Thick chocolate wrapped around coconut and cherries; for children of the Eighties a Cabana bar was a rather exotic treat, even better if dinner that night could be rounded off by a dollop of Angel Delight.
But for four daring Glasgow teachers, the sugary snacks would be the rather unusual fuel that would power them through the adventure of a lifetime into the swirling, treacherous waters of one of the world’s strongest whirlpools.
Tucked into their kayaks – with everything they needed to survive almost a month in Arctic waters including Cabana bars and Angel Delight for nourishment and emergency flares made from old pipes – the intrepid team set off to conquer the Maelstrom.
On their way to successfully circumnavigating the two island groups of Lofoten and Vesterålen in North West Norway and 200 miles within the Arctic Circle, they’d battle through the wild waters of the notorious whirlpool twice, overcome food poisoning and swelter in their thermals as the normally icy region endured a blistering heatwave.
At the end of it, they returned home having claimed a unique Scottish first for sea kayaking and a remarkable tribute to the Scots father of the sport.
Soon the extraordinary 1980 efforts of Jim Breen, Angus Mathieson, Bill Turnbull and Peter Wilson to become the first to beat the Maelstrom in tiny sea kayaks, will be retold in an exhibition at the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine.
Included in the exhibition, originally curated to mark the 40th anniversary of the crossing, will be two of the four ‘Baidarka Explorer’ kayaks which carried them 394 miles (634 kilometres) across Arctic Circle waters and through the series of tidal eddies and whirlpools made famous by Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 story, A Descent into the Maelstrom.
Alongside will be, by today’s standards, the shockingly simple supplies they carried with them: Cabana bars and Angel Delight, rather flimsy compass and head torches, hastily adapted plastic chemical containers which carried the team’s first aid and repair kit, and homemade emergency flares created from plumbing waste pipes.
Basic as it seems, the Scottish Kayak Expedition to North West Norway was the result of two years of meticulous planning and fundraising, which saw the Glasgow-based team of secondary school teachers spend hours studying maps and books at the city’s Mitchell Library as they plotted their course into the history books.
The idea, recalls Jim, was sparked by the frustration of finding themselves storm-bound on a west coast island in 1978 after a sea kayaking outing ground to a halt. With nothing else to do, they made a pact to embark on Scotland’s first major sea kayaking expedition together.
“Sea kayaking was a small world at the time and only a couple of dozen people were serious about it,” recalls Jim, who was 27 at the time.
“Some had done some major expeditions, but they were all English. Although Inuits and Native Americans had been kayaking for thousands of years they treated it as a way of life. The sport of kayaking was started by a Scot, John MacGregor, in the 1880s.
“We thought that as the sport was started by a Scot, there needed to be a major expedition by Scots.”
The Falkland Islands were considered but ruled out because of the sheer distance involved in getting there. Another idea to cross the Baltic Sea and kayak along the Russian coast was dismissed because Cold War relations at the time were not expected to have led to a warm welcome.
Having already tackled the notorious Corryvreckan Whirlpool between Jura and Scarba, one of the world’s largest of its kind, the team opted to try another.
“The temptation of attempting the world’s largest seemed like an appropriate challenge,” said Jim. “There was no Google search available then, so we searched the Mitchell Library for books about it. We thought it would be perfect, it was up there in the Arctic and there was a whole island group to kayak around.”
The adventure caught the imagination of sponsors who poured £10,000 into the expedition and showered the team with goods – from Cabana bars and Angel Delight to thermal underwear which, as the thermometer hit 30˚ had to be rapidly discarded.
The team set off from Harstad in North West Norway on July 1, 1980, and travelled north around the top of the island of Hinnøya, south down the West Coast of the Vesterålen and Lofoten island groups to the island of Værøy at the southern tip.
Here, between Lofoten Point and the island of Mosken, where the tidal currents are forced through the shallows creating a fast series of eddies and whirlpools, they crossed the infamous but deceptively ‘smooth’ Maelstrom.
Jim adds: “We never had any doubts that we could do it. But I remember my wife being quite upset about it. As we left from Glasgow airport, she thought we were going to our deaths.
“We didn’t think twice about it being dangerous – until we got there.”
After having lit their night-time kayaking perfectly, the 24-hour midnight sun suddenly turned overcast leaving the team with a dreadful sense of doom.
Jim recalls: “We timed the crossing for when the tides were running the slowest but it’s a complex area and a huge area of tidal water through a relatively narrow gap about two miles wide where the water runs very fast.
“As soon as the wind combines with fast tides it becomes a dangerous bit of water.
“It’s like trying to cross a river and the river is trying to push you down. You don’t know where the tide might take you. There was a lot of adrenalin.”
As well as the challenges of crossing the Maelstrom twice, the team had to overcome very severe magnetic anomalies on certain stretches of the trip.
Their food was bland and repetitive, usually oatcakes, Dairylea cheese spread and tomato pickle which, having been stored in the nose of their kayaks for weeks before departure, ended up tainted by styrene gas which seeped from the resin coating and left two of the team battling food poisoning.
“By the end, I never wanted to see another Cabana bar as long I lived,” adds Jim.
Nicola Scott, Exhibitions and Events Officer at the Scottish Maritime Museum, says the Scottish Kayak Expedition was an exciting highpoint in the history of sea kayaking.
“Not only was it the first major sea kayaking expedition and the first recorded sea kayak crossing of the Maelstrom, it offers a fascinating insight into the challenges and development of sea kayaking in the latter half of the 20th century,” she says.
“The kayak was invented some 4000 years ago in Arctic North America when Inuit people stretched animal skins over driftwood or whalebone frames as a means to hunt sea animals and move around by water.
“Although the sport of kayaking sparked interest in Europe in the 1800s, it wasn’t until the 1950s when the hardshell resin and fibreglass kayaks used on the 1980 expedition were developed.
“The 1980 expedition team also helped move sea kayak design on. The limitations of equipment at the time meant that they needed to design some of their own kit to overcome the cold and wet conditions.
“Altogether, the exhibition tells a captivating story of real adventure.”
Into the Maelstrom: The Scottish Kayak Expedition to North West Norway 1980 will be held at the Scottish Maritime Museum once Covid-19 restrictions allow.