Westies at the Boat Race 2020

At long last the lockdown has been lifted, and amazingly it was just in time for the Boat Race to go ahead.

The MacDonald family organise it and always put on a great event, but with the race only getting the go-ahead on the week leading up to it the numbers were a bit lower than usual. Most of the usual suspect boats are still ashore in yards up and down the country awaiting the spring antifoul and launch. I’d been training for months for this event though (100 times up and down my close steps every morning before breakfast had put me in the shape of my running life, thighs of steel, if somewhat twiggy and pale on top) and teammate Roddy had been flouting all sorts of French lockdown rules to get his mileage in. Not gonna let that go to waste.

We decided the lack of available boats wouldn’t stop us and decided to jump on our bikes and have a scout about to source a suitable vessel. We also brought Niall and Doc, cause Niall’s Irishness could probably talk us out of any “situations” and Doc has a big set of wire snippers. It quickly became clear there is only one boat worth having in Glasgow. It’s called the Glenlee and is tied up outside the transport museum. We needed backup. Kerry, Leyre, Katie and Megan were roped in.

After waiting until the museum closed for the night, the security guards were donked on the head with a couple of onions from Katie’s allotment, the lines were cut with Megan’s ice axe and we were away. It took us until the Erskine bridge before we could get the sails working. Admittedly we were struggling, so sent a message out on the Canal Patrol Whatsapp group for assistance. Iain Walker and Alex’s Mike quickly agreed they would grab a sub and meet us near the old sugar boat to ferry the dozens of Westies who were suddenly very keen for a shot at the boat race.

Fast forward a few days and as a crew we were a well-oiled machine. We made it into Oban harbour at 11:30 on Friday morning, half an hour before start. As we had a larger crew than the typical 5 we thought it only right that we should send a good number of runners for each leg. We didn’t have a dinghy so Ian and Mike kindly agreed to follow us around the course with the sub acting as a tender. Christine was in Oban anyway, so she lined up for us, along with Ella, Niall and James. Ella, clearly confused after her various lockdown challenges, did 55 reps of the first wee steep incline before realising that this was a traditional loop course and promptly catching the others up. This wasn’t so hard as James and Niall had emptied themselves to ‘win’ the first 100m and Christine had done 10 headstands. Three of the four made it back – we did not see James again. Niall mentioned something about cutting a rope and we didn’t ask any other questions. The team crossed the line somewhere in the middle of the pack, jumped on the sub, took a deep breath and gripped the outside for the short trip to the waiting Glenlee.

It’s an awkward sail out of Oban bay. Luckily we were the biggest boat in the fleet so we’re pretty sure we had some sort of right of way or something. Anyway, we had Arron clambering up and down to the crow’s nest to watch for danger and if he was shouting down, well, we couldn’t hear it.

Up the sound of Mull we went. Roddy and I were proudly captaining the ship, or so we thought, until someone pointed out we were holding onto a toy pirate ships wheel in the gift shop. I’m still not entirely sure who was in control, but nonetheless we made it to Salen. A selection of Luci(y)s were joined by all the Chris’s, nearly all the Toms and some assorted extras for the first of the big island legs. Remarkably, team Tom was also bolstered by Mr Finch, who as it happened was on Mull anyway searching for the white-tailed eagles from atop A’ Chioch, so he joined the gang. They summited Ben More just as the sun was setting and a few tears were quietly shed at the beauty of it all. Headtorches were donned back in the glen by all apart from Helen who despite falling off 3 cliffs, stumbling in 2 rivers and running straight into Loch Ba still insists that proper Westies shouldn’t wear them. By all accounts the runners had a stormer, overtaking teams from HBT and Ochills and caught out the rest of us who’d opted for a few swifties in the Salen Hotel. Surprisingly we found captain Jenn propping up the bar here, having got bored of her and Tom’s bird watching holiday days ago. She was pretty incoherent but nonetheless we took her with us.

Back on the Glenlee we were getting into the swing of it. Simply purring through the dark waters as we zig-zagged our way down the Sound of Mull and into the night. Boaty words like “mizzen” and “stays” were rolling off the tongue and DJ JD had finally found himself working the decks, albeit scrubbing them. The tracker told us we were in 5th position.

