The History of the Three Peaks Yacht Race by Ron Isles

 

The Barmouth to Fort William Three Peaks Yacht Race is a unique event combining sailing, running and a little cycling that has become one of the toughest long distance events in the world.

 

The adventures of H.W. (Bill) Tilman, the climber and sailor who lived in Barmouth, was the inspiration behind the idea which was conceived by his doctor, Rob Haworth. Rob spent many hours talking to Tilman about his adventures, and as a result came up with the idea of spending his holidays doing a “mini Tilman”, sailing from Barmouth to Fort William and en route reaching the top of each of the highest peaks in Wales, England, and Scotland by foot.

 

The idea of making it into a race came from Rob Haworth’s partner, Dr Merfyn Jones. Sitting around the kitchen table on a winter’s evening in 1976 Rob recounted his idea for his holidays. Merfyn heard him out and then said “wouldn’t it make a marvellous race”.

 

They set out a rough map using kitchen utensils, with bottles to represent the mountains, and worked out the logistics. Merfyn spent his spring break checking out the course, a committee was formed from local people interested in sailing and Bill Tilman was invited to be the race president.

 

This was a fortunate choice since it was Tilman who, when the race rules came up for discussion said “why not let them just get on with it”. There were some rules of course, crews were limited to five, the use of yacht engines was not allowed except when entering or leaving harbour, boots had to be worn on the land sections and no additional transport was allowed.

 

Seven teams took part in the first race in 1977, and it took those entrants just over 5 days to sail 389 miles, climb the 3 peaks and walk or run 73 miles. Unusually monohulls and multihulls raced together without handicap for the first 11 years. In 1980, HTV made an hour long documentary about the race, which did much to spread the word; and entries were thereafter limited to 35 due to restrictions in the harbours used. At this time the race finish was moved to Corpach.

 

After several years the multihulls began racing in their own class and in 1999 the race was restricted to monohulls only.  In 2019 Multihulls then returned to the race.

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In 2018 a non-competitive Challenge Class was introduced to the race.

 

In 2000, the Port of Whitehaven replaced Ravenglass as the port for Scafell Pike. As this is further away from the mountain, bicycles are now be used for the first 20 miles to the mountain: but the runners are then faced with an extra 2000 foot high mountain pass to reach Wasdale!  (Incidentally Tilman was also into cycling, having cycled across Africa in the early thirties!)


For the sailors, the Race includes many seamanship problems not normally associated with yacht races: the crossing of Caernarfon Bar, the treacherous Swellies in the Menai Straits, the rounding of the Mull of Kintyre, the whirlpools of the notorious Gulf of Corryvreckan, and finally the narrows at Corran where the ebb will stop the boat dead in the water.

 

Thus a well found boat is needed and much meticulous planning and preparation is required for success. Yachts are not designed for rowing and to get the best out of oars, which many boats carry, special fittings are needed. The talents of the runners and the sailors must be combined – teamwork is essential.

 

The runners, both gentlemen and ladies, include some of the finest fell runners and marathon runners in the country. Generally marathon runners don’t much care for running up and down hills and fell runners are equally adverse to running on roads.

 

The mountains present problems of their own; there is always snow on Ben Nevis, even in June; wind, rain and mist can make conditions atrocious. Added to which many have to do their running in the dark and for those who suffer from sea sickness they do not even start the runs feeling at their best. The faster the yacht sails the quicker the runs come round. For the leading boats the runners usually have to do the first two stages during one 24-hour period.

 

The Race is a journey through much of the finest scenery in Great Britain. Barmouth itself lies at the mouth of the Mawddach estuary described by Wordsworth as “sublime”. The Race has attracted competitors from all over the UK, Finland, Sweden, Belgium, Eire, Norway, the United States, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia; and has spawned other 3 Peaks yacht races not only in the UK but also Australia, Hong Kong, and other parts of the world so that today, 3 Peaks Yacht Racing has become a genre of its own.

 

Every type of yacht has taken part from 88 year old prawners to expensive trimarans specially built for the race; even the stars of the BBC series ‘Howard’s Way’ – Barracuda of Tarrant and Alien. Gareth Owen, a three time winner of the race, was a national, European, and world champion in dinghies, when not at work as a Merseyside policeman. Several skippers have skippered yachts in round the world races, and many others have sailed round the world. Robin Knox-Johnston was another past competitor; as was Brian Thompson who was said by many to be Britain’s top offshore multihull sailor.

 

On shore many of the runners have international honours in long distance racing. Helene Diamantides holds the world record for the race from the Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu at something over 3 days! She was the first lady to share a King of the Mountains title with a gentleman – and achieved this in the Australian version of the race.

 

One should not mention the history of the race without remarking on the many thousands of pounds raised for different charities over the years. The sums have never been totaled but they have been known to reach six figures in a single year. The race organisers in their Memorandum of Association are required to encourage teams to raise money for charity; and are themselves required to promote the teaching of sailing to the young people of Barmouth.

Major HW Tilman inspired the Three Peaks Yacht Race. Photo Sandy Lee.

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