Freya Hoffmeister: Lonely At The Top
This story was originally featured in the May 2010 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine.
Words by Joe Glickman
It was a titanic clash of egos. Oscar Chalupsky, the greatest surfski paddler of all time versus Freya Hoffmeister, the world’s most famous sea kayaker, who was about to embark on what many considered to be an impossible voyage: a solo, unsupported sea kayak circumnavigation of Australia.
It was May 2008 in Hawaii, where Chalupsky was seeking his 12th Surfski World Championship, a 32-mile race from Molokai to Oahu across what is often called the roughest navigable channel in the world. Hoffmeister, new to surfski paddling and a first-timer in the islands, was there for the race and to solidify her sponsorship deal with Epic Kayaks, the company co-owned by Chalupsky and Greg Barton. Freya was fine with Oscar’s claim that Epic’s sea kayak was the fastest on the market. What they couldn’t agree on, it seemed, was everything else.
We would meet mornings for breakfast at the serene, open-air lanai of the Outrigger Canoe Club, and before the coffee cooled they would be arguing like an old married couple. It would be unfair to Freya, a former beauty pageant contestant, to say that they look alike, but there are definite physical and psychological similarities. Both are tall, big-boned, powerful alpha types in their mid-40s, and both would rather express an opinion than ask for one. Freya had two record-setting expeditions on her resume to Oscar’s none, but that didn’t stop him from dispensing hints about what gear she should leave behind to lighten her load—advice she utterly ignored.
When she asked for modifications to the boat that she would paddle around Australia, he was just as dismissive. One morning she said she needed a retractable skeg. “Why would you compromise the integrity of the boat with a useless feature like that?” Oscar asked in disgust.
If she heard the sarcasm, she ignored it. “For when I launch off the beach backwards,” she replied. Oscar recoiled as if he’d gulped a mouthful of curdled cream. “That’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard!” he barked, and proceeded to explain that if she tried to launch backward in real surf she would be reduced to matchsticks. By the time I had settled my bill, she had called him a “big, pampered boy in a light boat who wouldn’t last a week on a self-supported expedition.”
Touché, I thought. On the other hand, Freya was equally uninterested in Oscar’s advice about how to paddle a surfski in the race he had won more times than anyone in history. When I first raced the channel, I had followed Oscar around like a puppy, lapping up every crumb of advice that fell my way. And I still didn’t sleep the night before the race. Freya, with fewer than 100 hours in a surfski, couldn’t be more nonchalant. I didn’t get it.
There is a lot about Freya I find difficult to understand. I first heard about her in 2007, after she’d set a speed record for circumnavigating New Zealand’s South Island. When I went to her Web site, two things leapt from the page: She had as many gear sponsors as Madonna has lovers, and was equally bold when it came to displaying her female charms. In one photo, she straddled a black kayak as if it were a giant sex toy. Another showed her standing on her head in a kayak, her derriere front and center. In the pièce de résistance, she’s posing in front of a rock in a sleeveless wetsuit, up on tippy toes with a pair of paddles crossed below her waist. It could have been the Web site of a dominatrix with a kayaking fetish. But a quick background check revealed her to be a serious athlete and adventurer. Before taking up kayaking she’d been a skydiver, with 1,500-plus jumps to her credit, including one over the North Pole.
I sensed a story, and wrote to see if she was amenable to an interview. In the course of our e-mail exchange I mentioned that I was headed to Puerto Rico for a surfski race. Freya had never paddled the narrow, sit-on-top ocean racing kayaks-she barely knew what one looked like—but she was intrigued, and with Freya that’s all it takes. She flew to Puerto Rico eight days before the race and started training. She ignored all advice, including the suggestion to change her all-black paddling attire for gear better suited to the blazing sun. But, doing it her way, she easily managed the 22-mile, open-ocean crossing in an unfamiliar craft. Shortly after the race she was walking on her hands by the pool like a circus seal. By the time the evening was over, she had decided to race in the Molokai Surfski World Championship just six weeks later. She whipped out her smart phone and rearranged her schedule on the spot.
Freya in Hawaii was like Paris Hilton in the bush. She hated the vibe of Waikiki Beach and had little patience for all the waiting around that happens when you train in a group. At first I thought her thick German accent made it hard for her to banter with the fast-talking Aussies and South Africans who dominated the field, but that wasn’t it. She just didn’t fit in. It didn’t help that among all the baggy shorts and flip-flops she chose to wear black spandex tights, black tank top and, at times, black platform shoes—attire that made the raven-haired 5-foot-10, 160-pound paddler seem both over- and under-dressed.
She cut to the front of lines, and once casually wiped her sunglasses on the shirttail of a woman she barely knew. But the real source of the mounting social tension was the audacity of her plan, and the complete lack of humility with which she approached it. Here she was planning to paddle around Australia, but she never asked those who lived there a single question about the coastline they paddled every day. Then again, virtually every Aussie I spoke to thought that paddling 9,000 miles in a boat 22 inches wide is akin to playing Russian roulette. They warned her about cyclones, massive surf, great white sharks, saltwater crocodiles, venomous snakes and jellyfish, and vast stretches of sheer limestone cliffs where it would be impossible to land.
