Sailing: Ludlow bows out at the summit

One man's 15-year obsession came to an ecstatic end in the Three Peaks Yacht Race.

WHEN RICHARD LUDLOW reached the top of Ben Nevis with his running partner David Hawkins, he knew that after 15 years of trying he was finally going to win the Helly Hansen Three Peaks Yacht Race.

From the patchy snowfields of the summit he looked down 4,406 feet to the placid waters of Loch Linnhe to see a slow-moving yacht approaching, and knew the two runners aboard would not now be able to catch him before he could return to his own boat, already moored on the shore below.

It was a painful jog back down on severely blistered feet, but half-way he passed the two runners from the recently arrived Spirit of Daedalus making their way upwards, and soon after that he crossed the finish line to celebrate with the three sailors who made up the rest of the team from the yacht Tactix.

In 89 hours and 53 minutes of non-stop racing they had sailed 389 miles from the Welsh coastal resort of Barmouth, only stopping at Caernarfon and Ravenglass to let the runners ashore to scale Snowdon and Scafell Pike, the highest points in Wales and England. Then came the long sail up to Fort William, and the final, victorious, climb, completing 72 miles of running and 11,000 feet of climbing. When they got back to the yacht from the summit the race was won.

"I'm ecstatic," Ludlow said. "In seven attempts at the race since 1984 I've won trophies as the best runner, for the fastest sailing legs and for the best all-round team performance, and once lost the outright title by an agonising two minutes. Now, at last, I've won and I'm not coming back. I retire!"

It had been a hard-won victory in a race where more than half the yachts setting off from Barmouth had been forced to give up. Yachts of all kinds compete on equal terms in this unique race, but the Morecambe Bay Prawner, Sir George Pilkington, built in 1900, found the high winds too much and broke its mast soon after crossing the start-line.

The winds increased in strength on the sail to Caernarfon and the newly- built catamaran Wildwood damaged its dagger board in the mountainous seas rounding Bardsey Head. They later retired with a failed engine and stress cracks to the mast beam.

Last year's winners, a fire service team on Parhelion, blew out all their sails, and were forced to motor to avoid running aground, while several boats put into port to sit out the weather.

Conditions for the runners on Snowdon were just as bad. Seasick and shaky, but delighted to be on land again, they faced a 24-mile night-time run in lashing rain and winds which at times blew them off their feet. First on the mountain were Menzies MacAffer and Nick Erlean, with the Navy entry Spirit of Daedalus. Members of the Royal Marines biathlon team, they had been invited to run as late replacements only three days before the race, but neither had been yachting before or been on any of the three peaks. Even so, they ran the fastest time in 4hr 16min and went on to win the title of Kings of the Mountains for the best combined time on the three runs.

Tactix, a lightweight X99 owned and skippered by Geoff West, set a new fastest time between Caernarfon and Ravenglass, while Spirit of Daedalus was not far behind. With force eight gales continuing to blow, negotiating the narrow entrance to the estuary at Ravenglass was difficult and dangerous, and Stormwave, which was in third place, was blown aground on the rocky beaches to the south.

"The wind was forcing us over on to the beach, lifting our propeller out of the water, and when the engine failed we were helpless," skipper Julian Wells said. As the waves pounded the stricken yacht (which was eventually salvaged), the inshore lifeboat tried and failed to pull them clear, while the coastguard ran a safety line out to allow runners and crew to wade ashore.

Cold and wet, Wells said: "To lose a boat is the worst thing that can happen to a skipper. We are all completely gutted."

While the rescue took place, other yachts entered the harbour and rowed their runners ashore for the next 32-mile run. For the leaders this came only 12 seasick hours after the Snowdon run, and to get to and from the mountain was a marathon distance on its own.

After Ravenglass, Tactix and Spirit of Daedalus were often in sight of each other, but the weather changed, and in flat, calm conditions the crews, who had virtually no sleep for three days, took to the oars and rowed northwards.

Approaching the finish, Tactix, which was the lighter boat, and was carrying four oars, put in all they had left to row through the night.

"It was extremely tense on board," Ludlow said. "We knew the Marines would be much quicker than us on Ben Nevis and we needed a big enough lead to ensure we would not be overtaken. After all the storms and tactical battle on the way, it was those few hours rowing that made all the difference."

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