How two men survived a 66-day sea voyage on a kayak

EDGAR spoke to Olly Hicks and George Bullard about their journey across the brutal Norwegian Sea from Greenland to Scotland.

January 2, 2017

An Inuit tribesman collapsed onto the shore of Aberdeen in Scotland in 1728, soaking wet and exhausted. His kayak was found nearby. Amazed onlookers believed he had paddled from Finland or perhaps Greenland, a distance of almost 2,000km. The man died a few days later but his kayak is still preserved at the local university.

Inspired by this tale, two Englishmen, George Bullard, 27, and Olly Hicks, 34, attempted the same voyage almost 300 years later. “To this day, nobody knows how the Inuit got there,” Bullard tells EDGAR. “We were trying to add fuel to the fire that he might have kayaked the entire way.”

After five years of planning, the two men paddled 2,500km in a 7.4m double sea kayak from the east coast of Greenland to north Scotland. The trip took 66 days from July 1 to September 4, 2016. They spent about 10 nights sleeping at sea but stopped at islands along the way for some precious shuteye on dry land and to escape their claustrophobic vessel. EDGAR spoke to Hicks and Bullard about their epic journey.

What it’s like sleeping at sea in a kayak?
George Bullard: It was the definition of unpleasant. You can’t move or roll over, you have to sleep in one position – the coffin position – so it’s extremely confined. It is damp but warm. When we were travelling around the coast of Iceland and the Faroes, we would camp on the beaches every night or in a shelter if we could find one. When we did sleep, we slept super well. When we really needed to sleep we had catnaps in the kayak during the day because it was dangerous if we didn’t.
Olly Hicks: It was cold, wet, cramped and claustrophobic. There was the ever present thought that should the kayak capsize when you’re inside it you’re unlikely to get out.

You must have been burning insane numbers of calories – how did you refuel?
GB: We worked on the basis of burning about 5,000kcal a day. We used to boil water to add to our freeze dried meals for breakfast and supper as a way of staying warm and combatting hypothermia. They were pre-packed meals like beef stroganoff or shepherd’s pie. My favourite was the chicken and vegetable pasta. For snacks, we had flapjacks, chocolate, nuts, cold meat. Any food is good when you are on expedition.
OH: The food was okay, but it was all pretty ‘samey’ and so we were always very happy when we could get fresh food from towns and villages along the route. 

How did you cook on the boat?
GB: With difficulty! I was the head chef and I would cook on a stove positioned between my legs, which was a dangerous undertaking considering I was dressed in a flammable suit. It was a bit complicated because there is nowhere you can put anything down, so pretty quickly you have a boiling pan of water and hot flame that you can’t put out because you haven’t got a spare hand.

Did you analyse your bodies for signs of malnutrition or dehydration?
GB: We definitely kept an eye of all that stuff as fuel and hydration are important. And we checked each other’s wee and poo to make sure it was an okay colour and consistency. 

Any injuries or pains?
GB: Olly had a few small issues with tendonitis, he is quite old – just joking. We were relatively injury free, although we would have both died for a good massage.
OH: Yeah, I had a moderate tendonitis in the left arm by the time we got to Faroes and we both had all the usual aches and pains you’d expect but nothing major. Nothing that was going to stop us anyway.

Tracking the weather must have been vital?
OH: We worked with three weather teams but we could only accurately predict the weather for two days in advance. Beyond that it became unreliable, such is the nature of the fast-changing weather in that part of the world. The weather teams sent SMS messages to our Yellow Brick tracker. If we were worried we’d call the teams to get details. We got hammered by a few gales around Iceland – huge 30ft breaking seas made life interesting.

Did you experience bad weather?
OH: Around the Faroe Islands we had some big winds. There are huge currents around the islands of up to 8/10kts in some places and it only needs a bit of wind in the opposite direction to the current to create some pretty nasty waves.

What was the longest stretch of water you kayaked during the voyage?
OH: The Devil’s Dancefloor, which is around 480km of open North Atlantic between Iceland and the Faroes. It took a little under 100 hours of paddling to get there. It acts like a corridor for all the bad weather being pushed up the North Atlantic, hence the intimidating name!

