It wasn’t the best of preparations, John had asked me at the start of February if I fancied taking part as part of an Oban Mountain Rescue Team entry in the Scottish Islands Peaks Race. Stupidly I said yes there and then! I had been doing loads of running and was feeling really good with season targets of The Jura Fell Race and maybe a blast at Lochaber Ridge or other big hill days light and fast. My plea’s off not being able to sail or run as far as that fell on deaf ears! I just resigned myself to getting lots of miles into my running and getting as fit as I could in the next few months.
The team consisted of John Pedan, Skipper and SIPR veteran, Duncan MacEachan, the Kerrera ferryman, Damon Powell, our MRT team leader, Dr Adrian MacLeod, Marine Scientist and me, Gordon Binnie, IT man and twitter addict!
The boat preparations however were less than optimal. John and Damon were working all hours to get the boat sorted and back in the water, with 7 days to go the boat went in, just to come back out as the prop seal was leaking, that sorted, the alternator got connected back up wrongly twice and got completely fried, so the boat finally went into the water on the Wednesday before the race, without the alternator! A team building trip to move the boat from Loch Creran to Oban started well, with only two groundings!
Once in Oban work continued apace to get things ready, including adjusting the mast stays 30mins before the race began…. Helped by our tender vessel, Gylen Lady (the Kererra Ferry).
So on the stroke of 12 o’clock were off on the Oban run, 4 miles round the hills above Oban, my usual training ground. Initial pace was a bit brisk, so Adrian and myself just found a pace that was enough to get us round, very soon it was all over and the frantic row back to the boat and we were off. Down below to get changed and into warm clothes as John and co fought Hecla out of Oban Bay. By the time we were sorted we were out past Maiden Island with boats strung out between Oban and Lismore Light. We reckoned we were out of the bay in about 22nd position counting the boats behind us.
As we approached Lismore light, it was apparent that some of the boats ahead were running out of wind, we craftily tacked out towards Lismore, sneaking back towards the Lighthouse and ducking through the narrow channel between the Lighthouse and the small Island off it, gaining ground of about 4 boats trying to go outside, however the wind was beginning to die, so the oars were setup and we started to pull forward slowly.
We gradually picked up more wind as we slowly inched up the sound. The faster boats had all been pushed south west beyond Duart when the wind dropped, so the field was well scattered. Just before Fishnish we were greeted with a great sight, Blue Chip behind us!
They had obviusly taken the detour down past Duart and were charging hard back through the field. By this time the wind was picking up nicely and a steady fast run up the sound, with three of us sitting out on the oars/brackets to balance the boat while trying to eat a bowl of pasta!
Quick kit check in Salen and Adrian, Duncan and myself are off along the road towards Ben More. The pace seemed not to bad, but once at Knock Bridge it was apparent that we were kicking in 9 minute miles. On along the loch side and we just caught a glimpse of runners ahead. We arrived at the first checkpoint just as two teams were leaving (subsequently discovered it was 4 from the fellow all rounder team on Dipper). A quick faff and some food and we were off again, 5 mins back on the team in front. Not long after this, Donald Naylor and Dan Gay came storming along on thier way back We stopped again at the main river crossing in Glen Clachag to stock up on water and another team from Lomond Hill runners caught us, but once on the stalkers path up to the bealach we soon dropped them. We reached the bealach just as the team from Dipper were leaving. Another faff and we were off again up the ridge. We went fairly high, while other teams traversed across lower. Once over the crest, we picked our line, which took us over some scrammbly ground on lovely gabbro, with only short sections of scree to traverse. All being used to moving on this kind of terrain we were soon at the bealach without having to gain any more height, catching up with other teams, including Dipper, and we were supprised to see Manny and Brian there to, obviously making short work of catching us all up and disappear up the ridge to Ben More.
A fantastic sunset was starting to the west as we headed up the Ben More ridge, and by the time we were over the summit it was looking fantastic.
Down the ridge and corrie to the next checkpoint, then a fast blast across the next corrie, picking the best line to avoid any re ascent to the next checkpoint on the bealach. We pulled out some time on the other couple of teams on this traverse, and made a very fast descent down the big slope back into the glen just as it was getting dark. Then followed the horrible boggy tussock infestation that is Glen Clachaig… This bit zapped any energy we had left, so by the time we were on the road, it was down to a fast walk. Unfortunately I am not genetically similar to the other two with regard to leg length, so their fast walking pace, with their stride length meant I was always having to jog to catch them up as when walking alongside them I was going backwards from them! Unfortunately about half way along the road, the Dipper 4 caught us and passed us, they being still able to trot along at a faster pace than our walking.
