"An artist doesn’t paint a picture and then retire. They are always thinking about their next masterpiece. An adventurer is always thinking about their next project."


Olly Hicks is a record breaking ocean rower and endurance athlete. Drawn to the sea from a young age, Olly spent his childhood exploring the rivers and creeks of the east coast of England.  After reading a newspaper clipping about Peter Bird’s attempt to row the Pacific Ocean, Olly at aged 13 became fixated on the idea of rowing an ocean himself. He finally realised his dream aged 23 when he became the first person to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean from the USA to England after 124 days at sea. 

Olly has continued to push the boundaries of ocean adventure and human endeavour. In 2009, he successfully rowed across the Tasman Sea from Tasmania to New Zealand, spending 96 days alone on the notoriously wild Southern Ocean.  Olly has also undertaken several extreme kayak expeditions including a 200 mile crossing from the Shetland Islands to Norway in memory of the World War Two Shetland Bus Operation and a 1,200 mile crossing from Greenland to Scotland recreating the 18th century kayak journeys of the Inuit.  Olly is currently preparing an expedition to make the first solo row around the world beginning in December 2018.  

I spoke to Olly about where he found inspiration for his ocean adventures, his fascination with original expeditions, the challenges of planning pioneering projects, and his views on taking risks. 

Where did you find the inspiration for your ocean expeditions? 

The first Atlantic rowing race was set up by Chay Blyth in 1997, however the prospect of entering a rowing race did not appeal to me. I read about two Norwegians who in 1896 became the first people to row across the Atlantic from USA to the UK in a rowing boat and started dreaming of recreating their journey as a solo expedition. It took me 6 years to raise the necessary sponsorship - it must have been a long and boring journey for anyone that knew me at the time! 

The boat and I returned relatively unscathed; I loved the view of endless sea and sky; and I realised that I was pretty good at ocean rowing. Admittedly there was a low benchmark as no one had successfully rowed the Atlantic via that route! I started thinking about another project and came up with rowing around the world. I got into negotiation with Virgin and eventually they agreed to support the project after I wrote a 10,000-word risk assessment. From drawing board to start line, it was a three-year journey. In a way it will be more like a thirteen-year journey as I am still trying to do it! I would not necessarily encourage people to do what I have done; I might be chasing my dreams, but it is not a cushy, romantic life. There have been a lot of sacrifices made not only by me but also my family (Olly first attempted to row around the world in 2009 but was forced to abandon the expedition due to a design fault in the boat). 


Why is it so important to you that your adventures are world first projects?

I am fascinated by independent, pioneering projects. If you are spending years of your life organising an expedition, you want to achieve something that has not been done before. An artist doesn’t paint a picture and then retire. They are always thinking about their next masterpiece. An adventurer is always thinking about their next project. I have 35 projects written down that I want to do in the next twenty years. For instance, I have aspirations to one day follow in the footsteps of Andrew McCauley and attempt to kayak the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand. But at the same time, I am not naive, I have a wife, and a baby on the way, there are bigger things in life than fulfilling my selfish ambitions; but if I can make it work as a business perhaps I can make it work for my family too.


What is the most challenging aspect of planning your endurance challenges?

I always say the expeditions in themselves are not that difficult, after all, you have a precondition to want to do them. It may be cold, wet and miserable but that is what you have volunteered for, the challenges are to be enjoyed. The hard part is the fundraising; you need to be a salesman, a designer, a writer and a great communicator. I don’t think people understand the level of sacrifice involved in planning a pioneering expedition. My latest project has been three years in the making and I have spent thousands of pounds of my own money. You certainly have to be resilient. Once your project is fully funded, it is best the job in the world because you are getting paid to realise your dream.  I have looked at different iterations of the around the world row, but I don’t know of anyone who loves the project so much that they can come with me. I have dreamt about the row and pursued it for so long, I am not sure anyone else could love it for the same pure reasons. 


What are your views on the benefits of risk?

How often in everyday life are we uncomfortable? Hardly ever. It is important to build a natural resilience rather than be a molly coddled, protected shell. As a society, we are becoming increasingly risk adverse, and often to an unhealthy degree in my opinion. I was competing in a kayak race last week and it was cancelled half way through because of the conditions. For me, it is meant to be an arduous race with a high level of risk, but just because there was a bit too much water they cancelled it. There is no doubt adventure is hugely in vogue now and I think that is in part a response to the sanitisation of society. 


I often hear people say “there is nothing left to explore”, what is your view on that?  

It is an overused expression. We might be able to see everything via satellite but there are plenty of rivers not run, mountains not climbed, and valleys not explored. New technology can allow you to plan really inventive projects. You now see multi-disciplinary expeditions, which are made into really compelling independent films. I sometimes go to the Dijon adventure film festival in France which showcases niche, unsung projects. There was a film about someone that tried to trek across the Sahara with camels and a guy that tried to fly around the Arctic Circle in a light aircraft. They were very romantic, they were doing it for the purity of adventure, not for self-promotion. There is a place for everyone in the adventure spectrum. 

*All photos supplied by Olly Hicks