Three Peaks Race: Merseybeat rowing stroke peaks at right time: Rob Howard reports how Gareth Owen's oarsmen beat becalmed seas to win the Three Peaks Race yesterday

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The Independent Online
AT 7.31am yesterday the 27ft trimaran, Burtonwood Merseybeat, glided across the calm waters of Loch Linnhe to moor at Fort William beneath the cloud-shrouded ramparts of Ben Nevis. Two runners jumped ashore to race 17 miles to the 4,406ft summit and back again.

Three hours and 34 minutes later they rejoined their three crew-mates, all of them blistered and aching after days at sea but happy to have won the 17th Karrimor Three Peaks Race - a combination of mountain running and offshore sailing which inspires both madcap adventure and sporting excellence.

With 12 other yachts of varying sizes and specifications, they had set off from Barmouth on the Welsh coast last Saturday to sail 389 miles, stopping only at Caernarfon and Ravenglass in Cumbria to allow the runners to scale Snowdon and Scafell Pike, the highest points in Wales and England. What they did not expect when they set off was to have to row much of the way . . .

Burtonwood Merseybeat's skipper, Gareth Owen, winning for the third time in 11 attempts, has more experience of the race than anyone else. 'That was the hardest race of all,' he said. 'The weather was horrible, so calm that we rowed about half the way, and the oars are all smashed up. We ran out of food and water rounding the Mull of Kintyre.'

The five crew members survived for 36 hours on a few cartons of orange juice but, asked if they thought of stopping for supplies, the navigator, Steve Willis, said: 'No, we just had a laugh about it and carried on.'

Had he been there to hear them, Major HW Tilman, who was the inspiration behind the race, would have approved of those sentiments. Tilman was one of the great pioneers of Himalayan exploration. He settled on the Mawddach estuary, near Barmouth, where he learned to sail; he then bought a Bristol pilot cutter, naming it Mischief, and spent his later years on long voyages to the Southern Ocean, where he climbed inaccessible Antarctic peaks.

Tilman's love of adventure on both mountain and sea inspired a local doctor, Rob Howarth, to start the race, and Tilman gave the first prizes in 1977. Shortly afterwards, at the age of 80, he sailed for the Antarctic again and never returned.

Famed for planning his expeditions on 'the back of an envelope', his comment on race rules was: 'Let them get on with it.' They have been doing so ever since. Rowing is common practice, and boats have been pulled by the crew walking along the shore, a tactic used by Owen in his first race in 1981.

As Howarth recalled, standards of competition were different then. 'In the first race, my yacht put walkers ashore who took two days to get to Scafell Pike and back, and the winning yachts took nearly a week. Now the record for the whole race is just two days and nine hours, and all three mountains have been run in a time of 10 hours 32 minutes. Even with no wind, we won this year in under four days.'

In the past, boats have been dismasted, grounded on sand bars and wrecked, but the only drama this week was Burtonwood Merseybeat hitting a rock in the Menai Straits. It woke up the two runners, Les Mercer and Paul Cadwallader, but no damage was done.

This year, the runners did not risk being tipped from dinghies into stormy seas, though Cadwallader and Mercer did have to run up and down Scafell Pike in the dark. Even then, the 32 miles took them only 6hr 25min. They suffered more from blisters on their hands than on their feet, but at least their time at the oars was the shortest. The rest of the fleet are still out there - rowing hard.

(Photograph omitted)