Back on board, with a respectable time of 6:45 for the Ben More section given that that was the furthest anyone of us had run previously!
Down below on the boat, a quick change and stuck into the venison stew that was waiting for us. Fantastic. Then it was off to sleep as we charged down the sound of Mull.
Now I’m not much of a sailor (no idea why I ended up in an all rounders team..) but the rocking of the boat took a lot to get used to and sleep was a long time coming, with all manner of things getting flung about the cabin. I got up at one point to find the cabin covered in tea bags! At least it wasn’t the Earl Grey…. it was really rough later on in the night and it was relief to wakeup and venture out to see we were just off Barrhill at the top of Jura, the wind behind us and making 7kts towards Craighouse. Not much else I’m good at so it was time to make some Bacon rolls for the troops who had been out most of the night. John, the skipper got his head down for the next few hours so he’d be fresh for the Jura run.
Into Craighouse at about 12:30 and the worst of the weather had passed, although it looked windy on the Paps.
So off John, Adrian and myself headed up past the cemetery and straight into jungle warfare with the gorse on the hill above, the right ? side of the burn giving the best approach over the moor once through the gorse. By the time we were climbing up to the lochans the rain was on and the wind picking up, by the time we were half up Beinn a’Chalois the rain was almost like hail, and the wind gusting above 60mph. It was hard going, but again we’re well used to being out at night in upto 100mph stuff on rescues, so battered on. A good descent of the first pap, we met two runners traversing in from the left (north), not sure if they were in the race or what. Didn’t see them again, or see them arrive at the bealach checkpoint as we trudged up a thankfully sheltered Beinn an’Oir. The clouds parted briefly at the summit and then it was another decent down. This is my least favourite descent on Jura. It just doesn’t flow right for me.
On up Beinn Shiannathaidh, Adrian storming ahead as usual, even taking in some direct scrambling to the right of the path up the gully, he’s a fit lad. We were watching a team catching us quickly on the climb, but we made the summit before them, a quick hello, and they were off. We had a quick faff and were away again on this mighty descent. I’d been round here on the Jura Fell Race last year with Diuarch’ Mark Shaw, so had a good idea of the best route on the screes. Boy what a descent… we totally nailed it, finding the best lines and importantly the links between them, get it wrong and your in horrible big scree. We were pulling back on the other faster team who had got a less optimal line, but they were still moving quickly! ( this team apparently had the fastest time over Jura).
But once they hit the flat ground at the loch they were gone…. we trotted out the track as best we could. John is superb on the hilly stuff, holding his own on the ascents and hard to catch on the descents, but he admits he’s not a runner. We got to the 3 Arch Bridge and started out along the road, interspersing fast walking and light jogging at John’s pace. Soon we were back into the hall in Craighouse and interrupting the Carnethy marshals dinner. A very welcome dram from Willie Gibson and off in the dingy back to the mother ship. A respectable time of 6:25. John the Skipper’s target was to duck under 7 hours, so it was a very happy skipper indeed, so after a large bowl of venison stew/pasta John produced a wee dram of Oban malt to help the runners sleep, and sleep we did!
We got away from Craighouse just before 7pm. It sounded really wild overnight, but was in fact flat calm after the first couple of hours out of Craighouse, the sounds from ondeck being the sailors flapping about with cruising shoots and spinakers etc trying to get some form of propulsion, with the inevitable rowing for a couple of hours!
Awake at about 5am, I stuck my head out to see us approaching the Mull of Kintyre, still with a bit of wind. All on deck looked totally shot so a hot cup of tea was the order of the day to restore spirits. Adrain our star runner had jumped up after a couple of hours of restless sleep, grabbed some sleeping pills, which turned out to actuallty be caffeine tablets…. and was awake for the rest of the night!
