The mighty challenge of the Scottish Islands’ Peaks Race was all over Oban on Friday (18th May).
The moorings at Oban Sailing Club were swollen by just short of 50 boats in a huge fleet for the 2012 epic. Then at least two runners per boat took to the roads for a run up around McCaig’s Tower and back.
This is only the starter for a race that sees the combined skills and strength of road runners and yacht race tested to the limit in a unique challenge involving three islands, three mountain races, heading five peaks and a last sprint for the finish at Troon.
Nothing ever stops. When the crew aren’t sailing the runners are on the hills. If the weather turns wholly nasty – which it often does, if may need all hands on deck. Most of the rest of us, like two of the board of the hugely useful Cardingmill Pontoons and Moorings here, Adrian Lauder and Professor Duncan, enjoy contemplating the effort.
Food and sleep and grabbed equally hungrily in the down time of each contributor.
In Oban the returning runners are rowed back by dinghy to their boat by one member of the crew, heaved onboard along with said dinghy while the sails go up for a no holds barred race first to Salen on the Isle of Mull.
There the runners are rowed ashore to, well – run up Ben More, Mull’s only Munro. Just like that.
Then they’re rowed back for the yacht race to start again – this time back east through the Sound of Mull, south into the Sound of Lorne, through the Dorus Mhor, past the Grey Dogs and the Corryvreckan and into Craighouse on the isle of Jura. This is sailing that ticks an awful lot of boxes in the legendary west coast waters.
Splash goes the dinghy with the crew oarsman to set the runners ashore – to run all three Paps of Jura.
The crew get their heads down for four hours or so while the runners are murdering the Paps and the Paps are sapping their strength.
Another mad row back for the boat and it’s off out of Craighouse to round the Mull of Kintyre, past Sanda Island and the South of the isle of Arran to head up round its east coast to the Holy Isle and into Lamlash Bay.
Here the runners, who’ve been in their bunks since Craighouse, head for the top of Goat Fell, while the crew sleep.
Rowed out again more dead than alive they get food and this time the chance to collapse into their pits without having to face another mountain.
Now it’s all down to the crew in the last yacht race to Troon in Ayr, first negotiating the notoriously fluky winds off Holy isle.
As we write this, they’re on that last leg already. And the runners did the Paps of Jura (dawn)and Goat Fell (midnight) in the dark.
The start at Oban
Several in the large fleet couldn’t get a mooring, some using the Cardingmill Bay pontoons as a staging post until they had to go off and tootle around in the moorings until pick up time.
Pick up time is, of course, preceded by effort of a different kind. The starter run up to McCaig’s Tower.
In the hour before the start at 12.00 noon, runners are walking around, limbering up, going off on short runs to loosen up. There are serious runners here from all over the UK, dauntingly fit.
The best of them seem to semi-levitate, moving in an even glide that barely touches the ground, upper body held independently off the lower body. They look as if they could run for ever and many probably do.
We meet the runners from the dark blue-hulled yacht, Riva and some determined Norwegians from one of the boats briefly alongside at the Cardingmill pontoons.
There’s a Swiss boat too – on a mooring.
Just off Cardingmill Bay and at the edge of the moorings is Pole Star, one of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s two heavy duty work boats that maintain buoys around the west coast and islands.
Then there’s a team from Fettes College ashore from the yacht Lydia, with enough runners to have one set do the starter run around McCaig’s Tower while others wait to face the challenge on Ben More.
A red helicopter comes in over the Isle of Kerrera and vanishes, dropping down to land. It looks like it’s headed for the Manor House Hotel – but is there landing room there? This aircraft will reappear in the not too distant future and all will be known.
The gathering at the Sailing Club, with runners galore, yellow-jacketed Bruichladdich Race Control organisers, photographers and the frankly amazed gets bigger by the minute. The narrow road has been full of parked cars all along. it appears that this is not down to the race but is mainly the cars of CalMac staff down at the harbour who park up here.
The start is awesome. We almost forget to get out of the way. And the road falls silent as all that energy vanishes elsewhere.
This whole area is one Oban needs to address seriously and coherently – and why this was not part of the failed CHORD project is hard to tell. The shoreside area is ill maintained by the council and undeveloped. The slipway is overgrown and less than it might be, Access to the shore is otherwise left to nature and the risk of broken ankles, There is no rational use of space.
There’s an odd, quite narrow fenced off strip of overgrown land just shoreside of the wall at the edge of the footpath. What’s supposed to happen here? There’s recently cut grass running down from the charming little Temple of Seafood stone building beside the Sailing Club and tumbling, literally, onto the boat park at outdoor adventure Stramash’s wooden hut.
This area has all the ability to develop into an ad hoc shanty town if heads are not banged into stopping down all additions until there is a rational plan for the the strip from, say, the Sailing Club north to the end of Cardingmill Bay. This could be a designed area, built for a future with watersports, leisure sailing and support ervices, with some aesthetic and created with a considered and enabling functional relationship between its elements.
What are the odds? The track record suggests that ‘shanty town’ may well win out.
The first runners appear from this 30 to 45 minute warm up run and the different tactics become evident. The shore is spattered with waiting dinghys and rowers looking at their watches.
Based at the vantage point above the Cardingmill pontoons, we see some runners come down the grass and then take a short cut down the steep and uneven earth bank before hitting the stony and slippery shore to head for the dinghy on the waterline.
The smart ones run further but, to our eyes, gain time – heading to the slipway where they can carry on running to their dinghy. The bank descenders have had to walk, break rhythm and cannot risk even a trot across the shore.
