With arms and legs like pistons, mental endurance to last a lifetime, and only one weakness (Mars bars), Sarah Outen paddles the world round in memory of her father—but also to prove she can.
By Lynn Morris
As the boat was catapulted through white water and smashed onto the reef, its occupant—crouching in the tiny cabin and fearing for her life—vowed never again. But three years after crash-landing her successful single-handed crossing of the Indian Ocean, Sarah Outen has once again embarked on a massive expedition. One that is longer, more arduous, and more risky than a solo row of a huge ocean. Sarah is on a human-powered circumnavigation of the planet.
Sarah has a background in adventure. She is the youngest person and first woman to have rowed solo across the Indian Ocean. It’s a remarkable achievement she dedicated to the memory of her father, who died while she was studying at Oxford University. Aged 23, she spent 124 days at sea, took millions of oar strokes, and in the process raised £31,000 (US$49,500) for charity. The money was donated to two arthritis charities, helping to tackle the disease that had affected her father throughout his life.
You might think after that effort it was time to hang up your oars and relax. But this now-26-year-old has started a bigger and more difficult expedition. So extreme, it is being billed as the most difficult and demanding journey ever attempted by a woman.
The expedition, dubbed “London 2 London via the World,” involves cycling thousands of miles and rowing across two oceans, including the mighty and terrifying Pacific. So Sarah is strictly adhering to her self-imposed rules to stay on track during this epic human-powered journey. “I have to be really stubborn about that,” she said. “One time I got to a river and it looked like there was a bridge there, but it was a ferry, so I cycled 40 miles around. Unless there is no other option, I will be true to the spirit of human power.”
The expedition began on April 1, 2011, also known as April Fool’s Day, an irony not lost on Sarah. She started by kayak and paddled across the English Channel to France. She then hopped on her bike and cycled to the eastern tip of Russia. This fall, she is kayaking from island to island to Japan, where she will wait out the winter. Then, in spring, the challenge really begins.
Sarah will row solo across the Pacific Ocean, taking a route that only two men and no women have achieved. She will be alone in her boat, named Gulliver, for around five months. When she makes landfall in America, she will be back on the bike to cycle across the Rockies to the East Coast. Then she’ll board Gulliver again for the small matter of rowing the North Atlantic back to the United Kingdom. The entire expedition will take two-and-a-half years; Sarah hopes to complete her adventure by September 2013.
So where did this extreme sense of adventure come from? While her classmates from Oxford were starting well-paid financial services jobs in London, Sarah was busy planning her assault on the Indian Ocean.
“I’ve never wanted that sort of career,” she said of the banking world. “I wanted to don a flying suit rather than a pinstripe one and had an Army scholarship. I wanted to fly helicopters in the Air Corps.”
A knee injury sidelined Sarah’s ambition to pilot helicopters, and she considered a career in teaching. But, prompted by her father’s death, her life took a very different turn. Sarah revealed to friends and family at her father’s funeral that she had told her dad she was planning to row the Indian Ocean—and they laughed. When she added that she was planning to do it in memory of her father and raise money for arthritis charities, though, they clapped.
But could a young woman with no ocean rowing experience paddle solo across the Indian Ocean? Sarah was the first to admit she had little relevant background. In her book, A Dip in the Ocean: Rowing Solo Across the Indian, she wrote: “Up until this point in my life I had only ever run college rowing teams, and organised charity balls and school expeditions. In principle, planning an ocean row was simply a scaled-up version of one of these.”
In practice, though, Sarah had a lot to learn. Aside from the logistics and fundraising—her budget was £85,000 (US$135,800)—she had never rowed on anything more than the Isis River, which runs through Oxford. In her final year at university, Sarah started with some “pain” training for the London Marathon. She said long muddy runs in Oxford prepared her for the tedium of ocean rowing.
