Sea Kayaking / Touring
East Greenland to NW Scotland - July - September 2016
In 1728 an Inuit Paddler arrived by kayak into Aberdeen, Scotland, still alive, but barely. He died 3 days later. Intrigued by this mystery Olly Hicks lead an expedition to find out whether the strange paddler could have made the perilous journey autonomously.
After 5 years preparation, 4 prototype kayaks and onto his second paddling partner, Olly and George were finally launching into the black and sinister waters of the Denmark Strait. Well inside the Arctic Circle, brash ice and bergy bits in the water, and a low ice smoke hanging eerily over the sea as far as the eye could see. The skipper of the delivery yacht said this was as far as he could go – time to launch.
They lower the 26ft carbon kevlar double kayak into the glassy smooth sea, which is caustically cold to the touch, especially after the creature comforts of Siggi Jonsson’s 65ft Aurora Arktika.
The GPS reports 125 sea miles to their intended landing point, a scenic bay called Hornvik. The kayak pulls gingerly away from the Arktika, each man alone with his own thoughts. Olly has been in this situation before, for George it’s a novelty.
Incredibly they cross the Denmark Strait, a feat not previously recorded, in a mere 43 hours – arriving into Hornvik even before the film crew arrive there.
The crossing was straightforward if arduous. It’s always arduous though – it’s the weather that makes the difference. They saw whales, dolphin and sea birds in their tens of thousands heading offshore to the rich arctic feeding grounds. They passed through thick fogbanks with only 100m visibility, very disorientating for the navigator to maintain a correct course.
Landing in Hornvik, completely alone and exhausted, they celebrate with a fresh water immersion in a stream, rinsing the encrusted salt from their sun burned faces, before falling into the deepest slumber in the midst of a stunning Icelandic valley landscape with snow capped peaks encircling their sleep.
They’d be forgiven for taking a few days off, but the next day after lunch the pair launched back out to sea to begin the second phase of their journey; around the Icelandic coast heading east along the north coast and then down the east side to the closest point to the Faroe Islands.
The next 4 weeks sees them skipping from peninsula to peninsula, often moving at night when the wind is less and the seas are quieter, for in the land of the midnight sun the orb only dips briefly below the horizon.
The pair get a couple of severe hammerings from gales up to force 10 as they pick their way around in 30 to 50 mile hops, camping on beaches and marshes as they go.
One week after they landed at Hornvik, an Ice bear lands nearby, having swum all the way from Greenland - putting their achievement into perspective!
The Fjord crossings are tedious and reminiscent of the ocean leg, but when the route allows to hop along the headlands at the foot of towering bird cliffs, this is the stuff that makes it all worthwhile.
At last they arrive into Neskaupstadur, their leaving point for the Faroes Islands. The local kayak club are kind enough to offer their house to store the kayak and sleep on the floor. The days spent waiting for the weather window to leave for Faroes are not wasted. The boat is turned from a coast hopping craft into an alpine style fast and light ocean crossing machine. Excess kit is stripped out, water bladders are filled, cockpit tents are lashed on and the rations are loaded. Then they wait.
Finally the day comes, a window to go, two days moderate weather should dissipate to a favorable weather pattern once they are 60 miles offshore. Olly estimates it will take 5-6 days to get across, basing this from his previous longest trip of 200 miles from Shetland to Norway lead by Patrick Winterton. This time Olly is leading, and he makes the call to go.
They’re off and paddling out through the standing waves caused by the strong currents, and they’re already wet. Not a pleasant prospect at the beginning of a 300 mile paddle, all alone. After 48 hours they’ve only made 60 miles – a poor distance.
