Kayaks on the ‘Shetland Bus’

Three sea kayakers to re-trace historic WWII resistance route across the North Sea

The Shetland Bus paddling crew: Olly Hicks, Patrick Winterton and Mick Berwick, from left. Photo: kayaksonshetlandbus.com

The Shetland Bus paddling crew: Olly Hicks, Patrick Winterton and Mick Berwick, from left. Photo: kayaksonshetlandbus.com

By Tim Mutrie

Three English sea kayakers are setting out from the Shetland Islands tomorrow, July 16, local time, on an attempt to cross the North Sea to the west coast of Norway as part of a fundraising expedition to benefit the Make a Wish Foundation and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

The crew of experienced paddlers—Patrick Winterton, Mick Berwick and Olly Hicks—are hoping to make the 388 kilometer crossing (a first, for sea kayakers) in one continuous push over four days and three nights. Their intended path follows a historic World War II route between the Shetland Islands and Norway: When Germany occupied Norway during WWII, Norwegian fishermen traversed the inhospitable North Sea route carrying agents, saboteurs and arms into Norway and to aid refugees in their escape, according to the crew’s website, kayaksontheshetlandbus.com. These daring operations became known as the “Shetland Bus.”

Winterton, a former Olympic kayaker and sports broadcaster, writes on the site:

“The Challenge: Taking on the North Sea is a serious undertaking in most boats. In single sea kayaks it is a daunting prospect. Travelling at an average of less than 2.5 knotts means that the three paddlers will take at least 84 hours. Four days and three nights. Squeezed into damp cockpits with no escape from the elements and no opportunity for good sleep this is as much a test of mental strength as it is physical. The North Sea is notoriously rough with a constant barrage of steep breaking waves and water that gets little warmer than 10 degrees. Staying upright will be hard enough but the major problems are the cold, injury, sea sickness and shipping. Perhaps our biggest concern is ensuring we stay together during the dreaded hours of darkness.”

The crew on a training outing for the North Sea crossing. Photo: kayaksonshetlandbus.com

“The Story: There are many cultural links between Shetland and Norway that find their roots in Viking times. One story that is relatively fresh in the minds of both Shetlanders and Norwegians is that of the ‘Shetland Bus.’ After the German occupation of Norway in WW2, a small, essentially non-military, operation was set up between Shetland and the West Coast of Norway… Norwegian fishing boats and fishermen were used to make repeated crossings of the notoriously inhospitable North Sea, with a mix of success and tragedy. Their actions were crucial in forcing Germany to base a quarter of a million troops in Norway but the cost of this success was high with many boats sunk and with the loss of the lives of 44 of the Shetland Bus Crews. Despite this there was never a lack of willingness to set out on a mission. Of all the dangers they faced they knew that the wild conditions of the North Sea was by far the greatest threat to their survival. We are celebrating and commemorating the courage, the seamanship and the remarkable ability of many like Leif Larson to survive again and again, against the odds.”

According to the crew’s website, “The first section of the crossing will be done as a team. With 44 nautical miles to go, the team will split and make a race for the ‘Shetland Bus’ commemorative statue in the centre of the city of Bergen. This is to signify the number of men lost and recognize the heroic efforts of so many of the Norwegian fishermen who survived despite the fact that their boats were sunk by enemy aircraft.”

The crew hopes to raise £15,000 for the Make a Wish Foundation and RNLI, and they’re asking for help from paddlers from around the world, by donating £3.88, or one penny per mile, at the crew’s website.

“We don’t need to tell anyone that three nights in a kayak on the North Sea won’t be much fun,” says Winterton, in a written statement. “We hope that our misery will help us help others in need.”

Track the crew’s progress across the North Sea HERE.

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