Rockall: 45 Days on the Most Desolate Place on Earth

Rockall: 45 Days on the Most Desolate Place on Earth
Rockall

Normally, I only use first names here. Not today.

Nick Hancock, English Adventurer of the Year 2015, is the famed resident of a strange rock island in the North Atlantic: Rockall. In 2014, Nick lived inside a small pod tethered to Rockall for 45 days. A world record, making him the island's longest sole human inhabitant.

English Explorer of the Year 2015 Nick Hancock On Rockall in 2014 with Bottle of Champagne Photo by permission of Simon Wright

English Explorer of the Year 2015 Nick Hancock
On Rockall in 2014 with Bottle of Champagne
Photo by permission of Simon Wright

Don't be embarrassed if you've never heard of Rockall. Most people haven't. It's probably because Rockall is one of the most desolate, despairing places on earth.

And dangerous.

Slathered in seabird guano, buffeted by 34 knot winds, pummeled by 30 foot (and occasionally higher) ocean swells, Rockall is the eroded core of an extinct volcano. Fifty-two million years old, it is 248 miles from the nearest land. Except for a few small animals and sea birds -- gannets, kittiwakes, and the occasional pigeon and puffin -- no one lives there. With no fresh water or vegetation, Rockall is uninhabitable.

Untapped oil reserves lie in Rockall's seabed. As a result, Rockall's ownership has been hotly disputed by four countries: the U.K., Ireland, Iceland, and Denmark. For the moment, Rockall is in Britain's hands, thanks to Nick's record-breaking residency last year.

When I first read about Nick's adventure, I knew I wanted to interview him for this blog. I wanted to know how he ate, slept, and remained atop a wet, cold, treacherous rock for 45 days. What he thought about.

Graciously, Nick told me.

What did you see when you looked out your pod?

 Not much.

Through the side hatch, the sea. Sea conditions were always changing which meant I didn't get bored with the view. Every now and again a fishing boat or freighter would pass by. I also saw sea birds gliding past or fishing.

Through the top hatch, all I saw was sky. Sometimes, I laid there and watched the clouds go by overhead.

Nick's Pod on Rockall  Photo by Nick.

Nick's Pod on Rockall
Photo by Nick.

If I came for dinner on Rockall, what would you feed me?

MREs. Military ration packs. I spread a 24 hour ration pack out over two days, which gave me about 2000 calories per day. The menu variety was very good, which was important for my morale, and I never really felt hungry.

On this diet I lost about 7 pounds over 45 days.

What was your motive for occupying Rockall? 

I was looking for a big and hopefully unique personal challenge. One where I could set some new records. Rockall fit the bill, though it took me a lot longer to organize the logistics and get there than I had planned. In addition, I was raising money for Help for Heroes, a U.K. armed forces charity.

How far out in the Atlantic were you?

About 250 miles, off the Outer Hebrides and well beyond St. Kilda. It took around 15 hours to get there by boat.

Rockall With Nick's Yellow Pod  Photo by Nick Hancock

Rockall With Nick's Yellow Pod
Photo by Nick Hancock

What did you do with your days?

Once I set up camp and settled into a routine, my days were fairly slow. I tried to stay in my sleeping bag as long as possible. Until about 0900hrs. In between meals, my day was dictated by the weather: if wet and windy I would stay in my shelter and read, if dry I would get out and about on the rock, exercise, collect data, and measurements. Ponder my surroundings and try and enjoy the experience and the solitude.

Were you ever bored? If so, what did you do for entertainment?

I planned ahead for boredom. I had a laptop with me, powered by my wind turbine.

I had hundreds of e-books on there to choose from. I probably read more than I have ever done in my life. Mostly, I read autobiographies: Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Ice-T, and Jay-Z's were the most memorable. I took harmonica and Italian lessons with me, but didn't get very far with those. I also had an iPod and music on the laptop, so I could listen to that when I wanted.

What did you miss the most?

My family and physical human contact.

Were you lonely?

I never felt lonely. I quite like my own company. The only time I felt alone was during a terrible storm.

What was the worst part of your stay on Rockall?

The storm. It was truly a nightmare. At least a Force 9 (maybe gusting 10). It hit in the dark of night. I had prepared as best I could. Let the coast guard and my family know via satellite phone. Then I just sat tight and hoped for the best.

I was hit by waves 15 meters (about 50 feet) above sea level through most of the night. At one point, cold water hit my shelter and shunted it across the small ledge I was tethered to. Fortunately, the ratchet straps holding the shelter down held and I remained on the rock, albeit very shaken up.

It took several days for my nerves to shelter. Only when good weather returned did I start to relax. I lost several barrels of kit and food during the storm, which meant that I had to cut the expedition short.

A 170 Foot Wave Crashing Over Rockall, March 1943 (photo in the public domain)

A 170 Foot Wave Crashing Over Rockall, March 1943 (photo in the public domain)

What was the best part of being on Rockall? 

Being able to sit and watch minke whales on a daily basis. Also, experiencing amazing sunsets that no one else on Earth was seeing. That was a real privilege.

What was the most surprising thing about your stay on Rockall? 

How much I settled into life and routine there and enjoyed it. I could have stayed for longer. I almost felt depressed about the prospect of leaving when the time came.

What was your greatest fear?

Dying alone.

What misconceptions about the adventuring life would you like to set straight?

It is not glamorous at all. It's hard work and can be very dangerous.

Each expedition requires a huge amount of planning, thought, and dedication. It took me five years to get to the start line.

The biggest issue is always funding, especially if it's your first big project. Trying to convince people that you can complete your goal when you're an unknown can be all but impossible.

Who or what inspires you?

In the past, my grandfather was a huge influence. He drove me to push my own boundaries and discover what I was capable of. Reinhold Messner and Sir Ernest Shackleton have also been inspirational.

What do you want the world to know about Rockall?

That it's not just a rock in the middle of nowhere. There is so much history out there (www.therockallclub.org). And there is still so much we have to learn about this unique spot on the planet and the seas surrounding it.

Map location of Rockall (public domain photo)

Map location of Rockall (public domain photo)

Nick wrote about his Rockall experience in his book, Rockall Solo. Further information is on Nick's web site and on the Rockall Club web site. A movie about Nick's experience is also in production. 

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