never been attempted before, and is my biggest challenge to date; this is definitely enough to feed the monster and more.

Three Peaks Race – Final Leg

At 10.49 on Wednesday morning Jo and Lowri ran over the finish line and straight into the arms of our sailing team and the history books of the Three Peaks Yacht Race.  We have won, line honours, overall sailing on handicap, leg three sailing and running combined and would end up second overall on sailing and running combined. We are only the fourth ever female team to finish the race and the first to win.  The final leg from Whitehaven had allowed us to shine, but was not without it’s drama and soul destroying moments.

During Monday afternoon our runners Jo and Lowri, battled their way around the biking and running course from Whitehaven, to the top of Scarfell pike and back while we the sailors slept, organised and fretted back on Nunatak in Whitehaven marina.  We had positioned the boat in a prime berth, right opposite the marina entrance where the lock gates were on free flow, and waited for their return with nervous anticipation.

The girls appeared at the top of the ramp, covered in bruises and blood from multiple tumbles while running on the slippery paths of the lake districts highest peak, our shore crew waited on the corner of the pontoon to direct them, the film crews set up to capture their return and Elin shouted to a group of sailors to clear the way –all eyes were on the runners for a dramatic entrance. Lowri led the way, the cameras were rolling, she came down the ramp, onto the main pontoon and tried to turn the corner up to the boat but her cycling shoes with cleats on the bottom and no grip gave way and she promptly slid over in a heap on the floor.  Jo, not far behind, saw what happened and tried to avoid the same spot but left it too late and wiped out on the same corner, leaving both of them in a pile – a very helpful gentleman watching proceedings from his cockpit, sniffed and loudly conjectured, ‘And that’s why we don’t run on the pontoons!’ Such helpful comments.

With the runners safely on board, ego’s intact we headed straight out through the open lock gates.  We were in fourth position, with a distance of 6 miles between us and the lead boat Wight Rose to catch up the front of the fleet.

The evening was murky and started with light winds, we were chasing the other boats, but with little opportunity to make gains. After a couple of hours the wind started to change direction and soon we were reaching for our spinnaker and Nunatak started racing towards the Mull of Galloway.  Down below the runners were tucked into their bunks, kick starting their recovery from the previous 9.5 hours of effort, and as the speed built they were woken up with the sound of water rushing down Nunatak’s hull, and the occasional squawk of delight from the helm as we started clocking speeds of over 13 knots over the ground.

We approached the Mull of Galloway under spinnaker and with the three of us trimming the boat as hard as we could, Nikki on the helm, Elin managing the pole and me trimming and navigating.  By now we could see the outline of Pure Attitude and knew they did not have their spinnaker up, we were gaining on them fast and decided to pass between them and the shore, right under the cliffs of the mull.

The cockpit was alive with tension as we scraped our way along the shore to keep out of the tide, the wind was blowing down through the gaps in the cliffs, heeling the boat over suddenly and rounding us up, requiring great team work from the three of us to keep moving and to keep safe.  We worked intensely for three or four hours, constantly talking to each other about course, trim, speed – focussed, determined and loving the opportunity to sail hard together.

The strategy paid off and by the time the sun came up on Tuesday morning we were leading the fleet.  Wight Rose and Moby J were over 6 miles behind us and Pure Attitude could be seen on the horizon. But as is the way with sailing among the hills in the Scottish Highlands, not long after the sun came up we sailed into a massive windless hole and sat there helplessly while Pure Attitude sailed up behind us.

Our rowing seats and outriggers had been taken apart and stowed for the spinnaker leg and getting them out of the locker and in position seemed to take for ever – it was stressful as all the while our competitors were effortlessly sailing up to us.  I fumbled with the screws and bolts, put the struts on in the wrong order and couldn’t get them off again, I wanted to swear but the on board camera woman was filming my frustration – these things seem so cruel, after putting in such a lot of effort to get ahead.

