Casper Steinfath is one of the most successful Stand Up Paddle Boarders, winning four World titles. Born and raised on the Danish coast in Klitmøller, Casper had to first get over fear of water before he could become the Best in the World.
“I grew up in this small fishing village where people were used to working in the ocean and people didn’t really play much in the ocean,” Casper told me. “I remember as a kid I had this really strong phobia of getting my head under water. Whether it was in the swimming hall or playing with my dad in the waves I didn’t like the idea of getting my head wet. I think my dad never thought that I’d become a surfer, he’d thought I’d be a fisherman or a skier or something. Surfing was always something I did with my family. Even though I was scared of water I would still go out with my dad on his big tandem surfboard and catch waves.”
So how did Casper get over his fear?
“I think what really got me past my phobia, past that mental barrier was when my friends started surfing. When I was 10 years old I had two really good friends in my class that also got the surf bug. One thing led to the next. You know the feeling as kids when you’re being competitive and pushing each other in a healthy way. I fell so much in love with surfing then that I had to find a way to get past my fear. The fear actually turned into a good thing because today I still stay mindful of fear as a good thing.”
What advice does Casper have for anyone trying to conquer his or her fears?
“I think we all have fear in life. No matter whether you are a surfer or a mountain climber. It could be anything in every day life. Standing up in front of a group of people to give a speech can be nerve-wracking and scary. I think the best advice I can give anybody is to breathe and try to understand what it is you are doing. Because as a kid, I remember I used to look at the ocean and I would be completely awestruck. Like, ‘wow this is such a big element’. How can I even go out there and survive? And I think sometimes as humans we intimidate ourselves much more than we actually have to. It’s really good to sometimes take a step back and breathe and maybe talk to someone about what actually is happening in front of you. I don’t think it is a healthy thing just to walk away and isolate yourself. If you have a bad experience swimming for example, I think one of the best things you can do is work with that fear and turn it into something positive.”
“When you conquer that fear, it feels that the World is at your feet.”
Travel would prove to be an important part of Casper’s life. Growing up his father would take him to many different surf spots across the globe to help him understand and respect the water.
“My dad exposed to my brother and I to surfing waves of consequence, where you really have to develop your skills, and your skills as a human to understand when is the time to paddle out in the surf and when is the time to not paddle out.”
In many of the conversations I have had with World and Olympic champions they have talked about having moments of high-risk and high-reward. So I wanted to know from Casper how this could be done safely with the unpredictability of the seas.
“You can say that if you always go out in conditions that you feel comfortable in you are never going to progress.”
“If you feel that you understand the way the ocean is working, like you see the mechanics. Like how to break through the rip currents and stuff then you’ve got to go for it. But it’s only when you see the green light. All of a sudden you see a pattern. It’s like a skier sees certain lines in the mountains. It’s like a mountain biker sees certain trails and obstacles. All of a sudden as a surfer you see lines that are possible that you deemed impossible maybe days before.”
“You’ve got to push the limits at some point. At your own level.”
Casper would become Denmark’s first professional stand up paddle surfer. This has brought a lot more attention to the sport in his home country. Casper helped bring the ISA World SUP and Paddleboard Championship to Klitmøller, also known as Cold Hawaii, in 2017.
In front of his home fans he successfully defended his sprint race title. I asked Casper how he coped with the expectations of his supporters.
“Pressure is an interesting thing because it can paralyse you,” he replied. “It’s kind of like the fear of the ocean I had when I was a kid, like it could paralyse me. But you can also turn it around and use that pressure for something good.”
Fear and pressure were certainly two factors Casper faced in arguably the biggest challenge of his career. The man nicknamed ‘The Danish Viking’ had a dream of pushing himself to his limits. In February 2017 he tried to paddle 130 kilometres from Denmark to Norway.
“Why did I go back to living like the ancient Vikings? I know why. We live in a World where we have a lot of luxuries around us. We are able to live the lifestyle we want. Choose the educations we want. We can choose a lot of things. The sports we want to do. I think for me what it came down to is ever since I started stand up paddling I kept dreaming about this vessel that I was on. What is the limit? How far can I go?”
“I always grew up with stories of the ancient Vikings, like drawing out beyond the horizon. The Vikings probably did it not for the will of seeing what was beyond the horizon but you’ve also got to deal with the situation you are in.”
“For me Paddling across the Skagerrak ocean, which is what it is called between Denmark and Norway, was to test myself in the ultimate challenge. Can I do this? It is the fascination of what lies beyond the horizon, like my forefathers. It is something I set out to do on a dark February morning at 5am. And it was a very long journey. It was 130 kilometres.”
Although Casper had a support boat nearby, he was alone on his board with only his thoughts.
“Almost the hardest part was realising ‘oh my god I still have 120 kilometres to go’. Mentally it was the hardest thing to deal with. I had to find a method to break it down into segments. If I always thought about the final goal of reaching Norway, which is nearly 18 hours away I would never make it. I started breaking it down into one-hour segments. Every time I paddled five kilometres I would give my self a high 5 and a smile. Feeling like I achieved something.”
This is a method Casper believes can be implemented to complete any major achievement.
“When a goal is sometimes to big and overwhelming you gotta break it down and give yourself weight points. Whether it’s a business case you are working on or a hard training session, break it into increments; give yourself a feeling of success every time you reach one of those weight points. Then all of a sudden that big goal is a lot more achievable.”
Unfortunately on that cold day in February, Casper was unable to complete his quest.
“After 16 hours of paddling and 54,000 paddle strokes I had to call it quits. I had to stop my crossing because Mother Nature turned against us. I had a following crew with me, and my safety crew, and I deemed it was not responsible to continue fighting because the conditions were deteriorating; a storm was brewing. It was probably one of the most bitter moments in my life because I was only 12 kilometres away from Kristiansand, which was my destination. I could see the lighthouse. At this point I was actually laying on my board because the waves were big and unruly that no matter how much effort I put in I just could not stand up. So I was laying on my board paddling looking at my GPS and I was not moving. I was at a standstill. It was a very bitter moment. I put so much energy into it but I also realised I am not the master of the ocean. No matter how much I want to make it across and reach this achievement it’s just not going to happen today. Mother Nature has other plans.”
“My legs were gone. As soon as I stopped paddling it went really quick with cold setting in and I was getting close to some hyperthermia type situation. And my fingers were blue when I got on the safety boat.”
“I was at the mercy of a greater power at that moment. It was kind of humbling. It was a very humbling experience.“
You can listen to Richard Parr’s full interview with Casper Steinfath on the Best in the World with Richard Parr podcast.