Q & A with British Adventurer and Polar Explorer

Olly Hicks and George Bullard paddled their 24’ Inuk Duo double sea kayak (turns out they stretched it by 2’ to get Georges legs in) in to Balnakiel Bay in the extreme North West of the British Isles. By completing the first known kayak journey from Greenland to Scotland via Iceland and the Faroe Islands they had shown that the Inuit paddlers found washed up, half dead, on a Scottish beach in the 1700’s may have paddled the whole way. It involved 1200 miles, 3 seriously big crossings with a total of 12 nights at sea and weeks of being storm bound on headlands and remote ocean islands.

To get a real sense of what these two have achieved I think it’s important to know a little about them. Neither are professional, specialist or even experienced kayakers. George runs a company called IGO that provides adventures to those who only have one week spare. He has plenty of sailing experience but is more of a polar man and currently holds the record for the longest unsupported polar journey, 1374 miles. He couldn’t roll a kayak when Olly invited him onto the team less than a year ago. A fortnight with Geoff Allan in Cornwall put that right.

In 2005 Olly at 23 became the youngest and the slowest man to row solo across the Atlantic and is still planning to row around the world. His kayaking experience is limited but impressive. He’s crossed 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.

Their successes tell you what they are capable of. The fact that they always get out of the trouble they get themselves into is an indication of how good they are. This was not a rash venture. Olly has been planning this for five years, he quit his job a year ago to finalize plans, build a boat, train and raise funds. The sort of commitment most of us aren’t prepared to make.

Their boat was pretty much off the peg but as mentioned it was stretched to allow both paddlers to lie supine in their cockpits. They used five 40 litre airbags as buoyancy, had an electric pump fitted in each cockpit and karitek sails for favorable wind conditions. A miniature tent was attached to the outside of the cockpit rim that operates much like the hood of a convertible car. This was not a craft built or tampered with to withstand gale force winds and because of this they knew they would constantly be racing the weather. The kayakers equivalent of the climber’s Alpine approach. That is surely the way the Inuit had to do it.

Both leading adventurers and pioneers we couldn't help but want to learn more from them...

Q to Olly. How had his previous expeditions prepared him for this one?

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

Q to George. What was going through your mind each time you were about to start each of the crossings?

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 for longer than the forecasters could accurately forecast and we needed luck. We only set off when the wind was good which helps early progress but makes the prospect of returning virtually impossible. That vulnerability makes me nervous. For the Devil’s Dance Floor it felt like we were throwing the dice, but almost as the first paddle goes in the negative thoughts blend into excitement and it’s down to business and a routine.

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

We established a routine early on, a variation on the Norway trip, 1 hour on and five minutes rest. Five of those and then we had a longer rest to eat and drink. Breaking into segments means you’re only ever going for an hour and however 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 got to grips with how Ned Gillette and Andrew McAuley achieved what they did. I just couldn’t get my head around it and realized this was small fry compared to what they did.

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

With only a couple of inches freeboard the cockpit was constantly swamped and wet from the start. Cooking was a nightmare as that both our goretex dry suits and the boat were both 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 an extra two 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.

Q to Olly. Your first attempt to get across the Devils 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. Did you struggle with that?

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 lifts and this fishing boat comes over to investigate what it thinks is 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 track 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 and they took us and the boat on board. Less than an hour later the fog was back and the storm set in and they probably wouldn’t have found us 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 tones of cod and living out a boyhood dream.

Q to both (asked independently and they came up with the same answer!).

Describe your most frightening and exhilarating experience of the last 2 ½ months.

Olly: 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 so we did 36 hours of continuous paddling. It clouded over on the 2nd night and was black as a witches 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 were swimming around the kayak.

George: 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 book case. It wasn’t long before we realized we could survive for as long as we needed to with moluscs, sea birds, fish and even a few sheep. That was the first bit of isolation that we could really enjoy.

Q to both. What were your emotions coming along the cliffs on the north coast of Scotland and into Balnakiel Bay

George: 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’.

Olly: 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. McCaulay’s trip across the Tasman is the pinnacle. He was so close. Someone will do it one day.