“It’ll be another 27 years before anyone does this again, that’s for sure.” Those words were spoken by German sea kayaker Freya Hoffmeister when she finished her nearly 11-month paddle around Australia in 2009, becoming the first woman to do so.
Hoffmeister was right; it’s a journey few would attempt. It’s 16,000 kilometers around Australia’s coastline, where sharks and crocodiles frequent the waters and extreme temperatures can result in hypothermia and heat stroke. Hoffmeister was wrong about one thing, though—it would only be a decade before her biography, Fearless: One Woman. One Kayak. One ContinentThe Australian woman is currently trying to break the record by grabbing the record at the library.
“I was hooked on the story. It was the most out there, outrageous, incredible thing,” says 32-year-old dietician Bonnie Hancock. Soon, the wheels started turning: “I just couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I knew I didn’t want to get to 80 and wish I’d given it a crack.”
Bonnie Hancock circumnavigates Australia and sets two new world records
Hancock is no stranger to feats of endurance; she’s participated in nine Ironwoman events—completing her first at just 17—and the Moloka’i Hoe outrigger canoe race between Molokai and Oahu, Hawaii. And when she completes her paddle around Australia in August 2022, she will become the youngest person to do so and the fastest, having done it in just over eight months.
The six-meter-long surfski made of carbon fiber is partly responsible for her speed. The surfski is lighter than a heavy sea kayak and weighs in at eight kilograms. This allows her to cover approximately 10 miles per hour and 100 km per day.
“I just couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I knew I didn’t want to get to 80 and wish I’d given it a crack.”
However, speed and stability can be sacrificed. Everything from reapplying sunscreen to getting on and off her support boat—a 65-foot sailing ketch—becomes a literal balancing act. Her glutes and hips are painfully tightened by being squeezed into tight spaces, which causes her back to seize up. After months of being in the water, her fingers are so swollen that she cannot open a water bottle. As a result, her Instagram account has become a journal of agony and perseverance, and a platform for fundraising for Gotcha4Life, a suicide prevention program.
“I will make myself bleed out there before giving up—that’s how much stronger your mind is than your body,” says Hancock.
Hancock sets her world records
Her total trip was 13,000 km. She saved time by navigating the open ocean instead of following the coast. She cut 1,000 km off her route by kayaking straight across the Great Australian Bight. There she experienced five-meter waves, was severely seasick, and almost died from hypothermia after falling into the water. The 15 kilograms she’d put on in preparation—the result of a steady diet of almond croissants—provided some cushioning, but in February she ended up hospitalized for malnutrition and dehydration.
“It was very hairy,” says Hancock. “I’m glad we did it, but I’m also very glad it’s done.”
But that was many, many months ago. When I speak with Hancock in July, she’s in Cairns with only 1,500 kilometers left. Now on the homestretch, she tells me she’s beginning to reflect on what life will look like when the expedition is over, including what she intends to bring into her coaching practice.
The record-setting trip: Takeaways
“The message I want to take back is you don’t have to be that special to do something special,” she says. “I’m not particularly tall or naturally strong. I just had a crazy idea I really wanted to do—and I’m not afraid to fail.”
Right now, she’s dreaming of the moment her feet touch the Gold Coast sand again. When she gets there, she’ll hug her nephews, then walk across the road to her favorite café, where there’s an almond croissant with her name on it.
This article was published for the first time in the Fall 2022 issue. Paddling Magazine. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.
Bonnie Hancock, who set a new speed record in Australia’s mainland, also set a new world record for the longest distance she could paddle in open water in 24 hours. She paddled 213 km on July 14. | Feature photo: Courtesy Paddle Of Aus