Sarah finished her degree and worked at a boarding school where, for a year, she taught sports and trained for her mammoth row. She completed first aid courses, learned how to navigate at sea and practiced rescuing people from the water (a pointless activity, she admitted, because she would be traveling alone). She fundraised for and supervised the building of her brand new rowing boat called Serendipity, or Dippers for short.
In March 2009, Sarah finally took to the water and rowed away from the Australian coast. She battled seasickness, giant waves, and hunger, but made it across the Indian Ocean, landing the boat on a reef off Mauritius more than four months later. Shockingly, it was on this hazardous journey that Sarah began planning her next adventure, a human-powered circumnavigation of the world starting and finishing in London.
But the round-the-world trip presented some of its biggest challenges before even beginning. “Just getting to the start was a massive mission,” said Sarah. “Financially, logistically, physically, emotionally—the whole project was huge in those early stages. I think that’s been the hardest so far.”
The expedition has raised about £500,000 (US$799,000) and attracted a lead sponsor in management consultancy firm Accenture. “It helped that I had the Indian Ocean under my belt,” Sarah said of her meetings with Accenture. “They saw me talk, and they saw I could communicate.”
Although she travels alone, Sarah is not managing the whole project solo. She has a team of nine people, some paid but mostly volunteers, to help. Tim Moss, the logistics manager for London 2 London, runs a business that offers advice for people planning expeditions. “It is not just a physical undertaking,” he said. While Sarah concentrates on getting herself from A to B, the nuts and bolts of the expedition are up to him.
One of the major challenges is getting Sarah’s kayak and rowing boat to the right places at the right time. Another logistical complication is the kayaking leg from Russia via Sakhalin to Japan. “This sort of island hop by kayak is complicated because not many people go kayaking around there. You need to get permissions,” explained Moss. Slowly but surely, though, Sarah’s team is helping set the route and getting all of the necessary permissions in place.
Logistics and fundraising are less than half the battle. Sarah has to put in the real grind on her own, far from home, and in challenging circumstances, which comes naturally to this very determined and, by her own admission, highly goal-orientated woman. Running behind schedule wears on her nerves. “I get frustrated when I am not making miles when I want to,” she said. “I have to tell myself there are lots more miles to go and we have already done lots of miles. It is different from the ocean when time does not have implications.”
Psychotherapist Briony Nicholls works with Sarah on the psychological challenges of undertaking a solo expedition. “For something that is long and unpredictable like Sarah’s expedition (especially the ocean legs), it’s wearisome to set a goal and then not be able to reach it because, for example, the wind is blowing you back across longitude lines,” said Nicholls. So she equipped Sarah with a toolkit of psychological strategies that will help Sarah cope when things get tough.
Sarah’s own philosophy is always to accentuate the positive. “I always try to end the day on a happy note. Perhaps wallow for a little bit but then sort it out. I consider what I could do to make it better,” she says. “It’s all about framing things positively and, when needed, letting the emotions or grumbles come out—they all need to happen. It’s just about keeping the balance stacked up with positives.”
But this can be tricky. When she’s solo, Sarah says she experiences everything more intensely—both the good bits and the bad. “If someone else was there, they would give you a hug, so you have to do that for yourself. I try to find something to be happy about. Even if it is the fact that I have just had a Mars bar or found a beautiful place to camp.”
For the most part, Sarah has a good time on the road. “I am enjoying the challenges of cycling, but sometimes I wish I was in a boat,” she said. “There, if you want to have a quick snooze in the middle of the day, your bed is just there. But, here, I can’t really do that.”
Just as Sarah speaks the language of paddling more fluently than she speaks the language of cycling, she has faced comic language difficulties along the way. While she was in Poland, Sarah wrote in her blog: “One chap asked ‘So are you looking for the marriage of your prince?’ and, for a moment, I took this as being some kind of pick up, before I twigged the meaning.”