As we rounded Duart Point and headed south towards Luing and eventually the Sound of Jura we could tell we were starting to slow. Clearly the tidal gate was closing on us. We could make out the lights of other boats around us and maybe because of our extra weight we seemed to be dropping down the pack. It was clear what was required. We all understood the seriousness of the situation and without requiring a word of explanation all took our shoes off and lined up in order of biggest feet to smallest. It may or may not surprise you that the biggest sets of feet in the club belong to the Audreys. And so it was they who gallantly jumped over the stern and started kicking. Ever so slightly we began to feel the difference and we squeezed through the tidal gate just and no more. Half the fleet left behind, see ya later suckers!

Favourable winds meant that we then made good time through the sound of Luing and it was only as the first rays of daylight were seen, as we were somewhere off Crinan, that we remembered the Audreys were still hanging off the back. Quickly the tallest formed a human chain over the side with Niall holding Will, holding Lucinda, holding Dave Calder who managed to grab an Audrey in each hand and bring safely back aboard. Lucky that the various Westies who’ve previously done this race on the various Lemerac’s were still, years on, able to supply copious volumes of Tunnocks produce to revive the girls.

And so, around noon on Saturday we glided into Craighouse bay. Right on cue the sub surfaced and the motley crew of all the Johns, all the Elizabeth/Ellie/Ella variations and Ian’s (both with and without 2 i’s) hopped aboard. Sam and Gregor were so keen to have a race round the paps they swam ashore.

Like a swarm of bees the yellow vests buzzed along the road and up onto the heathery hillside. Apparently the slog up the first 2 paps was done with no swearing which I find unlikely, and the route down off the 3rd was of course led by Ian Thurlbeck who, having had a mental block about Corra Bheinn during a previous fell race, has taken this route straight from pap 3 to the bridge once before. To prove some sort of point Sam did the whole route with his eyes shut. They successfully overtook teams from Lochaber and Deeside. No mean feat on the rough stuff.

Again caught out a little, the rest of us were halfway through a distillery tour when the runners finished. We had to cut the tour short but still managed to spend a few quid in the distillery shop before hot-footing it back to the good ship Glenlee.

For once Sam didn’t hit a rock as we left the bay. The going was surprisingly smooth but for old times’ sake Manny and Brian insisted on having a mud wrestle in their own vomit down in the bilges. Andrew F had obviously cooked up a stormer of a full Indian meal which was just as well as even I was getting tired of tea cakes. We rounded the Mull of Kintyre without incident, don’t know what all the fuss is about. In the process taking us into 3rd position with only teams from Carnethy and Shettleston in front.

Full to the brim but still taking a peshwari each for good measure the remaining runners boarded the sub and went to the pier at Lamlash for the kit check. This is usually done by Westies so rather oddly there was no-one to carry it out. Shoulders were shrugged and on they went. All the Robs, Ruths and Rods pushed on with an assortment of other Westies in hot pursuit. As tradition dictates they changed into their sharpest studded hill shoes for the divoting trudge across the golf course before reverting back to the road shoes for the nice path up and down Goatfell. The little small mountain which is not even a munro so don’t know what the big deal is (said no one who’s ever climbed it’s never-ending path). Carnethy runners were overtaken with ease on the descent as this race is really about 200 miles too short for them. Then the burners were lit to get back to Lamlash in 2nd place!

Just the home straight now. The sails were set and momentum gathered as our big lump of steel made its way out of Lamlash bay. The Shettleston boat was in front. We hadn’t seen much of them all weekend but with a strong Westerly on our back we were reeling them in. It was only once we got a bit closer that it was clear that they were on a smaller boat than ours. Well smaller in height. But it was wide. With 2 big wheels. Wait a minute. They’d nicked the Waverly!

That’s not on. This is a sailing race and steam powered paddles are against the rules. However Westies may be a few things but we ain’t snitches. So if we wanted to win this thing we were gonna do it right. All hands on deck and all sheets to the wind. JD’s mega mix up to 11. Of course it was a tight finish, and we inevitably just pipped ahead of them before entering Troon harbour. Checking behind us it appeared that The Waverley’s paddles had been too wide for the entrance and jammed it in there. Victory was to be ours, hallelujah! Then I remembered I hadn’t actually done a run yet so did the celebrated trot up to the marina office to claim our spectacular victory! Of course the Glenlee was unceremoniously dumped on the first pontoon and we all went to the marina pub with Helen putting the club bank card behind the bar. As the first sips of cold beer met our lips we looked out to the rest of the fleet approaching the blocked harbour. A beautiful sight. You couldn’t make it up.

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