When Freya Hoffmeister asked me to accompany her on part of her quest to circumnavigate North America, I jumped at the opportunity. We would paddle down the California coast through the Channel Islands, an 11-day blip in a 30,000-mile journey she expects to take 10 seasons to complete.
I was curious what it would be like to paddle with this powerhouse. I heard stories about Freya from all over the world—mostly about an unrelenting speed demon—and had met a couple of men with broken hearts and egos from their time with her. Would I keep up? Could I last? Were there more than great white sharks to worry about on this trip?
Freya was looking to make more than just miles on her North American odyssey. On previous journeys, she paddled solo and unsupported, including around Australia (2009) and New Zealand (2007), and around South America over four years (2011-2015). She’s gone from doing trips in one continuous leg to having them broken up over years. On this epic trip, and for the first time, she asked other paddlers to join her for segments.
After meeting up at the Lumpy Waters sea kayak symposium in Oregon, we traveled south to our put-in at Port San Luis, California. Swell built as we set off from our placid beach and worked south down the rugged coast under the California sun. At the end of our first day, we came in through dumpy surf, smashing sand and spray up the beach. It took multiple attempts to leave the next day, and Freya asked me to help launch her, signaling someone who wasn’t beyond asking for assistance.
Despite two lovely days paddling in the sun on a pulsing Pacific coast, things changed when we reached Point Conception. Not only were we paddling in one of the most active great white shark areas—later we met a local shark researcher who told us he saw two huge sharks in the area we had paddled through 35 minutes earlier—we had timed it perfectly for sundowner winds ripping offshore from the point late in the day. Heavy winds, whitecaps and building onshore swell had us scraping into a military base behind a severely exposed breakwall where people on the dock helped pull our gear and kayaks up a ladder.
Most nights, we settled into a great campsite as the sun set and awoke to thick fog. Crossing from the mainland out to San Miguel Island was a 23-mile slog on surprisingly calm seas. As the sky darkened at the end of the day, we found ourselves paddling amongst playful sea lions as we landed on a beach to find camp.
The Channel Islands are one of the wildlife wonders of the world. As we paddled through the exposed group of islands over the next few days, giant elephant seals and the curious sea lions often covered the beaches and little foxes came by almost nightly to inspect our camp and kayaks.
It’s an area of intoxicating beauty and harsh climate. I increasingly found Freya—the self-proclaimed goddess of the sea—like the sea herself. Strong, steady and ever-present, but also harsh and unrelenting at times. Despite our frequent disagreements, we laughed a lot and enjoyed not having to babysit each other on the ocean.
While she claims not to be a speedy paddler like many stereotype her, she does declare an absolute love and joy for efficiency. To many, this could be interpreted as a love for speed, and it certainly made me feel slow and clumsy in camp at times. Despite previous longer and more challenging expeditions, when we paddled off East Anacapa Island and landed in Malibu on the mainland after 10 days together, I was grateful for the journey yet tired emotionally and physically.
I had lived, I had kept up, but keeping pace with Freya is no walk in the park. Like the ocean, she is a force of her own.
Jaime Sharp is a professional photographer and sea kayak guide. Freya Hoffmeister paused her North American circumnavigation on March 21, 2020, due to the coronavirus crisis.
Goddess of the sea in her natural habitat. | Photo: Jaime Sharp