Commenting that I would be back in the office Monday morning – wind permitting – was intended to be light-hearted. Whilst it’s obvious you cannot sail without wind, none of us could imagine the hours and hours of rowing that would be required to win this year’s Scottish Island Peaks Race (SIPR).
The SIPR brings together runners and sailors to compete over some of the finest parts of Western Scotland. Starting in Oban at noon on the Friday it takes in mountains on Mull, Jura and Arran before finishing over on the mainland at Troon. The 60 miles of running include some of the roughest terrain around on Jura and a total of around 12,000ft of climbing. The circa 160 nautical miles of sailing include some of the most challenging waters in the world with tidal gates, numerous wrecks, hidden dangers and the famous Correyvrekan whirlpool; 3rd largest in the world with currents up to 8.5 knots.
It was 6 or 7 years since I had enjoyed this mini adventure and, in the words of Jake Elwood from the Blues Brothers movie, we were getting the team back together. Alex Johnson – fellow runner, Ian Loffhagen – skipper and 3 times previous winner and Spencer Harrison – powerhouse, oarsman and crew from our successful campaign in 2004. Graham Goff was the new team member but already had 2 SIPR victories to his name, has made sails for a living and was involved with the infamous Team Phillips boat that spectacularly failed in the North Atlantic (but not his fault!)
Getting 50 boats out of Oban harbor at about the time the CalMac ferry steams in could be a nightmare so the organizers invoked a “le mans” style start a few years ago meaning that us runners get a 4.5 mile run up the local hill and surrounding countryside to split up the field. The Oban Slip trophy is huge and is sometimes hotly contested by the youth teams whilst the more senior runners save their energies for the mountains that will soon follow. This year, however, Scottish Internationalists Don Naylor and Dan Gay were first to don lifejackets and leap into their team dinghy for the quick transfer to their boat. Alex and I were about 6th or 7th team back and soon the bay was alive with boats sailing out of the harbor. Actually, that’s not quite true, the bay was filled with boats being frantically rowed where possible and generally bobbing around at the huge CalMac ferry approached at around 20 knots. Like the parting of the red sea they all managed to get to the edges of the bay and carnage was avoided
Within minutes our boat, Chimera, was nudging to the front of the fleet and before too long we were picking up some intermittent breezes. By Salen on Mull, the team had given us a comfortable lead and so Alex and I were able to transfer to shore and submit to the compulsory kit check without hassle or pressure. Mull is a 23 mile run up and down Ben More – a full Munro from sea level but with around half the route on roads. Back in 2004 Alex had suffered a little on the road back to Salen but I had no idea how much this had etched on his memory until he detoured to pass on his respects to the phone box where both legs had locked solid with cramp back then. This time it was me who faded a little over the final mile or two back to the jetty – the heat of the day getting to me as my water bottle had run dry over 30 minutes earlier. Quickly back aboard the sailing team confirmed we had started with a lead of 1 hour 20 mins and we hoped we would have preserved at least an hour of this. For a short while we were whooshing along at 8-10 knots but within an hour, as dusk settled, it was flat calm.
This set the tone for that first night…and the second!! By midnight we had finally entered the sound of Jura and, in the early hours, the team made a decision to head West of Jura. “Which way to Jura?” is the biggest route choice of the race – avoiding 5knot foul tides but taking a route almost 11 miles longer is the Western option and one we had never taken before. Of course, once committed it’s impossible to change course and for hour after hour we toiled away on the oars wondering if we might possibly hove into Craighouse bay and see much of the rest of the fleet already moored up with runners on the hill. We did see other boats and we even saw boats leaving but they were youth teams whose boats had motored. In the overall stakes we were still in top spot and, by 4pm, Alex and I were running along the Jura shoreline - past families dining al fresco Mediterranean style in the afternoon heat – headed for the Paps. The Paps of Jura are world renowned for their roughness. Comprised of tottering heaps of quartzite scree they present a few small paths and trods and acres of ankle breaking boulder fields. Back in 04 we had scorched this route but today the heat once again took its toll and scorched us - we even stopped for a few pics before trucking along the road back from the 3 arch bridge with Alex working hard; one all in the fiercely competitive internal and unspoken battle we were having - both on the same team but massively competitive with each other!!
Alex climbing the first pap on Jura
One of the teams who motored to Jura - taking a little time out!
With glass calm seas, Graham at the helm coaxed almost 5 knots out of nowhere and we slipped away from Jura in the late evening as much of the fleet struggled to get past the small isles and into the bay.
By midnight, though, we were back to the oars and taking turns to fight sleep, row, make tea, helm and simply be mesmerized by the luminescence in the water. The nighttime hours pass in a blur – at one point Ian and Graham put the boat on autohelm and rowed for 2 hours solid, at one point it rained, at some point there was a squall and the boat fizzed along at 10 knots for an hour or so.
Dodging rocks on the Mull of Kintyre
Tense times as we navigate the rocks off the Mull of Kintyre
Sunday morning – in previous years we have finished by this point but this time we are rounding the Mull of Kintyre – adverse tides of 2-3 knots are going to see us heading backwards so Ian bravely takes the decision to go right inshore where the current is weaker and continue rowing; anything to make forward progress at all times. For hours on end we are all occupied, one at the helm, 2 rowing, one lookout for rocks and one on the “exercise bike” human propeller or tidying up or making tea etc.
Nothing is more fickle than the wind. One minute Ian is calling his wife, Liz, to confirm we will not be at Troon before Monday morning, less than an hour later we are skimming the waves at 16 knots and a 10pm finish looks possible.
Heaven - skimming the waves at Ferry speed
We pull into Lamlash at around 16.20 and Alex and I set off for Goatfell. I knew that the competitive Alex was in charge from the off and he set a furious pace, running all the first climb over to Brodick and all the way up beyond the forest edge on Goat Fell. The pace didn’t lessen on the descent either and by the time we climbed Prospect hill on the return I knew beyond doubt that the internal competition was a 2:1 result to youth. Running back along the bay into Lamlash I was blowing, huffing, puffing and groaning all to stop him dropping me completely but the time of 3 hrs 24 was good – around 40 minutes faster than we had managed in 2004 and ensuring a faster time for the three runs overall.
Goatfell summit - Arran
So, an epic. Truly. Curious seals, wild mountain goats, phosphorescence, unprecedented heat, porpoise and a palm full of blisters all added to the list of experiences that the SIPR has catalogued in my mind. For Ian, a record 4 victories and I have been privileged enough to accompany him on all four – with 3 different boats and 2 different runners. The secret – I think it’s simple – 5 people sharing a common goal, making all decisions based on achievement of that goal and working ceaselessly, night and day, to pursue that goal. Put simply – I think Ian is more prepared than any other skipper, the crew is hugely talented and the team as a whole is prepared to work harder than any other – first on the oars, thinking ahead, making decisions.