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From Wales to Scotland
BRITISH SOLDIER’S First Scottish Islands Peaks Race

Colonel Andy Hadfield – APC Glasgow

Just a year old, and already trusted to make her first trip to Scotland, 2014 was a departure for BRITISH SOLDIER.  The yachting calendar in the north has always offered opportunity for competitive sailing, but perhaps historically has not been seen as our most profitable outlet in terms of racing success and getting in the public’s eyeline – I hope that this perception has changed.  Certainly Tim Hill’s efforts to expose more of the Army to BRITISH SOLDIER and competitive offshore sailing in a wider number of guises, has been well received by all I have met.

The plan was a good one; take over BRITISH SOLDIER in Holyhead Marina on the Sunday lunchtime and then take a gentle sail through the Irish Sea and around the Western Isles, learning and experimenting en route, to be in Oban by Thursday morning, in good time for the Scottish Islands Peaks Race (SIPR).  But what is a plan, if not a start-point for a conplan?  Heavy weather in the Atlantic meant that the delivery crew who were to get BRITISH SOLDIER to Holyhead were unable to round Land’s End.  The handover moved south through Pwllheli, to Milford Haven, and the day slipped right from Sunday to Monday evening, eventually to Tuesday early hours.  But it was with excitement that the 5-man APC Glasgow delivery crew (myself, Ed Butterworth, Rich Hallett, John Skillen and Rob Driver) saw some nav lights heading towards the Milford Haven Marina, and shortly afterwards got our first look, albeit at night, at the new ride.  Even in half light she looked impressive, and seemed to want to get back out to sea.  After a very short handover we slipped Milford Haven in time to see the dawn break.

To save you reaching for your charts, Milford Haven to Oban is roughly 340 miles, and we had about 60 hours to get there; a challenge for all on board.  But we like challenge and very quickly watches were explained and we prepared for a long, and hard, sail.  As we turned north-west to pass through St George’s Channel it became obvious that not all the swell from the Atlantic storms had passed, and we learned that BRITISH SOLDIER really doesn’t like bumps. I think some onboard might have thought that the sound she makes as she hits the water after falling from the top of a wave was enough to dismast us; it wasn’t and she proved solid as a rock.  Gradually through the morning the sea smoothed and a pleasant F4 blew in; we began to make some comfortable miles through Cardigan Bay.  I was feeling quietly confident that time and distance would work out.

By the afternoon of the first day the wind was dropping, and eventually left us.  Motor on I say, but for those who haven’t sailed in BRITISH SOLDIER, be aware that she has a very small fuel tank, and on this occasion no reserve.  With the maths now turning against us I had to share my thoughts with the pulpit, and after deliberation decided that we needed to make for Holyhead to fill to spill, and to fill any other reserve fuel containers we could find.  This was off our route, but without the ability to motor the whole plan was in jeopardy.  Through the evening our decision was rewarded and by the time we came into Holyhead at about 0400 we were sailing again, and making a respectable 6 knots.  Once alongside and waiting for the fuel berth we were able to consider some of the other supporting activities.  We fitted the rowlocks so superbly designed by Matt Sargent from 12 Regiment RA, and inflated the dinghy that would be critical to landing the runners in the SIPR.  The first task was conducted without too much trouble, but an annoying hissing led to some hasty repairs on the latter, and some phonecalls to find some paddles.  By 0900 we were back out to sea and making for Oban once again, and the wind was good and offered great opportunity to improve our knowledge of the A5 asymmetric. 

The Isle of Man came and went and though the wind was once again dropping, we went into the second night approaching Belfast Roads, with the tide with us, and feeling confident once again.  The early morning saw us around the Mull of Kintyre on a flat sea, but using the engine, and then into the Sound of Jura where we were able to sail once more, including using the A5.  So now the choice was whether to take the bird closer to the hand and sail to Oban through the Sound of Islay (longer distance, but tide was right), or sail on to the Sound of Luing (shorter distance, but if we got held up and missed the gate………).  The Sound of Islay was simply a beautiful sail, and gave the fell-runners on board (Rich Hallett and John Skillen) a good heads up as to what to expect from the stunning scenery surrounding us.  Spirits were high as we came out of the Sound and set course for Oban.

