Sailing the Three Peaks Challenge

If you thought the National Three Peaks Challenge was tough, imagine what it would be like to sail it!

This more adventurous adaptation of the well known hiking challenge requires participants to sail the 389 miles between the highest mountain in each of the home nations of England, Wales and Scotland, along some of the UK’s most challenging coastal waters. If that wasn’t hard enough, the race also involves 72 miles of running to reach each of the three summits as well as a 40 mile bike ride, all in the space of just 3 days.

I caught up with a team of four British Army soldiers who did just that while also raising money for the Soldiers Charity – the Army Benevolent Fund (ABF).  What made their journey even more unique was their choice of boat, ‘Skinny Dipper’; a homemade, Polynesian-inspired catamaran and the only boat of its class to be entered into the race in over 15 years.  As you’ll discover, their journey was far from straightforward and unforeseen weather conditions would push the team to their limits, ultimately having to abandon Skinny Dipper in order to make it to the finish line on time.

Sail the Peaks on Snowdon Summit

Majors Thomas Bright and Charlie Bairsto at the Summit of Mt Snowdon


“Hello guys [Majors: Charlie Bairsto, Thomas Bright, Russell Archer and Ivan Rowlatt].  First of all, a massive congratulations for getting to the finish line, albeit not how you initially imagined.  Tell me what happened?”

[Charlie] Thanks Dave.  Yes, we’re all really happy to have made it to the finish despite having to abandon the sailing element mid-race.  Unfortunately, unforeseen weather conditions simply made it impossible for us to continue.  The problem was the long-range weather forecast.  We had anticipated light Southerly winds for the duration of the race; perfect for us in a lightweight boat heading North up the West Coast of the UK.  We started out very well, with long periods on the oars.  However, when the wind did finally arrive it was not at our backs as predicted and, as the race continued, the wind only increased in strength.  Unfortunately, our catamaran was simply not designed for sailing into headwinds like this; we were severely disadvantaged.  After two days of relentlessly battling against the worsening conditions, it simply became untenable to continue on Skinny Dipper.  So with only a few hours remaining in which to complete the challenge, we made the difficult decision to withdraw from the sailing race and take an overland route to Fort William in order to finish before the cutoff time.

“So what made you want to take on such a gruelling challenge in the first place?”

[Thomas] Well, the four of us have been close friends for nearly 15 years now.  Back in 2015 we all found out that we would be stationed at the same unit together for the first time in nearly 10 years of military service.  With us all being highly competitive individuals, routinely undertaking challenging events in our own time, we decided to use this opportunity to do something together.  Sailing the Three Peaks was perfect and played to our individual strengths, with a good level of rowing, sailing and running experience spread throughout the team.

“Tell me a little about your boat.  It wasn’t quite what you would consider a conventional vessel was it?”

Sail the Peaks Skinny Dipper with ABF flag

[Russell] ‘Skinny Dipper’ is a homemade, 26-foot, Wharram Tiki Catamaran.  It’s a Polynesian inspired design consisting of two separate hulls, sometimes describes as coffins, which are secured together by three cross beams to form its catamaran shape.  The idea behind the design is that by using ropes to lash the hulls together, it allows the boat to ‘flex’ against the sea.  Although this design is a little less efficient, it places far less stress on the hulls and you quickly get a feel for when there is too much pressure going through the lines or sails.  Still, we nearly lost the mast at one point during a training session and also managed to lift the main cockpit out of its housing with some over enthusiastic sail trimming!  However, Skinny Dipper’s biggest advantage is that she can be pulled out of the water and dismantled in just a couple of hours and placed onto a trailer for easy transport.  She also made for a unique focal point at the race base camp on Barmouth beach prior to the start of the race!

“The significant delay caused by the weather must have been a massive blow to your morale.  How did you manage to stay motivated?”

[Ivan] For us, the biggest achievement was actually getting to the start line at Barmouth.  Anything beyond that was a bonus. However, once the race got underway our competitive spirit meant that we were more than determined to see it through to the end.  The support we received from family and friends to get us to the start line was unbelievable and this gave us all the motivation we needed to not give up.  Not to mention the incredibly generous charitable donations we had raised towards our target of £20,000 for the Army Benevolent Fund.  We had also talked through a number of ‘worst-case’ scenarios prior to the start of the race.  Although we had not anticipated such strong Northerly winds for this time of year, we were quite pragmatic when it came to making the final call to withdraw.  We are all experienced sailors, so it was obvious we wouldn’t make it to the finish in Fort William by the Friday cut off.