We slowly edged closer into the Mull, but the wind was dying away, the tide about to turn against us, so we got in close under the lighthouse and dropped anchor to wait a few hours for the inshore current to turn (it turns inshore an hour or earlier than the outer current..). Two other yachts had caught us up and they too had dropped anchor a short way off. Earlier than expected the inshore current picked up and we heaved anchor and started a slow row/drift away round the bottom of the lighthouse, all going well until we came to a rock and channel with the tide still ripping though under the foghorn about a half mile east of the lighthouse. There was no way round this until the tide turned in the channel, so we edged close to the rock, Duncan, our ferryman jumped ashore with a rope and secured the boat, we then retieved Duncan with the dinghy and a pull rope.
We sat here for another couple of hours until the the tide had slackened off, and pulling the rope back through, we began to short tack the shore, eventually getting past the rock and out the other side, there just being enough breeze for some short tacking along the coastline, one of the other yachts (Sola we think,) had followed us round and were short tacking also. The short tacking got just a bit to short as we managed to find a rock that John hadn’t hit before! Thankfully, he accidentally hit the “man overboard” marker on the Chartplotter, so at least he’ll be able to find it again! After about a mile of this the wind died again, so it was back on the oars.. all the way to Sanda Island..I didn’t realise it was actually possible to row while asleep, but was woken with a nudge from Damon at one point to swap over!
After Sanda we started to pick up a wee bit of breeze, so we got some sails up and managed to catch enough to make the same progress as rowing would. By this stage we were all dreaming off getting onto Arran and running to get a rest from rowing! By halfway to Pladda, the wind had picked up and we were eventually making 4-5kts, and by Pladda we were flying again, just to be becalmed big time off Whiting Bay, so back to rowing and drifiting again to Lamlash! It was a tired four runners that made the start at Lamlash having taken 30 hours from Craighouse!
The Arran team was Damon, Duncan, Adrian and myself, and we had the hardest bit of route finding of the whole trip just getting over Prospect Hill, everybody’s heads were burst by this point, a real ordeal at 2 am in the morning. Brodick eventually arrived and we made good time up Goatfell arriving at the ridge checkpoint just as dawn broke. A couple of teams passed on their way back down and we made the summit to enjoy daylight and a cloud inversion.
The descent was very brisk, taking our time at the top on the big boulders which were a bit damp but by the ridge checkpoint we were flying, getting back to the bridge onto the golf course in 30 minutes from the summit. A slow trot through Brodick and onto Prospect Hill, we were all surprised by the desire we all had to run this bit.. The thought of it was off putting all the way down Goatfell, but once on the hill we just wanted to give it all, and we blasted up and over as fast as we could, given our totally wrecked physical state, arriving back at Lamlash in a respectable 5:39.
John did some fine driving, getting the front of the boat into the ladder on the end of the pier and we were off. Hecla knows how to look after her runners, so it wasn’t a great shock to be straight back on the oars for a 2 mile row out round Holy Island racing the Bristol Cutter Edith Gray. Once out from Holy Island we got some wind, but the Edith Gray and another yacht were off before we sorted out our sails. A good steady run over to Troon got us in at about 2pm, with Adrian and myself doing the final run (Does the ramp up from the pontoons count as a man mountain?) up to the Marina Office to stop the clock.
All that remained was a large meal and a pint in Scotts and the discussion turned to logistics to get home.
The preferred option was to steam back up to Tarbert, spend the night on the pontoons, then sail round to Ardrishaig on Tuesday morning to park the boat in the canal basin, making our escape by bus or Taxi back to Oban.
Away from Troon just after 4pm and weren’t surprised that the wind had picked up considerably and was against us with heavy seas as we motored up the Ayrshire coast on a straight line for Loch Fyne and Tarbert. Everyone got their heads down getting some good sleep until we nudged a wee rock off Ardrossan! All that was left after that was the engine giving up just off the bottom of Bute, in very rough seas (about Force 6)! A frantic burach ensued getting sails up and getting back round the bottom of Bute to shelter. Thankfully all that was needed was a wee bit more oil… And we were away again. Off to sleep again, this time very soundly, and was awoken by Adrian, saying we’re 30mins out of Tarbert and Eilidh, his girlfriend was coming down from Oban to pick us up. It was great to get on dry land again and get home that night (2.30am Tuesday). John and Damon stayed on board to take Hecla round to the canal in the morning.
It was an adventure, and for me definitely the hardest thing I’ve done physically. It was good to hear several of the team say, ‘for next year, we need to sort out this or that…’ although John the Skipper looked a bit apprehensive at the thought of two years in a row.