Kayaker extraordinaire and motivational speaker Freya Hoffmeister tells Dan MacCarthy how she paddled around South America.
IN 2016, the German woman Freya Hoffmeister solo kayaked the 1,500km around Ireland in 43 days. She described the trip as a training run for some bigger trips she had planned. Hoffmeister has such prodigious feats of kayaking under her belt that to rank her merely in the highest echelons of the achievements of human endurance would seem to be an injustice.
Hoffmeister arrives in Ireland to give talks on her South American adventure. She is in the middle of a 19-city European tour from Cork to Zurich describing her achievements. This is not just about kayaking, however. Hoffmeister demonstrates that setting your sights on a goal in any walk of life, however high, can be achieved.
“I’m hoping to inspire as many people as I can. I also talk to people who are not kayakers, such as Janssen Pharmaceuticals in Cork. I talk about the importance of your mental state and mindset to achieve your aims. It’s all about reaching the goals you set.”
You think the Irish kayak adventure was impressive? Then try this. In 2007, with her friend Greg Stamer she achieved a 33-day, 1,300km circumnavigation of the freezing seas around Iceland. This is regarded as the K2 (Mount Everest’s infamous neighbour) of sea kayaking.
That it? Nope. In 2007 in 70 days she became the first woman to complete a solo circumnavigation of New Zealand (south island), and (surely not more?) in 2009 she tried the neighbour. No, not the north island, Australia. In 322 days she kayaked 13,790km around the entire landmass of Australia fighting off enormous waves, huge surf at landings, paddling through crocodile-and snake-infested waters, and was bitten by a shark for good measure. This is regarded as the equivalent of climbing all mountains over 8,000m in one year. Her motto on this trip was “She can do it”.
Surely that’s it? Only getting warmed up. Between 2011 and 2015, over 30 months of solo paddling in six legs she set off from Buenos Aires in Argentina and circumnavigated South America completing it via the Panama Canal. In this trip she endured 60-knot winds as she rounded the most dangerous seas on the planet at the infamous Cape Horn, survived a crash landing on a remote island amid towering seas.
Towards the end of this trip she suffered heat rashes, mosquito swarms, and an unplanned tidal surge in the Amazon known as the Pororoca which propelled her craft at a 30km/h speed in darkness. She pulled it off. Her motto on that trip was “Think bigger”.
Okay enough, enough. Her Irish warm-up was a training run for North America. This is expected to take eight to 10 years over 50,000km in blocks of three to five months. It is longer than the first and second continent trips combined. This will require paddling through the waters of the Northwest Passage where polar bears forage for food and killer whales hunt.
The motto for this lunacy has already been prepared: “Never stop starting — Never start stopping.”
On this current tour of illustrated talks Hoffmeister takes the audience through the planning process for such a superhuman achievement and the willpower required to carry through when everything seems against you. The events of her South American odyssey are at once spinechilling and inspiring.
On August 30, 2011, Hoffmeister set out on her mission to circumnavigate the continent of South America and so become the first person to manage the goal. Starting point Buenos Aires, Argentina. What followed ranks as one of the most incredible feats of human experience.
Progressing southwards along the coast of Argentina and foregoing shortcuts through the Magellan Straits or the Beagle Channel she opted to go around the island of Tierra del Fuego, and the most southerly point of South America at Cape Horn through what seafarers regard as the most dangerous seas in the world.
Surviving everything that Mother Nature threw at her in the form of 60-knot winds and an emergency crash landing, she made it through those treacherous waters — watery graveyard to many a ship.
By now heading north through Patagonia in the chilling waters of the Pacific, she concluded the first stage of the expedition at Valparaiso/ Chile. She had paddled 7,641km in eight months. Before the resumption of the next leg she returned home to Husum, Germany and the small matter of looking after her son and her business.
She started again on August 25, 2012, with her former instructor Peter Unold.
She kayaked north along the seemingly endless coast of Chile and Peru, encountering seas teeming with whales, penguins, dolphins and seals.
After Unold dropped out at Peru, she persevered through the tropical waters of Ecuador before requiring a naval escort in Colombia.
Then it was on to one of the busiest shipping passages in the world, the Panama Canal. She took another break at the end of the canal, having travelled by now 15,300km overall.
She resumed again on August 16, 2013, through windy Venezuela and its piratical seas. She pressed on to Trinidad, and the the three Guyanas. The mosquito coast of Surinam and approaching the Amazon river, resulted in the toughest part of her journey, drained as she was by the tropical heat.
The next major challenge to overcome was the labyrinth of river channels at Belem, Brazil, through which she navigated without a map.
At Sao Luiz she took her final break before resuming on April 27, 2014. Total distance: 20,798km.
Due to unfavourable weather conditions, she was unable to continue until October 16, 2013, fully motivated to face into the infamous southerly headwinds.
Hoffmeister arrived back to Buenos Aires on May 1, 2015. She had crossed the Equator twice in a 27,000km paddle, averaging around 45km per day. The total time came to 44 months.
She had no engine or sail. She spent most nights in her tent camping on the shores, with no support. She brought all her water, food and camping gear and refuelled in towns along the way.
Ah, you think, what a woman. On top of the kayaking achievements, Hoffmeister has competed for 10 years in gymnastics and five years in competitive body-building. She has also been a skydiver for 10 years, including skydiving over the North Pole.
In between, she’s found time to run her business empire of seven ice cream cafés, a bistro and a Christmas shop. Along the way, she found time to give birth to her son Helge in 1996.
Hoffmeister, nicknamed Freya Shakti or Goddess of Love to the Seas, ranks with the greatest explorers, the greatest of endurance athletes.
She’s up there with Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing, Amelia Earhart or Victorian explorer Richard Burton. She has received the World Paddle Award, became the European Adventurer of the Year, and the National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year.
Asked what her favourite part of Ireland was, she replies “inside my kayak” but goes on to say that “the whole country is beautiful with many wonderful corners”. And she much preferred it to Iceland and New Zealand. In or out of your kayak, be inspired!
Freya Hoffmeister speaks at Teacher’s Club, Dublin on February 19; and Room 1.07, Western Gateway Building, University College, Western Rd, Mardyke , Cork, on February 20. Tickets: eventbrite.ie