Three Peaks Yacht Race – Leg Two – Scafell

Pulling away from the pier head in Caernafon we felt like heroes.  Leg one had been a step into the unknown yet we had conquered our doubts, sailed almost exactly to the plan and somehow managed to keep ahead on the land. The next few hours would be challenging but my head was bubbling with unrealistic  optimism, and I happily imagined us gliding through the Menai straits on the last north going tide and into the morning sun to Whitehaven.

The minute we passed the starting mark, our spinnaker went up gently takings its shape in a fickle breeze. We had one hour of positive tide to make four miles to the Swellies then the tidal gate would firmly shut.  As the river twisted and turned trimmed and changed between sails to match the changing wind directions at each bend. We moved around the boat on tip toes and pulled lines with even gentle movements so as not collapse sails and to eek out every decimal of speed we could.

Though I felt fine, alert and awake, we both knew how important rest following our Snowdon marathon was going to be.  We needed to eat, sleep, stretch and try to allow our bodies some sort of recovery time before the next land stage, which would be more than eight hours of solid exercising.  Taking it in turns we changed out of wet running gear and ate and drank where ever possible but until we had cleared the Menai Straits the sailing would be intense and relentless; two people would be required on deck most of the time so sleeping was out of the question.

Looking back down the river we could see competitors picking up their runners then following us on the river.  In the dark with no sign of any other runners behind we had felt confident of our lead but the dawn gave a new perspective.  The boats behind us were less than half a mile away on the water – at 5 knots of boat speed this would only take 6 minutes to cover. Their sailors had slept and were refreshed, our position was fragile.

As we made slow progress up the river, the tidal gate through the Swellies started to close. The current first stopped, then started to flow against our heading, slowing our progress further until we would reach an inevitable stop. We discussed the option of picking up a mooring buoy and sleeping until the turn of the tide but with three boats now chasing us down neither Charles nor I could stomach the idea of letting them sail straight past or the outside chance they would get through the Swellies against the tide and establish an unassailable lead.

We plugged on and the sun rose higher creating heat that threatened to kill what little breeze we had. Creeping forward under spinnaker holding our lead we passed under the Britannia Bridge on the East side of the channel and entered the Swellies.

For those not familiar with this stretch of water, the Swellies it is a formidable stretch of the Menai Straits between the two bridges that join Anglesley to Mainland Wales.  The passage passes through an assortment of rocky obstacles around which a ferocious tide (which can sometimes reach 8 knots) flows.  Without exception all sailing directions advise making passage through the area only at High Water slack and under engine.  We were doing neither.

Choosing the advised route for transit we tucked Nunatak into the shoreline still flying the spinnaker.  The tide built and we slowed to a stop, then started to move backwards as our progress through the water became slower than the speed of the water itself rushing in the opposite direction. In slow motion we were being swept backwards towards the bridge we had just passed under.

There was no option but to carry on sailing.  To collapse the spinnaker at this time would mean losing all control, risking knocking the mast against one of the bridge spans if the water forced us back under at a point not high enough for the mast.  We had to concentrate, to keep trimming, gybing, steering with a racing intensity, never mind the fact we had now been awake for over 24 hours and run a marathon over night.  The bad news was we could possibly be in this state of high alert for another six hours.  Any thoughts of sleeping needed to be banished.

As we struggled against the adverse tide, our competitors, Moby J, White Cloud and Wight Rose sidled up behind us, in the lesser tide leading up to the bridge.  We watched them edge forward, one boat dropped its anchor taking the option we had rejected.  The other two ploughed on but chose to pass under the span on the west of the channel. This is not the recommended route for passing through the straits and could potentially have more current than to the East, however the wind seemed to be cleaner and soon they were making good ground on our position.

What then followed was hours of cat and mouse play in the full flow of the Swellies.  They went forward on the west of the channel, we sat still to the East.  They advanced further and seemed be making headway so we crabbed our way across to join them.  We sat sailing in endless circles, being cruelly played with by the elements.  The wind would blow just a little bit stronger, allowing us to make progress up the shore in shallow water, then the channel would deepen and the boats bow would be hit by a torrent of water as the main flow of tide washed us back to where we had come from.  Effectively we were sailing through rapids and I thought back to the swift water rescue training I had at the RNLI looking for where the current might be reversed in back eddies and trying to use them to our advantage.

