Freya Hoffmeister has been working her way west across the top of Australia. Broome, in Western Australia, was also roughly the halfway mark of her 9,400 mile (15,000 kilometer) circumnavigation of Australia. There Freya took delivery of a new kayak. The original plan she had made with her kayak sponsor was to get a boat custom-built to her specifications, most notably a heavier, well-reinforced layup. The manufacturer had a dispute with a factory in China and their molds were “held hostage,” leaving them unable to build Freya’s kayak. The kayak with which she had done the first half of the circumnavigation was a stock model with some minor reinforce-ments added.

The longest of Freya’s crossings, the Gulf of Carpentaria, is behind her but she has continued her practice of open-water crossings between major points of land to avoid the bays and the saltwater crocodiles that inhabit them. Joseph Bonaparte Gulf was a 65-mile (105 kilometer) crossing that required her to paddle through the night and on into a second day.

On the 170th day of her expedition, near Cape Boileau, Freya was fighting wind and tide and came ashore for a break. She was within cell-phone coverage and we had a chance to catch up with her.

How was your crossing of Joseph Bonaparte Gulf?

It was very slow going and tides going in and out and headwinds. Nothing was helping. Not much fun.

Were you able to get some sleep?

I got my sleep. I was not in a hurry. I just wanted to reach the next island, Pelican Island, in daylight. I was napping quite frequently. Not with a proper sleep set up. I was just crunching forward. At one point I pulled out the outrigger for a half an hour but I got so much water in my face and got sick of that so I kept on paddling. Leaning forward and power napping was enough.

During one of our previous conversations you said one stretch of the coast made you feel like you were in a prison. What was that like?

Yes, it was just boredom. Since I’ve decided to travel fast it means I just paddle or sit in my tent. Nothing else. No exploring, no walking the beach. I’m not seeing much. There is a lot of interesting landscape and lots of beaches, but there’s no chance of walking around a bit with the schedule I’ve made for myself. Ten or twelve hours of paddling each day and then camping at night leaves no time for walking around, even just a bit up and down the beach. That went on for most of the Kimberley Islands. I’d paddle all day, from dawn to dusk. I rarely even took a half day off. I took a half day off at a pearl farm, and one other half day, but I never took a full day off. Even coming ashore an hour early before dusk was a treasured thing. I felt this not only on this stretch of coast but all along. I may be taking it slower now from Broome to Perth.

Was it lonely?

No. What’s lonely about it? I had lots of phone calls to lots of people. It’s a job. It’s a simple job. It’s not a pleasure expedition. Exploring is different. You want to explore the coastline and hug the shore, look at the beaches and see what’s behind the next rock. I took very little time for that. I’ve got a task to do and that’s to get around this island [Australia] as fast as possible. For sure I could do it slow. No problem, but that’s not what this is. Even at night when you might be hiking there are a lot of bugs and you don’t want to be out in the last light. Even when I’m cooking I’m hiding in the tent because the bugs are biting. It’s not much fun.

I wanted to get through the Kimberleys as fast as possible to get to Broome. I had a new kayak there and nice company as well. [In Broome, Freya’s partner, Greg Bethune, a fishing charter captain she met at Cape York, would meet her to make the switch to the new kayak.]

You’ve been moving into higher latitudes and cooler climates. Have you reached the end of crocodile and sea snake country?

Well, the crocodiles are gone now. There may be some deep in indented bays, but basically I’m done with them. I’m not going into the bays and there are not many mangroves any more. I’m very happy, I can now go for a swim at night. There are some lovely beaches and the water is crystal clear. It’s beautiful.

The crocs were only scary when I was afloat and they were afloat. On the land I wasn’t that scared by them. They don’t chase you. They’re too lazy. They can run very fast, but why should they? They’re just lazy. They’d rather hide and go into the water and swim away.

There was one fat one, but he was walking on land on the other side of a river. It was the biggest I’d ever seen. I don’t think there could be a croc any bigger. He was definitely giving me goose bumps. I really thought I should leave soon, but that one was not stalking me. He was just there. It was amazing to see such a huge one in the wilderness.

Are the sea snakes gone too?

