Lying in a converted water bowser on Rockall with a Force Nine gale wailing outside, waves breaking over my shelter, and with the nearest human habitation 300 kilometres away, you would be forgiven for thinking that I had enough on my plate without worrying about dehydration. However, the howling wind had powered my wind turbine to such a degree that the controller for the now fully-charged 12 volt battery was dumping excess power into the bowser in the form of heat. As the temperature inside the capsule reached 30°C, the dry suit I was wearing began to fill with sweat. Perhaps I hadn’t needed to insulate my shelter quite so well.
Rockall is a miniscule lump of rock lying some 400 kilometres from the Outer Hebrides. It is so far out to sea that it lies in a different time zone from the rest of the United Kingdom. I was in the midst of planning a sea kayaking expedition from Scotland to St Kilda when I came across a story about Spanish sailors being shipwrecked near Rockall in 1686. More recently, Tom McClean had spent 40 days alone on Rockall in 1985. Twelve years later, a party from Greenpeace spent 42 days on its tip. I shelved my kayaking plan in favour of an attempt to break the islet’s twin occupation records.
The need for a rigid shelter rather than a tent became obvious during the early stages of the planning process. McClean had survived in a home-made plywood box. Greenpeace had used a bespoke survival pod made from fibreglass and Kevlar.
My budget did not stretch to a one-person version of Greenpeace’s pod, and I could not borrow the original as it had been seized by the Norwegian authorities after Greenpeace subsequently placed it on an oil rig. Besides, I could not afford a helicopter to airlift such a contraption onto Rockall. Yet I wanted something more substantial than a wooden box.
An architect friend studied the Greenpeace capsule and drew up a possible solo shelter which he christened the ‘RockPod’. A couple of specialist companies submitted quotes to build the pod but the materials alone were too expensive. I was secretly pleased that the bespoke design was too costly to manufacture as I liked the idea of a homemade shelter rather than one I had paid someone else to build. I started hunting for a suitable object to modify.
Having considered various options – including a small shipping container and various portable cabins – I came across a water bowser on my way home from the Marathon des Sables. The manufacturer, Trailer Engineering, generously offered me a prototype bowser for free if I could collect it before it was shredded.
Once the bowser was safely under a tarpaulin in my garden, I set about converting it. I had already sourced yacht hatches and fortunately the manufacturer’s largest round access hatch precisely fitted the moulding on the top of the bowser. However, the hatches were built for flat surfaces which made it difficult to fit a second one to the curved wall of the pod.
I cut a recess into the plastic and remoulded it around the hatch, using offcuts and a heat gun. My next job was to bolt and back-plate several shackles to the pod. Once on Rockall, ratchet straps would stretch from these shackles (which were rated to one tonne) to five forged stainless steel bolts that I planned to fix into the rock using resin. I ended up supplementing these bolts with 11 existing bolts placed on the islet in 1997 by the team from Greenpeace.
I applied marine-grade silicone sealant to fill the gaps which resulted from the various modifications to the pod and then turned my attention to the interior of the bowser. I fitted a plastic floor inside the pod to level the convex base. The space beneath the floor was insulated with expanding foam and reflective foil. The walls and the ceiling were insulated with a spray-on foam which was, in turn, sealed with a rubberised paint to create a cleanable surface. Finally, I stuck self-adhesive grip pads around the RockPod’s deck to help me maintain my footing in wet weather whenever I climbed out of my new, temporary home.
“I was never lonely on Rockall. There were usually guillemots and gannets to chat to, and I was also paid a visit by several racing pigeons and a solitary starling”
I needed to check that the pod floated as the plan was to tow it from my support boat to Rockall using a tender. The Seagull Trust operates a crane-equipped dry dock on a canal near my home in Scotland. By using this facility, I was able to check that the pod was strong enough to be lifted by a crane, and that it remained stable while being hoisted. I was a bit nervous when the pod broke through the film of ice covering the canal and plunged into the murky water. However, the capsule floated and was surprisingly stable. I clambered inside while it was afloat to check for leaks. Luckily, I found none and I avoided the temptation to see it if would self-right with me inside.
Moving to a crag behind the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, I was able to employ a petrol-driven capstan winch along with a friction device to successfully lower the RockPod down a rock face. However, the first attempt to winch up the pod revealed problems. The RockPod’s tail tilted away from the rock, which forced its nose hard against the cliff. As a result, the capsule became almost impossible to lift. In addition, the pulley attached to the single strap running across the nose of the pod slipped to one side as soon as any obstruction was encountered. I also discovered that the most difficult moment in the hoist was the transition from vertical to horizontal at the top of the rock face.
At the end of these tests I felt that while I had learnt enough about the winch system, I needed to carry out modifications to the pod to make the lifting process smoother. Primarily, I needed to rethink the position of the lifting points. I fitted additional shackles lower down on the RockPod’s body and set them back from the front. Now the pod tipped backwards, its nose lifted clear of the crag, and only the tail dragged up the rock. I also created a fixed central lifting point to which the winch line and the pulley were attached. My last modification involved filling the RockPod’s concave base with expanding foam, and then covering the foam with a plywood sheet, to solve the issue of the pod’s base catching on rock features while being hauled. The end result was a strong, rigid, waterproof shelter. It was spartan inside but I remained confident that the RockPod would protect me from everything the Atlantic could throw at me in summer.
I was ready to go, but after four years’ planning I was defeated by the weather. In May 2013, having travelled the 15 hours to Rockall by boat, I had to turn around and head home due to unsafe conditions. The following year I was ready to go again. This time, in almost perfect weather, my landing on 5 June (which I had practiced on my reconnaissance in 2012) was straightforward. My dry suit and buoyancy aid protected me from the effects of the sea and, being designed for swift water rescue, were sufficiently lightweight to enable me to climb the rock.
Once atop Hall’s Ledge – named after Lt Basil Hall, a Royal Naval officer who was, in 1811, the first recorded person to land on Rockall – I hauled up the capstan and its attendant hardware. I then winched the 150 kilogram RockPod into position on the ledge, along with all the supplies I needed for an occupation of up to 60 days.
Life inside the RockPod was reasonably civilised. At the start of the occupation, I had to lie diagonally across the floor because of the amount of food and equipment stuffed inside. After eating and drinking my way through some of these I was able to lie straight. Nevertheless, I was grateful for not being taller than 170 centimetres.
Apart from the single steamy night when the weather conditions forced me to close the hatches and even the air vent, the interior of the pod remained at a comfortable temperature. The bowser kept me warm, safe and dry, other than the occasional leak around the top hatch at a spot where the hinge had cracked.
The only long-term health issue I had to contend with was that because I could not sit up straight when the top hatch was closed, prolonged bouts of bad weather caused my back to ache as a result of remaining hunched over for extended periods of time.
I was never lonely on Rockall. There were usually guillemots and gannets to chat to, and I was also paid a visit by several racing pigeons and a solitary starling. I watched minke whales and grey seals for hours on end. On 8 July, the Royal Research Ship James Clark Ross, operated by the British Antarctic Survey, came close enough to Rockall for me to hail the crew.
When, on 19 July, I broke Greenpeace’s group occupation record, I felt no sense of elation. I was awoken by a barrage of fireworks fired from the stern of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s research vessel Knorr, but by then the Force Nine gale had knocked the stuffing out of me and stolen several containers of food. I was just happy to still be attached to Rockall and to have been able to raise funds for Help for Heroes. I raised a miniature bottle of fizz to the sea gods, and began to dismantle my little home ahead of the long journey back to Scotland two days later.
This article was published in the May 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine