Rock the boat: Olly Hicks

At 23, Olly Hicks set a world record when he rowed the Atlantic solo. Never one to rest on his laurels, his next nautical adventure sees him take on the world

People 18 Sep 2017

Adventurer Olly Hicks with companion George Bullard

Adventurer Olly Hicks (front) with companion George Bullard

The adventurer and Bremont ambassador Olly Hicks had his sights set on achieving great things from a very young age. He began kayaking at the age of seven, then at 13 he first had the dream of rowing across the Atlantic. He went on to achieve this dream at the age of 23, becoming the youngest person to row the ocean solo and unsupported.

Now aged 35, Hicks has spent all of his adult life undertaking daring rowing, kayaking and climbing challenges all over the world. He can spend months, even years, meticulously planning and preparing each journey, and is currently in the groundwork stages of the first ever round-the-world rowing race.

Olly Hicks' Bremont Supermarine S500
Olly Hicks’ Bremont Supermarine S500

He became involved with the British watch brand Bremont through sharing a pioneering spirit with its founders, brothers Nick and Giles English. ‘Two of my good friends, [polar explorer and record-breaking long-distance skier] Ben Saunders and [professional mountaineer] Jake Meyer are Bremont ambassadors, so I was aware of the association with adventure. I’m also in the Army Reserve, so Bremont’s motto of “Tested Beyond Endurance” was a fit. I was fascinated by what the brothers have done in creating Bremont – it’s such an authentic story.’

Hicks first got to know his Bremont Supermarine S500 under the most exacting circumstances – a kayaking trip from Greenland to Scotland. When Hicks calls it a ‘kayaking trip’, it sounds like a nice bit of holiday paddling, but this is typical of his understatement. It was a 1,500-mile, nine-week voyage across some of the world’s most perilous seas. Hicks had the idea after reading reports of attempted crossings in the late 17th century by mysterious rowers – believed to be Inuit tribesmen from Greenland – at least one of whom reached the Orkney Islands.

Hicks undertook the voyage in a 6.8m double sea-kayak with fellow adventurer George Bullard. The vessel was made of carbon fibre with a Kevlar-lined hull to protect it from ice. The
hull had specially designed spaces that Hicks and Bullard could squeeze into for their all-important rest periods. ‘The watches were how we ran all of our workshifts: every hour a five-minute rest, every five hours a 20-minute rest and every 15 hours, sleep. Rest time is really critical.’

Olly Hicks; heading out with Bullard
Olly Hicks; heading out with Bullard

The passing of time is one thing when you have another person to keep you sane, but on many of his missions, Hicks is completely on his own. In 2009, he attempted to row solo around the world, leaving Tasmania and circumnavigating Antarctica – a feat that had never been achieved. Shortly after setting off, he encountered technical problems and was left without his support crew.

‘For 96 days I didn’t see any sign of humanity – not one ship, or aeroplane. Normally I don’t mind being alone. In fact the solitude can be a source of contentment. But psychologically this was difficult, perhaps because I was racing to salvage a trip that had taken three years to plan.’

Did he fear for his life? ‘Yes, definitely. I went through three hurricanes. I was very frightened for the first three weeks of that three-month journey and had a knot in my stomach, getting used to the ferociousness of the sea, the scale of it. But the best way to deal with it is to get busy and stop your mind from dwelling. So I was busy either rowing, or maintaining the boat.

Olly Hicks' carbon fibre kayak
Olly Hicks’ carbon fibre kayak

‘The worst bit is the anticipation. You know from the laptop that a storm is coming and you have to avoid it becoming a monster in your head. I would just batten everything down, prepare the sea anchor, and then go into the back cabin ready for when the storm hit. The anticipation was always worse than the reality.’

Although ultimately he did not achieve his aim, Hicks did become the first person to row across the Tasman Sea from Tasmania to New Zealand, so while he was disappointed, it was another entry into the record books. But he’s not one to sit around and reflect on what he has already achieved; Hicks is already deep into planning for another attempt at rowing around the bottom of the world, a feat that nobody has yet achieved.

Unlike the long, slender kayaks, ocean rowing boats are vast, weighing up to two tonnes and looking far too big to be rowed by just one man – a task that Hicks likens to pushing a car: ‘You can do it on your own, and once you get started it’s OK, but getting it going is really hard.’

‘You know from the laptop a storm is coming and you have to avoid it becoming a monster in your head’

Rather than just attempting to re-run his 2009 attempt, Hicks has decided to spice things up for his second attempt at rowing around the world. He took inspiration from the Golden Globe – the race won by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in 1969 who, after 312 days at sea, became the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world.

Olly Hicks head out in his carbon fibre kayak with companion George Bullard
Olly Hicks head out in his carbon fibre kayak with companion George Bullard

That race caught the public imagination, and Hicks aims to employ 21st-century methods of communication to get people involved. While Sir Knox-Johnston lost contact with the world for months after his radio failed, Hicks wants the public to follow the competitors’ progress online. He hopes to get up to six rowers involved, using identical boats. The plan is to leave Sydney in December 2018, and embark on a race that will take around two years.

‘Perhaps my natural preference is for solo sailing. Part of my motivation is looking for pioneering projects. Once you’ve done it as a crew I’d be pining to do it as a solo. So much of the test is the individual against the elements.’

This desire to push himself, and his ability to dedicate himself to meticulous planning, makes Hicks the ideal motivational speaker – he regularly addresses crowds at conferences, festivals and lectures. He gives his insight into the positives that can be found in failure as well as success. But his modesty conceals a burning desire to succeed, and it is clear that failure is not something he intends to encounter too often.;