By Patrick Winterton
This summer I’ve been transfixed by one of the boldest kayaking expeditions ever undertaken. Olly Hicks and George Bullard have spent seven weeks island-hopping from the ice floes of east Greenland to the cusp of the Scottish mainland. They crossed the arctic waters of the Denmark Strait to Iceland, then tiptoed through the ‘The Devil’s Dance Floor’ to the Faroe Islands–290 miles of roiling ocean that even commercial trawlers have the good sense to avoid. Olly and George did it in a 22-foot kayak, over four days and nights of almost continual paddling. In the Faroes they gathered their strength and pressed on toward Scotland, but exhaustion and a fast-closing weather window forced them to take shelter on North Rona, a rocky outcrop in the Atlantic some 50 miles from their goal.
A week of storms has kept them there, so close to the end of their journey, so close to the end of their supplies. This is a week of isolation they will never forget and one that will make them feel like genuine adventurers.
In all they will have spent eleven nights at sea in their 6.8-meter Inuk Duo, a double sea kayak with the bulkheads repositioned to allow them to slide the full length of their bodies into the cockpit. A makeshift tent is glued to the cockpit rim. To rest, the boys inflate four buoyancy bags, deploy a drogue, recline in their cockpits and try their best to relax. I know the drill; it’s exactly the same system that Olly and I used to make the first kayak crossing from Scotland to Norway in 2013. That 240-mile crossing was a rehearsal for the current undertaking. It seems insignificant now in the light of Olly and George’s accomplishment. Still, that experience gives me a keen appreciation for what they’ve been through so far, and a strong rooting interest in this last critical push.
Multi-day crossing vary in three significant ways from the long coastal expedition. First there’s the distance. Second, the need to sleep. Third is the need to have everything accessible. Your success depends on your ability to cook, drink, wash, navigate, communicate and defecate, all without incident. Although a relatively inexperienced paddler, Olly is a master of this. More importantly, he has such a positive attitude that he calms the nerve of all those who share his adventures. He will also know how many expeditions have come unstuck on the last leg and will bear this in mind as he and George launch off the sheer rocks of North Rona for a final 12-hour paddle to the mainland.
They’re out there now I reckon, if the weather cleared overnight as it was predicted to. If it didn’t, they’ll pass another week on the rock, living on dry pasta and limpets pried from the brine, biding their time. Despite swollen fingers and bodies covered in sores, I suspect as they pack their kayak one final time they will be discussing bigger and bolder trips for the future.
UPDATE: After paddling through the night of Sept. 3-4, Olly and George made landfall early Sunday morning, Sept. 4, at Balnakeil Bay on the extreme northern tip of the Scottish mainland. “They boys are exhausted but happy,” reported the expedition blog on ollyhicks.com. “We are all incredibly proud of this brave pair.”
Review Olly and George’s progress on their expedition tracker.
–Patrick Winterton is a British expedition paddler, former Olympic skier and sports commentator.