[Charlie] Yes, it was a difficult decision to make, but ultimately the right one.  Once we had made the decision to head ashore, all efforts switched to getting the boat collapsed as quickly as possible and getting the team to Fort William to complete the final running phase of the challenge up Ben Nevis.

“So you had to sail, run and cycle. What was the hardest aspect of the challenge?”

[Russell] Well, we somewhat underestimated Scarfell Pike.  As the smallest peak out of the three, we assumed this would be a relatively short leg.  However, our delayed arrival saw us dock at Whitehaven much later than expected.  This meant a nighttime ascent of the mountain – not an easy feat when you are trying to run it.  On top of this, the weather deteriorated significantly throughout the night and we didn’t make the summit until midnight.  In all, it was a 10-hour stint that I will definitely not forget in a while.  We certainly didn’t make it easy on ourselves either.  Whilst other teams were generally six members strong; split between a separate sailing and running team, we were only a team of four.  This meant that we all had to take equal turns at rowing as well as the running legs of the race.  Also, having to cool down and stretch off in a ‘coffin’, with no washing, cooking or toilet facilities added an additional dimension to the challenge!

Sail the Peaks Thomas Bright and Charlie Bairsto on the Approach to Mt Snowdon

Thomas Bright and Charlie Bairsto on the Approach to Mt Snowdon

“There must have been some good aspects to the event though. What will you remember the most about it?”

[Ivan] For me, the journey to the start line commenced well before Christmas [2015].  Every small step closer required a huge amount of team effort and each milestone was an achievement in itself.  There was a proud moment when we raised the mast for the very first time at the end of our first boat build.  I will also always remember our initial sea trials in the Solent, where we truly discovered how exposed we would be to the wind and rain.  However, the real highlight for me was to finally step foot on the starting line at Barmouth and the huge welcome our Soldiers Charity [ABF] base camp received from the other race competitors before setting off.

[Charlie] As for the race itself; flying through the Menai Straights with 5 Knots of tide behind us; dodging rocks at low tide; sat at the oars with the sails down and the Army Benevolent Fund flag flying high, were all highlights for me.  But what stood out most was the 25 mile running leg up Snowdon, which we managed to complete in just 4 hours 30 minutes to ensure that we made it back down in time to meet the next tidal gate!

[Thomas] Also, each sunrise and sunset at sea was special.  Having been beaten by the tide and weather as we rounded the Mull of Galloway, our final sunset at sea provided some poignant memories as we headed for Port Patrick having just taken the hard decision to withdraw from the sailing event.

3 Peaks Yacht Race Map

“You must have learned some difficult lessons along the way.  What would you take forward if you had to do it all over again?”

[Russell] You can never be too prepared for an event like this.  But, as we found out, you can’t plan for every eventuality.  Certainly the time we spent planning and bonding both as a crew and with the Soldiers’ Charity team prior to the race proved invaluable.  We each understood where our strengths and weaknesses lay and we had discussed our own individual and team risk appetite, which is fundamental when taking on an arduous and potentially dangerous challenge such as this.  When you’re physically and emotionally exhausted, it’s all too easy to become reckless and let the emotion of the moment cloud any rational judgement.  We all knew, through our own military experience and having been deployed on numerous combat operations overseas, that our commitment to overcoming this type of challenge would be key to completing the event safely.  You can always practise being cold, tired and hungry, but when it comes down to it, it’s the person next to you that you are really looking out for!

“Lastly, what’s next for you guys?”

[Charlie] Good question!  The best part about not quite reaching the goal you set out to achieve is the feeling of unfinished business which drives you to return.  The Three Peaks Yacht Race will be an excellent event and next year [2017] marks its 40th anniversary.  While we would love the opportunity to do it again, we’ve had to wait over 10 years for this chance when we knew we would all be together.  So maybe we’ll all be in a position to do it again in time for the 50th anniversary in 2027!  But we’re all hoping we won’t have to wait quite that long!

 

Sail the Peaks Team reach the finish line

The ABF Sail the Peaks Team reach the finish line at Fort William

Further Info:

  • So far the ‘Sail the Peaks’ team has raised over £5,000 towards their £20,000 target and are continuing to fundraise.  If you would like to make a donation or just read a little more about their challenge you can visit their Just Giving page here.
  • The team is also on twitter if you want to give them a helping shout out: @Sailthepeaks
  • To find out more about Sailing the Three Peaks Challenge or if you are interested in taking on the challenge yourself, you can visit the official Three Peaks Yacht Race website here.
  • Download the race map here:

Three Peaks Yacht Race Map

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