Setsuko Cox talks to Richard Lovering about her Qaanaaq series kayak, manufactured by Water Field Kayaks in Japan. It's very low volume, an amazing rolling kayak and looks very Greenland Style. Check out how the back deck is awash with a larger paddler (Mr. Mike Jackson of Victoria, BC) in the cockpit. By the way, it's also a favorite of Freya Hoffmeister.
The new Seattle Mountaineers headquarters in Magnuson Park is a beautiful facility which features airy conference and lecture rooms with large windows, high ceilings, and indoor climbing walls. The lobby has a stone fireplace surrounded by leather couches and a library/bookstore on the side. The only thing missing is a bar where crusty old adventurers sit and recount tall tales of their past expeditions.
Freya Hoffmeister greets people at the entrance to the lecture hall, wearing a black dress and high heels. She stands statuesque -- hard, toned, deeply tanned, skin tight over her high cheekbones. She towers over me and gives me a warm welcome. I think she remembers me! So what will she do now after having finished the ultimate sea kayak journey--the circumnavigation of the continent of Australia? Get through this talk, she says!
Sponsors are giving away lots of swag. I grab a Kayak Academy sticker− the nice ones printed on SOLAS reflective tape. George Gronseth shows me the medals that they will be giving out as prizes for the 2010 Greenland Week competition in November. A silver norsaq!
There's a table covered with posters and postcards of Freya. I pick one up, then realized later that I should to get her to sign it. They tell me signing will come after the slideshow.
I run into Kayakgrrl in the beer line. She asks me if I'm still interested in volunteering for SSTIKS. Of course, I am! By the way, did you hear that the Puget Sound Sea Kayak Symposium and West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium have been cancelled this year? It's the economy. Yet SSTIKS keeps soldiering on!
We need to get our picture with Freya and go back in line. Chris Cunningham takes it with my iPhone. Damn, I forgot to bring a real camera!
They have Freya's Epic 18x Sport up in front. Funny, it looks like it's in perfect condition. Turns out its not the real boat, just a model. Her real Epic wing paddle is there though, the finish dulled but otherwise in good condition. It lasted the entire trip.
The lights go down and the show starts. Chris Cunningham gives the intro. Freya comes on and says this is a big talk for her. She knows about 50 people here personally. Another few minutes thanking her sponsors. Some of the text on her slides is cut off at the bottom. The aspect ratio is wrong . She says it makes her look fat and blames the Mac Powerbook. Laughs from the audience. Freya is a PC!
Slideshow continues. Packing her food. Cutting out coastal maps. The big pile of electronics she brings (but no iPod). Fantastic photos of wildlife. Islands of the Great Barrier Reef. Flip flops of all sizes littering the sand -- probably floated in from Asia. The flying fish that flew into her face. An enormous sunfish stranded on the beach. A whale stuck on a reef. The gouge in the hull of the Epic after it struck a reef at night. She's sitting in what looks like a big driftwood stump but its actually a whale bone. Venomous sea snakes. A horde of little sea turtle babies. A six meter long crocodile.
Suddenly the picture is gone and the Mac desktop appears: "The application has quit unexpectedly." They restart and try again, but can't figure out how to jump to the last slide we viewed. Freya apologizes as she fast forwards through the show again. Finally we’re back where we left off. More about crocodiles and turtles. Next slide. The application quits again! Groans from the audience. Freya curses the Mac. Good time for a break she says. By the way there is still more beer in back. I get up and accidentally knock my beer on the floor.
The slideshow continues. She tells us how she slept during the crossing of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Seven days on the water. A picture of her sitting in the cockpit, reclining with padding to raise the seat, a PFD and rolled up mattress pad behind her back and a bag of clothes for a pillow. Her paddle strapped to the back deck acted as an outrigger, with float bags tied to the blades. She would drift in the right direction because of the southeasterlies. The GPS would navigate for her. When it got rough she deployed a sea anchor. She worried about being bitten by venous sea snakes, but got quality sleep. She explains what she ate, how she peed, and how she took a dump. She tells it all!
Pictures of the hole a shark made by biting in her stern. Her back compartment leaked, soaked her tent and ruined some food. Pictures of her custom Epic with the Trackmaster Plus rudder and retractable skeg. It arrived halfway through the trip. She thinks the noise from the loose rudder knocking around kept the sharks away.
Three stretches of coastal cliffs with nowhere to land, over 100 miles each. More rough nights on the water. Then the slideshow winds down.
Long applause. Questions. Do you practice yoga? What did you think of out there -- to keep your mind occupied? She says it's just like any other boring job. What do you think of every day at work, for instance? (Personally I think a lot about sea kayaking!)
Then door prizes − get out your tickets! George Gronseth hands out a lot of gear. Greg Barton gives away Epic hats.
