Olly Hicks’s Greenland to Scotland Challenge Adventurer Olly Hicks talks to Avaunt about kayaking 2,000 km across the North Sea

Adventurers Olly Hicks and George Bullard are about to set off on the most dangerous leg of their latest expedition – kayaking 2,000 km from Greenland to Scotland. Having already skirted the Arctic Circle, crossing from Greenland to paddle along the northern coast of Iceland, the pair have proved the seaworthiness of their relatively unmodified 6.8 metre long double sea kayak.

Now, however, as Hicks and Bullard face the ‘Devil’s Dancefloor’ – a formidable, unpredictable stretch of water that lies between them and their next sighting of land, the Faroe Islands – both they and their kayak face the greatest challenge of the expedition. With a route that takes them across nearly 400 km of perilous Norwegian Sea, where the Gulf Stream meets frigid arctic water, creating eddies and swells of up to 20 metres, the pair will be spending six days at sea, sleeping inside the kayak with only a small tent covering their cockpits to protect them from the waves.

Hicks and Bullard off the coast of Iceland
Hicks and Bullard off the coast of Iceland.

Hicks, who has spent 2.5% of his life at sea on various expeditions, becoming the first to row solo from America to England in 2005, and Bullard, who has travelled more than 2,000 km on foot in polar regions, are both endurance athletes and well suited to the demands of this journey. They may not, however, be the first to make the crossing from Greenland to Scotland by kayak.

The expedition is inspired by the incredible stories of the Finmen, the Scottish name given to the Inuk that were reportedly sighted off the coast of Scotland in the 17th century. In retracing their journey, albeit with modern technology such as dry suits and inflatable arms that will keep the kayak from rolling while they sleep, Hicks and Bullard will test whether it is possible that the Inuit could have made the crossing.

As the pair drove to the ferry that would take them to the start of the expedition, Hicks spoke to Avaunt about how they came to the idea for the trip, eating and sleeping in the kayak and how they plan to deal with a 50 year storm.

Greenland to Scotland Challenge
Where did the idea for the expedition come from?

I had an interest in hugely improbable long ocean voyages in tiny boats and got a taste for it when I made several attempts to reach Norway from the Shetland Islands with ex-Marine Patrick Winterton. It was a chance to work out what did and didn’t work, especially what didn’t work as Patrick nearly died on one attempt and we both became very hypothermic.

I found a real appeal for these smaller adventures that, unlike polar expeditions, didn’t require a huge amount of money and are more achievable in a shorter space of time. But that’s not to say that this project isn’t epic and original. We had come across this book called Searching for the Finmen by Norman Rogers that explored the various hypotheses that attempt to explain the sightings of Inuk in Northern Europe, one of which is that they could have paddled all the way. The author of the book comes out on the side that they were kidnapped by whalers and brought back as trophies for their sponsors, which is probably correct, but I choose to believe that they may have paddled.

Kit on the boat
Kit on the boat. Rifle; in case we meet any unfriendly wildlife along the way, mainly polar bears that have the strength to jump straight up onto the boat from the water and walrus, hopefully this won’t need to be used. Crab nets; not essential for food but essential for amusement when camping on the shoreline. Water pouches; to store water and help distribute weight around the boat. Jet boiler; to cook up some culinary delights on board. Desalinator; hopefully we won’t need it but it essential to have on board just in case. Emergency flare, radio, water bottle and compass.

How much have you modified the kayak to meet the demands of the journey?

Essentially it’s not that modified. We’ve taken a production kayak out of the mould, stretched it so that there’s room for us to lie down and sleep, and put it back together. There are some minor modifications such as fitting some high volume electric pumps and there’s various clips to stabilise the boat while we’re sleeping or cooking. Other than that we’ve improved the rudder system so its better suited to ocean crossing and the carbon-kevlar composite that was used on the hull is of a higher quality than what you would expect on a recreational boat, but it’s still fairly rudimentary.

And that’s the point. An ocean rowing boat looks nothing like a boat that you’d row across a lake with, and there have been properly adapted ocean kayaks designed along the same lines with a steel cabin that you can lock yourself away in. Our boat is, for all intents and purposes, a pure kayak in that there is nowhere to hide. You have to be able to take whatever the elements throw at you.

Hicks making final adjustments to the kayak
Hicks making final adjustments to the kayak before setting off from Iceland for the Faroe Islands.

What are the logistical challenges of eating and sleeping at sea?

It’s a nightmare – it’s so confined in the kayak that doing anything is a real challenge. This boat is considerably better than what we used on the North Sea crossing because it has a larger cockpit but there’s still only room to lie on your back. Then, because you’re static when you’re sleeping and in a cold environment, staying warm is a challenge. Layering up is really difficult – you try to put a dry layer next to your skin but you’re wearing a dry suit so you have to peel that off without it getting full of water – it’s an almost submarine-like environment.

Even in quite calm seas you’re regularly taking waves over the deck. It’s very difficult to keep water out of the cockpit and the dry suit so your priorities are keeping the cockpit as dry as possible and putting on some dry kit before you go to sleep. You have to get into these military wet and dry drills – wet clothes on under your dry suit for working, for paddling, and then dry kit on for sleeping.

The front cockpit is a bit smaller so George, who is sitting behind me, has to do the cooking in the back. In any serious weather we won’t be able to cook and a lot depends on George’s balancing skills as we have to boil water to rehydrate our rations. 50% of our rations are dehydrated so when it’s bad weather we’ll have to stick to the dry, snack rations.

Hicks and Bullard demonstrating the canvas tents
Hicks and Bullard demonstrating the canvas tents and inflatable arms that will be deployed while they are sleeping.

What are the specific challenges this part of the sea poses?

The main challenge will be the temperature on the first leg. We’ll be dodging the pack ice from Greenland, with the 0˚C water going up to a balmy 4˚C as you get on to the Icelandic coast, and it’s still really cold all the way to Scotland. Then there’s the difficult water between Iceland and the Faroes, which is known as the ‘Devil’s Dancefloor’. We’ll be a bit like a hot air ballon in the kayak, trying to hit the Faroes without a huge amount of propulsion power while being pushed about by the sea. Generally the weather is not favourable to our plan and that’s part of our question as to how the Inuit did it.

Greenland to Scotland Challenge
What are the biggest dangers you could face?

It’s either a 50 year storm or hypothermia. A kayak is considerably more sea-worthy than people think. It’s small and will yield to the sea whereas if a huge wave smashes into a ship it will severely damage it. Then the question is that if you’re in a 50 year storm, how many times can you roll the boat back up before you’re exhausted and too cold. In that case you just have to put out a sea anchor, close up the tent and wait for the storm to pass, but that’s not a very aggressive stance. The more likely course of action is to keep paddling until the storm abates.

The weather moves quickly up there – you’re not going to get stuck with a five day storm – and I guess we can paddle for about 48 hours without stopping. So with judicious management of the boat I would imagine we could weather a two day storm. Obviously it would be horrendous, but it would be survivable and I guess that’s the bottom line – it’s all about survivability.

Track Hicks and Bullard’s progress on the Greenland to Scotland Challenge here.

Words: George Upton
Photography: Emma Hall

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