The 3 Peaks - In The Spirit of Tilman
by Rob Howard
The 3 Peaks Yacht Race is one of the oldest and most remarkable multi-sport endurance races in the world and pre-dates all modern adventure racing by more than a decade.
The format has been copied in several other countries around the world, but the original race and course are shaped by the geography of the UK, and the event was inspired by the great British explorer, climber and sailor Major HW Tilman.
Tilman was renowned for this mountaineering expeditions and explorations between the wars, including early Everest trips and the first ascent of Mount Nanda Devi. After service behind enemy lines in World War 2 he turned to sailing exploration in the poles, seeking out new and uncharted mountains to climb. He was a renowned travel and exploration writer with an understated style; describing reaching the summit of Nanda Devi he wrote; “I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands on it.” He also believed “any worthwhile expedition can be planned on the back of an envelope” and advertised for crew on his trips as “Hands wanted for long voyage in a small boat; no pay, no prospects, not much pleasure.”
Sailing crews looking for runners for the 3 Peaks Yacht Race could probably still use the same ad! The race came about as Tilman lived (when he was in the UK) at a house on the Mawddach estuary near the mid-Wales town of Barmouth. His doctor, Dr. Rob Haworth spent many hours talking with Tilman about his adventures and planned a mini-Tilman holiday, sailing up the West Coast of the UK to Fort William, and stopping on the way to climb the 3 highest peaks in Wales, England and Scotland. It was Haworth’s partner, Dr Merfyn Jones, who commented; “Wouldn’t it make a wonderful race.”
Between them they organised the first race in 1977, with Tilman himself as the first President of the committee and 7 teams took part, taking just over 5 days to sail 389 miles of difficult coastal waters and walk 73 miles with 11,000 feet of climbing. (In the early days the mountain ascents were a walk in stout boots and heavy mountain clothing, with some of the climbers taking tents and provisions to camp out for the night!)
Tilman was on the first committee when they discussed rules and said, “Why not just let them get on with it!” ... which they did. In the first race the boats could land wherever they wished to set pairs of climbers off on their trek, and there were none of the usual sailing handicaps – teams turned up in whatever boats they had and all competed on equal terms. The basic rules were to have teams of 5, no use of engines except when entering or leaving harbours, and not to use any additional transport.
Tilman gave the first trophies in Fort William but it was the only race he attended. At almost 80 years of age he accepted a place on a trip to Smith Island south of Cape Horn later that year on the boat ‘En Avant’ and it disappeared without trace. The legend of Tilman lives on in his achievements, in his books ... and in the Three Peaks Yacht Race.
The race still retains much of the spirit of Tilman and has never offered any prizes except lots of trophies, one of which is the prestigious ‘Tilman Cup’, for which 4 of the crew of 5 must reach a summit. Times change however, and there are now more rules (even a health and safety officer!).
For many years fast multi-hulls competed equally with mono-hulls, setting the race record at an astonishing 2 days 3 hours 3 minutes. It was becoming two races however, and in 1999 the race was limited to mono-hulls only. The multi-hulls returned in 2019.
At the same time the route was changed to include the port of Whitehaven (instead of using Ravenglass) and a cycle stage was introduced as part of the route out to Scafell Pike via Ennderdale. (It was now a much longer foot stage.)
This change might be one Tilman would have approved of – when he had to get back to the UK from Kenya he bought a bike in the local bazaar and rode it home!
He would most likely have liked the tradition of rowing in the race ... if its calm the teams don’t just sit there – they row their yachts! This can come as a surprise to first time runners, who these days are not the walkers of the days of old. Since the 1980’s elite fell runners, and more recently triathletes, adventure racers and ultra runners, have been recruited to teams.
The mountain records are astonishing. The record for the 24 mile run over Mount Snowdon in Wales is just 3 hours 6 minutes ...and that run is usually done in the dark. For the 17.5 mile run up and down Ben Nevis (4406 feet) the race record is 2 hours 39 minutes.
The runners generally have to complete the middle leg (53 miles of run/cycle/climb) to Scafell Pike within 24 hours of the Snowdon run, so there is little time for recovery. Between the two they usually have a choice of rowing on calm seas or seasickness from choppy seas. If there is a real gale blowing they may get there much quicker ... having had no sleep and been sick all the way!
“Small boat, no pay, no prospects, not much pleasure,” might sum it up, but sailors and runners come back year after year and the race has a legendary status. It’s not an event which seeks a high profile, yet it’s been sponsored by The Daily Telegraph, Mars and Powerbar, and been the subject of half a dozen feature films.
Nor does it challenge competitors to see if they are tough enough, or promote itself as the hardest, highest etc. There are no fanfares at the finish, or any crowds, recognition comes only with a discrete, but much prized, finisher’s medal and the congratulations of team mates and fellow competitors.
A few teams do hug these days, but most know their history and “so far forget themselves as to shake hands on it”.