Life on the Good Ship Chunder

19th-21st May

Long ago, before I left England, and before my lobotomy, I heard tell of a mystical race in darkest Scotland involving mountains, bogs, boats and ship-devouring whirl-pools. At the time I was living near London, where the most adventurous local event took participants down to the Tesco roundabout and back via the hockey pitches, and news of this fantastic odyssey made an imprint on my very soul.

‘Twas only upon joining a small-to-medium-sized etc. etc. that I came across some hardy individuals who had endured the rigours of the race. Those I met, Brian and Cheeky C appeared to be of a kind of fluffy, timid nature, and I resolved to grab the first chance that presented itself to see just how tough it really was.

As it happened, it was as a result of the withdrawal of one of the aforementioned to pursue some foppish jaunt around the highlands that I was invited to joint a team, and so it was that on sunny morning in May I met Brian at some ungodly hour and headed for Oban and the Good Ship Lemarac.

The introductory run around the hills of Oban was tackled in glorious sunshine by a motley assortment of fat boys from English public-schools in long shorts, Sherpas, continental boy-scouts, hard-looking women and a few known hill runners. After an initial dash, which for many lasted precisely as far as the bottom of the first incline, the field spread out and I found myself running chatting with Chris Speight and feeling like a rabbit-in-the-headlights as the race chopper buzzed overhead. Brian joined me on the run-in along the road and we clocked in together in around 29 minutes.

Now, forgive my naivety, but whenever Howard’s Way used to be on, the yachts used to saunter around the Med (or wherever the hell it was) on flat seas under azure skies, and their occupants passed the days sipping gin and sleeping with each others wives. This had rather coloured my perception of life in the open seas, and the head-long charge out of Oban harbour, our boat listing at an impossible angle and pulling wheelies through the surf, competitors cutting across our bows (technical term for the pointy end) at high speed had me scurrying below in a blind panic. I soon discovered, though, that being down below on a lively sea was a bad idea, and I re-emerged on deck feeling green-around the gills and sheepish. I was determined not to succumb to sea-sickness, and tried my best to look blase, as I happily absorbed the nonsensical nautical jargon. “Your jib halliard a bit slack Keith. Shall we tack again?” (Why didn’t I know that sort of stuff in my bird-pulling days? I bet it would work a treat down Clatty Pats!)

Much to my relief we landed in one piece at Salen, on Mull, and set off for Ben More at precisely the same time as Adam Ward and Angela Mudge of Carnethy. We watched them disappear swiftly into the distance and settled into our own rhythm. My stomach took a mile or two to adapt to the new motion, but by the time we turned off the road and started up the track through Glen More I was feeling myself again (ooer! – ed.)

Young Rigby, who had wangled a berth on a stupidly fast boat and was running with the sprightly Rob Jeb saluted us across the valley, already a couple of hours up on us and en route to both a Mull-leg record and an overall race record.

The track deteriorated into tussocks as we reached the head of the valley and started to climb towards Ben More. I had previously climbed Ben More on New Year’s Day, 1995 in an ice-storm. The visibility had been zero, and for my pains I sustained a frost-bitten ankle, but today Mull in all its splendour basked before me in a pleasant late-afternoon sun.

Brian’s route-knowledge stood us in good stead as we avoided the boulder field (from where we could hear Coylie and Phil Mowbry cursing) and picked our way on small trods to the summit. It was pretty parky up there, and the clag was down, so we wasted no time in scurrying down the scree and boulders to the next checkpoint. Again, Brian was in charge of navigation (as he was throughout the entire race), and his aim was spot-on.

The long contour back into Glen More was a nightmare in my road-shoes, and I stumbled along in a haze of profanity as Brian skipped along ahead in his Walshes. I caught him eventually when the terrain eased, by which time we were both starting to feel a bit knackered.

Regular rehydration and the wearing of silly hats make up a large part of any nautically based endurance race.

The three road-miles back to the boat were no fun, but were brightened immeasurably when we caught sight of Adam and Angela just ahead. As we drew closer it transpired that (and keep this to yourself, cos I promised not to tell anyone) ANGELA WAS CARRYING ADAM’S PACK! How I chortled!

Our time for the Mull run was 4:18, almost an hour quicker than Brian had run last year, and the fifth fastest overall, but we were pretty stuffed by the time we clambered back on board the Lemarac.

In Oban we had bought several hundred-weight of high-energy food for the trip, and as we sat on deck as the sun went down, feasting on pasta with sundried tomatoes and enjoying a dead-calm sea, I experienced what Chris Menhennet calls ‘a real boat-race moment’. The winds refused to blow for several hours, and I sat on deck ’till bedtime watching the other boats bob about making as little headway as us. Angela and Adam drifted past aboard ‘Tangle o’ the Isles’, their progress all-but imperceptible, and due, I suspect, to the fact that Angela had decided to spend the night rowing!