The sea snakes were always there but I hadn’t seen any in the last days in the Kimberleys. I’m not worried about sea snakes. They’re nice to look at and they don’t jump in your boat. The water is getting cooler and the nights are pretty chilly already. It was freezing this morning at around four o’clock. It’s hot again now and I’ll be sleeping in the dunes.

It’s windy and I’ve had to hug the coast. It calms down when the tide turns. I had to turn into a bay today to hide a bit from the wind. I can’t paddle against wind and tide. I make progress but it’s quite tiring and a bit boring. The tides are running about one and a half kilometers per hour. It’s enough to annoy you. Today I was paddling around a headland. So far there have been steep beaches with dumping waves. It wouldn’t have been much fun to land on the point. But I got around the corner and the beaches are flat so the landing was easy and the dumpers are gone.

In Broome the beach is flat as well. The more south I go the flatter the beaches get. That means I’ll have to wheel the boat. I’m not sure I can wheel the boat over the tidal ground. Everyone has said I’d have to paddle with the tides., landing and launching with the high tide, whenever that is, day or night. We’ll see. I have my trolley with me now. I won’t know if’ I’ll be able to us it until I know what the ground is like. IF it’s muddy I can’t use it. If it’s sandy I can. I’d rather go from dawn to dusk rather than from tide to tide. That’s what my body tells me. So I may wheel the boat a bit. We’ll see. Eighty Mile Beach farther south it may be necessary to travel with the tide because I’ve heard you can’t wheel across the beach.

I had my trolley sent to Darwin but then sent it ahead again to Broome.

I got the latest issue of Sea Kayaker with the write-up of the [Gulf of Carpentaria] crossing. There was that letter to the editor with the question about my wearing a PFD. I noticed you wrote a long response. I don’t paddle with a PFD unless it gets rough. Then I put it on. With the heat and the chafing there’s no way I can always keep a PFD on.

And what for? It’s flat water. Th

e chances of capsizing are less than one percent and even if there is a capsize, it’s warm water and you go for a swim and get in [the kayak] again. I sometimes put the PFD on when I was landing and launching just in case I encountered a crocodile which might just jump on my back deck and might just bite my backside or something. It would be nice to have some padding on then. You never know. This was where the crocodiles had attacked some people so I thought I’d put the PFD on, even if it was easy water. Otherwise I slide it onto my back deck so it’s there when the water gets big. But when was the last time? I don’t remember. Only one section of the Kimberleys was big water.

I’m still making the same speed as Paul [Caffyn] with my full loaded boat at 80 to 100 kilos [176 to 220 pounds]. I estimate he took a maximum of 50 kilos [110 pounds] when he was self supported. He didn’t have any electronics and he was getting water in the creeks [at a time when the croc population was much smaller because of hunting] and he had all the food dumps in the Kimberleys. He’s a minimalist anyway, not taking any cosmetics I assume.

I’m carrying up to 100 kilos when my kayak is fully loaded. And I’m a tiny, small little 45-year-old lady and he was a strong, young 36-year-old man. And I’m paddling just as fast.

There was an incident when the Australian rescue service was looking for you on this leg of the trip.

No, they weren’t looking for me! This is what happened: There was a charter skipper in Darwin who was looking over the charts of the Kimberleys and telling me lots of interesting things and pointing out where I could pick up fresh water, including a fishing lodge.

He marked the lodge with a cross on my map but he made the cross on the wrong bay, the bay beyond the lodge. The night I was looking for the fishing lodge it was not there. Eventually it started to get dark and I gave him a call. I got him on the phone and asked him, “Where’s that fishing lodge?” It turned out that he’d made the mark on the wrong bay. He called the fishing lodge and asked if they could come out with a little motor boat the next morning to a point near the bay where I was camping out to give me water. It would be easy for them, but he couldn’t reach them.

He just got their answering machine. So put off the water delivery until the next morning when he could talk to someone at the lodge. So I was just waiting for him to make the call the following morning. I could have gone for other options. I still had four liters [one gallon] of water left. I could go two more days, even four more days if I had to. There was the option of meeting other boats. I knew of a pearl farm ship that would be anchoring ahead of me in two days time. I had lots of chances to refill water.

