20-22 May 2022
“Slow down when you go past the cows with calves on Mull. They may not look it, but they’re very heavy. And don’t trust your compass on Ben More. It’s a magnetic summit and your compass can show the wrong direction even when you’re quite a way from the top…”
We were listening to the briefing. May 20, 10:45 am, on the grass outside Oban Yacht club. In front of us, masts wobbled in the breeze of the overcast bay. Beside me were my fellow team members who would sail on board the Synergie: Chris Morrison and Graham Smart (sailors I’d just met) and Jasmin (my brilliant sister). She had volunteered the two of us as runners for this year’s Scottish Islands Peaks Race (SIPR 22). We would run four different courses in western Scotland (the first on the mainland near Oban, the second and third on the inner Hebrides – Mull and Jura respectively, and the fourth on the isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde). In total the distance would be just over 100 km, with about 5000m of ascent. The task of the sailors was to get us all between the different islands and over the finish line back on the mainland at Troon Marina as quickly as possible.
The first time Jasmin had told me about this race it was as the basis of two anecdotes: one about someone rolling around in vomit all night with a broken arm; and the other about someone being locked in a chest because it was the only sleeping space. I was pleasantly surprised therefore when stepping on board the Synergie I found her to be a luxurious little cruising yacht, with three tiny bedrooms and a fully stocked kitchen. Here we met Alastair, the third of our sailors. And after a cup of tea we made our way back round to the yacht club moorings – the only point in the whole weekend where we used motor rather than wind power. From here Jasmin and I were lowered into a kayak and sent off to the starting line, where a crowd of shivering runners were trying to keep warm.
The start was too fast. Led down the road by a sprinting youth-team, I was soon made aware that my training was inadequate. Jasmin had disappeared ahead in the crowd and I was coughing up phlegm on the first hill (the remnants of a recent Covid infection). Then it started to rain. Then there was a slushy footpath and descent, followed by another steeper climb that had me walking with hands on knees, and back down onto the road with a stitch and bad stomach. The whole thing lasted about half an hour, yet by the time we had set sail towards Mull, I was already soaked and pleasantly tired. I sat for a while watching a few birds on the surface of the sea. Chris, Alastair, and Graham were showing their expertise overtaking most of the competition. The wind was behind us – as were, now, a score of other boats all making their way out of the bay. Then I went below deck and fell into stupor, listening to the rumble of the sail, the flapping of the wind against the spinnaker, ropes, voices, the roll and smack of the waves.
At 4pm we were back in the kayak and paddling for the rainy Mull shore and its mountains covered in fog. The course on Mull starts at Salen pier and runs about 10km on a road, which later becomes a track before heading up a steep 1000m climb to a ridge and around to Ben More. We found a good rhythm on the road, past the cows, and did well on the ascent overtaking several groups in light rain. Towards the top it grew misty and we lost the path. No matter; the summit was just above us. And the route down? Jasmin didn’t look too sure. The compass was pointing the wrong way. But they had told us not to trust the compass up here. It’s obviously depolarized. I was confident and wanted to get out of the wind. We slithered down a scree slope. Then another and another. It wasn’t looking quite right. Why were there so few tracks here? Perhaps a little further? We came out of the mist. Where is the other ridge? It’s just over here, I proposed. No, it should be on the other side. A little further down maybe? Let’s have a look here. Maybe back up there? What is the bearing? A terrible sinking feeling as nothing seemed to fit. Then slow recognition. We had come down completely the wrong ridge, almost 180 degrees from the direction we were supposed to have followed. The compass had been right all along, despite the magnetic summit. I suggested going back up. Jasmin preferred contouring round on the scree.
A detail I forgot to mention: a major part of the SIPR is the phenomenon of the tidal gate. The Atlantic tides in the Hebrides are strong. Certain routes between islands effectively close to sailboats whenever the tide is going the wrong way. Our first, and most challenging tidal gate, was around the isle of Luing to Jura. “If we want to make it,” Graham had told us, off-handedly before we set off, “we have to leave Mull by 9pm to get there by 2am. Otherwise we’ll have to wait six hours for the tide to change again. But just enjoy yourselves.”