What did you talk about while kayaking?
GB: We probably spent about 75 per cent of the expedition in absolute silence, not because we didn’t have anything to say or because we had fallen out, but because if someone wouldn’t shut up then it would have been incredibly difficult.
OH: You can’t be talking all the time – you’d want to strangle the other bloke. You enter a kind of meditative trance-like state and just focus on the paddling and your train of thought. You don’t want to interrupt the other guy with any inane comments in case they were on a whirlwind of a thought train, which you could break by opening your trap and then send them to the hurt locker where one minute feels like one hour.

Any arguments?
GB: We never had any arguments and morale was always good. I was genuinely very rarely in the dumps because there was so much to look forward to. Every day was either a new headland or another village or another 25 miles closer to land.
OH: We worked exceptionally well as a team. By the end, everything was done naturally, without talking or instruction. We never had an argument, even under pressure – not once. It’s important to understand the other man’s strengths, weaknesses and sensitivities and adjust your own behaviour accordingly.

What did your family and friends say when you told them about the trip?
GB: They were pretty worried about this expedition even though I have been on lots of others. Some thought it was suicidal whereas others were really keen to follow it. I didn’t really keep in touch with anyone at all. Everyone who I care about knows where I am and knows that I will contact them as soon as I can when it is all over. 

Did they try and talk you out of it?
GB: Yes, of course. They thought I wouldn’t come home. That was a difficult thing to carry, especially with so many of them saying you can’t do it. 

Did you see people along the way?
OH: The most interesting parts of the trip was the scenery and wildlife, plus the people we met, from viking fishermen in Iceland, to the vikings of the Faroe Islands. Being a seafaring nation, with sea rowing as the national sport, they really appreciated our journey. 

What sort of wildlife did you see?
GB: We were visited by wildlife like whales and dolphins almost every day. We didn’t see that many seals until we arrived in Scottish waters – they were more perplexed by the vessel than playful.

Did animals ever come near the kayak?
GB: Our scariest wildlife moment came when we were resting in the kayak with our heads about 8cms from the water. It was pitch black, no moon or stars, no wind, it was very, very still. All of a sudden a whale came up for air next to us and gave the biggest ‘swoosh’. I was petrified and had no idea what it was.
OH: We carried a rifle in case of attack by polar bear or walrus but had no encounters with these guys.

Did wildlife provide some distraction for you?
GB: The birds were a constant partner for me and offered a distraction to what was a relatively mundane task. I enjoyed watching them swoop around us – it felt like they were there to guide us and keep us safe. The gannets were a special follower of ours and we sat for ages on North Rona in Scotland watching them dive bombing the ocean from perilous heights.

What tech did you take with you?
OH: We had satellite phones and radios. Satellite trackers pinpointed our location so our followers could track us and the film crew could see where to rendezvous with us. We navigated mainly by compass but checked it against the GPS every five hours. We had EPIRBs, small emergency satellite beacons that send a distress signal for 24 hours to pinpoint your location. We had single seat life rafts like you’d find in a jet ejector seat as a last resort if our kayak was destroyed. We carried a video camera and GoPro cameras. Perhaps the most important tech was the battery-powered, high capacity bilge pumps that would empty the kayak in 80 seconds should she get swamped.

How did you feel when you finished the trip?
GB: I was obviously excited to be on dry land. The fact that the expedition had now finished and we had survived hadn’t really sunk in at that stage, but it did slowly. My emotions were mixed between elation and thankfulness for having survived. It is especially moving when there are so many people out there who say that you can’t do it, but you go ahead and do it.

Did you experience an emotional crash afterwards?
OH: No, I think my overwhelming feeling on returning was one of relief. Relief that the five years of build up trips, kayak prototypes and survival techniques we’d developed had paid off. The expedition had come to a successful conclusion and now I can move onto my next project, a round the world rowing race.
GB: Completing the expedition was a strange feeling. I was upset that something that I gave so much planning, time and dedication to was over. The main thing is that you risked your life and managed to get away with it.