Is it just me or do there seem to be fewer good old-fashioned risk takers around? I think so. It’s good, then, to meet people like George Bullard, a 28-year-old explorer and adventurer from Norfolk.
If that title seems a tad glib for someone so relatively young, then consider that while you spent your summer down the pub, sunbathing in the park and enjoying a week in Cornwall, he was kayaking 1,200 miles from Greenland to Scotland with Olly Hicks across some of the most unforgiving and deadly stretches of ocean on the planet.
With his black labrador Gossip patiently curled up in a corner of a cafe on a mild, damp Clapham morning, George tells me all about the crossing.
What inspired you to do this journey?
In the early 1700s an Inuk <Inuit> paddling a traditional Greenland kayak washed up on a beach near Aberdeen and died three days later. Even today no one knows how he got there. He was called a Finman because we believed then he came from Finnmark <what’s now northern Norway> but he couldn’t have done because of the type of kayak he had. I’m not sure he actually made the full crossing – more likely he was picked up by a British whaling boat as some kind of trophy and then perhaps got ill at which point he was cast off, left to fend for himself and paddled the last bit of the way.
How did you split the trip up?
We set off across the Denmark Straight from Greenland to a place in Iceland called Hornvik Bay. That was 46 hours of paddling. On the map above you can see at the beginning there’s a wonky bit – that’s when we slept.
For the following two weeks we hopped around the north and east coast, sleeping on beaches, till we reached a fishing village called Neskaupstadur. We set off from there to cross what’s known as the Devil’s Dancefloor, a really nasty patch of ocean before the Faroe Islands.
We got 48 hours into the crossing, and were going pretty slowly. It was quite foggy that day, and all of a sudden out of the mist we saw an Icelandic fishing boat. They came over and asked what we were doing.
They wanted us to come with them and told us there was a storm on the way up to 60 knots (70 mph). We were obviously concerned but we consulted our weather guys back at base and decided to carry on.
The captain later told us that as they sailed off, he genuinely thought no one would see us alive again.
An hour later they came back and said “we’ve spoken to the coastguard and they really want you to come back, and we really want you to come back”.
So we made the decision to get on the boat and basically spent 10 days living like an Icelandic fisherman fishing for cod. <A hurricane-force storm did indeed blow up.>
We set off again, this time from Stöđvarfjörđur. The next stretch to the Faroe Islands took us just under 5 days. Kayaks aren’t meant to cross oceans and we didn’t have a support boat so we just went for it.
Our two biggest dangers were hyperthermia, and being swamped by a wave then not being able to get back in. If the kayak did break apart we had single-man life rafts, similar to what pilots have on their ejector seats. There were a couple of “oh f**k” moments, and our margins for error were pretty small.
We had some despondent points in the middle of the ocean for sure, but we didn’t have a support boat so there was no get-out-of-jail card. The only thing we could do was keep paddling.
But what got me out of that was the thought that what we were doing was potentially going to inspire a generation of kayakers and others, although I might not have thought that at the time when I was p*ssing in a bottle and cr*pping on a plate in the middle of the sea.
There was also there was the thought that only two people on the planet had ever done this, and that was me and Olly.
One of our biggest risks was hyperthermia and one way of mitigating that was eating hot food. I cooked freeze-dried food in the kayak between my legs each morning and evening. We also stuffed heat packs down our trousers at night to keep warm.
Paddling through the Faroe Islands was one of the most dangerous parts because of the huge amounts of currents and winds, which quickly kicks up a big swell. We were pretty blasé because we could see land, but you’re still very exposed. So the crossing to Suđuroy, the southern most Faroe Island, was one of the scariest.
We waited three weeks there because of the weather. It was the middle of August, and winter storms were starting to roll in. We needed a four-day window to make it to Scotland and those windows don’t come along that often.
Then it was 56 hours from Suđuroy to North Rona <roughly 100 miles NW of mainland Scotland>, which we reached just in time before a massive storm arrived. We just had to hunker down and go into hunter-gatherer mode, catching sea birds and eating seaweed and limpets, living in a bothy for six days listening to a wind-up radio and drinking whisky till it was safe to leave again.
Our landing point on the Scottish mainland was Balnakeil Bay, next to Durness, greeted by a herd of cows!
What wildlife did you see on the crossing?
We were accompanied by sea life every day, which was mega. We saw puffins, fulmar, gannets closer to land, shearwaters. And then there were dolphins, orca around the north coast of Iceland, humpback, pilot and minke whales
What’s next for you?
I run a company called igoadventures organising week-long expeditions, giving people a chance to do what I do. I give lectures and people are inspired by the concept of adventure but then they go back to their desk and that sense of adventure just seeps away.
Next year I plan to sail the Pacific, and I’m going to cycle and kayak with my sister from Canada to Cuba.
There seem to be fewer adventurers out there. Are we becoming more boring?
We’re certainly becoming more insular. I think people are losing their sense of adventure, a lot of people are just existing. I believe we all need to go on an adventure and learn what living is really like, because you realise what’s important in life is food, water and warmth not iPhones, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, they are all meaningless.
If you fancy joining George on an adventure in Norway, Morocco or Montana check out www.igoadventures.com