Another boat threw in the towel and Moby J picked up a mooring buoy in the lee of a rocky island.  We jealously watched as they basked in the cockpit, watching the show; I imagined the runners tucked up in beds down below resting weary limbs comfortable in the knowledge someone else was responsible for getting them out of this hell.

Following a good hour of circling Charles and I decided to head back to the East side of the channel just to maintain some sort of sanity.  The stakes seemed higher to the West, the tide was faster, there were more rocks to be swept into, we were starting to tire and feeling on edge.

We watched from our stationary but stable position as White Cloud tried and tired again to get through the rapid flow of water then eventually got just enough wind to make it past the island and slowly sailed from sight around the bend.  It was a hard pill to swallow but we had to let go; tired people make mistakes and we had such a lot of race still to come.

Eventually it was our turn, we slowly crept up the shore in the shallowest water possible then had just enough breeze to move around the bend and the second bridge was in sight.  White Cloud was gone but we had a comfortable second place and steadily made our way to the Menai Bridge and out of the other side.

Making our way up the Anglesey side of the river and were met by Jon our shore crew who had made a detour to cheer us on before heading back to work on the South Coast, the others were asleep in a car park somewhere recovering from their nights activities.  His cheerful waves gave our tired minds a boost but still I was envious of all of these people sleeping.  My turn seemed a long way off.

As happens twice in every day time the tide turned and we were swept out into the Irish sea and a wind that dropped away to nothing. Finally there was enough sea room for one of us to go off watch and Charles went down first while I tried to keep Nunatak going.  The day was hot and there was only 2-3 knots of wind.  The rest of the fleet started to emerge behind us as the strong currents spat them out of the Menai straits to where we were sitting and waiting.  The sea was flat and silky, the sails hung limply.  Nunatak was going nowhere fast.  I imagined some of the crews may be rowing in these conditions but this would just not be a good game plan for a double handed attempt.  We need to rest and recover; to get the most we could out of the wind but to admit that in these conditions we may struggle to keep up.

Miserably stuck in a wind hole we looked to the East and saw competitors starting to over take us.  From our position wallowing in the West it seemed impossible to stop the rot. There is no amount of rationalisation that will take away the feelings of disappointment when this happens and as over optimistic as one can be there is a flip side of despair that will gnaw away at tired sailors stuck in the doldrums.

Our initial strategy had been to stay within the same tidal cycle as the lead boats; the lock in Whitehaven was only accessible during an average eight hour window spanning high tide.  If we missed that window and other boats got it may put them so far ahead we may not be able to catch them again on the sailing leg to Ben Nevis.

The hot day turned into evening and finally some breeze appeared and with it a new optimism we would make it.  Sailing through the night we slept when possible but changing conditions required us both to be on deck often.  The autopilot fix had failed on leaving the Menai straits so still it was not easy to make manoeuvres single handed.

Morning came and the wind died, we were less than five miles from our destination  with our ETA going up while the breeze withered away.  White Cloud made it in through the lock, their runners were off to ScaFell and all chances of staying in the same tidal gate were rapidly disappearing.

Once in range our phones started to buzz. The shore crew were there, super charged, waiting for us to arrive so they could leap into action, they had been joined by Mike and Pam, previous owners of Nunatak and 3 peaks yacht race veterans. It was a welcome distraction to speak with them about the next leg and a great relief to know every step had been planned, the lock keepers had agreed that Paul could join us in the lock to take over driving, making the transition to shore smoother. There was another autopilot ram to fit, our bikes were prepped, running food had been prepared although avocados seemed to be in short supply in Whitehaven and we were given regular updates on other crews and the gossip from across the race course.

Wight Rose in a last ditch effort to get into the lock had run aground and was now dried out on its side in front of the lock.  Moby J had arrived and were doubtless enjoying some more of that wonderful sleep.  We had only managed five hours each since the race morning now over 48 hours ago.

We arrived at the finish line, took our time and then joined the crews waiting to get into the lock.  It was a meltingly hot day and I made a conscious effort to drink water whenever I was able to get some down fearing the effects of dehydration further down the line.

ScaFell was going to be a mission.  When we recce’d the course in May it had been a hot day and we had managed to make the return trip up the mountain in less than 9 hours.  From Whitehaven we needed to cycle some 20 miles along a dedicated cycle route to the Blacksail Pass Youth hostel. From there we would transition to running and climb over the 400m Blacksail pass then drop down to sea level again for the Wassdale head check point.  Then we would ascend the 950m ScaFell, and retrace our steps back to the bikes and Whitehaven.

