SIPR 2009 – A report from Olly Stephenson, Carnethy HRC
Tuesday 19th May 2009

If life is the sum total of your experiences then mine has been forever enriched by this year’s Scottish Islands Peaks Race (SIPR).

The scale of the race is so big that the raw statistics barely do it justice (160 nautical miles of sailing, with 60+ miles and 11,500’ of running), especially when you factor in the unpredictable nature of the weather and tides in this wild part of west coast Scotland.

This year I was a late entrant into a largely HBT team, which after a few last minute changes and boat crashes (and repairs) finally distilled into Alastair Pugh (skipper and owner of our 32’ boat Marisca), Chris Oliver, Debbie MacDonald and James Jarvis. James and I were the runners, with the others making up the sailing team. Well, that was the plan anyway.


Race day itself was wonderfully relaxed, with a gentle 4 mile sprint around Oban to stagger the flotilla of 48 boats as they left the harbour, a sight of such sailing majesty that even Nelson would have been proud.

Our first proper run of 22 miles on Mull went without incident and we were soon back on the boat scoffing a delicious lasagne and generally marvelling in the smooth progress of the boat as it sliced through the waves and the darkness at the masterful hands of Alastair, Chris and Debbie. James and I slept like babes in our crib like bunks, whilst the sailors dutifully worked through the night, including a spot of rowing during a calm patch.

As we neared Jura at around mid-afternoon the next day the sea was definitely on the rise, but other than causing the ground to sway upon landing we were soon on our way running the next 16 miles over the three Paps (or hills) on the island. By the time we made it back to the boat it was nearly dark, and the boat was keeling over from the start at an alarming angle that was rarely less than 45 degrees due to the strength of the wind.

As we boarded the boat I’d really not paid any particular attention to the coastguard on the radio as he read with absolute clarity the phrase ‘gale force 8 storm predicted soon, with rough sea conditions’. Ignorance is bliss in these situations and I retired to my bunk safe in the knowledge that the sailors were extremely capable, the boat seemed pretty solid and I was tethered into my bunk on three sides with a canvas retaining wall called a ‘lee cloth’ to keep me safe. How bad could this get I remember thinking? The only slight downer was it was now so rough that eating or drinking anything or even nipping to the loo for a pee after our five and a half hour run was simply inconceivable.

The next thing I was aware of was a lurch of such magnitude that James was thrown through his lee cloth and was slung with a loud thud onto the ground, only it wasn’t loud because all sound was now drowned out by the all-consuming storm as it raged outside throwing huge waves over the boat at regular intervals. James spent the rest of the night clinging onto the base of the mast as the boat pitched and rolled violently to avoid further bruising to his head. Debbie was drenched in the fore cabin as we discovered too late that the seal on the window was anything but watertight, but she never complained once. All the while I was vaguely aware of some entertaining dialog going on between the sailors on deck screamed at top volume over the noise of the storm along the lines of ‘we need to tack before 50.15 degrees before we hit the rocks, so where are we now?’…(silence)… ‘we’re at 50.18 degrees’…(silence)… ‘HOLY F**K WE NEED TO TURN NOWWWWWWWWWWWWW’ followed by another huge wave crashing over the bows and an even bigger lurch in angle as we turned in the opposite direction.

By the time I eventually staggered onto deck the next morning things had calmed down a little to a more manageable force 5-6 storm, but the sea still looked pretty big, the sailors looked exhausted after their second sleepless night and I heard another phrase that initially didn’t mean a great deal to me: ‘the tide is stronger than the wind.

This began to make sense when I realised they’d been sailing hard through the night and through the height of the storm and yet we were still no further around the Mull of Kintyre headland than we had been when we started sailing 12 hours earlier. In fact if anything the tide was so strong that our net progress was now backwards.

James meanwhile had turned a deathly shade of white and was attempting to dissolve the plastic sick bucket with his bile coming at gut wrenching regularity. To his immense credit he never complained once despite looking awful, and the fact that he’d not eaten or drunk anything since half way around the run on Jura some 16 hours earlier, having been uncontrollably sick for much of the time in-between.

It was at this point that we took the sensible team decision to retire from the race and motor back to Machrihanish (roughly half way back to where we’d started the leg on Jura). The only small problem with this plan being the engine breaking down after five minutes, followed by lengthy repairs (and further drifting of the boat backwards in the tide), another five minute splutter, then complete silence as it broke down once and for all.

We started to see the funny side when we realised that not only were we not very fast at the running or the sailing in this race, but that we were not even very competent or effective at retiring either. I think it was this realisation that made us decide to carry on with the race, after all, what did we have left to lose?

Eventually the wind abated enough for the tide to turn and we carried on albeit more slowly through calmer waters to Lamlash on Arran. Midway through this calmer period there was a surreal moment when the captain of a nearby Irish ferry announced over the emergency radio ‘MAN OVERBOARD… AND HE IS NAKED’. From the ensuring rescue it transpired that his life was saved even if his modesty wasn’t.

We reached Arran at sunset some ~26 hours after leaving Jura, with 62 year old Chris running in place of James who was still seriously unwell. The wonderfully cheery team of marshals told us that 32 of the 48 boats in the race had now retired due to the storm, and despite our slow speed we were now in the lead of the class 3 boat category. To say this was came as a surprise would be a complete understatement.

Chris is a pretty amazing chap, he only started running 2 years ago, and just two weeks ago he’d completed the 53 mile long Highland Fling, and here he was comfortably keeping up with me on his third consecutive night with no sleep. 18 miles on Arran passed by in a steady rhythm of running, of mist and of rain, and it was largely uneventful other than a brief flirtation with the summit crags on our way back down in pitch darkness.

Six and a half hours later we were back on the boat, and another four hours later we were at the finish in Troon. It had taken nearly 3 full days to reach this point after leaving Oban but boy did it feel great. As the race official handed us our champagne she summed us up perfectly when she said of the team’s efforts in winning our category “you are the perfect example of the tortoise and the hare”. Perhaps she was too polite to mention the reality: we were too incompetent to retire properly and simply won due to a dogged refusal to stop.

What an adventure, what a race and what a wonderful team. Sincerest thanks to Alastair, Chris, Debbie and James for a truly life changing experience

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