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Peak performers by land and sea



It’s a triathlon, but not as we know it: Sailing, cycling and mountain running are the disciplines in what must surely be one of the world’s toughest multi-sport endurance races − the Three Peaks Yacht Race.

Once upon a time there was a doctor by the name of Rob Haworth, and as is fitting for a good doctor, he was also a good listener. Among his patients back in the early 1970s was a certain H. W. Tilman and the stories that this man told would have graced many a book of adventures. The son of a British sugar merchant, Tilman had been a soldier in two world wars, owned a coffee plantation in Kenya, and undertaken some magnificent journeys in the first half of the 20th century. On his travels he had climbed numerous peaks around the world, attempted Mount Everest, and mastered the Kilimanjaro range climbing solo. When he wasn’t mountaineering, he circumnavigated the globe and went prospecting for gold in Africa. He once cycled from Kenya to the West coast of Africa and sailed the waters of the Arctic and Antarctic in search of mountains that no one had ever climbed. There is even a mountain ridge in the Antarctic named after this intrepid adventurer. And in Rob Haworth, who listened enraptured to Tilman’s wild and wonderful tales when treating him at home, his patient’s amazing adventures inspired an equally adventurous plan.

Photo: Rob Howard / Three Peaks Yacht Race


Because back then in the Seventies, Rob Haworth was thinking of taking a vacation. Not just any old vacation but something rather special. He was thinking of “doing a mini Tilman” as he put it. His ambitious plan was to set sail from Barmouth in Wales, where both he and Tilman lived, head out into the Irish Sea and north to Fort William in Scotland, stopping en route to climb the three highest peaks in Wales, England and Scotland. And one winter’s evening in 1976, when he and his colleague were standing around the kitchen table, mapping out a route, they hit upon the idea of turning the journey into a thrilling race. With the map on the table, they placed bottles to represent the three peaks and sketched out how the logistics might work. So it was that Haworth’s “mini Tilman” became one of the world’s toughest sporting events, known today as the Three Peaks Yacht Race. In the meantime other countries have devised their own versions of the British original, so that today you will also find Three Peaks races in Hong Kong and Australia.


The original version is now into its fifth decade. Once a year in June, the teams − or rather crews − set sail from Barmouth in Wales. Crew strength is limited to a maximum of five, two of whom are designated as runners. First, they sail west, heading out into the Irish Sea, before turning north. In all, the crews spend four days at sea, following the course originally charted at that kitchen table back in 1976. And it is ‘under sail only’ – engines may only be used to maneuver when entering and leaving the harbor. Before they can moor in the first port of call, in Caernarfon, the yachts must first round the western edge of the Lleyn peninsula in the county of Gwynedd in Wales. That’s not as easy as it may sound, because the south-west facing shore takes the full force of the Atlantic gales, earning it the nickname Hell’s Mouth. When the boats tie up at the end of their first leg, they have 115 kilometers or so of sailing behind them.

Photo: Rob Howard / Three Peaks Yacht Race


Time for a break, you might think, but not so for the two runners on the team, because they are instantly off the boat and into the first climb. The goal is the 1,085-meter peak of Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. There and back is a 38-kilometer run, but if that sounds challenging in itself, there’s an added handicap here because much of this run is normally staged in darkness. With the first peak under their belts, the runners hurry back on board, the lines are cast off and the yachts head out to sea and north again, on their way to Whitehaven in northwest England. 185 watery kilometers later, the runners need to get their land legs back fast because here the longest land stage awaits them. The next peak is Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. And while it may stand at just 978 meters, to get there and back means covering 64 kilometers. The first section of the uphill route is tackled by bike, the second on foot. Up at the summit, there’s no time to enjoy the view, because down in Whitehaven harbor, the sailors are keen to be on their way, with their longest leg ahead of them.


Fort William in Scotland is 420 kilometers away and it’s not all blue-water sailing. This is where the skippers are put to the test, not least in the Corran Narrows, where the tidal streams are so strong that the yachts are frequently unable to make any headway at all. Long before the yachtsmen tie up in Fort William, the runners are already gazing north toward the heights of Ben Nevis, Scotland’s tallest peak and the highest in the race. The crew can stand down but for the runners it’s showtime, with 28 kilometers to cover, up Ben Nevis (1,345 m) and back, before they finally cross the long-awaited finish line.


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