The skipper felt guilty that he’d marked the wrong bay. He got the idea on his own to call the AMSA [Australian Maritime Safety Authority] and get a call out, nothing serious, but if someone was around they might be able to help. But it seems the operator at AMSA took the call as a serious thing and put it out as a distress call. That wasn’t the skipper’s idea and certainly not mine to put out a distress call.

The guy who came eventually didn’t have any problems [coming to help me]. My contact in Melbourne also got involved, but it was never my idea, nor the skipper’s to make a distress call. The commercial boat that found me didn’t have a problem and thought it was funny. They were happy to help. I didn’t know what was going on at the time. There was just this boat pulling up at night. I didn’t know until late how it had all worked out.

When I press the button on my EPIRB, that’s when I want a rescue. That’s the only thing to do. Twice during the first weeks of the circumnavigation my support team was on the verge of calling for a rescue because of a lack of communication.

But some of my satellite messages come in quite delayed. Sometimes delayed by a day. I keep my EPIRB handy on my PFD or on my spray deck. When it’s on my spray deck I’m always wearing it. I’m very happy just with that. I don’t want anyone looking for me when I don’t need help. I feel very safe and it is very easy to press a button when I need a rescue. If I’m not able to press the button any more, I’m dead.

Your skin has healed up, how’s your weight? Have you lost all of the weight that you put on for the trip? 

Yeah, I was pretty fat at the beginning I must admit, but right now I’m at 73 kilos [160 pounds] or something. It’s nothing special but I feel I could have more in the front. The back is fine. That’s just how it is, that’s where women lose weight first. But I’ve definitely gained some muscles.

You’re not concerned about getting worn out? Your body can hold up for the second half?

Oh yeah, the body is no problem. My mind needs to hold up as well, but that’s not a problem either, because I want to do this. It’s quite tough right now because I had to leave Greg behind. On the one hand it’s really great that I met him, but on the other hand it’s harder.

If I hadn’t met him I would be by myself, supported only by the whole kayaking community on the internet. You can imagine how it feels since I met him at Cape York and want to be with him. It’s tough. We spent nine days together on his boat when I was having my break in Darwin, and another nine days in Broome where he helped me to get my new kayak ready. But we are in phone contact every day, sometimes three or four times. My sat-phone and cell-phone bill is quite high, but there’s a good chance he may be supporting me toward the end of the trip. Chances are good he may be supporting me toward the end of the trip.

You’re past the halfway point. Does that have any special significance to you?

No. Just keep on going until it’s done. I would love to be done I must admit, and doing something different. I will definitely finish.

OK, it was a long break on the beach. It was nice, but now I’ll keep on paddling.

The Great Gulf: Freya’s Australian Odyssey

From the beginning of her circumnavigation of Australia in January of this year, Freya Hoffmeister has been contemplating the 350-mile (575 kilometer) crossing of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Paul Caffyn, in his circumnavigation of Australia, took the alongshore route, an option that not only adds to the distance, but also increases the risk of encounters with salties, saltwater crocodiles. At the time of Caffyn’s circumnavigation in 1981, salties had just recently been protected from hunting and the population was at relatively low levels. In the intervening years the salty population has grown such that the risk of padding the Carpentaria coast could be deemed a greater than the risk of the direct crossing.

Eric Stiller and Tony Brown had crossed the gulf in 1992 in a sail-rigged folding double kayak, spending five nights asea. In 2002 the late Andrew McAuley made the crossing solo in six and a half days.

Freya prepared for nights aboard her kayak by carrying four paddle floats and a pair of inflatable sponsons meant to be secured by Velcro either side of the cockpit.

Freya began the crossing at the mouth of the Jackson River on the west coast of the York Peninsula on Friday, April 24th and landed in Nuhlunbuy on the evening of May 1st. During the crossing she kept in touch with satellite phone calls and messages and satellite messenger service positions. I spoke to her via Skype the day after she completed her crossing.

Did the crossing of the Gulf of Carpentaria go as you expected?