On the second morning they awake to a flat calm sea. While having their breakfast, doing their ablutions and stowing their sleeping gear, they spy a fishing boat bearing down on them. A 50ft Icelandic longliner, the Audur Vestiens, pulls alongside them and offers the boys a ride back to shore warning them of bad weather. Unperturbed the boys thank them and continue on their way – making good ground as they were. However about 10 km down the track and the fishing boat is motoring after them, honking it’s horn, trying to get them to stop, which they do. This time the fisherman are really pleading with the kayakers to return to land; there are winds of 40-60kts forecast – that’s up to hurricane strength. The coastguard have also requested the paddlers return. Olly requests the fishing boat standby while he calls their weather teams on the sat phone. One team says it’s safe to continue, while the other team advises to go with the fishing boat, so Olly makes the tough call to accept a lift back on the fishing boat.
This leads to the boys working on the longliner for the following week out of the village of Stodvarfjordur. They help shoot the 16,000 hooks on 10 miles of line, then help bring in the catch, cutting the fish and sorting the different species. They work for 18 to 19 hours a day. The fishing boat is often followed by Minke whales and hundreds of Fulmars.
After 6 days working on the fishing boat, finally they get a break in the weather and a good opportunity to leave Iceland again and make for the Faroe Islands. This is the longest crossing for the boys; almost 300 miles across a stretch of ocean known ominously as the ‘Devils Dancefloor’.
The paddlers head out of Stodvarfjordur without fanfare, after an enormous breakfast in the cafe to set them up. They head out of the Fjord under a blue sky, past surf crashing onto shoals just offshore, a reminder to the boys of the power of the ocean in case they were in any doubt. They paddled away from the Icelandic mountains into a growing oceanic swell of 3-4m, but calm at least. They made good progress and soon got into their work routine – 5 minute rest every hour, 20 minute rest every 5 hours, and then some sleep every 15-20 hours depending how they were feeling or what the weather was doing.
The days were long, but they still had the benefit of the favorable winds and were able to make good progress paddling and sailing together. Now the nights were drawing in a little, and there were 4 hours of darkness – a natural point for the paddlers to stop as the fatigue would naturally overwhelm them. So as darkness fell the paddlers would stop, deploy the sea anchor, and inflate their airbags to steady the boat as they slept.
The days went on with only the changing weather and skies to differentiate them. The weather was kind on the whole, and progress was good. Olly had estimated a 5-6 day crossing, and so it was with huge relief when they spied land on the horizon on the fourth morning. The alien looking sheer rock islands gradually revealing themselves in slowly increasing detail and color, as they glide slowly closer across the dark blue ocean. A brightly lit ship, the Noronna, passes by about 8 miles to the east – it was the same vessel they’d been on themselves when they traveled to Iceland 2 months earlier. They’d been up to the bridge to speak to the first officer about what to expect in these waters; imagine his surprise when Olly called him on the VHF radio to say they could see them passing by from their tiny kayak, invisible in the inky blackness. They later met the first officer at a rowing festival in the Faroes.
Olly and George land on the Faroes at the head of the narrow Sundini channel, which bisects the Faroe Islands. The waters still as they paddle into the lee of the cliffs and into the sheltered bay. The orange sodium lights at the head of the bay throw some light onto what looks to be a sandy beach, ideal for them to land on – although after four and a half days squashed into their cramped cockpits, anywhere that allowed them out of the kayak would be a good landing. Trying to pry their legs out of the cockpits and stumble to their feet to haul the boat clear of the surf was laughable, as they fell and collapsed into the gentle surf. Just happy to be safe and on dry land, and to have made relatively light work of the crossing – at least the second time around!
A crowd of 10 or so people were gathered in the shadows on the beach. Many of the champion rowers from the Faroese rowing championships – the Olesoker. Fellow seaman and adventurers who admired what these men had done, enough to turn out in the middle of the night and welcome them to their island home.
Olly and George were to come to know the Faroes better than they’d expected – the weather kept them storm bound for 20 days while they waited for an opportunity to launch on the final leg to Northern Scotland. It was late in the season by now, and the boys were trying to go against the prevailing weather, which is why it took so long before they got a reasonable weather window to make the last 180 mile dash.
They left from the southern most island in the Faroes, Suderoy, from a little fishing village called Porkeri. They had a small crowd of well-wishers, or curious onlookers perhaps, to see them off on that Friday afternoon.