It was 7.42pm when we hit the saddle on the north side of Ben More, leaving only very little time for a painful descent to the road and an even more painful slog back to the boat.
“We can make this” said Jasmin, just as I tripped up and went sliding down the mountainside headfirst. “Hurry up.”
I gave it everything I had, chasing Jasmin all the way back, arriving 9.07pm. At one point Jim Mann appeared out of nowhere, like a phantom, to run alongside us offering support.
The sailors, who knew all about our orienteering disaster from the tracker, seemed in high spirits and not at all worried about the tidal gate. They welcomed us with news of rice and chilli below. I ate two portions, drank four or five glasses of water, and crawled straight into my sleeping bag. I was shivering so I put on a down jacket, only to wake up clammy an hour later. There was a temporary lull in the wind. For some time the boat wobbled in silence, but then the wind picked up again with a bang and we made the tidal gate at around 2am. I dozed, listening to an audiobook of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years before the Mast and sliding from one side of the bed to the other each time we tacked.
The isle of Jura is famous for its whisky, for being the site of George Orwell’s home when he wrote 1984, and for its three mountains. These are called the Paps of Jura on account of their distinctive breast-like conical shape. They each rise up to about 750m, perilously steep, one next to the other.
We clambered out of what now turned out to be a slightly leaky kayak by the Craighouse distillery and then started on the long approach road northwards around the coast in the early morning sunlight. There was a sea otter on the rocks, along with some seals and a number of interesting seabirds. We passed the first-place team, coming the other way, already on the way down just as we reached our turn-off.
Most approaches to the Paps involve at least a mile of bog, sometimes knee-deep. Well-acquainted with Jura, however, Jasmin managed to pick an excellent line up past the Jura forest and manor house, which avoided most of this difficulty. It cut across the marshy hills straight to the base of the first pap. The paps had been in excellent view in the soft light of dawn as the Synergie had sailed around the coast. Now, however, thick clouds obscured the summit, leaving us with a sheer scree slope into whiteness. For the next two hours we would pass in and out of this mist – or clag – moving either steeply up or slithering down in a shower of rocks. By this time I was running out of strength and just following Jasmin, always at least ten metres back. Every so often she would stop to offer encouragment:
“Well done, speed up!”
“What?” I’d shout back in the wind.
By the time we were on the summit of the third pap it was clear that we wouldn’t make it back in the time of four and a half hours which we’d given the sailors. Jasmin was optimistic, however, that we could pick up the pace on the descent. I was less sanguine: my knees were wobbling; I had a stabbing sensation in my diaphragm and shin, not to mention countless other aches and pains. But, since she’d already started down, it seemed like I didn’t have much say in the matter. I tried as best as I could to follow her disappearing form in the mist, down what was basically a wet and crumbling cliff.
We passed some admiring walkers just above three-arch bridge, which put a spring in my step. Then a handful of jelly babies gave me just enough energy for the long coast road back. We made it in 4 hours 50 minutes: setting sail at around 12:40pm.
The sailing between Jura and Arran is the longest and – from what I gathered the most difficult or technical. Here too there was a tidal gate, around the Mull of Kintyre. But this time it seemed like our slightly slower mountain time might work in our favor, as any boats that arrived at the tip of the headland before 9pm would have to wait to go round.
The sea was rough (at least by my standards, but I had never been on a sailboat before and was regularly convinced that we were about to sink). After a wonderful dish of coronation chicken and cup of tea, I therefore decided to take a preventative Stugeron travel sickness tablet. My intention had been to go above deck and watch the sailors – who managed the boat with an easy skill that was a real pleasure to watch. But very soon I started to feel sleepy. I had been warned that travel sickness tablets might cause drowsiness so I thought I’d lie down just for a minute until it passed. Within seconds I was fast asleep, waking only when I was thrown against the wall of my cabin by a particularly strong lurch.
At 6pm Jasmin asked if I wanted a dish of vegetarian lasagna, made by her wonderful husband Konrad. I did. We ate it at an angle of about 45 degrees, holding it in front of our faces so that it didn’t slip off the plate. One window dipped underwater with every wave; the other looked up towards the sky.