Sarah had a more legitimate brush with royalty, being made a Member of the British Empire by the Queen for services to rowing, charity, and conservation. Sarah heard the news via satellite phone and described the experience as “surreal but nice.” Although she added: “On consideration, I decided that MBE is rather apt; I think it stands for Mars Bar Eater.” She celebrated by eating two melted Mars bars.
The journey isn’t always a celebration though. There have, of course, been a few teary moments. Once, she cried when the wheel of her bike broke; another time, she was cold, tired, and unable to fix it herself.
There have also been several “exciting” moments. One morning in Kazakhstan, Sarah was surrounded by a herd of cows while eating watermelon for breakfast. As she chased cows away from her tent, Sarah was horrified to see a three-foot-long snake curling through the spokes and around the frame of her bike. Her screams attracted the attention of the cowherder, who helpfully dissuaded the snake from making a home in her panniers but implied he wanted some sexual favours in return. “At first I didn’t understand what he wanted, but then I saw the gesture. So, just as I had tried to herd the cows off, I tried to herd the cowherder off. That was a pretty exciting breakfast.”
Kazakhstan aside, she has experienced the kindness and hospitality of strangers welcoming her into their homes for a night, escorting her on bikes, or meeting her at border crossings bearing presents. In Russia, she was greeted by “singing and dancing Cossacks, all dressed in traditional costumes, the men waving swords and a lady holding out the prettiest loaf of bread I have ever seen.” She picked up a police escort to the nearest town for dinner, although she drew a firm line at four vodka shots.
In most countries, Sarah encounters diverse reactions. Describing Ukraine, she said, “I have been chased by snarling dogs and welcomed warmly by local people; I have been scammed and I have been looked after; I have had friendly multi-toots from drivers and have been forced off the road by drivers; I have baked in the sun and have frozen in the cold wind.”
For the moment, Sarah continues on her bike and in her kayak—hoping to make it to Japan before winter. She and her psychotherapist agree that the cycling stages will be the easier bits of the expedition. “Riding the bike is easier than being on the ocean,” Nicholls said. “Sarah can set goals and probably reach them and have some social contact along the way. The biggest challenge of psychological endurance is on the ocean.”
Aside from the solitude of the open sea, the wild water scares Sarah sometimes. “The oceans will be huge, especially the leaving and the landing when you are close to shore,” she said. “But I try to put that in a box and think about it when it is useful.”
With an engine like Sarah and a supportive team helping manage her every move, the expedition has a good chance of success. Sarah has just three goals for the two-and-a-half-year adventure. “Get back to London safely, that is number one,” she says. “Two: I hope to have learned some things along the way that I can share. And, three, I want to inspire people to go on their own expeditions or follow their own dreams. I often hear people say I have a dream to do x, y, or z one day. But one day will never happen unless you commit to it.”
Share the ups and downs of Sarah’s epic solo journey at www.sarahouten.com.
More people have climbed Mt. Everest than rowed across oceans; Sarah is one of the youngest women to have accomplished the latter. “The oceans will be huge, especially the leaving and the landing…but I try to put that in a box and think about it when it is useful.”
Miles traveled: 28,000
By kayak: 500
By bike: 20,000
By rowing boat: 7,500
Days away: 850
Months at sea: 11
Oceans: 2 (big ones)
Calories eaten/day: 6,000–8,000
World records Sarah already holds: 3
Apr 1: Leave London
Apr 2011: Cycle through France, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, and Poland
May 2011: Cycle through Ukraine and Russia
June 2011: Cycle through Kazakhstan
June 2011: Sarah is awarded an MBE from the Queen
July 2011: Cycle through China
Aug 2011: Cycle through Eastern Russia
Sept & Oct 2011: Kayak/cycle from Russia to Japan
Dec 2011: Wait out the winter in Japan
Spr–Fall 2012: Row from Japan to USA
Fall 2012–Spr 2013: Cycle from USA or Canada to Nova Scotia
May–Aug 2013: Row North Atlantic Ocean
Sept 2013: Arrive back in the UK