Exclusive Q&A with Greenland-to-Scotland Kayakers

Inside Olly Hicks' and George Bullard's 1,200-mile sea kayak voyage across the north Atlantic

By Patrick Winterton

Olly Hicks and George Bullard made history this week when they paddled their 24-foot Inuk Duo double sea kayak into Balnakeil Bay in the extreme northwest of the British Isles, completing the first known kayak journey from Greenland to Scotland. Their successful navigation of the route, which took the pair to Iceland and the Faroe Islands, shows that the Finn-men, mysterious paddlers who washed up on Scottish beaches in the 1600s, could have been Inuits who paddled from Greenland. Maybe. For Hicks and Bullard, the journey involved 1,200 miles of paddling, three extended ocean crossings with a total of 12 nights at sea, plus weeks of being stormbound on headlands and remote ocean islands.

Neither member of the team is a professional kayaker, though they have a long list of expeditions under their belts. Bullard runs a company called IGO, which organizes week-long outdoor adventures around the world. He has plenty of sailing experience, and he currently holds the record for the longest unsupported polar journey at 1,374 miles. Bullard couldn’t roll a kayak when Hicks invited him onto the team less than a year ago.

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In 2005, Hicks became the youngest man to row solo across the Atlantic at the age of 23. He is still planning to row around the world. His kayaking experience is limited but impressive. He’s paddled across the English Channel and made the first 230-mile crossing of the North Sea from Scotland to Norway.

Both men are committed, maybe compulsive, adventures, and the Greenland-to-Scotland paddle was not a rash venture. Hicks had been planning the trip for five years. He quit his job a year ago to finalize plans, make modifications to a kayak, train, and raise funds. The boat the team used had two extra feet of length added to the factory version to allow both paddlers to lie supine in their cockpits. They used five, 40-liter airbags as buoyancy, had an electric pump fitted in each cockpit, and carried Kari-Tek sea kayak sails for favorable wind conditions. A miniature tent was attached to the outside of each cockpit rim that operated much like the hood of a convertible car. Even with all of its additional features, this was not a craft built to withstand gale-force winds. Because of this, the men knew they would constantly be racing the weather–the kayaker’s equivalent of the climber’s alpine approach. That is surely the way the Inuit had to do it.

I sat down with both paddlers this week to learn more about their expedition.

Photo courtesy Olly Hicks.
Photo courtesy Olly Hicks.

Patrick Winterton: Olly, how did your previous expeditions prepare you for this crossing?

Olly Hicks: Every expedition has helped develop self-sufficiency and improve organization, but a rowing boat is like an ocean liner compared to a kayak, which isn’t much better than an airmat. The sense of vulnerability you feel in a kayak is massive. I’ve taken three hurricanes in a rowing boat and I’ve been thrown 300 meters by a single wave, but the experience was unremarkable. In a kayak, you might survive something like that, but you would have to be lucky. You just know you’re more likely to die.

Winterton: What was going through your mind as you were about to start each of the crossings?

George Bullard: A smooth, curving horizon gives a sense of scale and makes you feel very small. There’s apprehension and fear of what’s to come and of the unknown, but the overriding thought is about the weather. We knew we could be out there longer than the forecasters could accurately forecast and that we needed luck. We only set off when the wind was (favorable), which helps early progress but makes the prospect of returning virtually impossible. That vulnerability made me nervous. For the Devil’s Dance Floor (a dangerous section of ocean near Iceland), it felt like we were throwing the dice. But almost as soon as the first paddle stroke goes in, the negative thoughts blend into excitement and it’s down to business and a routine.

Winterton: On the crossing you paddled for a minimum of 16 hours a day, sometimes 24. How do you cope with that physically and mentally?

Hicks: We established a routine early on–one hour on and five minutes rest. We’d do five of those and then we had a longer rest to eat and drink. Breaking it into segments means you’re only ever going for an hour and no matter how bad you feel, you know you can do that. At the end of the hour, you sort of wipe the slate clean and start again. The five minutes goes quickly but the recovery is almost total. As for thoughts, I spent a lot of time thinking about past and future expeditions. I never came to grips with how Ed Gillet and Andrew McAuley achieved what they did. I just couldn’t get my head around it and realized our trip was small fry compared to what they did.