I slept the sleep of the just, and awoke to find that out predicted arrival time on Jura was 9 a.m. We busied ourselves preparing and feeding, while the wind dropped and we dawdled into Craighouse at 10:30. By this time Rigby and co., aboard the rocket-ship, had completed the Jura run in the dark, and were a good way through the sail to Arran.

I had the indignity of having my jacket rejected by some pernickety sod at the kit check. Luckily I had worn my heavier one on the dingy, and took that instead. A short road-stretch gave way to a tussocky climb followed by a rocky contour to the base of the first pap. It looked bloody awesome, and, to a jesse like me, almost impenetrable with its steep slopes of uninterrupted scree.

As we climbed the temperature plummeted, and when we stopped a hundred metres from the top to wrestle our waterproofs with frozen fingers, I said a secret thankyou to the official who had been so disdainful of my lightweight pertex. John Donnelly and Mad Kate skipped past in high spirits, which only added to my gloom, and we trudged, semi-fastened jackets flapping wildly in the wind, to the top. The descent started as a nightmare of scree and wet rocks, and I was selfishly relieved that Brian was suffering as much as I was. By the time we started the second pap I was frozen rigid, and had to keep running on ahead to find shelter, then wait for Brian to catch up. My notes remind me that I was “bloody freezing and a little desperate” on the last haul to the top, and that the descent, which Brian led on a compass bearing, was “nasty”. By contrast, the ascent of the final pap was almost all runnable, and my mood was restored to some extent, but the horrendous boulder-field we had to cross on the descent stripped me of the last vestiges of my sense of humour, and I completed the tussocky run to the road in a silent strop. Our time for the leg, 4:51, was crap: 3 minutes slower than Brian and Charlie ran last year, and 12th fastest on the day.

I felt wretched when we rejoined the Lemarac, and took too long changing down below. The weather had turned pretty rough, and although an hour’s kip perked me up, nipping back down to finish cooking was just too much, and I bolted back up to deck and vented the contents of my stomach over the side. Thus purged, I felt myself again (still at it, eh? – ed).

Once again, the wind packed up and by the time we turned in we were drifting aimlessly on the tide, which, when it turned, pushed us a couple of miles backwards. Our arrival time, as predicted by Mr. Tunnock’s whizzo navigational equipment, was lunchtime a fortnight on Tuesday. Fortunately, just as first-mate Keith Rodmell was about to start throwing things, the breeze picked up and we made our way slowly towards Arran. An hour-long lull allowed us to gaze intrusively at the Buddhists on Holy Island for a while, before a final gust of puff sent us into Lamlash Bay.

I have a love-affair with Arran, probably because in eight visits I have never seen a drop of rain, and I’d been looking forward to this leg. After the horrors of Jura, which quite frankly is no place for humans, the well-trodden tourist path up Goat Fell beckoned sweetly.

The first hour of the run took us over gentle agricultural country and through woodlands to Brodick, then through the town and across the golf-course (where I became disorientated while trying to avoid contact with any revolting trousers) to the foot of the mountain. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the runnable climb to the ridge was a joy. The final scramble over the rocks failed to dent my joie de vivre and I pulled away from Brian on the descent, safe in the knowledge that no navigation was required. Hah – silly arse! Somehow I managed to miss the track back down and ran too far along the ridge, only to hear Brian calling me from far below. Unbelievable I made exactly the same mistake two months later in the Glen Rosa Horseshoe race, where I lost two places and fell heavily trying to make up the lost ground.

At the bottom of the track we met Amanda Farrell, looking by far the freshest member of her all-rounders team as they started their ascent.

Brian, taking a sneaky shortcut across the golf-course, found himself faced with the unpleasant prospect of crossing a rank-smelling water-course about to discharge itself into the sea. Unwilling to retrace his steps and take the authorised route, he jumped in and swam the short-but-noxious stretch, then in a fit of generosity, suggested that we swap packs, leaving me with a sodden, stinking load that soaked my back and left my sacred Westies vest smelling like a sewer (no change there, then – ed.)

Lamlash was reached in 3:43, 9th fastest on the day, giving us a slightly disappointing 9th running position overall. Coylie and Mowbry were fastest, with the dream-team of Rigby and Jeb 3rd, no doubt handicapped by only having about 3½ minutes recovery between each leg.

The sail back to Troon was a thrilling affair, in which we narrowly lost out, after a high-speed chase, to two boats in our class, and very nearly came a cropper as a log-barge decided to emerge menacingly from the darkened harbour mouth just as we were about to enter.

Rigby’s boat won overall by 12½ hours (!) in 33:23:03, with the Lemarac 14 places and 25 hours behind in 58:37:15.

Our crew were superb, from Billy’s tireless oarsmanship, shuttling us from boat to land and back for each leg, to Keith’s ability to go three days without sleep and Boyd’s constant good humour and crap jokes.

The experience left me with a renewed conviction that man’s evolutionary progress from the oceans to terra firma was a damn good move, and a journey that should not be reversed. Having said that, ROLL ON NEXT YEAR!

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