Dave Byrnes' Adventures

UK Three Peaks Yacht Race - 2004

Race Story          Race Memories          Map          Pictures


(Article written for Terrigal Trotters Newsletter)

Late last year, I was contacted by a long-time running friend who lives near Boston and asked to join a five-man team contesting the 2004 Magellan Three Peaks Yacht Race in the UK.  John knew that I had recently resigned from my job in the US and moved back to Australia with my family and guessed I might have some time available.

After getting a “leave pass” from Barb for what would be a one month trip, I signed on and then spent the first half of 2004 trying to get fit to run mountains with a survival pack on my back (as required by the race rules).  “Getting fit” for me can be better described as “avoiding injury”.

The Race, which combines yachting and mountain running (and a little bit of cycling) and is now in its 26th year.   Its sail/run format has been copied in similar races in Hong Kong and Tasmania.  Teams generally comprise 3 sailors and 2 runners, and their aim is to sail from Barmouth on the Welsh coast to Fort William in Scotland, via Caernarfon and Whitehaven, climbing to the summits of Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis on the way.  In addition to the overall competition, some teams also compete for the prestigious ‘Tilman Trophy’, named after the great mountaineer and sailor who inspired the race, which is awarded to the fastest yacht which has put 4 team members onto a summit.  In total there is 389 miles of difficult coastal sailing, 18 miles of mountain-biking and 72 miles of running, with 14,000 feet of ascent to reach the highest points in Wales, England and Scotland.

Our team of five included John, an American who is a long-time marathon runner, sailor and mountain climber; Ian, a Scot who had represented Kenya in sailing in the Olympics and was a mountain climbing guide, sailing instructor and Airbus pilot; Stephen, a Welshman who is a part-time sailor and mountain climber; and Bob, an Australian living near Seattle who is a marathon runner credited with completing a marathon in every US state and every Canadian province.  Apart from Ian, who is 47, the rest of us were over 50 and we had the oldest total team age in the Race, which had 21 teams entered, some of them with formidable competitive records.  John was the only team member I had ever met before but we all got on very well, even in the stressful racing environment.

Our goal was to go for the Tillman trophy with Bob and me running the first and last mountains, Snowdon and Ben Nevis, and John and Stephen climbing Scafell Pike.  This meant that the runners also had to do a fair share of the sailing, rather than just rest up between mountains.

The toughest part of the race for me actually occurred a week before it started.  I met up with Ian, John and Stephen near Fort William to pick up our hired yacht, Freedom, a 32 ft cruising boat, and sail it 300 miles non-stop to the race start at Barmouth over a weekend.  We had a strong following wind for the whole trip and made good time, but the seas were quite rough and all four of us got badly seasick.  I had never been seasick before, despite a reasonable amount of marine travel, but ended up virtually comatose below deck for 12 hours at one point.  Some of us were wishing that a giant Royal Navy nuclear submarine we saw churn past us about a kilometre away, or one of the high-speed Irish Sea ferries that crossed our paths, would run us down and put us out of our misery!  Of course, none of us had thought to bring seasick pills.  In the end, we made it, but were dreading similar conditions for the race.

In the event, we actually did have similar conditions for the race, but it’s amazing what difference a few pills make, although Bob and Stephen still felt unwell for some sailing legs.

The three days and fourteen hours it took our yacht to complete the race seems a bit of a blur in retrospect.  However, some vivid memories and overall impressions remain.  Bob and I summitted both of our mountains at about 3:00am in high winds, dense fog and driving freezing rain.  Fortunately, in the week before the race, I had done training runs to the summits of Snowdon and Ben Nevis and could remember the routes reasonably well, even in the dark.  Navigation in the abysmal conditions was a challenge and we were lucky to only lose our way once, for about 30 minutes, near the peak of Ben Nevis (which still had snow on it).  We recorded 3rd fastest time on Snowdon (5-13 for 22 miles, including 8 miles each way on road from the harbour to the trailhead) and 6th fastest on Ben Nevis (5-02 for 16 miles, including 4 miles each way on the road to the trailhead).  Stephen and John were 4th fastest on the Scafell Pike leg (9-32 for 48 miles which included two mountain biking portions).  Runners had to be in pairs and within sight of each other at all times.  They were also required to carry a pack weighing about 5kgs that included a sleeping bag and other survival gear and was rigorously checked before and after each leg.

Crossing the bar at Caernarfon at low tide in pitch darkness and strong winds was very memorable as we tried to identify unlit channel markers by torch light and anxiously watched the depth gauge counting down the feet below our keel.  The water rapidly shallowed to an adrenalin-pumping six inches beneath our keel before deepening again as we crossed.  In the Menai Straits, in the early morning light after Caernarfon and the Snowdon mountain leg, we found ourselves manoeuvring in extremely close proximity to four other yachts all trying to sail beneath a narrow span of the Menai Bridge at a place called “The Swellies” making seven knots through the water against a tidal flow running at seven knots.  There was lots of jostling, anxious watching and near misses as yachts alternately inched forward or backwards.  After three hours we made it through, although we lost some ground to larger yachts.

One very pleasant memory was the last 100 miles of sailing up to Fort William with a good following breeze filling our spinnaker all of the way.  On both sides we had magnificent Scottish Highlands vistas and, to top it off, we made up quite a lot of ground on the yachts ahead of us.

On the downside, as a landlubber, I found some of the long sailing stretches away from the coast a bit boring.  I also did not relish the three and a half days of sharing a bunk and sleeping bag with one of my team-mates (consecutively, I hasten to add!) for our brief snatches of sleep when neither of us had showered.  This mattered less, of course, when we had to sleep wearing full wet-weather gear and harnesses because of the conditions.

Overall we came eighth out of the twenty yachts that finished and were less than two hours behind third place.  Only one yacht, the favourite, failed to finish.  They carried only two specialist runners and managed to crush the foot of one of them between the yacht and the wharf as he disembarked for the first mountain leg!  We were third in the Tillman Trophy and also won the prize for being the oldest team to finish.



Round Ireland

Hume & Hovell Walking Track

Via Alpina

Australian Alps Walking Track

Land's End to John O'Groats

Round Oz Bike Record Attempt

Round Oz Bike Record Attempt

Round Oz Bike Record Attempt

Australia Tip to Top MTB

Adelaide to Darwin MTB

Sydney to Melbourne MTB

Three Peaks Race

Appalachian Trail

Alpine Track

You can email Dave directly at dave@davebyrnes.com.au or subscribe to his Adventure Blogs here.

You can see Dave's Running Blog here.