Given what Freya Hoffmeister was up to when she paddled away from Buenos Aires last August, it’s easy to imagine her squeezing open a few cans of spinach. The 47-year-old athlete from Husum, Germany, was setting out to sea-kayak 15,000 miles around South America’s coastline before her 50th birthday, in May 2014. A former skydiver and competitive bodybuilder, Hoffmeister has (believe it or not) already accomplished something just as difficult: a 2009 circumnavigation of Australia’s 8,000-plus miles of coastline. “Just the salty crocs will be missing this time,” she wrote on her blog before she left.
In January, Hoffmeister will face the biggest challenge of the expedition when she rounds Cape Horn, the rocky headland that marks the southern tip of the continent. Forming the confluence of three oceans, Cape Horn routinely sees storms with 30-foot swells and near-shore breakers that can snap a kayak in two. “The allure is being in the biggest ocean waves in the world, in the smallest boat imaginable,” says expedition sea kayaker Jon Turk, who wrecked during his first solo attempt around the cape in 1979.
To stay ahead of Patagonia’s unpredictable weather, Hoffmeister enlisted the help of Dutch meteorologist Karel Vissel, who distills weather reports from around the region into twice-daily forecasts that he sends to Hoffmeister’s satellite phone. But even the threat of bad weather probably won’t keep her out of the water, since she often takes risks in the name of speed. During her Australia epic, she spent seven nights in a row sleeping on the deck of her kayak—a strategy that allowed her to finish in 332 days, beating the record established by New Zealand paddler Paul Caffyn’s 360-day circumnavigation in 1982.
If Hoffmeister can make it past Cape Horn, she’ll knock out the remaining 11,500-plus miles in two season-long stages, pausing for a trip back to Germany to spend time with her 15-year-old son and manage two ice cream parlors and a Christmas shop she owns. But few people, least of all Hoffmeister, doubt she has what it takes. “You just have to rely on your skills, power, endurance, and strength,” she blogged. “Which I know I have. And, if necessary, in a superhuman amount.”