Sunday, 14 June 2009

Castles and Islands Challenge

Yachts anchored off Low Newton in the Castles and Islands race

There have traditionally been two significant running and sailing races in the UK: the Scottish Islands Peaks Race and the big daddy of them all - the Three Peaks Yacht Race (that I know well and will reacquaint myself with on Saturday). The Universal 500 is being resurrected this year as the South Coast Yacht Race: Team Vasque are entered (Martin Beale and Tim Laney). The new kid on the block is the Castles and Islands Race.

The Castles and Islands Race is organised by the Coquet Yacht Club in the far northern reaches of Northumberland (it's far enough north that you get to see the "Newcastle, The South" signs on the A1). The Northumberland coast is notable for a profusion of castles and islands (not to mention miles of sandy beaches, large sand dunes and quaint little harbours). The Castles and Islands links these castles and islands. The idea is to sail round the islands (Coquet Island and the Farne Islands), to run round Holy Island and to run to five of the major castles: Alnwick, Warkworth, Lindisfarne, Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh.

The race comprises the following legs:

  • [run] Alnwick via Warkworth castle to Amble (where the yachts are met)
  • [sail] round Coquet Island then up to Holy Island via Staple Sound (between the Farne Islands)
  • [run] round the perimeter of Holy Island, taking in Lindisfarne castle
  • [sail] via the Inner Sound of the Farne Islands to Seahouses
  • [run] along the beach and round Bamburgh castle
  • [sail] to Low Newton
  • [run] to Dunstanburgh Castle
  • [sail] to Amble and the finish
  • [drink] sailing races always end up with a celebratory reception at the yacht club for the parched sailors and the Castles and Islands is no exception
You're actually allowed to do the runs in any order, but the above order seems to be generally adopted. The yachts have to drop their runners off via a dinghy (this is basically a big rubber inflatable boat - a grown up version of those inflatable boats that kids play in at the seaside) and are expressly not allowed to motor while their runners are on board. The rules state that the runners need to be on board from start to finish: this is an all round test of sailing and running ability. The runners need to run each leg together.

The Team Vasque Martins had done the Castles and Islands race in 2008 and were back for more in 2009. We were back as part of the Flying Pig team with sailors Rob (skipper and owner), Mike and Alex. Flying Pig is a Wharram Tiki catamaran. While being a veteran of the Scottish Islands Peaks Race, she looks like she belongs in the pacific islands, her lines having been inspired by those of the polynesian outrigger boats. She is spacious and fast in strong winds, though slows down in light headwinds. We had light headwinds for much of the 2009 race.
Flying Pig under full sail
I had been sailing my yacht, Cervisia, the week beforehand. While this had made me akin to life on the ocean wave, my distinct lack of sleep suggested that I might not be running at the standard I would usually ask of myself (that's the excuses dealt with).

At 7:30pm, we were at Alnwick castle ready for the start. We got a really good start, leading for the first two miles (despite a navigational error on my behalf: the competition were mainly local to Northumberland and knew the route: we were running on mapwork). We settled in behind a couple of Morpeth Harriers and chased them along paths and tracks through the Northumbrian countryside towards Warkworth castle and the coast. With a loop of Warkworth castle, there was just a mile to go and we finished with a blast along the coast road to Flying Pig. We managed the undulating 8.8 mile run in just under an hour in second place (an average pace of 6m47s / mile). I was happy with this, though I had clearly been holding Martin back.

We ran along the pontoon, jumped onto Flying Pig and then we were off on the main sailing leg. As we slipped out of the Coquet River at Amble, we could see the rest of the fleet coming out behind us. Sailing round Coquet Island, we watched spinnakers being raised in the evening sun as Flying Pig was being buzzed by puffins (truly beautiful birds).

A Northumberland sunset: running into Amble

Flying Pig and Team Vasque leaving Amble after the first running leg

I am unable to write anything about the sail from Amble to Holy Island, apart from to report that Flying Pig is a perfect boat for a tired runner to sleep on, being both spacious and stable. I was out for the count, snuggled into my sleeping bag, under my duvet. I was woken at 2am as we approached Holy Island.

I managed 10 hours of blissful sleep during the race
We were bleary eyed as we got into a cold dinghy and Mike rowed us to the shore. As Mike put the effort in, we could see the peaceful sight of the yachts' anchor lights in the Holy Island anchorage as our thoughts were focussed on the navigational challenge of running through the Holy Island sand dunes in the dark. Mike dropped us off at the slipway (entailing getting salty wet feet: I don't count myself as a prima donna, but I don't like getting salty wet feet and then running - you have to be prepared to suffer in these sailing and running races).