Winterton: George, you’re 6’4”. Your cockpit is 6’2” and it’s your kitchen, bedroom, toilet, but smaller than your coffin. Can you describe it?

Bullard: With only a couple of inches freeboard, the cockpit was constantly swamped and wet from the start. Cooking was a nightmare as both our Gore-Tex drysuits and the boat were highly flammable. You’ve got a flame and a pot of boiling water between your legs, water sloshing in the cockpit, waves throwing you around; I needed two extra hands. Lying down was as claustrophobic as a coffin and you’re in the same position as those you see lying in state. I had an inch spare each side of my shoulders and maybe two above my chest, less when my lungs were full. You just had to trust in the boat, the buoyancy and not think about it. As for going to the toilet, all I’ll say is that a plate works better than a bowl. It’s about area, not volume.

Photo courtesy Olly Hicks.
Photo courtesy Olly Hicks.

Winterton: Your first attempt to get across the Devil’s Dance Floor to the Faraoe Islands had to be called off and you returned to Iceland in a fishing boat. That was obviously something the Inuit couldn’t do if they ran into trouble. Did you struggle with that?

Hicks: We’d paddled for 40 hours and done only 60 hard miles, most of it in fog, and we hadn’t seen a bird or a boat. On the third morning, the fog lifted and this fishing boat came over to investigate what it thought was a load of sea birds. They told us that there was bad weather coming, which was contrary to the advice of our meteorologists so we refused their offer of a lift back to Iceland. Two hours later, they tracked us down again and backed up their own advice with that of the coast guard. Of course, we were reluctant to give up the miles but we would have looked stupid if things had gone wrong and it was their local knowledge against someone working off a computer-generated forecast.

Ultimately, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make. They took our boat and us onboard. Less than an hour later, the fog was back and the storm set in. They probably wouldn’t have found us (if we’d kept paddling) and certainly couldn’t have got the boat on board. I couldn’t help thinking this was more than luck.

We then had a week working on the boat, hauling in 20 tons of cod and living out a boyhood dream.

Winterton: Describe your most frightening and exhilarating experience of the last two and a half months.

Hicks: When we left the Faroes, we knew we were in another race with the weather. If things went our way then we might make it all the way to the Scottish mainland in one go, so we did 36 hours of continuous paddling. It clouded over on the second night and was black as a witch’s tit. On one of our twenty-minute breaks, we both slept through the alarm and woke up at dawn to the sound of crashing waves. Emerging from our covers, we both thought we were about to be smashed onto the rocks and this didn’t make sense as we were 100 miles from the nearest land when we went to sleep. Bizarrely we’d had the same hallucination as a result of the swirling cloud and the noise of a pod of dolphins that was swimming around the kayak.

Bullard: Soon after the hallucinations, we opted to land on North Rhona, which is only 45 miles from the mainland. In minutes, it was blowing dogs off chains and we then got to watch a force-ten Atlantic gale from the safety of a small shack with a bunk bed and a bookcase. It wasn’t long before we realized we could survive for as long as we needed to with mollusks, sea birds, fish and even a few sheep. That was the first bit of isolation that we could really enjoy.

Winterton: What were your emotions as you paddled along the cliffs on the north coast of Scotland and into Balnakeil Bay.

Bullard: To be honest, I was a bit emotional after all the effort that had been put in. There was a huge sense of satisfaction; we’d done a good job. I felt like we’d danced with Neptune and survived.

Hicks: Apart from thinking it must be the most beautiful spot in Scotland, I just felt relief to have pulled it off; I’d done what I said I would do. I was continually frustrated by the limitations of the kayak and realize that the bar is so much higher than what we’d just done. McAuley’s trip across the Tasman is the pinnacle. He was so close. Someone will do it one day.

Winterton: Last question. Now that you’ve finished this trip, do you think the Inuit could have made it to Scotland in the 1600s?

Hicks: Possibly.

Bullard: Probably not.

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