The major competitors on the moorings already have their sail covers off and their sails hooked on ready to hoist. Some more leisurely – or supercool - boats haven’t even got their mainsail covers off yet.
Somewhere in the bedlam on the moorings is Bequia, skippered by Colin Craig of West Coast Motors, with his brother Ian, MD of Lothian Buses, John Grant of Owen Sails and runners Stuart Malcolm and newbie to the team, Gordon Lennox.
Bequia is tweeting its race – as they have done for the last two – and you can read all three race accounts.
One of the multihulls, a big cat, Sail number GBR 715M, is first out of the moorings followed in close company by a monohuller. They tack off fast, past Pole Star, down the east side of Kerrera heading for the exit from Oban Bay.
Soon there are two more, already racing out of the moorings, well heeled over. We think the first of these might be Bequia. (Note: It wasn’t – but Bequia was 8th out of the bay.)
On the moorings local legend, Tangle o’ the Isles (second shot from the top) – with some unbelievable passages behind her and more to come, waits for her runners. The Norwegian boat (the dark blue hull in the shot below) jills around and the Swiss mark time.
Then it’s all activity, little dinghy’s bundling out from the shore, bodies climbing and being hauled on board, dinghys hoisted in and secured, sails up and flapping, waiting to be sheeted in and power the boat away. There are some close calls between urgent crews fighting for space – but that’s racing. Others take a chance and go inside the yellow buoyed reef known locally as ‘the Scrat’. We’re told that there are two types of sailor in Oban – those that have hit the Scrat and those that haven’t – yet.
As the moorings clear, it becomes even more obvious just what a visually stunning place to sail this is – and if you read the tweets from Bequia, they testify to the role the place plays in doing this race. Ian Craig – who we think was doing most of the tweeting, constantly catches his breath in mid-tweet at the seascapes and landscapes unfolding as Bequia moves purposefully on.
With most of the fleet on the move, the big cat is clear of the fleet, still with her shadow though, both tacking across the head of the bay from under Dunollie Castle and over towards the little island of Rudha Cruaidh off Kerrera, where they will vanish off to Salen.
In the middle of it all emerges a very large, sleek black shark – Pharos, the Northern Lighthouse Board’s main workhorse of the seas, chooses to leave her berth right now and drives forcefully toward the entrance to the bay, on her foredeck the punctuation mark of the red helicopter that flew in earlier.
Within minutes she’s mixing it with the full fleet under Dunollie, She gives five loud hoots – code for ‘Get out of my way’. Not a chance. Doesn’t she know these guys are racing? ‘Steam gives way to sail’ and, mad as it seems from the shore, this is ‘not an inch’ time afloat, The yachts sail on. Almost none deviate. The skipper on Pharos abandons the code of hoots and just keeps his thumb on the horn. The angry sound echoes far and brings not one jot of change to the fleet.
Later the Calmac ferry from the outer isles comes in through the tailenders. She hoots as well – but not the full high five. she has less need now and ploughs steadily in to her berth.
Online, Bequia reports getting into Salen at 15.05 with their runners are away by 15.15. Neat. The crew expect them to do the Ben More run in 4.45 hours and to be away again by 20.00.
Hotntot33′s Robbie Simpson, does it in 3 hours 11-59, taking almost 14 minutes off the record. Bequia’s Malcolm and Lennox do it in 4 hours 11, seriously under expectations – and the boat’s out of Salen ‘like a shotgun’ and away for Craighouse, marveling that at this time it’s still daylight as they come under Duart Castle.
Bequia’s in Class 2 where the racing seems to be tight at the top, with Dorothea who beat Bequia into second place last year, a contender to be respected along with Clockwork and Sea Fever. The arrival order in Jura at 4.40am (Saturday) was Dorothea, Bequia, Sea Fever.
By 9.15 the runners are back on board [ having done an anticipated 5 hour run across the three Paps in 4 hours 18. A massive achievement.
With Clockwork and Sea Fever ahead, Bequia is on a spinnaker reach until the wind steadying east ahead of the beam allows a fast reach south. They say they’re ‘smokin’ at 8 knots. Light winds and a few predictable problems with the spinnaker behind them and a quick photo of the glen through from Machrihanish to Campbeltown ‘for the Kintyre brigade’ they round the Mull of Kintyre around 5.30.
Colin Craig sees his own Stormforce ferry, Kintyre Express 111, headed into the North Channel en route for Ballycastle to pick up passengers from the North West 200 bike race before Bequia leaves the Pladda Light south of Arran abeam, with Clockwork, now the class leader, ahead. Kintyre Express III appears later, for a ‘fly by’ on the return trip from Ballycastle.
Bequia is 4th boat in to Lamlash at 23.45, having improved four places since leaving Oban eighth in the fleet.
Clockwork gets away at 03.35 and Dorothea at 03.45, with John Grant of Bequia ashore waiting to retrieve their runners. They were back aboard by 04.05, leaving the crew to deal with the frustration of the fluky winds around Holy Isle and settle down for ‘the straight drag’ east to Troon. They were predicting: ‘ a grandstand finish between Bequia, Moby J, Sea Fever & Dorothea’. Racing all the way in to the inner harbour.
And now they’re in: 08.48 Sunday morning, 20th May – provisionally finishing second in their class and 4th overall – a mighty performance.
Now for next year.
Postscript: Other boats have been complimenting Bequia on its tweeting – with good reason. They took us with them, through the dawns, the pasta, the sunsets, the places they love, the strategies, the frustrations, the great blokey banter, the camaraderie with the other competing boats and that edgy competitive spirit that saw them race to the last into Troon’s inner harbour. Thanks guys, This is your story.