Nobody could really tell me about the conditions for the crossing. A guy I met the day before I started got the most recognized weatherman for the Gulf area on the phone. I asked him about the conditions in the middle of the Gulf and even he couldn’t tell me. He said “no breaking waves,” so I was definitely underestimating the conditions. The conditions weren’t so bad that I couldn’t paddle them. I’d done similar paddling lots of times in the past, but on that long distance sleep was an additional challenge. I was thinking it might be quite calm at night, and I wasn’t expecting big water even during the days. It was definitely big, as big as it was on the east coast of Australia. I could handle it easily but I had to listen carefully to my body to know if I was getting enough sleep or not. I didn’t push hard at night because I definitely didn’t want to take any risks with getting dizzy from sleep deprivation. There are issues…not hallucinating, but you hear the sounds very loud. It’s not the first time I’ve had too little sleep while kayaking, so I could trust my intuition about when I needed to rest, when not. If it had been calm at night I might have paddled a bit longer and then a bit earlier in the morning, but after the first two nights it was not calm at all. So I didn’t paddle at night. There was no way to push for more distance than I did.

That last night I was falling asleep early, just as it was getting dark. I woke at midnight knowing I had 90 kilometers to go, too far to go for one day. That’s why I estimated I would arrive on Saturday. Then I noticed I got a nice drift. At midnight I had gained five kilometers already. I thought, “Maybe you can paddle a bit.” I put everything away and paddled five kilometers in the darkness. I didn’t feel comfortable enough so I put everything up again for sleeping. I fell into a good deep sleep up until five o’clock. I checked the GPS and saw I had another good five kilometers of drift. With the drift and the night paddling I had made 15 K, leaving 75 K to go. I could just make 70 K in daylight hours so I thought if I start paddling right now and do another hour in the dark, I’d just make it to my landing at the last light. That’s ultimately what happened.

The drift with the tide goes both ways; you have to take what you get. For a few hours you gain a lot of distance and then for a few hours you’re not going forward much. So it was between a ridiculous four kilometers per hour, about two knots, the slowest pace I had paddling against the tide, and the maximum, a good average was seven or eight kilometers per hour.

There was quite a bit of tidal action going and the wind waves were growing into a huge swell, two to three meters, at some point breaking. It was not always that much. I knew it would come down when the tide changed. For example, the last paddling day I was really happy about paddling in this bloody good condition: Imagine a heavy downpour of rain, three meter swell with breaking stuff, out there by yourself. It was just an amazing feeling, still paddling in those conditions. I didn’t feel scared at all.

I almost capsized once when I was brushing my teeth while I had my paddle lying across the front deck. That would have been embarrassing, capsizing while bushing my teeth. It was a nasty breaker falling on the deck. I literally had to brace into the wave with just my hands. That worked eventually but it scared me a bit.
Everything else was just bloody good paddling. The last day I was still in good condition after getting that good sleep. It’s all about sleep. If you can put in enough sleep you can keep on going. It’s just another paddling day on the water.

How well did your skin survive the crossing?

I’ve got some tiny sores on the backs of my hands and on my elbows. The worst thing was the hands. I couldn’t reach into any bags on the boat without saying “Ow!” Any time I wanted to get something, it hurt like hell. I kept my neoprene socks on all day and night and this seemed like the best thing, but I developed an open wound on the right foot and another on the left. They’re not that bad actually, but they’ll take a few days to heal. I’m so glad I didn’t have any sores on my bottom or back. That was due to the gel seat pads. I had one folded over the backrest.

I saw a picture of you after you landed and I could see the spots on your hands.

There was a guy taking pictures of me in my worst shape. I was actually avoiding cameras when I came ashore.

Charles Rue [of Nhulunbuy] paddled out on a surf ski to meet me. I couldn’t believe it—crocodile infested waters with a surf ski. He was a strong, tough guy obviously and his wife was lovely and nice and drove me to the hotel and brought me some food. I didn’t really want to sit at a table with other people that night.

You had some heavy rain on the crossing.

It was beautiful actually. I’ve never had such a huge rainstorm while I was on the water. The last two days it was raining all day. It didn’t do my hands much good. Sweetwater [fresh water] soaks the hands even more than salt water. Yesterday, the last day, I don’t remember even seeing the sun. Half of the day it was raining like hell. It didn’t bother me at all. It was not that cold. I just put on a second layer of fleece.

