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Three Lakes Challenge, UK


Up against the clock, Pat Kinsella and his crew attempt to paddle the longest lakes in Scotland, England and Wales - and finish before last drinks at the pub.

Paddling at Lake Windermere

Whatever else we expected from our aquatic adventure, not for a single second did it occur to us that we might come within a swan’s schlong of setting a record.

But one of the things that makes Britain great for challenge-chasing outdoorsy types is its scale. Unlike Australia, where you can drive all day and not escape your home state, in the UK, three completely culturally distinct countries are contained on one little island that can be crossed by car in a matter of hours.

We were taking on the Three Lakes Challenge, a relatively new notion whereby kayakers attempt to paddle the longest lakes in each of the three countries that comprise the British mainland within 24 hours: Llyn Tegid (11km in Wales), Windermere (17.5km in England), and Loch Awe (10km in Scotland).

Paddling at Lake Windermere

Of course, imposing such tight time restraints on three-headed outdoor odysseys that take place across some of the UK’s finest locations is completely ridiculous. It’s borderline obscene to rush these pretty peaks, or speed-paddle such perfect puddles, instead of savouring the scene and enjoying the experience.

But who can resist the chance to take on a dare that tests fitness, friendship and fate? Not me. As soon as I learned about it, I knew I had to give the Three Lakes Challenge a crack, and it didn’t take long to find two willing paddling partners: Neil and Rich.

Our decision to attempt the quest was made in a pub, and that’s where it needed to end. Rich’s house is just above a boozer, aptly named the Waterman’s Arms, and as we drove past it at first light on the Saturday morning our mission began, and we set ourselves an additional goal. Not only would we try to paddle Britain’s biggest bodies of water in 24 hours, we were determined to do it in time to return here before last orders on Sunday, to see if our wannabe watermen’s arms were still willing and able to pick up a pint.


The challenge begins

Initially we decided to start in Scotland, paddling Loch Awe with fresh muscles and clear heads, but hours before setting off, the order was utterly reversed. Our new route was designed around drive times, prevailing winds and hours of sunlight, and if all went to plan, we would be driving during the night on quiet roads and paddling during the day.       

However, I know from previous experience, that nothing is simple when you’re driving more than 600km along British roads, through some of the country’s most popular tourist areas, in the height of summer.

On such fine margins – many of which fall outside of your control and have little to do with how fast you complete the physical side of the challenge – these things precariously pirouette.


About to hit the water on lake number 1: Llyn Tegid in Wales.

At Llyn Tegid (aka Lake Bala), we encountered a beach busy with sunbathers and launched amid an armada of squealing kids on inflatables. But as the stopwatch started and we began burying blades into the water in earnest, we soon left the throng behind.

Rich, the fittest member of our mob, sprinted ahead, while Neil, the best paddler, mindful that we were beginning a marathon, kept the pace steady. I just tried to hang on, as we powered up the lake into a feisty headwind.

This lake requires kayakers to do an up-and-back loop, as there’s no take-out point at the far end. Fortunately, Bala is barely 5.5km long, so this isn’t too tough, and we had a tailwind during the return.

We did the distance quicker than expected (one hour 12 minutes), wrongfooting our support driver Dave, who was still scouring the water with his binoculars after we’d hauled the boats onto the beach. As punishment he was sent to get a round of ice-creams – recovery food of champions – while we packed up.


Windermere, in England's Lake District, was like glass.

The section between North Wales and the Lake District was the driving leg that worried me most, but we breezed it without any delays. Still, it was 8.30pm by the time we launched on Windermere, giving us just two hours of light to reach the other end.

The dying day was a thing of beauty though, and a gentle tailwind nudged us along a mirror-like lake, the reflection occasionally shattered by yachts and a single speedboat. As they passed, we rode the ripples and harnessed their wash, keeping up an average speed of around 10km/h.  

By 10pm the lights of Ambleside were in view, and a fantastic full moon had arisen to watch us paddle into port after exactly two hours on the water. Dave was ready this time, and we immediately headed for the Highlands.


Kilchurn Castle.

The mean streets of Glasgow were deserted in the wee hours, and we made good time, pulling into Lochgilphead car park at the southern end of Loch Awe at 5.30am on Sunday.

Tumbling out of the wagon, now full of the detritus of half-a-dozen motorway service station stops, we tried forcing breakfast down amid the drizzle of a new day. Shivering, stiff and sleep deprived, we were anxious to get started on the crux move of the challenge: a paddle over twice the distance of anything we’d tackled thus far.

The rain was relentless, but the forecast following wind turned up as promised to help push us along, and we soon warmed to the task, surfing on the back of little running waves.  

The loch – allegedly home to a Nessie-like beast called Beathach Mòr Loch – is immense. Punctuated by little uninhabited islands, its banks are utterly wild. Bar the occasional hint of a house in the hills, there was no sign of life, man or monster, beyond our paddling party.

After 20km, muscle fatigue kicked in big time, along with the bum-numbness that always accompanies long-distance paddles. We were flagging, but bananas, chocolate bars and energy gels worked their magic, and eventually the silhouette of Kilchurn Castle loomed out of the mist, signalling the end.

Mission successful.

Reaching the 15th-century ruin before 10am, comfortably within the 24 hour time limit, we wasted half an hour taking photos beneath the castle, before paddling around the corner to the official take-out, where Dave eagerly awaited.

“What kept you?” he quipped, as we stopped the watch, recording a time of four hours 51 minutes on the loch, making a combined paddling time of eight hours, 3 minutes and 55 seconds, and a total expedition time of almost exactly 20 hours.

Stoked with those results, but cloudyheaded with tiredness, it took ages to dawn on me that we’d set a new fastest-time for solo paddlers. The quickest ever recorded completion of the paddling legs is six hours 16 minutes – set by Craig Duff and Steph Roberts, two competitive kayakers paddling a K2 (two-person racing kayak) – but we’d shaved over an hour off the fastest time set in individual boats. Bonus.

All that remained was an 11 hour down country dash to get to the pub and celebrate before last orders.


Victory pints

Swinging into the Waterman’s Arms car park at exactly 10.30pm, we were just in time to see the taproom lights going out. Panic overcame fatigue, and we dashed for the door, only to find it locked. No! However the side entrance was still open, and we bundled into the bar, where the startled landlord confirmed our worst fears.

“Sorry lads, we’re shut.”

After hearing our story, however, he quickly poured four pints. “How could I say no to that,” he said. “You idiots.”


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