This would be at least 9 hours of exercise and with the effects of the previous days marathon still holding our legs back. For me it was also the first time I would have attempted back to back marathon distance running.

By the time the lock gates opened we were ready wearing packed rucksacks and the butterflies were once again rioting in my stomach.  I stepped off the boat and away from responsibility, as before my only objective was to just keep going; all logistics, pacing, repairs, navigation and thinking was now going to be taken over by an uber organised shore crew and Charles.

Arriving at the marshals desk my bike was there, ready with shoes and food for the ride.  The atmosphere was upbeat and happy, the race officials were kind and impressed by our efforts to date. ScaFell would be tough but I knew what to expect and was confident we could make it back but not sure in what sort of shape I would be.

The initial ride out of Whitehaven was good, I tucked into Charles’ back wheel and enjoyed the ride along an easy cycle path to the hills.  About half an hour in the Wight Rose runners came storming past us on their way out, they were clearly on a mission to recover from earlier sailing set backs but took the time to congratulate our efforts before powering their way through.

At our first meet up with the shore crew and it was evident they had taken race support to another level.  Lou and Ash were waiting in the car park at Ennerdale around two thirds of the way down the cycle route with a table laid out with every type of food we had mentioned we might like.  All items were available to eat now or take away in small bags, avocado and marmite sandwiches as requested were cut into bite size thirds , there was water or electrolyte bottles to swap onto our bikes and an exactly drinking temperature cup of tea for us both.  Just thinking about it now makes me smile.  Meanwhile Paul was back in his little locker once again fixing the autopilot.  We were lucky people.

The run to Wassdale head went well, knowing what to expect made a huge difference, Charles took my pack at the transition point and I carried my water bottle.  Being familiar with the route Charles knew were the next available water would be from mountain streams so we developed a pattern where i carried just enough water to get me to the next filling point, when he would run ahead and fill the bottles up then catch me up if needed.  This way we always minimised the weight to carry but did not run the risk of dehydration. Anything to make this easier for me.

We were focussed on making the ScaFell summit before dusk, the quickest decent down this summit was off road, fell running style and it would be essential for me to make this section in daylight when i had the confidence to navigate the uneven ground with speed.

We were cheerful and had good pace descending Black Sail pass in good time and arrived at the Wasdale head check point to find once again our runners cornucopia laid out with treats and two cups of tea.  There was a compulsory five minute stop at this checkpoint so we chatted with our shore crew and got news of the other teams.  We had passed White Clouds runners coming back on the cycle out from Whitehaven, Moby J and White Rose were ahead of us but the Army team had been in the next lock behind us and we expected them to pass us at any moment.

Released from our stop we headed up ScaFell, it was hot and hard going, the ascent was steep and relentless but I put my head down visualising the top, knowing it was closer with every step.

The light slowly drained from the sky and the first feelings of worry started to hover around my head about making that decent in darkness.  Snowdon had been reasonably easy, the railway track offered an even gradient and surface to negotiate in the dark. However the quick route down Sca Fell offered no path, it would be a straight down the side approach requiring full concentration, it had taken a lot of focus and energy on the recce in full daylight and i had arrived at the bottom with thighs burning from the strain.  At night there is not way i would be able to repeat that performance.

Finally making the summit the sky all around was pink and orange with the remnants of what must have been a beautiful sunset. The heat had drained out of the day and the air was still.  We turned to descend through a spikey boulder field racing the fading light.  As we ran off the summit we bumped into the Army team, asking us to confirm the path to the top.  Charles exchanged encouragement and advice while i carried on anxious to get any extra distance covered possible.  We hit the decent, racing the light down the steep grassy mountainside.

Once again my world shrank to the back of Charles’ heals.  My eyes tracked and mentally recorded where his feet has landed and I followed not lifting my head utterly resigning all attempts at decision making.  When he got too far ahead I called to slow down his progress knowing that the minute I raised my gaze trying to pick my own route the brakes would be on.  I imagined it was like finding your way through an endless sea of waves in a speeding yacht under spinnaker.  I have spent so long at sea picking my lines across oceans its comfortable for me and second nature. But here on the hills I was out of my element, I was not used to this type of running and in a failing light my confidence and ability to find the right line would be low and slow.  It was much easier to trust Charles implicitly and just follow.

