Sarah Outen: Driven (but using a bike, a rowing boat and a kayak)
The death of her father and the love of her fiancée is what inspires this British adventurer as she travels solo around the globe. Chloe Hamilton meets Sarah Outen
I meet Sarah Outen in the middle of a storm. She rushes from her car clutching a waterproof, which she hands to me as torrential rain hammers the pavement and apocalyptic gusts of wind howl across the pitch-black street. I accept the coat graciously, knowing better than to argue with the woman who recently became the first female to row solo across the North Pacific Ocean. It's hard to moan about poor weather in the face of such a feat.
Outen's latest expedition, which took her from Japan to the Aleutian Islands, off Alaska, was just one phase of her gruelling "London2London: Via the World" mission, in which she aims to complete a loop of the planet using only a rowing boat, a bike and a kayak. I meet her in Bangor, north Wales, where she is training for the next leg of her mammoth journey, kayaking from the Aleutian Islands to mainland Alaska next spring.
She greets me like an old friend, with a beaming grin and amiable chit-chat. We make a dash for cover, leaping over fast-flowing rivulets. I remark that we might need a kayak to paddle across a zebra crossing and she chuckles heartily.
The adventurer, who turned 28 while out at sea, started her journey in a kayak under Tower Bridge on 1 April 2011 and has since kayaked, cycled and rowed east, across land and ocean. Her latest trek saw her cross the International Date Line, marking the halfway point of the voyage, which she aims to finish in 2015. "I've never thought 'I want to quit'," she says as we dry off inside. "I'm too stubborn for that!
"There are plenty of times when you think, I just want this bit to be over, or I just want the weather to give me a break. At times, it's really tricky to keep warm. You come in, soaking wet and really cold, and try to warm up in a boat that's soaking and mouldy and horrible."
We're warming up at my hotel. Outen, who comes from Rutland, is kitted out in waterproof trousers, a hoodie and waterproof jacket emblazoned with the logos of her sponsors, including Mars, Ernst & Young, and Iridium. Her cropped hair, wet and flat against her head when we arrive, begins to dry as we talk. She ruffles it occasionally telling me she doesn't want it to "become a helmet".
The 4,300-mile trip from Japan to the Aleutian Islands took Outen five months to complete. In that time, she capsized five times (once at night), encountered one shark and numerous whales, and often went 30 hours without sleep.
"The only time I get lonely out at sea is when I'm frightened," she says, describing the time her 23ft rowing boat went under the bow of a cargo ship. "I heard an engine. It was getting louder and louder and closer and closer. Then I saw the front of the boat and thought, shit, that's a ship," she says. Fortunately, the bow wave pushed her to safety.
Remarkably, London2London is not the young adventurer's first expedition. In 2009, Outen became the first and youngest woman to row solo across the Indian Ocean. She spent 124 days alone on the journey from Australia to Mauritius.
It was the sudden loss of her father when she was at Oxford University that inspired Outen to embark on her first trip and she credits the three-year grieving process following his death with instilling in her the belief that she could take on anything, no matter how testing.
"His death showed me that health and life are really precious. They're not a given and they're not going to be here for ever," she says. "I just got this feeling that I was lucky to be alive. Something like that does give you strength."
Keeping Outen going across the North Pacific Ocean was her fiancée, Lucy, who she proposed to over satellite phone just before she hit the International Date Line. With another leg of the journey looming, though, the thought of being apart from each other again has added a whole new dimension to the challenge.
"When you love someone so much like that and you want to be back with them, you gain such a lot of support and comfort from that," Outen says as she fiddles instinctively with her engagement ring, a simple band worn on her ring finger. "There have been moments when I've been really tired, with nothing left in the tank, and I'll imagine all the people I know and love around me, running along beside me. I'll talk to them and shout out their names. It's basically hallucinating, but it's hallucinating with intention!"
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the London2London mission hasn't been without its complications. Outen first set off from Japan on 13 May 2012, planning to row 4,500 miles to Canada. After 25 days at sea, she was hit by a tropical storm that badly damaged her boat. She had to be rescued by the Japan Coast Guard, abandoning her record-breaking attempt. The incident left her suffering from depression and paranoia as she struggled to come to terms with the loss of her boat (it was left out at sea) and the daunting prospect of returning to the water.
Nine months later, the explorer set off from Japan once again, this time in a new boat – the delightfully christened Happy Socks, named after the colourful woollen socks that Outen's mum knits for her. (At this point in the interview, Outen rolls up a trouser leg to reveal one such garment.)
Despite the physical and emotional struggles of the journey, she tells me she feels privileged to be able to travel across the world and meet new people. "I look at a picture and I can transport myself back to the moment and remember the feel of the dust up my nose in the Gobi Desert, or the heat, or sore legs, or meeting people, or the taste of things," she says. "It just feels really special. I'm really lucky."
As our conversation comes to an end, Outen's farewell proves as warm as her greeting and she asks me if I would like to keep the now bone-dry waterproof. I decline, insisting that she needs it more than I do. After all, surely she has plans for another trip once she's looped the world?
"Nothing is more enticing, disenchanting and enslaving than life at sea," she says, quoting the novelist Joseph Conrad. "But there's probably a bit of a selfish side to an expedition, because you're going away and doing something that you want to do. I want to do something else that's more for others, to inspire kids to follow their dreams."
On that note, she hurries out the door and back into the eye of the storm.
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