Whirlpools, Witches, Bogs & Ditches – A Diary of The Scottish Islands Peaks

Date published: 29 April 2019

The roar of the Corryvreckan in the dark is an awe inspiring sound that heightens the senses and awakens the imagination. This other-worldly sound belongs to the third largest whirlpool in the world, situated between the islands of Jura and Scarba; capable of producing waves of up to 9m high and audible from up to 10 miles away. The practical side of your brain tells you to focus on your navigation, to ensure that your yacht is sailing well and that all your gear is functioning correctly whilst the fanciful side of your brain begins to imagine the Cailleach (sea witch) brewing up a storm and muttering spells over her aptly named “cauldron of the speckled seas”.

Corryvreckan Whirlpool (c) VisitScotland

I am privileged to have heard this sound on many occasions, some of the most memorable of which have been whilst taking part in the annual Scottish Islands Peaks race. Since its inception in 1983, this event has been one of the highlights of the adventure race calendar for all those interested in endurance fell running and sailing. The sailing course covers 160 nautical miles and includes the strong tides and overfalls of the Corryvreckan and the Mull of Kintyre whilst the runners must complete 60 miles and 11,500 ft of climbing in challenging and varied terrain. The race takes 3 to 4 days to complete and is a non-stop race with teams competing through the day and night from start till finish.

The event which tests both sailors and runners to the limit starts in Oban with a short six mile hill run, followed by a sail to Salen on Mull, run over Ben More, sail to Craighouse on Jura, run over all three of the Paps of Jura, sail to Arran, run up Goat Fell and finally finishes with a sail to Troon. Why did I find myself entering such a hardcore event in the first place you may ask… well, it began with a group of friends who just felt that strange pull to try something new, something different, something unusual. A vague plan was formulated, a vessel procured and a team of “allrounders” assembled. The race caters for Multihulls, Racers and Cruisers. Each team consists of 5 members; usually 2 runners and 3 sailors, there is also an “allrounders” class for those mad enough to do both the running and the sailing (yep, that’s the one we entered), and a class for youth teams.

We had all been sailing pals for a long time and we all liked running about in the hills - how hard could it be?

Road Runner under spinnaker (c) Susan Revie

We put a lot of effort into the planning and strategy prior to the race. We pored over OS maps and navigational charts for hours, working out the best routes depending on the weather, wind and tide conditions. We trained hard, even going as far as stuffing our rucksacks with rocks before an evening run after work just to build up our endurance and we worked out a system for food and refreshments for the voyage.

One of the more interesting rules of the Scottish Island Peaks Race is that in the case of the yacht becoming becalmed, crews are allowed to keep her moving with manpower; so we also had great fun (and a few bouts of swearing) modifying our yacht and fitting it with sliding rowing seats, a rowing system and a bicycle driven propeller that would not have looked out of place in a scene from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. We then took it for a few test rows around the Largs area much to the amazement and amusement of the locals.

Oar power - the addition of the oars made a significant difference to our team’s performance over the years that we competed in the race. On one particular occasion the wind completely died and the sea was glass calm. Our strategic planning and local knowledge of the tides allowed us to find a sneaky way to row right through the Corryvreckan during a small window of opportunity as the tide was turning. This proved to be the defining manoeuvre of the race but even to this day our chief navigator will not allow us to reveal exactly how we did it!

Sail power - on another occasion we had the spinnaker run of our lives from Craighouse to the Mull of Kintyre in 2 hours! Planing along in a Jeanneau OneDesign yacht with the spinnaker at full power and the tide with us was an exhilarating and energising experience.

Leg power - I was always the slowest runner in our team so my one big claim to fame was that whilst running up Ben More as a 60 year old through the bogs and ditches, I overtook a team of Israeli Commandos who were foundering in the mountainous conditions. This gave me a real boost for the rest of the race!

(C) Liz Pearson

If you fancy having a go at joining the ranks of those crazy enough to enter, the next Scottish Island Peaks Race takes place on Friday 19th May 2017, and we have a selection of yachts available to compete in this epic race.  All you need to do is book a yacht and enter the race! Are you ready for the adventure?

Muir Anderson

Flamingo Yacht Charters