Stein Hoff, traveler and extreme rower
Stein Hoff, “extreme rower,” on his solo north-Atlantic crossing attempt
Last November I had the opportunity to meet a dynamic duo of adventurers, or as they prefer to be called, travelers: Stein Hoff and his partner on the seas and in life, Diana.
Hoff’s most recent journey was inspired by two Norwegians, Gabriel “Frank” Samuelsen and George Harbo, who had emigrated to America in the late 1800s.
Harbo and Samuelsen decided to create a name for themselves by doing something extraordinary—rowing across the Atlantic. Embarking in 1896 with a compass, one sextant, a copy of the Nautical Almanac, and little else, they succeeded a mere 55 days later when they reached the Scilly Isles. But they never achieved the great fame or fortune they desired.
Unfortunately, their success coincided with that of Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen and his exploits in the icy wilderness, which usurped all international attention. This past May, Stein set out to beat Harbo and Samuelsen’s record as a lone rower, striking out to challenge himself and to give tribute to these two forgotten Norwegian greats.
Victoria Hofmo: Tell us a little about your early years.
Stein Hoff: I’m from Sandefjord, a town of about 20,000 inhabitants. It was a shipping town. The main income when I grew up was whaling in the Antarctic. My father worked in the shipyard as a Naval Architect. I grew up with ships and boating all around me. I started rowing when I was 17.
When I met my wife Diana, she shared my dream and we sailed around the world with our children from 1977 to 1982. My first ocean rowing was in 1997 with a friend in a regatta across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands to Barbados. In 2002 I rowed alone from Portugal, Europe, to Guyana, South America.
VH: When did you first get the itch to explore?
SH: It was really as a young boy. I wanted to sail to the tropics. When you grow up along the coldish coast of Norway, it is not so unusual.
My father had a motorboat—actually an old lifeboat—and taught me about boating and engines. I did not begin sailing until I was 31.
VH: What is your profession?
SH: A medical doctor, specializing in internal medicine. I went to Scotland to study medicine in Glasgow. There I met Diana, who was two years ahead of me. She later specialized in ophthalmology. Diana had lived in Brazil for two years as a young girl and could easily share my dreams about traveling around the world. We had two children when we left Norway and one more when we returned.
We needed to have income on the way and first spent more than a year in Barbados, then 15 months in New Zealand, and finally three months in South Africa. We followed the Trade Wind Route across the Atlantic, via the Panama Canal across the Pacific. Galapagos, Easter Island, Pitcairn Islands, Tahiti, Cook Islands, and Tonga were among the highlights. We managed to alternate between sailing and working as doctors, usually moving ashore and sending the children to local schools.
Diana Hoff: We have British [medical] qualifications, so we went to places that accepted them.
VH: You and your wife share many interests. Is that what first attracted you to her?
SH: We actually met through the university rowing club, where we were both active members. We have now been together for 49 years and married for 48. Meeting her has been a tremendous partnership. It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me!
VH: How would you define what you do: explorers, adventurers?
SH: It sounds so prestigious.
DH: Travelers and extreme rowers.
VH: What are some of the adventures you’ve shared?
SH: We had many trips on our two sailboats, first the gaff-rigged ketch Red Admiral (1976-1999) and then White Admiral, a catamaran (2001-2015).
We have in all the years of sailing encountered a few scary episodes. We hit a sleeping sperm whale once. Worst was maybe sailing back across the North Atlantic in 2014 when an enormous wave caused a big leak in the back of our catamaran. Fortunately we were four people aboard and managed to plug the hole, but it took a long time to bail her out and make a temporary repair.
In a situation like that I don’t panic. I actually get a bit of a thrill out of it.
It was the same when I was rescued in the Atlantic [this year]. I had minor cuts and abrasions, but worst was feeling trapped inside with the boat capsizing or rolling around repeatedly. But once I was safely aboard that [rescue] ship, I had such a surge of happiness. You go from hell to heaven within minutes.
Later, I had pangs of regret that I hadn’t finished my expedition. But people kept congratulating me. They said, “We were following your story.” Nobody has criticized me so far.
VH: Your most recent adventure was a solo trip. What made you want to do this?
SH: I always knew the Northern Atlantic Route was much tougher than the Mid-Atlantic, which I had crossed twice.
Also, I was a big admirer of Frank Samuelsen who started in New York and rowed across the Atlantic. And of course Samuelsen lived in Farsund not far from Kristiansand where we lived for 26 years, so I had heard of him. And at the Farsund Seamen’s Association they have Samuelsen’s ship chest and the medals received after his successful row. One gold one from Richard K. Fox, his sponsor [and editor of National Police Gazette], and another gold one from friends and supporters in the U.S.
VH: How is boating solo different from going together?
SH: In a way we are not apart. Thanks to modern communication we mail back and forth every day. Diana, my daughter, and my daughter’s children prepared cards and small gifts for me to open. They were labeled as to when they were to be opened—out of sight of land, Day 40, halfway, etc.
I missed Diana, of course, but I don’t have a problem being alone.
DH: Going solo is a bit lonelier. [She has also rowed alone from the Canary Islands to Barbados and speaks from experience!]
VH: The accounts I read sound harrowing.
