Sarah Outen Interview | We Meet the First Woman to Row Solo Across Multiple Oceans
The English explorer rowed the Indian Ocean alone in 2009, and then took on the world...
“It is quite a mind-boggling trip to think of. It’s quite abstract. Most people haven’t rowed across an ocean. But if you break it away there’s so much that is relatable to everyone. That’s what I want to share.”
If you glanced through Sarah Outen’s highlight reel it would be easy to see the 32 year old as some kind of superhuman. Someone who operates at a level above, and inaccessible to, mere mortals.
In many ways, both of those statements are true. But it would be short-sighted to pigeon-hole Outen – full title Sarah Outen MBE FRGC – by the letters that follow her name. By doing so you miss out on the woman herself, who claims she’s little different to the rest of us.
“People tell me that they’ve been on such and such [adventures], but that it was nothing like what I’ve done,” Sarah tells us, after speaking at Edinburgh’s Mountain Film Festival.
“But it’s everything like what I’ve done. I just went for a bit longer and slept on the way. I’m kind of just trying to make that realm of adventure accessible.”
Sarah Outen’s adventures certainly make for a more a daunting read than most folk you’ll meet on a kayak or bicycle, though.
In 2009 Sarah became the first woman and the youngest person ever to row solo across the Indian Ocean. She rowed for 124 days, 14 hours and nine minutes, and was only the fourth person to ever attempt the feat.
She was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS) on the back of the rowing success, and was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2011.
On 1 April 2011, Sarah set off on a self-powered trip around the globe, travelling from London to London, via the world. Outen cycled across Europe and Asia, rowing across the north Pacific and cycling across USA and Canada before rowing further across the North Atlantic to return to the UK.
Sarah’s crossing of the Pacific made her the first woman and youngest person ever to complete the journey solo, and along with experienced expedition seakayaker Justine Curgenven she also completed the only documented kayak along the Aleutian island chain and Alaskan Peninsula.
Sarah finally finished her London to London adventure – with some short recovery periods – back in the English capital on 3 November 2015.
The idea that anyone could do what Sarah has done may seem slightly less convincing now that you’ve read the above, but that’s where the story of Gao, a young Chinese chap Outen met during her round the world expedition, comes in particularly handy.
Sarah had stopped on her bike at a service station in China in 2011 when the happy-go-lucky Gao came over to ask her about her trip.
“I’m mostly very comfortable with solitude but there were times I thought it’d be much nicer if someone was there”
“I’m so proud of you,” he said, when Sarah filled him in on the details.
“I wish I could do something like that,” he continued. “But it looks so difficult.”
Sarah told Gao that the reward was well worth the work and before she knew it, he wanted to accompany her on the cycle to Beijing. They were still nearly 4000km away from the Chinese capital, yet to pass through the Gobi desert, and most amazingly of all, Gao didn’t even own a bicycle.
Sarah wrote Gao a list of essentials he would need for the trip, and then sure enough, the two set off for Beijing days later – Gao’s family sending them off with a display of firecrackers lit in the middle of the road.
Five weeks later Gao and Sarah pedalled successfully into Beijing. Asked to sum up his experience at the end of his trip in three words, Gao said: “I am happiness”.
Gao is Sarah’s living proof that what she preaches is not just empty rhetoric. It’s just about getting to the start line.
“It’s a mix of being headstrong and almost idealist – saying that’s what I’m going to do, and doing it,” she says. “It’s amazing what conviction that can give you, and that is your first step in turning a dream into a goal.
“Maybe there are voices in your head or people telling you that it’s not such a good idea, but you don’t have to listen to them.”
Adventure isn’t the only area where Sarah inspires. Having proposed to her wife Lucy while rowing across the North Pacific Ocean she has also become a role model and important voice in the LGBT community.
“I think it is a byproduct of my adventuring,” she tells us. “I had never dated a woman when I met Lucy.
“I met someone and it was just a coincidence that they’re a woman. But I realised upon speaking to people that actually that was a powerful thing to be honest about. For me it just felt natural to talk about her – about us – because it’s such a huge part of my life, of my journey and it changed my perspectives on all those things.
“I don’t like labels or putting myself in any kind of box but if it helps to do that in terms of greater equality or in terms of empowering someone to be who they are by coming out then that’s cool. I’m happy to do so.”
It’s not all literal plain sailing on a solo expedition, of course. You’ve got to find a way to keep yourself inspired too. For obvious reasons, it can be lonely going.
“I’d mostly say I’m very comfortable with solitude,” Sarah says. “But there were times I thought it’d be much nicer if someone was there. Basically on the ocean when I was scared.
“You’ve got to do so much to look after yourself and make all the decisions and sometimes you do feel having another person to share that with would have been good.”
“There’s a duality between solitude and loneliness”
Sarah notes: “I think the way Ben put it was right. There’s a duality between solitude and loneliness.”
Chatting to Ben after the close of the festival, he added: “All the moments of solitude were good. I look at it in terms of solitude versus loneliness. As soon as things go wrong the mind follows and you start getting very lonely.
“I just didn’t want to be dealing with it all on my own at times. I had never been in such an extreme place. You just want to share the weight of those decisions.”
Ben insists he found no companionship in his camera, his only partner during his expedition deep into the Canadian north, even describing it as a “burden”. But every traveller is different. For Sarah, the loneliness of her travels did lead to emotional connections with the vessels that carried her along the way.
“I had always had a sense of that from the outset,” she says. “Naming my first boat, the boat takes on a character, but the bond definitely strengthens with time as you clock up all those experiences you’ve been through together.”
And they certainly went through a lot. In 2012, during her first attempt on the Pacific leg of her world trip, Sarah’s boat ‘Gulliver’ was damaged and she had to call the Japanese coast guard in for help.
Sarah had been at sea for 25 days when she was hit by Tropical Storm Mawar. The damage Gulliver received as a result of repeatedly capsizing meant it was not possible to continue her journey. Outen had to endure deeply unenviable conditions for several days before the coastguard came to her aid.
“It was not a good time. I was tied in my bunk on the cabin so I didn’t move for those three days really. It was horrific. I don’t really like talking about that too much as it’s still quite traumatic to me but suffice to say it was gruelling and frightening. Not a good time.”
Sarah’s decision to go back to row the Pacific Ocean the following year on her new boat ‘Happy Socks’ is an ample indication of her strength of mind.
“You accept it might happen,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again.”
Later, during her round the world expedition, it did happen again. A wave tore the rudder from Sarah’s row boat on 5 July 2015, and with one nightmarish experience in the heart of a storm already under her belt, she was forced to abandon her Atlantic Crossing on 6 October after 143 days at sea due to the threat from Hurricane Joaquin.
The following year Sarah would complete her trip and make a triumphant return to London via the Thames on 3 November 2015. The trip cemented her status as a pioneering adventurer and as one of the most accomplished explorers in the world right now.
Still, Sarah downplays the accolades, always tying her experiences back to the stories and the positive energy that they created along the way.
“These are fun things, and the stories, and people’s interest in the journey, that’s what’s really powerful for me”
“MBE, or records, it’s nice to be acknowledged but not what’s important. I don’t think I mention that when I do talks. It’s more that these are fun things, and the stories, and people’s interest in the journey, that’s what’s really powerful for me.
“That’s really important, because there’s a lot of good energy and positive things that come from sharing and inspiring. It’s almost not what you do, but the way that you do it.”
And if Sarah’s success so far is anything to go by, that’s what gets results.
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