The next couple of hours were spent rowing between wind holes, we adopted the mantra – ‘just keep the boat moving’ – in recognition of the fact that we could row Nunatak at a reasonable 1.5knots once she had momentum but trying to get any speed from a standing start was very hard.  The three sailors rotated round, taking it in turns to row on each side and to steer.  The sails stayed set and we rowed to where we could see wind on the water, when we started to sail we shipped the oars but stayed in position and as soon as the speed dropped below 2 knots we would start rowing again.  I was starting to develop blisters on my palms from the rough wooden oar handles, Nikki and Elin’s backs were hurting, but we rowed on determined to keep our lead.  The runners woke up with the commotion on deck and came up to offer help – we were still pretty adamant we did not want them to jeopardise their recovery by rowing a lot but Jo helmed and Lowri did a couple of stints rowing so we could eat or drink or strip off a few layers.

Eventually our diligence paid off – we rowed to a solid breeze and ghosted away, watching our rivals lolling behind.  The experience had been unnerving so we left the rowing seats on deck but the wind built enough for a quick ride past the Mull of Kintyre and into the Sound of Jura.

Following another few hours of playing cat and mouse with the wind, always terrified we would park up in a hole while our rivals slid past in wind not far away – we had at one stage hoisted Nikki up the mast to survey the route ahead looking for calm patches on the water – we finally found a solid breeze and started moving again up the sound.

By this time the tide was against us and so we needed to hug the edges of the loch to get out of the tide and make better progress. By now it was a sunny day and the runners –  who had been nicknamed ‘The Meer cats’ as they only normally stuck their heads out of the hatch to look around before going back to their bunks to continue recovery – came out on deck and we worked Nunatak up the Jura shore.  Again we sailed like a fully crewed boat, tacking in and out of a 100m band from the shore, sometimes coming within a few metres of the rocks before tacking out, then heading back in as soon as we saw a drop in our speed over ground.

We tacked around 100 times over that afternoon and evening, our course on the tracker looks like a smooth line heading exactly North and gives no indication to the amount of effort expended to achieve it.

It is hard not to give a blow by blow account of the following 12 hours, I can remember pretty much every tack – we worked our way between rocks and islands, the wind increased to create fairly rough conditions at the beginning of the night and for the first time in the race we had waves crashing over the deck.  We had managed to work our way ahead of Pure Attitude but did not stop trying to gain every knot of speed we could to increase the lead and give our runners a great head start.  They lay down below in their bunks, listening to us working, starting to feel the tension as we drew closer and closer to Fort William – soon it would be their turn.

We came through the Corin narrows with a two hour lead; the cloud cleared from the top of Ben Nevis and we could see the steep ascent speckled with patches of snow. It looked formidable – neither one of the runners could eat as they prepared for their last summit meanwhile on deck we fought for every second of advantage we could gain.

With only a couple of miles to go and in flatter water we had one further  drama to navigate which could still cost us significant time between the finish and dropping the runners.  During the night while charging the engine had stopped.  We had very little fuel and were heeled over and managed to suck air into the fuel system. Half way up the channel we decided to try and bleed the engine and do a test start in neutral to see if we could get it going again, if that did not work we would need to pump up the tender and row the runners ashore which would take a lot of preparation.  While Elin and Nikki tacked their way up the shallows off Fort William I had my head inside the engine bay, trying to brace myself against the heel of the boat and frantically working the fuel lift pump. It took a couple of goes but we managed to bleed all of the air out of the engine, and we hit the finish line then raced towards the dock at the entrance to the Caledonian Canal.

Chris our shore crew was waiting on the dock to catch our lines, we came in with speed and our runners jumped off, all of us feeling sick with nerves.  We had smashed it – the sailing leg was won and the coveted line honours trophy which has been the goal of many a great sailor and adventurer since 1977 was within our grasp.

Jo and Lowri set off up the mountain in worsening conditions, it was cold and raining, the wind was building, we could no longer see the summit and the cloud was hanging low everywhere.  We were elated, to have finished the sailing first but feeling agitated and powerless to do anything further as it was all down to our runners.  So once we had secured Nunatak inside the lock we all jumped in a couple of cars to go and wait on the Ben Nevis foothills.

