Top Expeditions 1970-2020, #9: Hoffmeister Circumnavigates South America

Now 56, Freya Hoffmeister of Germany has amassed an incredible number of sea kayaking feats, culminating in her four-year circumnavigation of South America from 2011-2015.

Even before this, she achieved note as the second person to paddle alone around Australia, and her time of 322 days was a little faster than Paul Caffyn’s pioneering journey. She was likewise the fastest to circumnavigate Iceland (33 days) and New Zealand (70 days). But her circumnavigation of South America superseded even these tremendous feats of skill and endurance.

After circumnavigating Australia, what was left for kayaker Freya Hoffmeister? Well, South America.


Hoffmeister’s 27,000km journey around South America started in Buenos Aires in August 2011. Paddling clockwise, she planned to complete the entire continent in three eight-month stages, returning home to Germany for a few months of rest between each momentous stretch. But the challenge was even bigger than she had anticipated. In the end, the expedition required nearly four years (44 months, to be precise).

Freya Hoffmeister began her circumnavigation in Buenos Aires, under the watchful eye of the Brazilian Navy and Coast Guard. She became the first person, male or female, to take on this mega-journey.


During her first leg in 2011 and 2012, she paddled south from Argentina and rounded the nasty waters around Tierra del Fuego. Rather than traverse the relatively sheltered Strait of Magellan, she went the long, exposed way around, via Cape Horn. Here, she battled 60-knot winds, which damaged both her kayak and her paddle. Although she survived, a friend and fellow kayaker perished in that storm on his journey nearby. In the end, Hoffmeister finished that first 7,641km safely in eight months. Already, her expedition was sui generis: No one had done even this section before.

Her second leg meandered north, past Peru and Ecuador, across the equator, and all the way up to Colombia. Because of the criminal perils at that time along the Columbian coast, a naval escort accompanied her. She continued through the Panama Canal and along coastal Venezuela to Georgetown, Guyana. Another 7,659km done.

Her final leg began in September 2013. From Georgetown, she continued around Surinam, French Guiana, Brazil, and Uruguay, reaching Buenos Aires on May 10, 2015.

Apart from millions of paddle strokes, every leg threw up serious challenges. Around the Amazon, a tidal bore swept her nine kilometres up a shallow river at 30 kilometres an hour. “I was fearing for my life, crying out for help in German, which is surely ridiculous in that situation,” she said.

The churning water eventually flung her from her vessel into knee-deep water with the texture of concrete. She needed to dig both herself and her kayak out of the morass. Shaken but unhurt, she continued on to the most testing section of all.

After 666 days of paddling, she made the difficult decision to drive to Recife, Brazil in order to avoid the 20-knot headwinds for almost 1,300km around Brazil’s easternmost point. At Recife, Hoffmeister paddled the omitted section in the opposite direction, from south to north, with the wind at her back.

This, along with her decision to use naval escorts in places, caused some in the adventure community to criticize the style of Hoffmeister’s expedition. Many believed that a circumnavigation needed to be done without such assistance and certainly without land transport. At least once, a paddling partner also joined her, removing any solo claim. She also took a few shorter breaks to Germany in mid-sections.

“Anyone is welcome to circumnavigate South America, and do it better than I did,” she responded. “You are free to go continuously, and if you want to reject any kind of naval escort, you’re going to die.”

During her intimate 44 months in coastal waters, she encountered whales, penguins, and even an octopus that grabbed onto her boat off the coast of Argentina.


It is likely that she has paddled more expedition kilometres than any sea kayaker ever. Even before Hoffmeister’s epic journey, it was evident that she was an overachiever. She was once a Miss Germany pageant contestant and owns a chain of ice cream stores. It seems that some things which we everyday folk would consider momentous events are only breadcrumbs on the edge of Hoffmeister’s life capacity.