We descended at good speed, so focussed on the task in hand I hardly noticed time or the fading light, and running the final foothills back to Wasdale head I felt upbeat and confident. The shore crew welcomed us back with more gossip and tea.  Apparently their table of delights had been a big hit with other passing teams who had helped themselves on the way through everyone highly amused by the provision of tea which Charles and I always accepted with appreciation.  I didn’t feel hungry but took some food to eat and we re-ascended Black Sail pass.

It was now properly dark and climbing another 400m ascent the effects of the previous two and a half days started to weigh down my legs.  I knew I needed to eat, still we had another two or more hours of exercise to finish but the sandwich got stuck in my mouth, my stomach cramped and I felt sick.  I was reaching the limits of my energy and my body seemed unable to accept any attempts to top back up.

Descending Black Sail pass was slow and difficult, my was agonisingly slow forcing Charles to patiently wait, seemingly still in good form.  My tired legs and tired mind were not match for the  intimidating, steep and technical decent in the dark.  My inner voices told me I was wasting time and the army team would appear behind us at any moment but there was no way i could push my body on.  I had reached a limit which was not going to be surpassed.

We made it to the bikes, swapped clothes and shoes then launched into an off road decent, our bike headlamps lighting the way as we sped through the night dodging potholes and rocks, trying not to skid on the gravel.  I got back some mojo, feeling back in my element on the bike in the dark.   As we transitioned onto the road Ash and Lou were waiting with more tea and the story that Lou had attended to another teams runner who they found by the side of the road suffering from a suspected heart attack.

As we left the van and started the final cycle back my body was in its 9th our of exercise and really started to shut down. I struggled up the hills my energy at rock bottom, the final and biggest hill was too much of a challenge and so we dismounted and walked to the top where Ash and Lou were once again waiting with enthusiastic encouragement which only just registered, in my flagging morale and tight focus on the finish.  The night was cooling rapidly and our clothes which had previously been sweat drenched from high temperature ascents wicked any last remaining heat from our bodies as we cycled along.  Now my inner dialogue was an angry rant, I was exhausted and uncomfortable, this was a stupid thing to have attempted, it was not fun, it was not fulfilling, I was putting myself through a new kind of pain for what? I chastised my stupid, competitive nature wondering why just doing the race as a normal team hadn’t been enough.  I never considered quitting but silently vowed to myself i would never do anything like this again.

Joining the cycle path to Whitehaven I had lost all feeling in my hands, I struggled to work the brakes or change gears as my fingers would not do as they were told.  I didn’t call for Charles to stop, I was mesmerised by the road in front and hanging on to his back wheel. My brain had gone into energy saving mode, my head was slowly drooping and my eyes closing.  The bike wobbled, adrenaline charged through my veins, I regained control and realised that just for a micro second I had actually nodded off.

Almost straight away Charles who had been oblivious to my snooze stopped in the track and insisted we put on jackets and gloves, chastising himself for not stopping and doing it earlier.  My hands were so cold I could not undo the buckles on my rucksack and we lost precious minutes as I fumbled with its contents trying to pull on gloves, but it didn’t matter.  All that mattered now was getting back in one piece.  It had been the toughest leg of the race and we were near the finish.  To fall off now would be foolish rather than unlucky.

We arrived in Whitehaven just after two in the morning to another warm and happy welcome.  Once again the boat was prepped, ready to go with a new autopilot ram in place which had been tested in the confines of the Whitehaven Dock.  Lou gave us both the medical once over and provided ice packs for my sore achilles with pain killers and anti-inflammatories.  Paul had been out and bought Pizza and chips which had been warmed through in the boats oven until they had the consistency of plywood but still tasted great.

We sat in the boat, feeling victorious and happy knowing that the absolute worst had been conquered. We had finished the leg in the same tidal cycle as all but one of our competitors, the daily telegraph cup for first past the post may have slipped out of our reach but we could still challenge for a top three line honours result.  We would be strong on the sailing and it was still all to play for.

Ash eventually called time on our team bonding session pointing out we only had three and a half hours before the lock gates would open and we needed to get some sleep before it was show time again.  We were 72 hours into the race, two mountains down, 15 hours of exercise and only five hours of sleep each; we would expect another two and a half before setting off again and sailing to Scotland.