“It’ll be another 27 years before anyone does this again, that’s for sure.” Those words were spoken by German sea kayaker Freya Hoffmeister when she finished her nearly 11-month paddle around Australia in 2009, becoming the first woman to do so.
Hoffmeister was right; it’s a journey few would attempt. It’s 16,000 kilometers around Australia’s coastline, where sharks and crocodiles frequent the waters and extreme temperatures can result in hypothermia and heat stroke. Hoffmeister was wrong about one thing, though—it would only be a decade before her biography, Fearless: One Woman, One Kayak, One Continent, would be picked up at the library by the Australian woman who is now about to break her record.
“I was hooked on the story. It was the most out there, outrageous, incredible thing,” says 32-year-old dietician Bonnie Hancock. Soon, the wheels started turning: “I just couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I knew I didn’t want to get to 80 and wish I’d given it a crack.”
Bonnie Hancock circumnavigates Australia and sets two new world records
Hancock is no stranger to feats of endurance; she’s participated in nine Ironwoman events—completing her first at just 17—and the Moloka’i Hoe outrigger canoe race between Molokai and Oahu, Hawaii. And when she completes her paddle around Australia in August 2022, she will become the youngest person to do so and the fastest, having done it in just over eight months.
Her speed is partially thanks to her six-meter-long carbon fiber surfski. Unlike a comparatively heavy sea kayak, it weighs just eight kilograms, enabling her to average 10 kilometers per hour and around 100 kilometers per day.
“I just couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I knew I didn’t want to get to 80 and wish I’d given it a crack.”
Sacrificing stability for speed comes at a cost, though. Everything from reapplying sunscreen to getting on and off her support boat—a 65-foot sailing ketch—becomes a literal balancing act. Being cramped into a tight space has left her glutes and hip flexors painfully tight, while her back seizes up. And after months in the water, her fingers have become so swollen she can no longer open a water bottle. As a result, her Instagram account has become a journal of agony and perseverance, and a platform for fundraising for Gotcha4Life, a suicide prevention program.
“I will make myself bleed out there before giving up—that’s how much stronger your mind is than your body,” says Hancock.
How Hancock set her world records
She shaved off time by braving the open ocean rather than sticking to the coastline, making her total journey just 13,000 kilometers. She cut 1,000 kilometers off her route by paddling straight across the Great Australian Bight, where she encountered five-meter swells, suffered from extreme seasickness, and nearly got hypothermia after falling in the water. The 15 kilograms she’d put on in preparation—the result of a steady diet of almond croissants—provided some cushioning, but in February she ended up hospitalized for malnutrition and dehydration.
“It was very hairy,” says Hancock. “I’m glad we did it, but I’m also very glad it’s done.”
That was months ago, though. When I speak with Hancock in July, she’s in Cairns with only 1,500 kilometers left. Now on the homestretch, she tells me she’s beginning to reflect on what life will look like when the expedition is over, including what she intends to bring into her coaching practice.
Takeaways from the record-setting journey
“The message I want to take back is you don’t have to be that special to do something special,” she says. “I’m not particularly tall or naturally strong. I just had a crazy idea I really wanted to do—and I’m not afraid to fail.”
Right now, she’s dreaming of the moment her feet touch the Gold Coast sand again. When she gets there, she’ll hug her nephews, then walk across the road to her favorite café, where there’s an almond croissant with her name on it.
In addition to setting a new speed record around mainland Australia, Bonnie Hancock set a new unofficial world record for most distance paddled in open water by a female in 24 hours when she paddled 213 kilometers on July 14. | Feature photo: Courtesy Paddle Of Aus
Not breaking any record, just no one has circumnavigated in a surfski with a support boat, so sure it’s setting a record doing something that hasn’t been done before but definitely should not be conflated with breaking Freya’s record. Sleeping on a yacht is very different than sleeping in your kayak in open water with your hands tied to your paddlefloats so crocodiles won’t bite you:)