By Conor Mihell
Since Paul Caffyn completed a solo 360-day circumnavigation in 1981, Australia was terra incognita for expedition sea kayakers for nearly 30 years. The few who attempted to brave Oz’s surf-swept coastline, 100-mile sections of inhospitable cliffs, and feared saltwater crocodiles and great white sharks, failed miserably. For a long while, Caffyn’s epic 9,420-mile journey seemed to be an impossible, never-to-be-repeated success.
Enter upstart German sea kayaker Freya Hoffmeister. Brash and highly skilled, the 5-foot-10 Hoffmeister came to the sport after stints as an elite gymnast, bodybuilder and skydiver. After knocking off a record-setting paddle around Iceland with American Greg Stamer (33 days, in 2007) and besting Caffyn’s mark for circumnavigating New Zealand’s South Island by six days in 2008, Hoffmeister set her sights on the holy grail in her self-proclaimed “Race Around Australia.”
Hoffmeister’s edgy and aggressive personality and proclivity for tight neoprene and suggestive photographs quickly made her an enigma in the perennially meek and mild world of sea kayaking. It was this façade that Canoe & Kayak contributing editor and marathon kayak racer Joe Glickman first encountered on Hoffmeister’s website. “I couldn’t decide if she was an exhibitionist, an egomaniac, or just a good-looking jock with a ribald sense of humor,” writes Glickman, “but I smelled a story and wrote to see if I could get an interview.”
Hoffmeister planned to meet Glickman for a surfski race in Puerto Rico. Thus began the Brooklyn-based journalist’s reporting that culminated in Fearless: One Woman, One Kayak, One Continent, an adventure travel narrative released in February. While Hoffmeister merged without a glitch into surfski racing (though she mixed less than perfectly with the sport’s aggressive, mostly male big-hitters), Glickman laid the foundations of a biographical tale that primarily focuses on Hoffmeister’s Australia expedition but also delves deeply into the secrets that make her tick.
Glickman’s book expands on the feature he wrote for Canoe & Kayak magazine [Click HERE to read] after Hoffmeister “won” her Australian race in December 2009 and shaved an impressive 18 days off of Caffyn’s pace. Fearless is a page-turner, benefiting from gripping language and a conversational tone in the style of contemporary adventure-lit classics like Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air, Into the Wild) and Susan Casey (The Devil’s Teeth, The Wave). Glickman’s anatomy of the journey is a literary antidote to Hoffmeister’s rambling, emoticon-rich blog.
The result is a glimpse into Hoffmeister’s complex personality and a detailed yet not overbearing account of her groundbreaking Australian expedition. Glickman picks up on the key highlights, dissecting Hoffmeister’s ballsy eight-day crossing of the Gulf of Carpentaria, a 360-mile shortcut that leapfrogged her ahead of Caffyn and solidified her place in sea kayaking history, and describing the two harrowing, 30-plus-hour sessions of continuous paddling that got her past sections of uninterrupted cliffs on Oz’s west and south coasts.
Now, Hoffmeister is nearly one-third of the way into her “Second Continent” project—an attempt to be the first paddler to sea kayak around South America [Click HERE to read more on the project and to check her progress].Even if Hoffmeister’s supreme self-confidence rankles you, Fearless offers a timely and irresistible look at perhaps the greatest sea kayaker of all time.
Click HERE to watch a video interview with Freya on her Circumnavigation of Australia.