Nick Hancock is set to spend 60 days alone on an inhospitable rock in the middle of the Atlantic best known for its regular starring role in the Shipping Forecast. Roger Cox asks why
IT’S a grey, chilly December morning in Ratho, just outside Edinburgh, but down by the Union Canal there’s an eye-catching splash of colour. To the casual observer it seems as if a man is getting ready to launch a tiny yellow submarine, but in fact this is adventurer Nick Hancock, testing a survival pod he’s built out of a surplus plastic water tank. In the summer, all being well, he intends to attach this makeshift shelter to a ledge near the summit of Rockall – the storm-lashed islet in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean best known for its regular starring role in the Shipping Forecast – and then live in it for 60 days. If he’s successful, the 38 year-old chartered surveyor will break two records: one for the longest solo occupation of the rock, set by former SAS soldier Tom McClean, who lived there for 40 days in 1985; the other for the longest continuous occupation, which currently stands at 42 days and was set by Greenpeace activists protesting about oil exploration in the area in 1997. First, though, he needs to make sure the pod will float.
“When we get to Rockall we’re probably going to have to put the pod into the sea and tow it to the rock,” he says. “So I needed to get it in the water and make sure it floated, I needed to make sure it wasn’t leaking, and I also needed to know how stable it was going to be.
“It was much more buoyant than I thought – it sat much higher out of the water – and then I got on it and rocked it about lots and I couldn’t tip it over, so it was a really good test.”
Rockall has been described as “the most isolated speck of rock, surrounded by water, on the surface of the Earth,” and with good reason. Situated 301km west of St Kilda, which is itself 64km west-northwest of North Uist, it measures just 18 metres wide and is 25 x 22 metres in dimension , and rises to a height of just 24 metres. In stormy conditions – not uncommon in the middle of the world’s second largest ocean – waves regularly break over the top of it, making it more or less uninhabitable. Birds such as gannets and kittiwakes sometimes use it as a resting place in summer, but the only permanent residents are common periwinkles and other marine molluscs. And in January even they probably wish they were somewhere else.
Hancock first had the idea of breaking the Rockall records in 2009.
“I used to do quite a bit of sea kayaking and I’d always wanted to go to St Kilda,” he says, “so I thought I’d try sea kayaking there from the mainland, via Skye and the Outer Hebrides. I started looking into that and in the process I came across the story of some Spanish sailors who were shipwrecked on Rockall and made it to St Kilda.
“So then I started reading up on Rockall and found out that this tiny little rock in the middle of nowhere has actually got quite a lot of history, and I was just kind of enthralled by the place.
“I found out that the first recorded landing on the rock had been made in 1811, so the original plan was to land there in 2011 to mark the 200th anniversary.”
A lack of funding prevented Hancock from making record attempts in 2011 or 2012 (although he did manage to get out to the rock for a recce earlier this year) but he’s now almost reached the £20,000 total he needs to pay for the expedition, so he’s hopeful that 2013 will be his year. He also hopes to use his record attempt to raise funds for the injured servicemen’s charity Help For Heroes, and while he’s on the islet he will carry out a range of scientific work, studying bird, insect and plant life, collecting rock samples and making detailed weather observations.
Adventurers have always had to deal with public indifference to their exploits. When Ernest Shackleton arrived at the Falkland Islands in 1916, after cheating death countless times on his now-legendary Endurance expedition to Antarctica, one of the locals is reported to have said: “‘E ought ter ’ave been at war long ago instead of messing about on icebergs.” Hancock has faced similar criticism over his Rockall enterprise. When he first unveiled his plans in The Scotsman, one reader calling himself “Flyinngscott” commented on scotsman.com: “Madness? Naw, just self-promotion dressed up as a good cause. Reminiscent of the gap year do-gooders. Gives them dinner party bragging rights forever.”
What does Hancock make of criticism like that?
“People have their opinions and views of why I’m doing it,” he says, “and they’ve probably formed opinions of me. But what I’ve found with the whole process of organising this expedition is that people either get it or they don’t. It’s very black and white. And that’s from Joe Bloggs on the street, who might have read about it in the paper, all the way up to big corporate sponsors. Lots of them will just go, ‘No, sorry, we haven’t got any money,’ and then randomly one will go, ‘Oh, you’re going to Rockall? That’s brilliant, here – have more than you’ve asked for.’ And there seems to be no rational explanation as to why they get it and the people at another company don’t.”
You don’t have to know very much about Hancock to see that his detractors have him all wrong. For a start, the former Officer Training Corps cadet doesn’t need to do something extreme in order to have something to talk about at dinner parties – he’s done plenty of intrepid things already, notably running the punishing 250km Marathon des Sables in Morocco. And if he was simply looking to raise his profile, you can’t help thinking he could have chosen an easier and more enjoyable way of doing it. The Rockall expedition has proved to be a logistical nightmare of epic proportions, and actually completing it would be most people’s idea of torture.
Assuming he gets a favourable weather window this summer, Hancock’s challenge will begin with a 16-hour boat crossing from Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris on board an ocean-going twin-hulled motorboat called Orca III, operated by Atlantic Marine Services. On reaching Rockall, he will be taken by tender to the base of the islet, leap from the boat onto the rock and then scramble up it as quickly as he can to avoid being swept into the sea by the waves.
Once he has reached the 3.5m by 1.3m Hall’s Ledge just beneath the summit – named after the Royal Navy officer Basil Hall, who was the first person ever to land there – he will have to haul up a petrol- driven winch and then use it to bring up all the supplies he’ll need to survive for the next 60 days, including food, drinking water, a generator, satellite phone, laptop and, of course, his 150 kg survival pod, which will be secured to anchor points drilled into the rock.
For the next two months, this tiny capsule – barely big enough for three men to lie down in side-by-side – will be his only protection from whatever the Atlantic can throw at him. In bad weather he could be forced to spend days at a time shut inside, waiting for conditions to improve. The biggest challenges, he thinks, will be keeping physically and mentally active, so he plans “some sort of physical jerks regime” – to be carried out on the ledge whenever the weather allows – and he is also hoping to use his two-month confinement to learn Italian.
So if he isn’t doing all this to get famous – or to give him something interesting to talk about at dinner parties – why is he doing it?
“After the Marathon des Sables, I suppose I was looking for the next challenge. Having challenged myself physically, I wanted something that was going to be more mentally challenging, and also something I could do that not many people had done.
“I suppose I wanted to do a challenge where I could say, ‘Yeah, there’s a record there and I hold it.’ And I suppose it’s about not being the same as everyone else. Not that there’s anything wrong with being normal – I’m generally a pretty normal kind of guy – but in this day and age where everyone’s doing pretty much the same things with their life I’d just like to do something a bit different – step outside of the box.”
• To find out more about the Rockall Expedition, or to donate to Help for Heroes, visit www.rockallsolo.com