Each negative comment only hardened her resolve. If Paul Caffyn, the only person ever to paddle around Australia, could make it, she could too. So what if he’d had a land crew and she intended to go unsupported. She’d rounded the South Island of New Zealand faster than he had. “The only thing that will stop me,” she said, “is serious injury. There are hazards to overcome for sure, but basically it’s just another trip.”
Dean Gardiner, who worked aboard a fishing trawler along Australia’s remote north coast long before winning the first of his nine Molokai titles, had two words to say on the subject: “She’ll die.”
Eleven months later, far off the northeast coast of Australia, Freya readied herself for another night at sea, her sixth straight. It was the 102nd day of her Australian circumnavigation: 3,087 miles down, 5,478 to go. Family and friends, not to mention a few of her sponsors, had warned her not to cut across the Gulf of Carpentaria, a 350-mile crossing exposed to tropical cyclones. Only Andrew McAuley, a professional adventurer who later vanished attempting to paddle from Australia to New Zealand, had made it alone. A successful crossing would save five weeks and avoid 1,000 miles of desolate, crocodile-infected coastline, but at what risk? Even if the weather cooperated-a big if—getting enough sleep to function at the level the crossing required could make the difference between life and death.
Freya deployed her sea anchor and attached the inflatable floats to the end of her paddle, then strapped it behind the cockpit. She cinched the hood on her anorak so only her nose protruded and lay down on the back deck, her feet in the cockpit, arms spread along the paddle shaft in the form of a soggy crucifix. Serenaded by 25-knot winds and 12-foot seas, she willed dawn to arrive as flying fish ricocheted off her body and wave after hissing wave dropped on her head.
The next morning, as usual, Freya called in her position by satellite phone to a person who then posted a message on her blog, a site that a growing number of paddlers and armchair adventurers monitored obsessively from every part of the world. It was compelling drama: Survivor at sea with just one contestant and no safety net. On April 30 she reached the mining town of Nhulunbuy and walked for the first time in eight days. Her ballsy move had thrust her weeks ahead of Caffyn’s pace.
We spoke via Skype a few hours after she landed. She had small wounds on her pinky toes and sores on her elbows, calves and the backs of her hands. Yes, she was “bloody tired,” but after a visit to the hair dresser and a few days of R&R, she’d be good to go. She mentioned the marriage proposals she’d received via e-mail and dropped hints about a budding romance, but said nothing about the mental or emotional toll the crossing had exacted. She hadn’t slept the night before she began the crossing, but that wasn’t due to nerves, she said. It was because of the man she had met.
“How scary was it?” I pressed.
“Not at all,” she answered.
Maybe she hadn’t understood the question. I asked again.
“What’s da problem?” she replied, which isn’t an answer unless you’re familiar with Freya-speak. Having paddled big water offshore—with others, during the day-I found it nearly impossible to believe she, or anyone, could have been relaxed out there. Finally she admitted that she had worried her paddle might snap or that the sea anchor tied to the bow handle might rip off and leave a hole in the boat. In other words, her only concerns were about the structural integrity of her equipment, not her ability to perform. “People were much more worried than I was,” she said. “I never considered not making the crossing.”
It would have been easier to forgive her for being so blasé about the crossing if it were a case of ‘been there, done that.’ In fact, Freya’s expedition resume was surprisingly short, though impressive. In 2007, she and her then-boyfriend Greg Stamer, a paddling instructor from Florida, notched the fastest circumnavigation of Iceland, covering 1,007 miles in 33 days. She wanted to cut straight across two massive bays-a first by kayak—but Stamer worried about the notorious Icelandic winds blowing them out to sea. Freya won that argument, as she does most, and the duo endured a 22-hour slog into a 15-mph headwind. They paddled with dolphins and whales alongside waterfalls and cliffs and icebergs. Stamer was impressed by the landscape and scope of the challenge; Hoffmeister dubbed the journey “easy” and “more or less boring.”
Four months later, her romance with Stamer kaput, she started solo around New Zealand’s South Island, a Lord of the Rings landscape of rainforest, snow-capped mountains, glacial valleys and frigid rivers framed by a sea renowned for its gale-force winds and dangerous surf. The scarcity of sheltered landing spots on the storm-lashed west coast could explain why only two other paddlers had circumnavigated the island since Caffyn first finished the 1,482-mile journey in 1978. Hoffmeister had met Caffyn in 2006 at a symposium in Auckland. They’d become friends and discussed the possibility of her attempting a South Island solo of her own. But Hoffmeister didn’t just want to become the first woman to complete the solo; she aimed to break Caffyn’s record.
On New Year’s Day 2008, all that separated Freya from the finish was a 53-mile crossing of Tasman Bay. It was late afternoon and she already had logged 50 miles, but the finish was tantalizingly near and she decided to push though the night. She napped for a minute at a time, paddling long stretches with her eyes closed. “It was sensual,” she said. “I enjoyed dancing blind with the waves.”
