Words and pics: Ian Cormack
Earlier in the year, having found myself with some time on my hands, I started to plan a number of adventures that were on my bucket list. No sooner had I pencilled them in I became busy again so a certain number of ideas got shunted down the list giving me a batting order of UK based road trips for 2016. With the 90 mile Argyll Sea Kayak Trail (ASKT) and SUP Til You Drop at Ullswater out of the way by June I switched my focus to the Three Lakes Challenge, which is quite similar to the Three Peaks Challenge except for the hills and the running!
The 3LC involved the paddling of England, Wales and Scotland’s longest lakes/lochs with the cumulative time also including the road miles travelling from one to the other. I did some basic maths (very basic) and figured it could be done in under 24 hours if weather was favourable, the roads were empty, our bodies were up to it and the team robust enough.
The ASKT had highlighted that I knew I could rely on Dean Dunbar and Allistair Swinsco to complete the task in hand so Team Amigo were re-united with Alison Rennie doing the bulk of the support work and Rhona Dunbar (with the ever present Stumpy) along to help in the early stages. Allistair also made me aware of the BCA recognised Three Lakes Challenge and that there was already a (very short) list of people who had completed the 3L – although even less had attempted to complete the distance (including the driving) in a 24 hour period. Last count was six teams and all sit down paddlers. If we did complete the 3L, whether under 24 hours or not, there was no mistaking the fact we would be the first stand up paddlers to do so. In all honesty nobody ever mentioned any record attempts – the only aim being sub 24 hours. In true Dean Dunbar fashion, with a few days to go, he dropped the ‘sub 20 hours’ bombshell. Allistair and I ignored that email and turned the other way – 24 hours was at this stage our only target.
It was unanimously decided to start furthest north at the 26.5 mile Loch Awe and work our way south. We also worked out in advance the best time to start to avoid Sunday morning traffic and using a complicated algorithm (a finger in the breeze) we opted for 3pm start at Torran Bay.
We arrived at the excellent Torran Bay hostel around 2pm Saturday where Dean, Rhona and Stumpy were already located along with some very black looking clouds, proper Highland rain and a pretty strong WSW wind. Later wind recordings put it at a constant 18mph with gusts of about 31mph. The direction of Loch Awe meant we would predominantly have the wind on our left shoulder which is the prevailing wind condition in that area. We intended to hug the western side of the loch early in the paddle believing it would give us some shelter whilst trying to find a distance off land to gain from the wind. There was actually very little shelter and we pretty much had an off centre tail wind from the word go, combined with some pretty heavy rain.
There are a few slight angle changes to Loch Awe so just as the swell built the change of direction killed it off again. But it’s fair to say heading in the opposite direction would have been impossible. We allowed ourselves a customary five minutes in every hour to take on fluids and food which is a routine we have got used to as Dean doesn’t favour bladder type fluid system as it throws his balance. Nevertheless we made good time aided by the wind almost to the top of Loch Awe where a westerly branch off to the power station at Cruachan left us exposed to a side wind of about 25mph for 20 minutes. Having crossed the gap Allistair clocked us on his GPS at 21 miles of the 26.5 mile finish at Kilchurn castle. Even in the low-vis conditions the castle looked less than 5.5 miles away. As it happens we reached the finish in less than 23 miles which makes it hard to work out how the internet measures the loch at 26.5?!
It’s a similar issue to the one we had on Lomond. Having paddled the 24.5 mile loch a number of times between us we can only ever clock 22.5 miles. This could throw a complete spanner into Scottish heritage as a trend is setting in for over estimating the size of the lochs. Indeed, Loch Ness could actually be the first and not second longest loch if it is actually 25 miles as advertised.
At the castle we were met by the support team and we had a bit of warm food, a drink, loaded the vehicles and made ourselves comfortable for our four hour journey to the Lake District. It’s worth mentioning that although we had done well on Awe there was no urgency as we had sub 24 hours in mind (well, two us did) with sub 20 at best….nobody even talked about records.
Alison and Allistair shared the driving while Dean and I tried, with little success, to get some sleep. Rhona and Stumpy stayed north of the border fearing the Brexit vote and new talk of an independence vote could affect their chances of getting back into Scotland. (That’s not the real reason by the way!).
Darkness fell and we arrived at the southern end of Windermere about 2am once again hoping to make use of a slight tail breeze. It was obviously very dark so armed with head torches and chemlites we went about a well-practised routine of food, boards and equipment prep. The Windermere paddle was unique in as much as it was Dean’s first SUP in complete darkness despite his visual impairment. Being from Scotland I have experienced quite a lot of night paddling given that at some stages of the year you have no choice if you work until after 4pm. I am a big fan of night paddling as I find your senses become more tuned to the surroundings and you have more feel for what the board is doing.
We tried a number of light solutions, mainly to help Dean with some visual references. I chose not to have any forward white light whereas Allistair had engineered a mountain bike torch to a GoPro mount which worked well – and attracted lots of fish! By the time we hit mid-lake it was daylight, approx. 3.30am, and as we approached the head of the loch it was a brilliant flat sunny Sunday morning giving Alison a great opportunity for some pics. Dean and I have only ever done Windermere once before and that was in race conditions. We did it quicker this time! It might have been the effect of drafting although Dean didn’t know drafting was going on.
Heading back to the car we set off again for the four hour trip to North Wales where once again Dean and I were lucky enough to have the luxury of at least trying to get some sleep. The two A`s drove and navigated our way down the M6 and across some pretty minor roads to Western Bala Lake. It was only when we got out the car and went through the kit prep routine again that we noticed our elapsed time actually stood us in good standing for a sub 19 hour journey. We headed out on to Bala with a significant westerly wind giving us a few small bumps to ride on the relatively short 3.7 miles. The final leg took approximately 45 minutes and compared to the previous two lakes seemed a little bit of an anti-climax. The lake itself gave you no feeling of achievement but looking at the complete 19 hour journey as a whole we agreed we had covered ‘quite a lot’ of mileage – over a thousand in Allistair and Alisons case!
Pausing for the obligatory pictures we packed to head virtually all the way back to mid-Scotland (to drop Dean and myself off) , but not before treating ourselves to a slap up breakfast in the Bala teashop. This was a well-deserved meal given the amount of calories consumed over the 24 hours.
The BCA suggest doing the challenge from the Bala heading north to Windermere and Awe but we were definitely all in favour of not having to tackle this.
After checking our data against BCA’s website we were surprised to see that the first ever none stop SUP attempt (in fact SUP attempt full stop) turned out to be the second fastest none stop time of any paddle craft. For some strange reason the BCA record is taken with Bala done end to end and back. We technically had done 3.7 miles less but our goal was solely to complete the three lakes. Another 3.7 miles would have added an hour to our time and put us third on the all-time leader board. The wind on Bala wouldn’t have allowed a return leg that day but we did contemplate driving back to the top end and doing another downwind leg in case anybody questioned our results. We didn’t resort to that action as we had achieved what we set out to achieve: paddling Scotland, England and Wales’ longest lochs/lakes in under 24 hours. Our total time, including road miles, was 18 hours and 41 minutes.