There are four checkpoints on Holy Island and you can visit them in any order. The traditional circuit is clockwise, but we elected to take an anticlockwise route as we felt this would aid navigation. Finding the castle (SE point) and Emmanuel Head (NE point) was easy (this is the reason we went anticlockwise: Emmanuel Head is easier to find from the south east). We then ran west onto a broad Northumberland beach in the the dead of night. Leaving the beach, we were lucky to find a good path through the dunes to another beach. Another cut through the sand dunes would lead us to a third beach. This passage was more trying as the paths died out and we were left in a sea of sand dunes on a dark night with only our compass to guide us. After wallowing around in the dunes for a while, we cut our losses, turned north straight for the beach and were then able to run along good firm sand towards the NW checkpoint (Snook old light) which Martin spotted in the first light of dawn. A blast along the causeway road then saw us back to Mike and the dinghy at the slipway.

Mike rowed us back into a sea of anchor lights, searching for Flying Pig. It was a relief to catch sight of her polynesian outriggers and then haul ourselves on board and straight into our bunks for a much needed rest.

Rob helming Flying Pig as I head down to my berth
The sailors did a good job of sailing us to the next harbour, Seahouses, in a strengthening headwind. We were dropped off in the dinghy with Mike, close to the harbour entrance and were rowed ashore once more, clambering up ladders onto the harbour wall. The run started at the landward end of the harbour wall and we knew we had to put in a good performance round Bamburgh Castle against the Morpeth Harriers (who we felt we had reeled in on Holy Island). I find this run to be a real test. It is fast in places (when on the wet sand exposed at lower tide or on land sections) and is slow through powdery shifting sand dunes or the dry beach sand at high tide. The run was really telling on me as we hit the drier and softer sand near the castle, but I put everything into it. We made a slight navigational error around the castle (you can't tell from the map where the good paths exist: only local knowledge helps), but generally navigated better than in 2008. This is an out and back leg. This is painful. If you find the run out to be hard work, then you are guaranteed to find the run back even harder: this is how things panned out. We put a creditable performance in on this leg, though by this stage, it was clear that I was holding Martin back. A very tired Team Vasque met Mike and the dinghy at the harbour wall for the row back to Flying Pig and our hardworking sailors who had been up all night (the runs are too short to give the sailors any real rest).

We sailed in the morning sunshine a few miles south to Low Newton and the drop off point for the final run to Dunstanburgh Castle. It was here that we were met by a sight that was both incredible and dreadful: the Morpeth Harriers were aground on the rocks, their beautiful long keeled yacht heeling over and being pounded by the (thankfully gentle) sea. The inshore lifeboat was out to help recover the yacht and was later followed by a Mersey class lifeboat. I knew how these guys felt: we had run aground in the Three Peaks Yacht Race in 2008: all that effort that you put in as a runner can come to nought due to a small navigational mistake or the whim of the tide. For a runner, a navigational mistake can mean floundering through sand dunes. For a yacht, the consequences can be more severe....

The grounded Morpeth Harriers at Low Newton as Flying Pig enters stage left
Rescuers stand by as the Morpeth Harriers' yacht is rescued (Flying Pig exits stage right)

The rescue of the stricken Morpeth Harriers' yacht continues as a dinghy stands by to disembark the runners (the race goes on...)

Mike rowed us ashore onto a sandy beach and Team Vasque started the final 5 mile run to Dunstanburgh Castle. We ran inland, across footpaths and the golf course in the heat of the morning sun. We touched the gates of Dunstanburgh Castle after nearly 20 minutes and set off back. The run back was pure purgatory for me. The previous week of little sleep was exacting a heavy price on my running ability and I was clearly slowing Martin down by this stage. I just focussed on the finish and got on with it: the harder I ran, the sooner it would be over. I collapsed into the dinghy at the finish for Mike to row us back to Flying Pig. With my last ounces of strength, I hauled myself onto Flying Pig's deck and crawled off to bed.

Runners paddle back to their yacht after the Dunstanburgh castle leg. These Advanced Elements inflatable kayaks are the business: all the other runners were totally jealous of this kit

I knew little of the final sail back to Amble, save to say that it was into a light headwind and took quite some time (all of which I slept). As we crossed the finish line (15 hours after the start), the wind suddenly picked up and just for the fun of it, we careered off downwind, letting Flying Pig show us what she was capable of.

By 5pm, we were moored up at Coquet Yacht Club and touched land once more (which seemed to be rocking back and forth gently!). By 8pm, the finish party was well underway and at 9:30pm, the prizes were handed out. Team Vasque were handed the running trophy (and Flying Pig won the multihull trophy). It was a somewhat bittersweet "victory" for us. The Morpeth Harriers were 4 minutes faster overall, but as their yacht had not completed the whole course, they were disqualified from the running prize. My heart went out to them. They had done everything required of them and a twist of fate had conspired against them. They've vowed to come back again in 2010 and right the wrong. Team Vasque will be back, in a rested state, for the rematch.

Martin Beale / Martin Indge: Team Vasque

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