Fearless: One Woman, One Writer, One Year of Toil


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Fearless: One Woman, One Kayak, One Continent is the story of Freya Hoffmeister, a 46-year-old former sky diver, gymnast, marksman and Miss Germany contestant, who left her 12-year-old son behind to paddle alone and unsupported around Australia—a year-long adventure that virtually every expert guaranteed would get her killed. She was determined not only to survive the 9,420-mile trip through huge, shark-infested seas, but to do it faster than Paul Caffyn, the only other paddler to have completed the circuit, 27 years earlier. In the end, she finished in 332 days. PL catches up with author Joe Glickman…

For paddlers and non-paddlers alike, the book is by all means an exciting read, marked both by Hoffmeister’s tenacity as well as Glickman’s for following through with the project and its somewhat stubborn star. Throughout the book, you can feel both Glickman’s frustration with Hoffmeister’s hubris, but also his admiration for her accomplishing one of the hardest feats imaginable in paddling.

We caught up with Glickman after the book came out to get his take on both the project, Hoffmeister and Hoffmeister’s latest adventure paddling around South America.

PL: What inspired you to write the book?
Glickman: Before she set out, Freya asked me if I wanted to write a book about her trip. “You need to do it first,” I said, thinking she had a snowball’s chance in a sand dune of pulling it off. Once she returned home, she asked again, and then a few more times. I felt conflicted: The accomplishment was beyond amazing, but the person continued to baffle and even frustrate me — particularly her refusal to even feign humility. But I started reading her blog again and halfway through it hit me like a flounder to the side of the head: This was not only the greatest self-propelled boat trip ever done by a woman, but one of the three or four greatest in the history of sea kayaking.

PL:Seems like Freya got under your nerves at times…how’d you handle that in your writing?
Glickman: Well, that’s why the editing process is so important — clearly I vent my frustrations in the book so that’s one way I handled my pique; however, the more I dug into her past (courtesy of her older sister Edda), the more human she became and the more empathic I felt towards her. Freya’s parents went through incredibly strenuous times during WWII and, well, my wife heard me complain a lot and she rightfully reminded me that, no, I shouldn’t sugar coat Freya’s more irksome characteristics but it was critical to let her life be seen in a more three-dimensional way so the reader can draw their own conclusions.

PL: Has Freya read it yet….if so, her thoughts?
Glickman: She headed off around South America five months after the publication of the book; however, she read the next to final draft and corrected all of my factoid errors. She didn’t mind the first chapter where I point out some of her most obvious foibles but she wasn’t fond of many of the sections that discussed her parents or her home life as a child.

PL: At first you, Oscar, and everyone thought she was crazy, and then she pulled it off. Does that change your opinion of her?
Glickman: Most definitely. Her personality is her personality but her amazing confidence, which seemed nearly delusional before she left, was actually one of the reasons she succeeded. And, more interesting still, I see a pattern in people like Freya (and Oscar) and other high-achieving jocks like Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, or Michael Jordan — people who are so single-minded and focused that they piss off virtually everyone who doesn’t like them A LOT.

PL: Did you have your doubts that she would pull it off?
Glickman: As I said, I thought she had virtually no chance. I didn’t doubt her resolve or toughness but I didn’t think she had the skills to negotiate the huge surf that Australia is famous for; I thought the salt water crocs would get her up north; the cliffs in Western Oz were also death traps and so on. However, I mostly thought she had no chance because virtually every marine expert that I interviewed told me so.

PL: Does she just have the perfect combo of skill and attitude to do something like this?
Glickman: Exactly. She’s very focused; she’s very confident; she’s incredibly organized; as a former gymnast she’s flexible and can sit in the boat for hours on end; she does get scared but not easily and not often, and she’s just so mentally strong that once she focuses on a goal, she accomplishes the task.

PL: What are your thoughts on her next/current endeavor?
Glickman: At first I didn’t know what to think — and to a large extent I still don’t. Paddling around South America, a distance of 15,000 miles, in three, eight-month legs…wow! In my mind, the truncated nature of the trip detracts from the overall status of the accomplishment but at the same time, it’s never been done and the scope of the potential achievement is so bold and grandiose — so, in fact, it’s perfectly Freya. I’m following along — just not as intensely as I did on her paddle around Oz as that seemed like the perfect paddling problem.

Info and orders: www.falcon.com

From Glickman’s blog:
“Five months before the publication of Fearless: One Woman, One Kayak, One Continent, the story of Freya Hoffmeister’s 332-day paddle around Australia, the big, bold Woman in Black headed south from Buenos Aires on the first of three, eight-month legs of what she hopes will be the first circumnavigation of South America by kayak. So 213 days into her journey around a second, larger, continent, Freya has yet to read this ripping good tale, which not only describes her on-the-water adventures but also includes—much to her chagrin—biographical information that may help explain why she was willing to leave everything behind, including her 12-year-old son, to attempt a feat most considered impossible, even suicidal. And why she was able to succeed.

To paddle nearly 9,000 miles around an island with boat-breaking surf, stretches of unbroken cliffs; menacing salt water crocodiles, sharks bigger than her 18-foot kayak, deadly jelly fish and sea snakes, cyclones, and more, is the stuff of legend. Though she was traveling alone and unsupported, Freya looked at these objective hazards more as problems to be solved than as threats to her existence. When pressed to describe her emotions as she faced down grievous injury or death—which she did time and again—her stock responses was, “What’s the problem?” Only in her German accent it sounded more like, “Vasdaproblum?”

Fair enough: The job of the adventurer is to be adventurous; the job of the writer to set the adventure down on the page with as much drama and insight as possible. And after spending a year following her trip in real time and another year talking to her about it, I figured I’d analyzed this most unusual woman so thoroughly that I could write a PhD thesis on fear, courage, confidence, and arrogance, with a bonus section on paddling topless. But since the publication of Fearless I’ve received a handful of letters from hardcore adventurers almost in Freya’s league—at least a lot closer to it than I am—that suggest that some of Freya’s personality traits that frustrated me most are actually nearly prerequisites for the job…


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