The second-to-last night there was a bit of rain. I put on my overcag [a large jacket that attaches to the cockpit coaming] and lay down on my back on the aft deck. I pulled the hood down as much as I could, down to my nose, but I was getting a painful impact of rain on my cracked lips (I got a sunburn at Cape York).

The sleeping arrangements were perfect. I loved them. I put one paddle across the aft deck with paddlefloats on the end. That was all I needed for stabilization. It was easy to set up with the paddle strapped tightly over a little bit of foam. The only problem I had was that the floats were underneath the paddle blades and the paddle shaft would turn so that the floats were up off the water. I’d have to turn the floats down again. If I had an outrigger that was flat rather than round I wouldn’t have this problem. It was a bit annoying, but eventually I got to turning the floats even while I was half asleep, maybe even fully asleep. Resting my arms on the floats was convenient at night and kind of comfortable as well. It gave me good contact so I could feel the flex of the paddle and the movement of the water. Lying on the deck like that spreading my arms out over the floats, I was feeling a bit like Jesus on the cross.

Only one night, the last night, when it was really really blowing like hell, I put out a sea anchor. I was actually using one of my large gear bags as a sea anchor. The original sea anchor I had was too small. I was definitely scared wondering if the paddle was going to break or the sea anchor was going to rip the handle off the bow. With the lightweight layup of the kayak, for sure you are scared by this kind of thing. I didn’t use a sea anchor at all the other nights because I was drifting in the right direction, but that one night I really needed it because I was drifting 90degrees off my course.

The flex of the paddle that night was pretty big. I had my hands on the floats all the time just so I could feel what was going on. It was probably not the best choice to use my main paddle as the outrigger but it held up nicely. I just had to trust it. Having it set up on the back deck was definitely the best spot for it, rather than on the rounded front deck. I was kind of scared and didn’t get any sleep at all, but from four in the morning to seven I fell into a deep sleep.

I was paddling every day in Lycra shorts and a long-sleeved fleece shirt. I had a short-sleeve as well, and I would pull that on over the long-sleeve at night. I would have been happy to have a hooded fleece shirt, but it was good enough to put on the overcag. It was almost perfect for lying on the back deck. It prevented the wind and the waves from getting to me or into the cockpit. I put on long neoprene pants and neoprene socks. I would have appreciated a pair of neoprene gloves because the windchill was really cooling my hands. I had to stuff my hands in the kangaroo pocket of the overcag or put my hands in my armpits or inside of the overcag by pulling my arms through the sleeves.

Eventually my elbows developed sore spots from lying in the cockpit all the time. I turned from side to side sometimes, but I needed to keep my legs inside the cockpit for warmth. It was nice and cozy in there.

When the floats were not lying flat on the water, which happened quite frequently, the rocking back and forth was really moving my body. So eventually I was hooking my legs in the cockpit very tight and I didn’t move my body inside the cockpit too much. I had my PFD on the back deck. On top of that I folded my Thermarest. This was very nice padding and very comfortable. I had a gear bag as a pillow and that was it.

Were you getting gear out from the hatches?

Just the day hatch. I stuffed everything I needed there. On the second night I opened the front hatch to get a lightweight windbreaker. It was stable enough with the outriggers set up to crawl up on the bow, but I needed quiet water for that. There was no chance of opening the back hatch because if I were sitting on the aft deck it would have submerged. But I had thought about that before and knew I might only be able to get to the front hatch without getting water in it. The day hatch was no problem. I would open it very carefully and get whatever I needed. Sliding my hand into it though hurt like hell. I couldn’t reach in anything without crying. Ten tiny, tiny spots on the back of the hand. Well, what’s that worth? It doesn’t matter. 

Did you eat well?

