Oskar Speck's 30,000 Mile Paddle

Thursday, 18 January 2018 09:58 | Written by 
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Oskar Speck in his kayak, "Sunnschien" Oskar Speck in his kayak, "Sunnschien" Credits: Vanity Fair

Until recently I thought Freya Hoffmeister, with her 27,000km multi-year voyage around South America held the record for the longest trip ever.  Not so! 

Vanity Fair just published a remarkable story about Oskar Speck, who in 1932, paddled away from the bleak prospects of a Great Depression wracked Germany down the Danube River.  Seven years and 30,000 miles later, he arrived in Australia, just in time to be interned as a enemy alien at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Freya Hoffmeister

I met Freya in Hawaii in 2008 where we competed in the Molokai Challenge.  I found it a particularly "challenging" paddle - I've never paddled so far in such hot, flat conditions and I was a sorry, seasick and sunburned wreck when I finally got to the finish (my wife had been tracking me back home in South Africa, and had watched, concerned, as my speed slowed to around 5kph at times as we paddled into the outgoing current...).  My goal had been to finish in under 5 hours; I did just under 5 1/2, a pitiful performance!  Click here for the full gory details!

Freya did the crossing in 6 1/4 hours - and looked perky and fresh at the finish.  Clearly a 6 hour plus paddle was a walk in the park for an expedition kayaker - she'd certainly made her feelings about surfski paddlers known in the days leading up to the race.  Comments about our lack of endurance, lack of safety preparation and general frivolousness in comparison with the serious business of sea kayaking been frequent (and hadn't won her many friends in the surfski-dominated crowd!).

For her the race was not much more than a mild test run of the Epic Kayaks 18X sea kayak that she was to use a few months later in her voyage around Australia - documented in a highly entertaining but thought provoking book written by my buddy Joe Glickman.  (The book is available on Amazon, very highly recommended.)

Among her many achievements, Freya has paddled around Iceland, New Zealand's South Island, Australia and South America.  She's currently on an expedition to circumnavigate North America.  

Freya Hoffmeister

Freya Hoffmeister - on arrival at the finish of her epic cicumnavigation of Australia


Oskar Speck

Oskar Speck's voyage was somewhat different - for starters, his craft was a folding kayak: a skeleton of wooden ribs covered in rubberized material.  Secondly he had no idea at the start that he was going to paddle all the way to Australia; his ultimate destination only became clear when he was far into his voyage.

But there's a paragraph in the Vanity Fair story that struck a chord:

"One of the frustrations of trying to define Speck is that he was, by his own admission, a terrible diarist. He was not a keen observer. He seemed constitutionally incapable of serious self-examination, and wrote almost nothing about his inner thoughts. There are signs of wry humor, anger, sadness, depression, elation, pure nerve, and obvious fearlessness in his writings. There are virtually none of intellectual curiosity. He seemed to have no take on himself and none on the world either."

Freya Hoffmeister, although a prolific blogger - she carries a laptop with her and goes to enormous lengths to post daily updates - is much the same.  Joe Glickman told me how he struggled to describe Hoffmeister: she refused to admit fear (although she was clearly freaked out - as anyone with half a brain cell would be - by the salt water crocodiles on the Northern Australian coastline); she had little knowledge and less interest in the extraordinary history of some of the places she stopped at.  

Most of Freya's writing too is one-dimensional.  She describes the wind and waves, the conditions at her camping sites, her irritation with almost anyone she comes across and she describes near catastrophic mishaps (such as when she was trapped on a small island near Cape Horn for days in terrible weather) unemotionally and you can tell virtually nothing of her feelings.


At any rate, the Vanity Fair story on Oskar Speck, although not as long as Glicker's Fearless, is a fascinating and worthwhile read.

Click here to to reach the article on the Vanity Fair website.

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