Growing up in a small fishing village on the west coast of Denmark, which is heavily influenced by fisherman culture, Casper Steinfath had been told to stay away from the ocean. Villagers in Klitmøller have deep respect but also fear for the ocean, as it was where they made a living. Any activities other than fishing was considered disrespectful, especially leisure activities like surfing.
But his village’s fear of the ocean did not stop Steinfath from becoming one of the best water sports athletes in the world, thanks to his father, who put him on a surfboard before he could even walk. When he was 13, Steinfath picked up SUP, short for standup paddling, which is similar to surfing, but with a twist. The sport requires athletes to stand on a surfboard and propel themselves forward with a paddle.
It is one of the fastest growing water sports in the world, according to Steinfath, who has clinched the International Surfing Association SUP world champion title four times. The 25-year-old visited Hong Kong last week to compete in the 5th Hong Kong International SUP Championship, where he claimed victory in the 18km Elite Race Men Open.
Speaking to Young Post at the tournament, Steinfath said he was thrilled to have conquered the hottest race he has ever taken part in. The Dane, who sees his ability to withstand extremely cold temperatures as his advantage in certain competitions, almost could not handle the city’s sweltering heat.
“I totally hit a wall physically and mentally when it got too hot. I thought I was never going to finish the race,” he said. “I’m really happy that I made a comeback and won this challenging race.”
From bitterly cold to blazing hot weather, the world champion’s performance was indeed a display of remarkable versatility. But nothing is more impressive than his history-making endeavour, when he paddled across the Skagerrak, a strait running between Denmark and Norway.
After a failed attempt in 2017, Steinfath finally succeeded last March, when he paddled for 18 consecutive hours to cross the 147km-long strait. He is the first SUP athlete in the world to complete this seemingly impossible adventure he calls the “Viking Crossing”.
“People called me stupid for doing it, but as humans, we should always try things that no one has done before,” he said.
Being raised on the west coast of Denmark, Steinfath had heard countless stories of the great Vikings, and the merchants who ventured out into the horizon. He could not help but wonder, what was on the other side of the ocean? Could he paddle his way there?
It was this curiosity that set him in motion, but without meticulous planning, Steinfath’s first attempt was doomed to fail.
“I was reckless. I just wanted to jump out and do it, but the ocean slapped me in the face, in a good way,” he said. On his second attempt, Steinfath knew he needed help. It was overwhelming for him, as a champion athlete, to seek help from others, but overcoming his ego paid off.
Steinfath recalls the overpowering sense of doubt he had on the night he set off to his journey. It was 1am, he was standing on the beach in his wet suit, looking out into the darkness, and he just thought “what on earth am I doing?”.
“I really felt like there was no way I could make it. The way I dealt with it was to break it into segments, however little bites you need to make it happen,” he said. “Instead of thinking 147km, I told myself I would paddle for 10 minutes.” And once he completed that, he then paddled another 1km, and another.
Steinfath’s success in crossing the Skagerrak has earned him a nickname the “Danish Viking”. He is now promoting a documentary film about his adventure, which will be featured in numerous film festivals, as well as using his story to motivate youngsters.
After realising his childhood dream and bagging four world titles, what does the Danish Viking want to do now? Steinfath said chasing his fifth world title is indeed on top of his list,
but he is also spending more time to cultivate up-and-coming SUP athletes in Denmark.
“Life goes in many direction. Right now, it is all about sharing the passion [for standup paddling],” he said.