SH: I thought I was going to snuff it twice. Rolling right around was not too bad, but twice the boat was pushed over on the side so that it was almost upside down for many minutes at a time. I did not think it would self-right and thought it was the end. On the last occasion, I got my camera out to say goodbye to my family. Lying upside down surrounded by clothes and bits and pieces, including my urine bottle, I said I love you all and mentioned all their names. I didn’t think I would survive in the cold water. The wind and spray pelted the boat. It sounded like being in a shower. There was a lot of damage to my equipment. But I pushed the wrong button and my message was never recorded—just as well!
VH: Would you consider attempting it again?
SH: Yes, but it is probably unrealistic. I have promised I wouldn’t do it next year, but maybe in 2018? Depends on my fitness and economy, and Diana’s blessing!
VH: Diana, are you okay with that?
DH: Yes, I think he can do it from the experience he gained this year. He had very bad winds, but he also needed to be better prepared for it. He will also need a better boat.
VH: How else do you challenge yourselves?
SH: We do all the time, really. Both Diana and I take part in long-distance walking. We’ve done the Sahara Marathon—246 kilometers in six days. There are different lengths for each day. The longest was 76 kilometers non-stop. You have to carry all your stuff with you, 30 to 40 pounds. You only get water and a tent; you have to carry everything else you need.
This year, after we finished preparing the boat, Fox II, we took part in a long-distance walk in Yorkshire; 50 miles took us 18 hours. Walking is something you can do even if you have bad knees. When we arrived at 2:00 a.m., we were served hot soup and buns. Finally you unlace your boots and take a hot shower. It’s amazing how you find such pleasure in these simple things.
Two weeks ago we did the West Highland Walk [in Scotland]—did about 18 miles daily, plus hiked to the highest mountain in Britain. We are very privileged people.
VH: Do you see a connection between your profession and your desire to challenge yourself athletically?
SH: I don’t think so. The main thing my profession has allowed me is to work anywhere in the world. I’ve always liked physical challenges.
The first few years of studying were quite tough but still allowed me time to do competitive rowing and have a social life. I wanted to be a doctor since I was five. I also love animals and nature, and I suppose could have become a biologist or zoologist. But I like being a medic and the contact it has given me with people and of being of direct use to my fellow man. I recently retired at 70 and will miss the contact with patients for a while.
VH: Have you considered coming out of retirement?
DH: We discussed the possibility of going back part-time. But Stein feels that people his age are not wanted. A total shame and waste of human talent, if you ask me. As people are living longer, healthier lives, this is something we need to re-think as a society, especially with someone as vibrant as Stein.
SH: I am going to concentrate on family and on writing. I have written four books. Two of them for children are written with Diana.
VH: You were at Ripley’s this past week; can you explain why you were invited?
SH: It was my friend Victor Samuelsen who told Ripley’s about my trip and asked them if they would be interested in including a 70-year-old who is rowing alone across the Atlantic. They got involved and agreed to sponsor a certain amount if I was successful.
In the end [although he did not succeed] they did help. They bought some equipment I offered them—some of the things I used on the boat. They are hoping the boat will be found and may display the boat and my things in London.
They even made a cartoon about my voyage, a tradition. Robert Ripley began as an artist, making cartoons of the most unbelievable things and people. I signed my shirt and hat and some copies of the cartoon of me at Ripley’s Odditorium in Times Square. Journalists were invited, but it happened on November 9—the day after the Presidential Election.
So, the Fox II voyager was trumped by Trump. An interesting coincidence, as the original Fox expedition also had dismal press.
On the trip Hoff also visited P.S. 43 school in Bronx, where he gave two lectures. Diana and Stein shared a few of the questions students asked: Were you scared of dying? What is your favorite animal of the sea? What made you do it? Were you lonely?
Hoff also did a lecture for Torskeklubben’s New York chapter at their yearly luncheon with partners. “It was the first time that they had a lecture during this event, but it was very popular,” he said. He was particularly pleased that Victor Samuelsen and Ragnar Meyer-Knutsen and their wives were present. “They have been great supporters and help,” explained Hoff.
VH: What do you see for your future?
DH: We’re now going to buy ourselves a second-hand motorboat. Big enough to sleep in and be independent for a few days at a time. A boat like that is more practical than a sailboat for the coast of Norway.
SH: We’ll carry on with walking and hiking together. I also ski, bike, kayak, and of course row—all outdoor activities I love. If you can add spotting some animals and birds and provide some good views—that’s perfect!
In Connecticut the other day we took a short morning walk and saw a big owl, two woodpeckers, and a couple of squirrels in trees covered with colorful fall foliage. It is good to be alive!
I also know that life is not eternal. I was sad when I felt I was about to die, but I felt prepared for it. I am now 71 and I’ve had such a great life—how much more can I demand? And I’d rather die active and well now than wither away with a failing body in 10 or 20 years!
VH: Is there anything you’d like to add?
SH: I did not reach my ultimate goal of rowing alone and unaided from New York to England, but I suppose the only failure is not trying.
Life is mostly fun. It’s our duty to concentrate on the good in life.
To have good health in my age, you need some luck, but mostly it is the result of lifestyle. Eat sensibly, don’t abuse your body with nicotine and drugs, and make sure you exercise every day—just go for a walk, if nothing else.
And be at peace with family and friends. Get to know your next-door neighbors and be nice to them!
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 27, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.