I ate what I was eating all of the other days that I’d gone without cooking. Everything fit in the cockpit and day hatch including food and water. I had a big bag behind my seat and, I had my drinking bag and two small bags up front of the footrests. The rest was in the day hatch. I ate precooked Uncle Ben’s rice in bags. I mixed them with some tuna and marinade. But at the end I was so sick of everything. Some things got soaked when packages ripped open, and the zip sealed bags were not 100 percent dry. I should have taken more different, more yummy food. I bought a big bag of apples in Seisa but they were inedible, completely tasteless. I threw them away on the first night that I was paddling down along the coast of the Gulf. I was lucky to get some apples later from a boat just before I started the crossing. I should have had more fresh stuff and more candies for nibbling, something to make me feel good, but I didn’t suffer. The last day I didn’t eat very much at all because I just wasn’t interested in the food I had left.

I had enough food and plenty of water. I had six liters of water left at the end. I needed about two and a half liters every day. I could have stayed out another two days, maybe three if I had to, whatever. Water wasn’t an issue at all.

It seems that you made quite a number of calls on your satellite phone.

Yes, I used up quite a few minutes on my prepaid SIM card. It was definitely well worth it. It was nice to have a bit of communication on the water. I was calling you and David Winkworth and my mom and my son. It was nice having the satellite phone working and handy, no doubt about that.

Did you see any sea snakes or sharks?

There were plenty of sea snakes. Every day I saw three to five snakes floating around. There were no sharks, just sea snakes and lots of flying fish and other fish jumping en masse. Nothing else. I was a bit afraid of sea snakes at night. While I was paddling I wondered what would happen if I flipped one up? Three nights I paddled a bit, mostly on the last night. The sea snakes were there, big ones, small ones but they’re not scary and they won’t jump up on your boat. You just don’t want to touch them and don’t want them to come up to your boat at night when your hands are resting on the paddle-float outriggers. You can come up to them and take a picture. There was one big fat snake that had obviously just swallowed a big fish. It looked quite funny, all swelled up and deformed.

No jellyfish?

There were huge, fat and massive jellyfish at the river mouth at Jackson River. I’d never seen so many football-sized jellyfish. Many were even bigger, 40 to 50 centimeters in diameter. They were really ugly. I was told that they sting. But they were just a river thing.

How long will you stay in Nhulunbuy?

I have to give my sores time to heal. Three days minimum, probably five days. I also have to get a lot of things done, all my writing, all my preparations for the next leg of the trip. That next leg will be tough because of the crocs. I might not see any. I was kind of disappointed [at Cape York]. I had envisioned lots of crocs on the beaches, but nothing! When I was paddling in Florida there were alligators lining the riverbanks, one every 100 meters or so. This is what I had expected in Australia, but nothing, simply nothing! All around the Cape and all the way down to Seisa not a single bloody croc. Not even tracks. A guy on the beach said they come up on the sand three times a day, but when I was there, not a one. Even here in Nhulunbuy they have a surf club and surf ski paddlers, but the risk of hitting a crocodile is so low that they can go paddling. It eases my mind, but ironically the reason for crossing the Gulf was to avoid the crocs, but there are just not that many. Maybe I’m just a lucky girl. I definitely am, and I know that. If I had known that there were so few crocs I think I still would have done the crossing, just to do something different and to make it just a bit harder.

One of the gel seat pads had another use. Do you want to hear about that? When I was doing the number two in the morning, I did that on that pad and then just lifted it up and overboard and washed it off. It was an easy job, just get your legs out of the cockpit, pull your pants down and straddle the whole cockpit. It was not an issue at all. I was balancing pretty well and could do that even without the outrigger. People are probably interested in how I was doing that and I don’t mind talking freely about it. It’s just human.

Peeing into the boat all day was not a problem issue. You don’t want to interrupt your paddling and open the spray deck to pee. Just let it go and eventually use a sponge and rinse the cockpit out. It’s not really an attractive smell and the hygiene is not really nice, but my skin wasn’t affected at all. It might have even been good for my skin.

When I was a gymnast and we got blisters it was said that we should pee on them to heal them. It can’t be that bad. You have all this water in the cockpit anyway so it’s not too concentrated. In the morning I would pull my pants off and wash them in the salt water.

We’ll see what you have to type down from my continuous chatter. I’ve been thinking about that guy who’s living alone on Restoration Island. He doesn’t have that many people to talk to and he just would chat and chat and chat. Now I know why.