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.

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