I wish I could say more about the sailing, but unfortunately after dinner I was called back to my warm sleeping bag..
At around 9pm Graham tapped on my door to say we were heading round the Mull and not to be frightened; “it might get a bit rougher.” I was a little surprised that this was possible, but verily… There were some incredible crashing and groaning sounds which made me think the boat was breaking in two or turning right over. Then a lull, where we bobbed up and down and I could hear Alastair and Chris swearing about something (I imagined they were debating whether or not to send out a distress call; later I discovered this was due to something tangled in the foresail). And then, just when you’d think it would be utterly impossible to fall asleep again, I dropped back into the arms of Morpheus.
I could have carried on in this way all night – but after a mere 13 hours or so of sleep – I was finally and decisively forced to get out of bed to prepare myself for Arran.
It was pitch black on deck as we sailed towards Lamlash harbor. All we could see were lights in the distance. I could hardly tell we were moving, except occassionally – and rather dangerously – a buoy would pass by the edge of the Synergie.
It was unclear for a moment where we were supposed to be going ashore on the kayak. But then we saw the tent and the friendly marshalls. One last kit check and we were off – another coastal lane northwards, this time in the still of night. We jogged passed a farm, up a hill between fields and woods of bluebells and stinging nettles and wild garlic. Other headtorches appeared coming towards us- possibly the winning team, or second place – again already on their way back. Then a descent to Brodick and around the beach and the saltmarsh and the golf course to the base of Goat Fell. We still managed to jog up through the forest, past some ancient trees, but by the time we were on the open fell, I was slowing down badly – walking rather than running.
Jasmin kindly offered to carry all of my gear (an offer I accepted). She also offered to push me or to attach a string to me and pull me along (an offer I gratefully declined). We passed some more teams going down and even, rather astonishingly, managed to overtake one team on its way up. I offered to exchange my place with someone on their team. Nobody was sufficiently foolish to take me up on the offer. At the top Jasmin gave me a sticky orange runners’ gell and a drink of coca cola. I also secretly took an ibuprofen. Once again we’d underestimated the amount of time we’d need: this route being considerably longer than Jasmin remembered it being.
Last time Jasmin ran the SIPR, as part of an “all-rounder’s team,” they’d taken a sailor along on the Arran run. He’d gotten so exhausted by the climb up Goat Fell that he threw up on the way back – the only team member to throw up on the whole race. We all thought this story was hilarious when Jasmin told us back at the beginning – a great joke and lovely twist on the timeless seasickness theme. Now, as I was following Jasmin speeding down Goat Fell and back towards Brodick, I couldn’t help thinking about the fate of that hapless sailor.
Fortunately I began to feel better by the time we were half-way down. And the run around the coast in early dawn, over the meadows and through the woods of wet wildflowers, was definitely a kind of pleasure. I even managed a bit of a sprint for the last section of road to Lamlash.
And from here it was just an easy sail with a tailwind straight across to the Troon marina. Finally the going was simple and it wasn’t raining and we could all sit out on deck and have a friendly chat. This was basically the first time in the whole race that we got to talk, even though I already felt close to everyone – as if I’d known them for years. We had a slight hope that we might catch the team in front but eventually they got in just before us. With masterful control and at a fair clip, Chris, Alastair, and Graham sailed us right through the narrow and winding marina entrance, without even turning the engine on. Then it was back into the kayak, and another last, very stiff jog up to the boathouse where we clocked in: 6th in our class and 10th overall at about 10am.
Thank you to Jasmin for being such a wonderful sister as always and sharing with me this incredible opportunity – surely the best sporting event in the world. Thank you for getting me around. Thank you to our sailors – Chris, Alastair, and Graham – who, with their friendly dynamic, are the best possible partners on this race, genial, jovial, professional, experienced and adventurous. Thank you to the Morrison family for letting us use their beautiful yacht. Thank you to the organizers and marshals. And thank you to my mum and dad and John Ryan who helped get me to this race last minute under difficult circumstances.