Words by: Lou Boyd
When Sarah Outen decided to bike, row and kayak her way around the world, she expected to be home within two and half years.
Four years later she’s still out there.
Speaking to me from a café in New York, she has six months left to go before she returns home to London.
That’s the cool thing about an adventure, you don’t know what’s going to happen
For someone who had no major plans on becoming a notable female adventurer, Sarah is doing a pretty good job of being one.
She is currently travelling from London to London via. the entire world by her own human power. So that means cycling, rowing and kayaking where she can.
Holding the title of the first woman to ever row solo across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, she seems unfazed by the unexpected length of her current undertaking.
“That’s the cool thing about an adventure” she explains. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. The element of surprise teaches you to be open to embrace the journey.”
At university, Sarah had another type of adventurous life in mind. She hoped to join the army. It wasn’t until she suffered a serious injury that she realised this was no longer an option. It was time to consider other paths.
“I heard about ocean rowing and was pretty captivated by the idea. It just sounded like the best idea ever.”
“I felt like I had a blank slate and anything was open, so I decided that crossing an ocean would be my first kind of goal.”
After chancing upon ocean rowing, Sarah soon decided to work towards solo rowing expedition, spurred on by the sudden death of her father.
“I wanted to go in his memory. It didn’t make sense to do it with a crew of people who didn’t know me or my dad. I took three years planning, fundraising, figuring out how to do it.”
“I went and I rowed and while I was out there, just loved it. I was really empowered by that idea that what seemed like a huge mission was pretty challenging, but wasn’t rocket science.”
“I started to think I could apply that at a bigger level, spend more time at sea, learn more about the ocean and spread more stories.”
This sparked the beginning of what has proved to be the longest journey of her life so far, travelling from London, across Europe and Asia, the Pacific Ocean, North America and the Atlantic Ocean and back to London.
I could apply that at a bigger level, spend more time at sea, learn more about the ocean and spread more stories
“There were two big changes in the journey I planned,” says Sarah.
“The first was that I was hit by a tropical storm in the Pacific Ocean in my first attempt in 2012. The boat was damaged so badly that it was dangerous to carry on. It wasn’t safe and I had to be rescued. I came home, I had lost my boat and went into a big depression.”
This experience didn’t change Sarah’s aim to complete the journey
“I knew that I wanted to back to the ocean. I was so grateful that I had that love of the sea. It was just a bit of crap unluckiness that had happened to me.”
“I made the decision to go north to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and that would allow me to be safe and keep the boat, which was important. Losing two boats just isn’t cool. Then I suddenly realised, I’m going to Alaska, that’s the coolest place in the world!”
“I had such a special time there. The scenery is dramatic and sublime and the people who live up there – there’s just a different spirit. It felt like a real privilege to be meeting them and sharing in their lives for this little time.”
“If I hadn’t gone that way that would never have happened, and if I had never gone home I wouldn’t have met my fiancé Lucy.”
Now, nearly half a decade on, Sarah has experienced many different cultures and landscapes during her mission to get around the globe, using only her own power.
You’re not intimidating on a bicycle. You’re just a bit tired and smelly. People really connect with that…
“I think human power is really cool because you have such a cool perspective” she explains. “You really feel the landscape. You’re in the mountains, you’re going to puffing and panting up and absolutely flying down.”
“You get to meet wildlife on its own terms. You’re not a big scary noisy vehicle that’s going to run it over. You’re right up close and personal in it. You’re not intimidating on a bicycle. You’re just a bit tired and smelly. People really connect with that, it’s really powerful.”
Connecting to people is an unexpected part of the journey that Sarah has found constantly surprising.
“In China, I met a guy in a petrol station who was kind of in awe of my journey. He said how he’d love to do a bike journey but it looks really difficult. I said ‘Dude! It’s just riding a bike! Just get a bike and see what happens.’”
“We went our own ways and then he kind of chased me down in his car, got out and said ‘I want to come with you and ride my bike to Beijing.’”
“I was trying to work out how to say no politely. I didn’t know him and was imagining him shrivelling to death in the desert and that not being cool. Then I thought, actually, of course you should come, what’s the worst that’s going to happen?
I just had a real sense of the disparity between opportunity in the world and a growing appreciation that life is such a lottery
“He’d never cycled more than a few miles before. It took us 35 days to get there. We were doing 100 mile days quite regularly through crazy conditions. I was so proud to see him learn and grow in confidence.”
During her ocean crossings, Sarah has spent up to five months in complete solitude, with only the space of the boat in which to live. So how does she cope with entering back into normal society?
“It’s an interesting contrast and a bit overwhelming. I felt almost physically scared when I got to New York when we started coming in between the high rise buildings with cars everywhere. I just felt like a total rookie.”
“When I arrive back in the UK, Lucy’s family is massive. There will be 200 of just her family alone, never mind anyone else. It’s gonna be full on, but I’m really grateful for the contrast in my character that I appreciate solitude and everything that gives me and I also love the experiences I have meeting new people.”
Being so far in the journey, but still half a year away from home, Sarah is in an odd position of retrospection of the experience, while still being in the throes of it.
“Early on in the journey, especially through Asia, I just had a real sense of the disparity between opportunity in the world and a growing appreciation that life is such a lottery.
“You happen to be born in a country that may or may not be poor, that may or may not have a schooling system, to parents that may or may not support you.
“Now when I get home, I just really want to help other kids have adventurous opportunities in a way that’s local and accessible.”
So will she be heading out on any other adventures anytime soon? “The goal is to have an adventure centre that’s also a farm, teaching kids about food and the social aspect of eating.”
“I will still explore, but I want to have adventures with Lucy now, and I want to get married.”