Inspirational

I beat crocs and sharks to paddle round Australia

Bonnie Hancock paddled 12700Km and cheated death to become a record breaker
  • Bonnie Hancock dreamed of paddling round Australia.
  • She braved shark infested waters and dodged crocs  to realise her dream.
  • Pushing herself beyond her limits she became a Guinness World Record holder.

Here Bonnie Hancock, 33, Mermaid Beach, Qld tells her story in her own words

‘I think I can paddle around Australia,’ I said to my husband Matt.

Matt, then 30, knew when I set my mind to something I went for it.

Inspired by Freya Hoffmeister, a sea kayaker who circumnavigated Australia in 10 months at 43, I felt compelled to try.

I’m going to do it faster, I decided.

‘What about crocs and sharks?’ family fretted.

Stuff it, I thought.

Growing up in Sawtell, NSW, I’d started surf lifesaving at seven. Aged 17, I’d followed my big sister Courtney then 19, to the Gold Coast, to train at Northcliffe Surf Club.

Training three times a day, I competed in Nutri-Grain IronWoman competitions before swapping to surf ski paddling. At 23, I’d met Matt. My rock, he always believed in me.

And now, in 2020, he believed in my Guinness World Record attempt. 

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Bonnie and sister Courtney (Credit: Supplied)

‘What about crocs and sharks?’ family fretted.

‘You can’t do this alone,’ Matt said, giving up work to help.

We began fundraising and I decided to paddle the 12,700km around Oz clockwise. I hoped the warm Eastern Australian Current would boost my speed.

I amassed a great support crew – Jaime, Ben, Blake and my hubby – who’d sail beside me in a 40-foot catamaran, supporting my 45cm wide, 6m long carbon surf ski.

A dietician, I purposely gained 12 kilos over six months by stopping running, doubling portion sizes and dietary fat, to compensate for the weight I’d lose on the trip. And I decided to raise money for Gotcha4Life Foundation – a mental health charity. 

Sliding into my surf ski on December 19, 2021, I was excited. On Mermaid Beach, the surf life saving community, my mum Julia, dad Richard, my sisters Courtney, India and Georgia, and three little nephews cheered me on. 

I paddled 50 metres from the catamaran, wearing a life jacket and with a GPS and LED light on the back of my ski, for safety.

At Wategos Beach, Byron Bay, having paddled 73km the first day, my arms were aching. But after a week of 100km days, my body reeled in agony.

Climbing onto the boat each night, I crawled into my cabin exhausted.

Still, paddling beside a pod of dolphins by Coffs Harbour, I marvelled at their beauty, and I gasped as a whale breached beside me.

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Bonnie with husband Matt (Credit: Karlee Nurthen)

‘Paddling beside a pod of dolphins … I marvelled at their beauty’

As I sculled down to Victoria the water became cooler and choppier. Surfing swells up to 200 metres long, the seasickness was relentless.

Diamonds are forged under pressure, I thought, throwing up as I paddled.

When we reached the treacherous waters of the Great Australian Bight in March, we knew this 1160km stretch was the real test. ‘I love you,’ Matt said as I set off.

I paddled out to sea to save time. Freya had hugged the coastline but we deduced by paddling 500km from shore, it’d shave weeks off the time.

As the swells got bigger, huge six metre waves lashed my craft. I fell out of my ski continuously, plunging into the bitingly cold water.

Thud. Suddenly the ski smashed into my head.

I lay dazed – I’d lost all strength. Somehow I doggy-paddled to the boat.

My hands were purple and I shook uncontrollably as buckets of hot water and blasts of air from hairdryers coursed over me. I’d been minutes from hypothermia.

But I got back in my ski the next day and, four days on when I saw land, I knew we’d made it to WA.

I sobbed at the enormity of what we’d achieved.

In those 12 days I’d lost 10 kilos. 

In Shark Bay, WA, I was paddling happily when Jaime gestured frantically so I paddled in.

‘Big shark,’ he said. ‘It dived under your ski. The fin was massive. I think it was a great white.’

I paddled that stretch as fast as I could.

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Bonnie in surf ski (Credit: Ben Lavery)

‘Diamonds are forged under pressure,’

When I reached the Kimberley in May, the water was still, brown and 33 degrees like a warm bath.

The blistering sun burnt my skin. Paddling at night to avoid the heat, I got sucked into a small whirlpool behind the boat. 

‘Get in now,’ the team shouted. They told me they’d spotted a six-foot male croc, stalking me.

Rounding the Gulf of Carpenteria the water was so rough with huge head winds battering the catamaran and the ski, I fell out and couldn’t get back in. For 10 days the skipper wouldn’t return to the water and endanger the crew. At my lowest ebb, I felt like giving up. Then I received a message from a supporter.

My son tried to take his life this year, the words read. Thank you for what you’re doing for mental fitness. Keep going.

Spurred on, I kept paddling.

On August 28, 2022, my fingers dipped through the waters of Mermaid Beach. I was home! 

Running up the beach to huge cheers, I sank into Matt and my family’s arms. 

I’d set a new Guinness World Record as the fastest person to paddle around Australia at the time – 12,700km in 254 days, six hours. Aged 31 when I started, I was also the youngest!

But what I’d taken away wasn’t the record, it was the teamwork, Matt’s unwavering support and the immensity of nature. Amazingly, we also raised $120,000 for Gotcha4Life

I’ll never forget my incredible odyssey, My memories of my paddle around Australia will remain with me forever. ●

Bonnie’s book ‘The Girl Who Touched The Stars’(HarperCollins) is available now.

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Bonnie at the finish line (Credit: Karlee Nurthen)
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The Girl who Touched the Stars (HarperCollins) available now (Credit: supplied)

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