Senior Editor
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The Inertia

There are a lot of reasons to do difficult things. Some people like to win. Some people like to learn something new. And some people simply like to challenge themselves. Casper Steinfath is a world champion stand-up paddler. He’s won countless races and six world titles. In the world of SUP, Steinfath is a superstar. But after all was said and done, all the trophies and wins he’d racked up felt a little hollow.

“It’s hard for me to talk about. As a kid I loved challenges,” he told Red Bull’s Will Gray. “Becoming a world champion in SUP was one of those and to have done so is awesome, I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved. But just training to become stronger, that doesn’t do it for me. That urge to learn new things and climb new mountains is still inside me – and maybe that’s where this whole ‘Viking Crossing’ came into play.”

The Viking crossing he’s talking about is the Skagerrak Strait. It’s a finger of water the separates the North Sea from the Baltic, and it is an exceptionally violent piece of the world. It’s generally considered one of the most dangerous stretches of water there is, and Steinfath has a particular relationship with it. He grew up in Klitmoller, Denmark (also known as Cold Hawaii), so he’s been looking at the piece of water and hearing stories about sailors who tried to cross it since he was a boy. At some point, the idea to become the first person to cross it on a SUP entered his head.

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“Crossing this ocean became the new world title for me,” he said. “I wanted to push myself in a new environment. I didn’t know how to do it. There was no user manual, it was just trial and error.”

So he decided to do it. And the first time, he failed. It was 2017, and he ended up needing to be rescued. “When I got hauled up I was in shock, blacking out a lot,” he remembered. “I was devastated. The conditions changed quickly, things were out of my control and my dream had sunk in the ocean.

Mother Nature likes to prove that she’s un-tameable. Steinfath found that out the hard way — and he believes that first failure is his own fault. “I was over-confident,” he told Gray. “I was a multiple champion and I just saw the ocean as my playground. I totally underestimated it. The wind was strong and as I got tired I couldn’t deal with the swell and the currents. I didn’t prepare well. I had the wrong equipment, didn’t navigate well, didn’t eat well; there’s a long list of things that went wrong, but basically Mother Nature gave me a big slap in the face.”

But, like all good champions, Steinfath didn’t give up. He retreated for a while to lick his wounds and reassess, but he never decided that he wouldn’t try again. A few months later and fully recovered from his first attempt, he was back on a freezing cold beach at 1 a.m., preparing for the second try. And this one would be successful. “As I walked down the beach looking into the dark horizon I remember feeling so alive,” he said. “I’ve never felt so alive in my life, but never so scared. I’d give anything to go back and experience that again.”

Over the next 18 hours and 26 minutes, Steinfath would paddle some 145 km, about 90 miles. According to Red Bull, it took somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 paddle strokes to complete the journey.

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Of course, Steinfath is aware that the distance he paddled might not be the longest trip in the books. Not even close, actually — Chris Bertish spent 93 days paddling over 4,000 miles to cross the Atlantic ocean — but it is still a remarkable achievement.

“When you do something nobody’s ever attempted before, whatever it is, there’s a lot of doubt and anxiety,” he said. “Can it be done? It’s like solving an equation for the first time. You need to use all your skills and knowledge. This is not the wildest expedition – I have so much respect for Chris Bertish who crossed the Atlantic solo on a SUP – but every challenge has its own problems and for me, it was dealing with the freezing cold and the dark.”

Steinfath is already looking forward to his next adventure. “I’m proud of my six world titles but I am also proud of having done this crossing,” he said, “and there are more new challenges out there waiting that I am sure will also make me proud.”

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