By Joe Glickman
No stretch of water on the planet is as feared as the legendary passage around Cape Horn, where gale-force winds, rogue waves, icebergs and summertime blizzards have sunk more than 800 ships. Freya Hoffmeister intended to paddle around it.
The 48-year-old German über-paddler was 2,333 miles into her attempt at the first circumnavigation of South America by kayak. She'd spent Christmas Day camped on Isla Navarino, one of the many islands that make up Tierra del Fuego archipelago south of the continental mainland. Cape Horn (Cabo de Hornos) is the southernmost of these islands. She could have cut inside and paddled in more protected water, but that's not the Hoffmeister way. So the next morning, she packed her 18-foot carbon-Kevlar kayak in darkness and set out for what she hoped would be a 50-mile paddle to the Cape.
For the first 10 hours, the seas were subdued—the wind, at least in the lee of the islands, nearly still. At 2:30 p.m., she rounded Isla Herschel. There, rising 1,400 feet above sea level, loomed the stark profile of Cape Horn—just six miles to go. But 30 minutes later, a sudden wind jumped her like a mugger. She pushed on, slowing to a crawl. With just half-mile to go, she was being shoved out to sea, heading toward Antarctica. She'd paddled straight into the Cape Horn trap.
Her only option was retreat. She paddled back six miles, only to face rows of ugly breakers crashing on the boulder-strewn southern shore of Isla Deceit. She surfed a slot through two rocks, leapt out, and slipped. The next wave tossed her boat on the rocks, damaging the rudder and cracking the seams. The carbon paddle she'd used for 8,565 miles around Australia snapped in two. Fighting the wind, she managed to pitch her tent behind a shoulder-high boulder and wedge her boat beneath it.
And there she sat for five days as the Cape Horn gales roared. The wind gusted up to 80 mph, tearing at her tent and literally blowing rocks off the cliffs above. She had plenty of time to regret not turning back sooner—"the worst decision of my kayaking life," says Hoffmeister, who is not prone to overstatement. When she reached her boyfriend in Denmark by satellite phone, hoping to be cheered, she learned that a paddler she'd befriended in Buenos Aires, Alejandro Carranza, had drowned while paddling farther north.
One afternoon the rain stopped long enough for her to repair her kayak. But when she hustled out of her tent the next morning, waves "as big as houses" imploded on the beach. The noise made sleep almost impossible. By Day Five, she was eating half-rations.
On New Year's Day, the wind dropped to 20 knots. She'd found a (relatively) more sheltered spot where kelp beds muted the breaking waves. Sweating in her drysuit, stomach in knots, she launched from a flat, slippery boulder, paddled past the breakers, and was free.
Two hours later, she reached the ramp below the Naval Station on Cape Horn just as a load of cruise-ship passengers wobbled ashore. She'd passed one crux of her continental Odyssey, bringing her expedition mileage to 2,833, with 12,167 still to go. Exhausted, she sat down on the dock, hoping that no one would ask how she’d spent New Year's Eve.
–Read Joe Glickman’s DIGITAL FEATURE on Freya Hoffmeister: Lonely at the Top.
— This story featured in the June 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak. Writer Joe Glickman chronicled Hoffmeister's 2009 solo circumnavigation of Australia in his 2012 book Fearless.