"After the show there will be poster signing in back with Freya". The line forms and gets longer by the second. I can’t stay late so I pick up a copy of the pre−signed Sea Kayaker issue with Freya on the cover: “xx, Freya”.
Freya Hoffmeister (in black drysuit and red Illusion), Warren Williamson (wooden Arctic Hawk SS), Reg Lake, Chris Mitchell, myself in cedar strip Shooting Star baidarka, and a few others tear it up in the tidal race (7.3 knot ebb) at Canoe Pass. Also features a guy named Chris in a squirt boat.
I didn't put a big effort into the videography here -- just set my camera on a tripod and let it run. I also used a helmet cam for the first time and it was basically a total failure. The images were shaky and crooked, and there was always water on the lens. I managed to salvage a few awful seconds out an entire hour of crappy video though.
Some people have a distaste for the celebrity aspect of sea kayaking. Celebrity belongs in professional sports, politics, and People Magazine. Sea kayakers are usually paddling far and wide to escape that world. They have no need for it, maybe because they tend to be so fiercely individualistic. Or maybe because they're smart enough to see through the artificiality and hype involved in the creation of a celebrity, which is usually done to sell you something. Once in a while though you meet a person with such exceptional talent and personality that you simply must sit up and pay attention.
Recently I had the chance to chat with Freya Hoffmeister about her upcoming expedition, the “Race Around Australia” sponsored by Epic Kayaks. I guess everything sponsored by Epic has to be called a “race”, even though Freya is the only one participating.
I first met Freya at SSTIKS 2005. At the time I only knew her as the laconic woman in black who did head stands in her kayak and hung out with her “black brother” Dubside. I recall her complimenting me on my two skin−on−frame kayaks (they were black, of course).
In the few years since then, Freya has risen to full−blown sea kayaking super stardom. She has successfully fused traditional Greenland techniques with modern design (using both a carbon fiber Greenland stick as well as an Epic wing) and cultivated a unique persona: a striking figure in shiny black Reed Chill Cheaters and dark glasses. It resembles something like a cross between Xena Warrior Princess and Bettie Page. She boasts an impressive collection of ten or so custom black kayaks. They have names like SexyHexy and Sexplorer. She's gained membership in the elite club of the kayakers invited to perform in front of the camera for Justine Curgenven’s This is the Sea series, completed a number of expeditions, and is the most successful foreign competitor in the National Greenland Kayaking Championships, having won 8 gold medals. She has successfully landed dozens of corporate sponsorships.
Epic is supplying Freya a kayak for the circumnavigation: an 18X Sport modified with a stronger expedition layup, day hatch and the Track Master Plus rudder system. This will be this first time she has used an Epic on an expedition. (She's a little concerned that Epic still has yet to complete her kayak.)
The choice of the Epic is interesting. With its plumb bow, round hull and rudder, it looks nothing like the more "kayaky"-looking British boats. Don't kayaks need pointed overhanging ends for good rough water handling? Isn't a rudder just one more complicated mechanism that is bound to fail on long trip? Any paddler who knows corrective strokes and edging doesn’t need a rudder anyway, right? (By the way, the only other person to successfully circumnavigate Australia by sea kayak was Paul Caffyn 26 years ago, and he outfitted his HM Nordkapp with a rudder.)
Freya's success with this kayak might change the way people think about expedition kayak design.
I'm a fan of traditional kayak design, but I also believe in good engineering. These side by side comparisons of kayaks in rough water that Epic has recorded on video might get you thinking. I paddled an Epic Endurance recently and was blown away by not only the speed but also the maneuverability (even with the rudder up), light weight, comfort and workmanship. While paddling a state−of−the−art fiberglass Greenland-inspired kayak design at Deception Pass, Freya commented that it felt like she was “paddling in chewing gum”, compared to her Epic.
Another reason to care about Freya's Australia expedition is that it simply pushes the limits of what is possible for any human being. The trip is expected to take an entire year. She has to deal with sharks, poisonous sea snakes and vast stretches of cliffs with no beaches for landing. Crossing the crocodile−infested Gulf of Carpentaria alone will take 7 days. So how does one sleep at night during that crossing? There were so many questions I should have asked her, but I guess I was still trying to wrap my brain around it all.
The biggest question of all that I neglected to ask was, “Why?” Why risk everything? For adventure? To promote a kayak? Because after circumnavigating Iceland, Newfoundland, and the south island of New Zealand, no other challenges remain? Because a person who has jumped out of a plane over 1000 times (500 with her infant son strapped to her chest) lives on adrenaline and will simply shrivel up and die without it? The reasons she has given don’t satisfy me and I’m left wondering what inner demons she is possibly chasing or running from.