They had a very short window, 48 hours at best, to get to Scotland before the weather changed against them. This on paper was not such a difficult leg, but in reality it was one of the hardest. Now there was closer to 7 hours of darkness to struggle through, and the accompanying hallucinations of forests and high rise buildings, even a spectral cathedral ghosting by at one point. Also the sea conditions were extremely trying, especially trying to escape from the Faroes. Standing waves and powerful swirling currents, as if the Faroes was trying to keep hold of her paddling visitors who’d voyaged so far, and if she must let them go she wasn’t going to make it easy.
The weather improved by the second day and mellowed into a flat ocean with hardly a ripple and barely any swell. Now the boys found themselves under a beating sun at risk of heatstroke, they peeled off their perennially worn Kokatat dry suits to ease the heat. During one of the navigation and weather checks, they realized they would not make it to Scotland before the weather turned against them. They were going to have to roll onto plan B and make for North Rona – an uninhabited island 50 miles north of Scotland, and another stepping stone where they could wait out the weather. The unknowns were whether their food and water could hold out long enough for the winds to change. It would be a close run at best.
However landing on this rocky and jagged island was easier said than done, with the entire north Atlantic swell pounding its slippery shores. Olly had to swim ashore through the surf to find a landing spot, which he found in an inlet running to a shallow cave. The boys unloaded the boat and manhandled it up the sloping, barnacle covered rocks, before collapsing to lie in the sun and luxuriate on the solid rock beneath them. After two hours on the island, the weather turned and blew a full gale for the next six days. They had landed on the island just in time.
Pitching their tent inside the walls of an old ruined building, providing some protection from the gale. They slept a few hours, ate some of their dwindling rations, and having recovered their strength went exploring the higher ground of the island to see what resources they could find. There was a lighthouse on the top of the island, and on the west side Olly found a refuge hut set up by scientists; it was an ‘Aladdin’s cave’ filled with beds, food, books and even stocks of whisky. This newly imposed captivity wasn’t looking so bad after all!
They spent their days on north Rona exploring the island and scavenging for limpets - catching gannets and fulmars too, making their rations more interesting. Weather came through the tracking device as short messages. After 6 days the message came that the gale should subside and allow a 24 hour window, which should be enough for them to make the final 50 mile dash to the aptly named Cape Wrath in Scotland.
It was like someone switched off a fan; the gale stopped and by early evening the swell had subsided enough that Olly made the call to launch. They had to carry the kayak across to the sheltered side of the island due to the swell making launching too difficult where it was.
The kayak surged along, powered by 2 well rested paddlers with a great enthusiasm to complete their voyage after the 64 days they’d now been on the expedition. The night fell quickly and was inky black. It was a busier part of the sea here, shipping wise, with trawlers and freighters lit up like Christmas trees crisscrossing the course of the kayak, without so much as a clue of it’s existence, ghosting through the blackness.
Dawn broke to reveal the shadow of land and a glassy sea, and it looked like it was going to be an easy crossing. That was until the dolphins showed up. Ten miles from Cape Wrath, and like an omen the wind began to blow, hard and in their faces. Neptune wasn’t going to let them off his dance floor without one final scuffle.
After 4 hours, pushing into the teeth of the gale, and the spectacular coastline hidden from view by clouds and fog. Suddenly the wind abated and the paddlers were treated to blue sky and sunshine as they came into Balnakeil Bay, passing the military gunnery range with incongruous hulks of old armored vehicles and tanks perched on the cliffs as targets for the jets artillery.
Across the bay, the kayakers could finally see their destination. Their goal and success was now in the bag, and for the first time in 9 weeks they could relax knowing they would achieve what they had set out to do. Five years of planning and preparation for Olly had paid off.
They landed onto the beach at Balnakeil to a small gaggle of friends and tourists, as well as a herd of 30 black cattle lying on the golden sands. So maybe the Finnmen did paddle to Scotland….maybe….