In the Wake of Inuits: Meet the Adventurers Who Paddled From Greenland to Scotland
Inspired by a historical mystery that stretches back to the 17th century, Olly Hicks and George Bullard set out to paddle the 1,200 miles from Greenland to Scotland unaided. If they made it, they'd be the first men on record to do so.
All photos by Emma Hall
Olly Hicks and George Bullard paddle away from their drop-off zone off the coast of Greenland – an edge of pure ice extending 30 miles from the shore. Ahead of them the water appears pure black, burning cold, and dotted with icebergs. As the two adventurers become a tiny speck on the enormous stretch of Arctic ocean, the crew of the Aurora Arkitik sailing boat that dropped them off spot three humpback whales breaching the surface of the water. Olly and George are now alone at sea. The hull of their carbon fibre kayak is packed with food and water, and has been specially designed to allow one paddler at a time to squeeze himself into the hull to sleep. They hope to become the first men on record to paddle the 1,200 miles from Greenland to Scotland unaided.
The expedition was inspired by a historical mystery. In the early 17th century reports began to appear of unusual figures landing on the shores of Scotland, dressed in furs and carrying wooden kayaks. To this day, historians disagree on the origins of these strange travellers, but some believe they may have been Inuit tribes from Greenland. Was it really possible to make such a lengthy journey by kayak? Olly and George were going to find out.
"When you see that boat disappear over the horizon, that's when you feel really alone," Olly tells me over the phone. After two months on the expedition, he and George are now back in London. When I catch up with both adventurers a few days later over Skype, I see they haven't got around to shaving just yet.
"Look at that hairy beast!" shouts George, seeing Olly's face for the first time since their return. He pulls out his phone and takes a snap of his computer screen. "Sorry," he explains, "a friend of ours was just asking where Olly was, so I'm sending him this to be like 'Here he is!'"
This was Olly and George's first expedition together. In fact, before they started training for this journey, they didn't know each other at all.
"It's just about getting the job done," explains Olly "I wanted George for a teammate in particular because he had experience in that part of the world, with Arctic conditions."
In 2008 George led an expedition across the polar ice cap of Greenland, trekking a distance of 340 miles to raise money for Spinal Research. Olly's experience is more seafaring. In 2005 he sailed across the Atlantic, aged only 23 at the time, becoming the first person to row solo from the USA to Great Britain and, at the time, the youngest to do so. "In a way, it's better if you're not friends. It's a job, for us. But then again, you do have to get on. You're a few feet away from this person, and you're stuck with them for hours at a time." Olly explains. "We had subjects we didn't discuss. Like... George's animal rights views and veganism. We didn't actually talk that much in the boat."
The isolation is one of the biggest psychological challenges. During the expedition, Olly and George would row for 12-hour stretches, including stints right through the night.
"It can be scary at times, especially at night," says George. "At night, the sea seems so much more still, and sound travels very well across the sea. One night, we were sitting in our cockpits, and I heard a whale breathe out; suddenly you hear this huge sound like whoooosh, and you're lying there with your cheek right next to the water. You suddenly realise how vulnerable you actually are. We had no way of knowing how close that animal was to us."
Towards the final leg of their journey, Olly and George found themselves stranded for four days on the remote uninhabited island of North Rona, with only 8,000 calories of food and eight litres of water left between them. Foraging for limpets and finally discovering a supply hut filled with dried pasta and whiskey, they managed to make their rations last. "North Rona was a fairly likely Plan B," Olly explains. Should the weather set in, as it did, they always knew this island would provide a safe haven from the ocean. "But it's not very often in life you're at the mercy of the weather like that."
If George and Olly couldn't exactly call themselves friends at the start of their expedition, they're happy to now. "You can't underestimate the difference it makes having that other person there," says George. "We've had this incredible experience together and, really, there's only one other person who understands what that experience was like."