Last weekend I took part in the Scottish Islands Three Peaks Race as a crew member on board yacht Polly as a member of Team Paramo. Polly is a well found and tough Sigma 33, on this occasion rigged for speed by her owner Bruce Poll.
The race starts in Oban Bay, after a short hill race by the two runners on board (Jon Gay & Bruce Poll) around the scenic cliffs of Pulpit Hill, just south of Oban. The runners are picked up by dinghy and rowed back to the yacht, which must then sail over the start line, but not under engine power, before heading out into the Firth of Lorne and up the Sound of Mull.
This year the race was dogged by bad weather and some yachts did not even start. Some did not even bother to turn up. The organisers had already shortened the course to finish at Jura. This avoided the big seas around the Mull of Kintyre, to say nothing of the overnight passage through the web of tidal islands around Luing, Scarba and Jura, all in stiff winds and poor weather.
We had been placed in Class 3 and were confident of finishing very close to the top of that section. Both Bruce and Jon are experienced sailors and fell runners. The Skipper, Rick Atkinson has sailed in many parts of the world, including the Chilean channels off of Patagonia. Myself and Nick Halls made up the team, with responsibilities for cooking and doing as we were told! Both Nick and I have sailed and kayaked the length of Scotland’s west coast, so know something of what to expect. Nick had made a short-handed passage to Norway a few years back.
The minute we entered the Sound of Mull the winds increased and very strong squalls rolled down mercilessly off of the Mull hills, battering the fleet and forcing rapid sail changes. The Sound of Mull is notorious for fickle wind changes and last Friday was no exception.
Our destination was Salen Bay, approximately half-way up the Sound. By the time we arrived, over twenty other yachts were skittering about trying to drop off their runners. This chaotic scene did produce some collisions and not a little stress for ‘Skipper’ Atkinson. Rick is more used to the simple pleasures of cruising through beautiful marine landscapes and anchoring in delightful and secluded nooks. The rough and tumble of racing is okay, so long as the weather plays ball and on this occasion the gale-force squalls were anything but helpful.
Having dropped off our runners, the plan was was for a peaceful rest and some sustenance. This would be in the region of four or five hours, before the return of Bruce and Jon, who would then need more food and rest. whilst we sailed off into the gathering darkness.
Unfortunately we did not realise any calm at all. Our anchor and light chain were dragging in the stiff squalls. Finally the ever-present possibility of disaster struck, as we were manoeuvring to relocate our anchor, the dinghy line became entangled with the engine propeller. Normally we would have taken the dinghy on board when it was not in use, but not on this occasion. Another hard lesson learned.
Fortunately I was able to dive under the boat and cut the line free before we landed up on the mainland shore, directly downwind. During all of this the Paramo clothing worked very well in keeping some of the cold out of my bones. Now with a good working engine and within an hour or so of this epic, the Paramo shell gear had dried off enough to be used again.
Ours was not the only boat to encounter trouble. One of the lead teams actually sailed over their runners whilst attempting to pick them up. Another team of paddlers were unable to stem the wind to get ashore and needed to be picked up as they drifted merrily (?) off into the Sound of Mull. Dinghies were being picked up off of the beach by the wind and dumped out to sea. I witnessed at least one collision between a yacht under power and a much smaller vessel which was anchored safely inshore. No doubt many scary tales will emerge in the coming weeks.
We would like to thank the yacht who worked their socks off trying to get us a line as we drifted helplessly into the Sound when our propeller was held fast by the dinghy line. I have never witnessed so much knot tying and lengthening of warps as the gallant crew tried to link with us by their own dinghy to get a line aboard Polly. In the melee we failed to notice who they were. Thanks.
After the adventurous antics in Salen Bay it became obvious to the organisers that to continue would put lives at risk and they sensibly cancelled the race. Our team came back off of the mountain (Benmore – Mull) in very good shape and well up the field of runners. They had overtaken many teams that day and
felt sure they would come close to winning our class, if amended lists could be produced. Whatever, we were in good shape now and headed for a peaceful night in Tobermory. This turned into two nights as we stayed on to watch Chelsea beat Man Utd (( in the first F.A. Cup Final at the new Wembley stadium.
Better weather followed and we had a good sail home to leave Polly on her home anchorage in Loch Creran, via Oban on Sunday.
Thanks to Gibson for this great shot of the Black Cuillin Ridge on Skye, taken earlier this month. If you look carefully it clearly shows the traverse line out from Bealach a’Garbh-Choire towards Sgurr Dubh Da Bheinn. This route can save a lot of time on a south to north traverse, especially if you are going for the record, which now stands at around three hours and seventeen minutes.