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Greenland to Scotland: Extreme Kayak Adventure

George Bullard is a modern-day explorer and adventurer who’s already broken four world records, covered more that 2,000 miles on foot in the polar regions, and has just returned from another record-breaking expedition (and he’s only 28). Here, he tells about his latest kayak adventure, The Greenland to Scotland Challenge…

George (back) and Olly (front) paddled 1,200 nautical miles on their expedition. | Image: Emma Hall

“In the summer of 2016, me and my team-mate, Olly Hicks, set out to explore an ancient myth by kayaking across the ferocious North Atlantic Ocean from Greenland to Scotland.

In 1728, an Inuit arrived on a beach in the north-east of Scotland, near Aberdeen. He was wearing full seal-skin clothing, paddling a traditional Greenlandic skin-on-bone kayak and carrying all his hunting gear. He died three days later. Up until now, nobody knows how that man got there, whether he did indeed paddle 1,200 nautical miles from Greenland, or whether he came via other means. This is what we decided to investigate – and what better way to do it than by making the journey ourselves?

Our vessel was to be a 26-foot-long carbon-fibre Innuk kayak (which was fitting as Innuk is the singular of Inuit), made in the UK from the mould of a double sea kayak. As we lowered it into the water at Greenland’s ice-edge, we felt a mixture of emotions, from the fear as to what lay ahead of us, to excitement at the thought of experiencing true, unbridled adventure. We were about to do something that no modern-day human had ever attempted – and the stakes were high, very high.

George and Olly on their kayak adventure in Greenland. | Image: Harry Hill

We lived in the kayak, resting and paddling barely an inch above the burning-cold ocean water, which was as black as the inside of a cave and made your hands flinch with every touch. It left us questioning how any animals could survive in such Arctic temperatures. Dressed in nothing more than dry suits and fleece base-layers, we battled against the unforgiving oceanic weather until, after 46 hours of paddling, we finally arrived on a beach in north-west Iceland. Unable to stand upright, we staggered to a fresh-water stream and collapsed into it. 

Life on board the kayak is beyond difficult – completing the simplest of tasks seems to take hours. We snacked on nuts, flapjacks and chocolate, but cooking hot meals was one way of mitigating our largest risk: hypothermia. However, as you might imagine, cooking at sea is difficult, and cooking in a kayak at sea is almost impossible! Going to the toilet was interesting, too, with zero privacy and no space to stand up or walk around. Let’s just say, a bottle and a plate did the trick, but it was always a precarious affair!

George takes a dip in the Arctic. | Image: Olly Hicks

The following two weeks on the expedition consisted of paddling 600nm between headlands around the north and east coast of Iceland until we reached Neskaupstadur. Not only did we pass some of the most majestic fjords and mountains, we also met some incredibly generous and welcoming people before arriving at our last stop on the Icelandic coast.

Our first attempt to cross from Iceland to the Faroes was unsuccessful, as we met a fishing boat whose crew strongly advised us to return to shore for fear of our lives – we called our weather forecasters and asked for their opinion. Two out of three said we should head back to the mainland, so we took their advice and sadly headed to shore. This leg was our longest and most dangerous stretch of open ocean, famously called ‘The Devil’s Dancefloor’. There was no support boat next to us, so once we left land we were committed, we had everything we needed to exist from loo paper to fresh water. This leg could’ve taken us up to a week and, of course, weather forecasts aren’t that accurate that far out – hence the danger. If the weather changed for the worse, we had nowhere to hide.

The second time we left for the Faroes we made it, at 0300hrs as the sun was about to rise surrounded by vast cliffs and a still, unmoving ocean. We hit the beach having crossed 260nm of ocean in just under 100hrs, crawled out of the kayak, collapsed into the sand of Tjornuvik Bay and were simply relieved to have dry land beneath our feet once again. Arriving into the Faroe Islands was a moment we will never forget. 

The boys celebrate at the finish line. | Image: Henry Hunt

We had been away from home for almost two months and the summer season was drawing to a close. Our weather windows were not only getting shorter, but they were also becoming less frequent. The weather was our dictator; it was the only factor that would determine whether this expedition was possible or not. 

After three weeks of waiting and one false start, there was a narrow chance that we could leave the Faroes and make for the Scottish mainland. The window was tight, so the island of North Rona (45nm NW of mainland Scotland) seemed like a great place to stop and wait out a storm, but we had to get there first…

With only a matter of minutes to spare before gales ensued and the ocean turned into a fury of white horses, we landed at North Rona – hard ground couldn’t have come sooner. North Rona is a deserted island with no running water, so having dodged the storm, we had to survive on thin air. Collecting fresh water from the roof and hunting sea birds, limpets and seaweed was how we survived.

Sixty-six days after leaving the coast of Greenland, we paddled silently into Balnakeil Bay in northern Scotland. I wanted to believe that the brave Inuit had made this epic journey solo all those centuries ago, but having experienced the endeavour first-hand, I’m now sceptical that he could have made the journey unassisted. Not only would it have been hard to have carried enough food, water and supplies to survive, but sleeping and staying on course as a solo kayaker would have incredibly challenging. 

We’ll never know for sure, but it’s likely that me and Olly were the first people to have kayaked the route – and we’ll probably be the last if anyone has any sense!” 

George runs adventure travel company IGO Adventures | Image: Emma Hall

George Bullard delivers motivational talks to all audiences (school or corporate) on topics such as success, failure, sustainability, efficiency, risk and realising goals.  / @georgebullardexplorer 

George also runs IGO Adventures, which organises ultimate races in the wildest places, making adventure accessible to those who only have one week to spare.  If you’re up for a new challenge in 2017, sign up at / @igoadventures

Watch the Redbull video of George and Olly’s epic adventure here.

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