She covered the last 102 miles in 32 hours, finishing in 70 days and bettering the record by six days. Caffyn, who greeted her at the finish with champagne, called her effort “the most significant solo kayak trip undertaken by a woman in the Southern Hemisphere.” At the time Caffyn was the first, and only, person to round Australia in a kayak. Soon Freya would take that record as well.
Setting and achieving goals is how Freya moves through life. From her father, a government official who hunted and collected guns, she learned early on that achievement was good and excellence better. She competed as a gymnast from age 6 to 16, rode motorcycles, finished sixth in the Miss Germany beauty pageant, and competed as a bodybuilder until it was obvious she would have to take drugs to win. At 22, she used an inheritance from her grandmother to open an ice cream shop; five years later she owned six more. Her first husband, an airline pilot, ran off with an employee in her ice cream shop after three months of matrimony. Next she married her skydiving instructor, a former German navy commando 18 years her senior (the relationship has since ended). Hoffmeister quit jumping out of airplanes just before their son was born 13 years ago.
Kayaking became her next obsession. She mastered dozens of complicated Greenland rolling techniques and quickly became a sensation at sea kayak symposiums around the world. Soon she launched into a series of ambitious multi-week expeditions. Says Greg Stamer: “Freya consumes life with the same intensity and passion as a terminally ill patient who is looking to fill every remaining minute left with excitement.” When she set out for Oz she’d been paddling just six years and was the best-known sea kayaker in the world.
By the time Freya was halfway around Australia, approximately 3,500 visitors were checking her blog each day. On one hand I was addicted to the daily drama: Would she be chowed by a croc? Could she survive the sheer 100-mile stretch along the Zuytdorp Cliffs? What about the great whites in the Southern Ocean? On the other hand, her coquettish comments about paddling topless, skinny-dipping, and the current color of her toenails-posts typically punctuated by smiley-face emoticons-drove me batty. Others couldn’t get enough of it. Fans compared her to Amelia Earhart and Sir Edmund Hillary, and dubbed her “the Shakti goddess of the Waves.”
On December 18, 2009, nearly three decades after Paul Caffyn became the first person to paddle around Australia, Freya completed her circumnavigation at the same beach outside Melbourne that Caffyn had. The journey had taken her 332 days, 29 fewer than Caffyn. She was ushered to the finish by an escort boat and flare-wielding kayakers. A crowd gathered on the beach as she slid under the banner erected in her honor. She’d crossed five time zones, averaged 35 miles and 11 paddling hours per day, including 13 nights afloat. Her kayak had been bumped by dozens of sharks, including one big fella who’d sampled her fiberglass. She’d also lost 13 pounds and, before starting her Gulf of Carpentaria crossing, had fallen hard for a charter fishing boat skipper named Greg Bethune who provided land support on the last leg of her journey. It was a monumental achievement, but in the news reports on Aussie TV she seemed to not understand what all the fuss was about. She acted as if it had been just another day’s paddle. Her lack of affect was almost unbelievable. And unaccountably irritating. “C’mon, Freya,” I thought, “give your fans something.”
The news clip encapsulated what makes Freya at once so impressive and so … vexing. When we finally caught up by phone in mid-January—after she’d already been to Israel and back as a featured speaker at the Terra Santa Sea Kayak Symposium, and was preparing for a barnstorming tour of sea kayak shops and symposiums in the western United States—I asked her about it. She was unexcited at the finish, she said, because “it was always clear that I’d make it. I never expected anything else, never.” The victory photograph on her Web site with her paddle held aloft was taken after she was asked to go back and “finish” again.
Fair enough. Whether you chalk up Freya’s obliviousness of her effect on others to her birth sign—as she says, “I’m a Taurus, a bull who leads with my head”—or go as far as one Aussie paddler, a psychologist, who called her a pathological narcissist, it’s clear that a strong focus on self can be a handy trait in an expedition kayaker. Freya’s unwavering confidence may have been abrasive in social circles, but, alone in a hostile environment where fear is counterproductive and panic potentially fatal, she wore it like armor in a sword fight.
I hadn’t spoken to her since she’d crossed the Gulf of Carpentaria in April, and all those watery miles seemed to have softened her. She was no Dr. Phil, but she did seem more introspective and open as she discussed her need to explore her physical limits, the pain of being separated from her 13-year-old son, who lives with his father (“talking about it puts me to tears,” she said), why Paul Caffyn wasn’t at the finish, and the disappointing end of her relationship with Bethune, whom she had expected to marry. As for her irritating (to me) insistence on wearing black to paddle around Australia, of all places, she chalked it up to marketing. Yes, she was proud that she was in demand as a speaker at kayak symposiums around the world. Yes, she loved performing in front of a crowd in her persona as a salacious sea goddess, wearing heels and a tight black dress. But becoming a sea kayaking legend, it seems, comes with a price. “It’s lonely on the top,” she said.
Perhaps Greg Stamer, her former paddling partner and lover, summarized the Freya phenomenon best: “There’s something different about her. She has a star quality. But there’s more to it. Freya is a complex woman who defies most stereotypes. She’s driven and highly focused. She’s truly a force of nature.” He paused before adding, “But hurricanes and tornadoes are forces of nature, too.”