We arrived at Oban at about 1600 and took a reserved berth on Kerrera, guided in by the other APC team who had arrived that morning in a yacht they had chartered from Northern Ireland.  Immediately Rob Driver and John Skillen collected their belongings and swapped berths with Brig Andrew Williams (DMS) and John McCallum, our additional fell-runners; John Skillen would run with our sister boat.   Registration and scrutiny commenced, and we prepared for a night of unbroken sleep in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland.

At this stage it is probably worth explaining to the uninitiated what the SIPR is.  In simple terms it is the Scottish version of the 3 Peaks; it involves a short run around Oban’s cliffs, a sail to Mull and a run over Ben More (the only Munro on a western isle), a sail to Jura and a run over the Paps (one run – 3 summits), a sail to Arran and a run over Goat Fell and a final sail to Troon to the finish line.  Total distance to sail is approximately 170 miles (depending on how you do it) and distance to run is over 65 miles (again, depending…..).

Friday morning in Oban was sunny and warm, but still.  This was not the weather forecast and we began to prepare for the F4-5 that we hoped was coming.  BRITISH SOLDIER has three reefs in her main, but only two lines, and setting for the weather we put the first reef straight in, knowing that the second would need doing as well.  I made my first mistake of the race, and did not rethread the line into the third reef – mea culpa.  By the time the race had started and Rich and John were running around Oban, the wind was well up, and we were down on the second reef, but largely in anticipation of any increase rather than because we absolutely needed it.  Collecting the runners in a dinghy paddled by DMS, in 15/20 knots of wind is not easy, and even more so when you are not allowed to go and collect them and they have to paddle to you (or do they? said the slightly angry man who noted that lots of old hands weren’t playing by the rules – note to self for next time).  By the time we had recovered our runners we were lying in the bottom third and had some ground to make up – and we had the boat to do it.  We exited Oban Bay and were hit almost instantly by a 25 knot wind on a close reach.  BRITISH SOLDIER is a lot of boat to handle with only three of you (Rich and John downstairs sorting themselves out) and trying to rethread the reefing line in the wind, the swell and the competition was harder than it had to be (lost the end once – aarrgh!).  However, once properly set we eased past the field and this buoyed spirits throughout the team.  We came into Salen Bay, Mull in good order and in a good place, having left many in our wake, and were able to disembark Rich and DMS swiftly, even with the wind frustrating the operation ever so slightly.  With the anchor down we took a break and waited for the runners return, which took slightly longer than we had hoped.  By now the windy but sunny day had left us, and the weather on the Ben was appalling.  Unfortunately by the time they were back on board the wind had dropped to just a couple of knots, and we drifted back out into the Sound of Mull.  After a couple of miles it dropped completely, and we looked for an alternative.

It will be no surprise to learn that you are not allowed to use the engine in SIPR, less for safety or whilst in the very act of disembarking or embarking runners.  Without wind, this left us two options: to drift aimlessly; to get out the sweeps.  Matt Sargent’s rowlocks got their first use at last, and myself John and Ed rowed the yacht for 7 miles down the Sound of Mull, making about 1.5 knots through the water.  Fortunately the tide was with us for most of the way, but our lack of speed meant that by the time we hit the south-east corner of Mull we were caught out by the flood that wanted to push us back north.  Keeping close into the shore Rich and Ed (again!) rowed hard against an annoyingly strong tide; progress was minimal and fatigue growing.  But then a small breeze blew in and, through numerous short tacks, we began to make some VMG.  Whilst others were pushed further and further back by the tide we managed to get past 5 other contenders and prepared for Jura.  Short tacking close inshore was the only option, but the knowledge of BRITISH SOLDIER’s 2.1m draft never left my mind.

