Few could argue Freya Hoffmeister is the most accomplished sea kayaker that has ever lived—or likely ever will. The 51-year-old sportswoman and entrepreneur’s life is a catalog of the extraordinary. She spent her early years as a competitive gymnast, bodybuilder, beauty pageant contestant and skydiver (1,500 jumps, including one over the North Pole). Since lasering her formidable energies onto sea kayaking as a “less dangerous” sport to pursue during pregnancy in the mid-‘90s, she has overrun the sport like her namesake—a Norse goddess at play in the land of mere mortals. Her record-smashing expeditions—mostly solo and unsupported—have taken place around treacherous and spectacular countries and continents, and she’s logged more expedition miles than any paddler in history. In May she returned from a nearly four-year, 27,000-kilometer, near-fatal circumnavigation of South America.
Who will ever repeat your circumnavigation?
I don’t think anybody will. I can’t advise anybody to do that because it’s simply too dangerous. Not only because of the dangerous water, but also from the human side—I encountered many criminals. But, I had an advantage as a woman. Many people did not believe a woman could do an intrepid trip like this, and I got a lot of respect that way.
What happened on Brazil’s Pororoca Tidal Bore?
This was my scariest moment, and it happened because I was stupid. I didn’t get enough information about the conditions. I was paddling through the night and became stuck in the mud at low tide. I thought I would just wait for the tide coming in, but it came in rough. Within 15 minutes it had side-surfed me for eight kilometers. I was afraid for my life that night.
When else did you have a close call?
I got trapped by high winds and had an emergency crash landing on an island near Cape Horn. That night the wind was 120 knots. In my tent, I was reinforcing the corners of the tent with my arms and legs like a beetle on its back. Two kayakers were attempting to circumnavigate that area on the same date with the same wind conditions I had. One of the men drowned.
Where would you go back to paddle in South America?
I would return to the south because of the animals— penguins, whales and seals. Northern South America was dead in the hot water, and the Caribbean Sea was great but it wasn’t that exciting to paddle without seeing seals or dolphins or sharks. Argentina and Chile were much more interesting—and also very beautiful.
Why didn’t you learn Spanish?
It was my decision not to learn Spanish and it worked okay for me. I was not able to always get the information from local fishermen who could have told me about dangers ahead. But that also gave me peace at night. Everyone always says there is danger ahead. And I like my peace and my privacy after 10 hours of paddling.