It was raining and cold on the mountain – there were camera crews dotted up the track waiting for the girls to come past. We split up, some of us climbing up the path, some waiting further down and as soon as the yellow bibs of our runners came into sight we started to cheer.  They looked great, smiling and confident; they had seen the crew of Pure Attitude coming up as they were coming down and were happy they had a good lead.  We ran with them down the final section, chatting and laughing and telling them how amazing we thought they were.

Our second shore support Mike, who was the previous owner of Nunatak and has competed in the Three Peaks Race multiple times was with us and said the last few miles from the foothills back to the lock are tough and sole destroying. They are on roads, through industrial and housing estates, a lonely section of run – so Nikki and I drove with Mike to meet the girls on every corner we could to cheer them on.  It was great for us to see them smiling, and to feel like we were in some way taking some of the pain.  Elin and Chris went ahead to set up at the finish so we had all bases covered.

Jo and Lowri crossed the line, smiling and victorious. We had a group hug which ruined the camera mans finishing photo’s and cracked open the Champaign.  We had achieved what we turned up to do – winning line honours, but not only that we had won the sailing part of the race overall on handicap, and won leg three conclusively on sailing and running combined.  The runners from Pure Attitude put in a phenomenal run and managed to put their team 39 mins ahead of us on corrected sailing and running time combined to win the IRC trophy, for which we dropped into second place.

When Elin suggested the Three peaks race to me earlier this year I jumped at the chance to sail with her and to race this epic course again.  When she showed me her suggested line up for the crew my stomach did flips, I knew we would be competitive.

The race has been an exceptional one and one of the best experiences of my sailing life. I have shared five days of hard physical and mental pressure with four of the most talented, strong and wonderful women I have ever met in my life.  As a team we were hand-picked by Elin, who knew us all but we did not know each other.  We all met for the first time less than two days before the start of the race – we had never practiced sailing Nunatak together before the start gun went, Jo and Lowri first ran together the day before the race.  However, from the moment we met we were a team, we understood what was required of us as individuals and how best to work together. We supported and encouraged each other, were honest, took criticism, endured pain, sleep deprivation and physical discomfort because it was for the good of the team and all the while we laughed.

We were diligently and wonderfully supported by our shore team, Chris Frost and Mike and Pam Jacques, whose attention to detail did not waver and made transitions easy to handle allowing the sailing team to eat and sleep knowing our runners were well supported on the mountains.

The fact that we are all women really should not and did not make a difference to our result.  Every one of the crew of Team Aparito Digital Health is a serious athlete and when we line up on the start of any event we chose to take part in, it is on equal and respectful terms to everyone else there regardless of gender. When we came to the start of the Three Peaks Race we brought with us a wealth of experience from years of competing in multiple and diverse endurance events. Endurance sports require mental toughness as much as physical strength, this is never more highlighted than in the field of ultra-marathon running and short-handed offshore racing. We have taken on one of Britain’s toughest adventure races and proved that gender is not a factor in winning – you need to train hard, be well prepared, work as a team and never ever stop trying to do better.

Of course I would like to say a massive thank you to all of our supporters – Aparito Digital Health for their headline sponsorship, Sub Zero, Keela, and Spindrift for not only providing fantastic kit for the race but also cheering us on all the way around. Primal pantry and mountain house also provided us with food.  However the biggest thanks of all needs to go to Chris Frost who quite simply we would not have been able to do the race without.  Chris allowed us to use his boat, prepared it for us, delivered it to the start, and then followed us up the coast, never losing and opportunity to cheer us on from the shore or provide some sort of support. He and Mike even came out in a boat to shadow us up the shores of Jura.

The documentary following this year’s Three Peaks race, and featuring our team including on board footage will be available on SC4 in Welsh language as a three part series in July and then a one hour English language version will appear on channel 4 later in the year