We were just a couple of miles north of the Sound of Luing when the wind dropped again and a gentle mist arrived to obscure our vision.  Out came the sweeps in what was now a well practised routine and we pulled together once more.  Tired and bored of rowing we were, when suddenly the mist cleared and a very definite and very dark wind-line appeared on the water ahead.  Sending the oars below we were soon sailing once more and passed through the Sound, with the tide, well into double figures of speed over ground.  Despite the reputation of the Sound in some quarters, with the tide in your favour it is an easy passage, although some of the whirlpools, overfalls and swirls are reminiscent of the ancient mariner (there be dragons!).  As we were spat out of the other end we set course for Craighouse Bay, which turned out to be much further than we would have wanted, and the wind was on the nose.  What followed was a long afternoon of beating into a F5 with an attendant and uncomfortable swell (note earlier comments about how BRITISH SOLDIER handles waves).  But early in the evening we arrived in the Bay and were able to pick up a mooring buoy, disembarking the Rich and John into the rain and gloom.  Despite sustaining an injury they got back in pretty good time and we were able to get back out onto the sea in the early hours of Sunday morning; myself and Ed had just managed to bag our first few hours of sleep as well.  But the wind remained on the nose and the swell had built, and the night was black as pitch as we beat towards the Mull of Kintyre.

The Mull of Kintyre with wind against tide is a challenge for those without natural balance or predisposed to travel sickness.  We prevailed, and BRITISH SOLDIER brought us round safely and at speed.  As we moved towards Arran one could almost feel the event coming to a close, and not a moment too soon.  The decision to have three runners and two sailors was beginning to haunt the sailors, and the nature of the ground and the weather had beaten the best out of our runners.  Confident that it was now hours and not days to go, and with the wind swinging round to the beam, we decided to give the A5 a whirl; this was initially successful, but a lot of sail for two men and really controllable only in F2-3.  Somewhere in this evolution the furling gear on the headsail decided an extra challenge was needed, and for the sake of a £6 pin, we were left doing the genoa the old fashioned way.  And so into Lamlash Bay on Arran we went.  With only two runners fit we found a mooring and dispatched DMS and Rich for the last time, onto the hills.  They told us this was the easiest of the runs, and they delivered in spades, dragging energy and stamina from the furthest corners.  By the time they were back on board we had a F3 from the south and only the 17 miles to Troon to nail.

It would be too simple if that were it, and just a mile out of Arran the wind dropped again.  Sat in the middle of Clyde Loch we ran out the oars once more.  Last supplies of nutty were broken out and with mobile reception now restored homes were phoned to relay our predicament.  Once again though, after just a mile, the wind blew kindly and we were able to sail to Troon, arriving just after midnight on Sunday.  The final evolution was to send Rich and John in the dinghy to paddle into the Marina to announce our arrival and stop our time, and then to find our berth.

BRITISH SOLDIER is simply the best yacht I have ever raced on, and whilst our performance was not all it could be, our success in winning the Combined Services prize and coming 17th from 44 is largely attributable to her.  She is fast on the wind, and drops into the groove really easily.  Off the wind she goes like a rocket, but short-handed we weren’t able to make the most of the asymmetric spinnaker.  Her engine is superb, efficient and quiet too, but she doesn’t carry a lot of diesel so factor that into your preparation.  Her open transom makes launching and recovering dinghies easy, although finding the optimum place to store the dinghy without deflating it takes thought, and depends on the point of sail.  And finally, she is pretty hard living without a water tank and with condensation streaming down the inside of the hull, but that’s the penalty of having the potential to go fast.  And if you have to row her, you’ll be glad she doesn’t weigh much!

So all that remains is to thank Tim Hill and Will Naylor for their support in making BRITISH SOLDIER available to us, and to thank Matt Sargent for his rowlock design.  I think that we did well, but there is little doubt that knowing what we know now of the SIPR and of the boat, we can do a lot better next year; I dearly hope that Tim will be able to give us that opportunity.

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Offshore Racing Manager

Tim Hill Racing Manager for British Soldier

Lt Col Tim Hill
Tel: 01923 955337
Email: racing@sailarmy.co.uk