Al Humphreys interviews Sarah Outen for his blog on www.alastairhumphreys.com [one Aquapaccer interviewing another!]
Sarah Outen is over halfway through a gruelling global expedition from London2London:Via the World in which she is attempting to loop the planet using human power. She started in a kayak under Tower Bridge on April 1st 2011 and since then has kayaked, cycled and rowed east across land and oceans to Alaska, where she completed her North Pacific row in September 2013 after 150 days at sea. The first attempt in 2012 ended with a rescue. Sarah returns to Adak Island, Alaska to kayak the Aleutian Island chain in April 2014 with team mate Justine Curgenven. The onward journey involves cycling to the Canadian East Coast and rowing home across the North Atlantic in 2015. Sarah is fundraising for charities along the way, as well as sharing stories and visiting schools to inspire others to take on their own challenges.
Alastair: Hi Sarah. Tell us about your first big trip.
Sarah: My first big expedition was in 2009 when I rowed solo across the Indian Ocean. It took me four months to get from Australia to Mauritius on my second attempt. On my first attempt I basically went around in a 400 mile loop for ten days all the way back to land, because weather and various things had proved a little tricky.
Alastair: This is a hard-core venture for a first expedition. Why did you decide to do this? Why not do some other adventure such as a bike trip or something cheaper and easier?
Sarah: Definitely ocean rowing is probably one of the most expensive adventures you can do and I’m definitely in favour of doing things that are a lot simpler logistically and also a lot more accessible financially as well, but the reason I went for the Indian Ocean row as an expedition was I’d been totally captivated and inspired by the idea of rowing an ocean. It was totally alien to me until I was 20 years old at University, an email pinged into the inbox one day with the title of “Ocean Rowing Races” and I just loved the idea of spending so many months at sea by yourself in that environment, taking on that challenge, surrounded by wildlife and things. So for me, it was about the experience of being out on the ocean and being the engine behind the journey. That’s always really appealed to me. So that’s why that was the first one.
Alastair: Were you a rower at Uni?
Sarah: Yeah. I’d been rowing, at that point, for a couple of years when I decided that I wanted to row across the ocean, but I don’t think that the rowing is important really, ironically. You don’t need to be a rower to head out on an ocean rowing expedition. I think the most important thing is just being able to manage yourself in a challenging environment, emotionally, keeping on top of your personal admin, keeping things going. So it’s more about seamanship.
And I always say to people that it’s not about having a massive level of experience or skills to start with. You can learn those things as you go along. You seek out people that have that experience and are willing to share it, and knowledge, and let you learn in an environment where you can ask the questions and make mistakes and have a bit of support. Yes, I was a rower to start with, but that’s kind of by-the-by. It’s quite different rowing on a river to rowing on the ocean.
Alastair: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point about surrounding yourself with experts and being willing to say, “I know absolutely nothing, please help me.”
Sarah: Definitely, definitely. I think a club environment for certain things is really good for that. That’s where I learned to kayak when I was a teenager, was with a local club. And my first sort of expeditions outside of school – because I did the Duke of Edinburgh award through school, that gave me my first taste for little expeditions – they came through my kayaking club. And that was a great forum to just try things out, be surrounded by like-minded people, and get some training and skills, like you say. The club environment for things is a really good way to learn and pick up stuff.
Alastair: Something that struck me about what you said just now was that when the prospect of rowing an ocean occurred to you, you immediately said it was something to go and do on your own. That was almost as though that was one of the initial appeals of it. Was that the case?
Sarah: Actually not. So I think at that point of captivation, of inspiration, “on your own” for me was “on your own in a small group of people”. I didn’t contemplate at that initial stage going solo. That actually came a few months later after my father died. Although he wasn’t going to come rowing with me, I decided actually I wanted the focus of my row to be in honour of him, in memory of him. And certainly that was my first taste of solo expeditioning and since then I’ve become hooked on that as well.
There’s something really spiritual and beautiful and meditative and exciting about being by yourself, I think. For my own part, I find that I’m much more aware of everything that’s going on around me, much more open to stuff when I’m by myself. And I really love the challenge of being the only one responding to stuff. You just feel yourself develop when you’re out there by yourself.
Not to say I don’t like people. I also really love having trips with people for their shared banter and the camaraderie and what you learn from each other and just the fact that it can make a miserable situation a bit less miserable, because you’ve got someone else to take care of you and someone else to look after. But yeah, I get a big kick out of being out in the wild by myself.
Alastair: Yeah, that’s great. Rowing an ocean by yourself is a wonderful legacy for your dad. That’s a brilliant tribute. I think that’s great.
I rowed the Atlantic in a four, so I’ve a degree of understanding of what you’re going through. And I absolutely loved the experience of being in a four. It was just brilliant fun to do this with some other guys. Just a great shared experience. I never had inclination to do it in a pair, where essentially you get the worst part of being with someone else, but you actually spend most of your time on your own.
Sarah: You do. It’s weird, isn’t that one? Really weird.
Alastair: So, that really doesn’t appeal. But while I was out there on the four, I definitely felt that I was slightly taking the easy option, because if you feel a bit tired or you can’t quite be bothered to fix something, you just say to someone, “That looks like it needs fixing,” and maybe they’ll go and do it. So I think doing it on your own is a real – you succeed or you fail by yourself. I think that’s a brilliant thing for ocean trips.
Sarah: Yeah. And it is just beautiful to be out there as well, isn’t it? Definitely.
Sarah: Feels like your very own piece of the ocean.
Alastair: Yes. I found it very, very hard and enormously miserable in chunks. So I admire you greatly.
Sarah: Likewise, I also find it very hard and miserable in chunks as well.
Alastair: And one of the best things for me rowing the Atlantic was that I joined this crew at very last minute. So I essentially just agreed to row the ocean, got a sun hat, and jumped into a rowing boat and off we went. And that fit entirely with my things that I’m interested in and my skill sets. One thing I would not be able to do by myself is take on a task as huge as rowing an ocean by myself, particularly in the position you were in where you were a total novice.
I think this is quite interesting for people planning a trip of their own. Three things — first, how did you actually commit to saying, “I’m actually going to do this.”
Sarah: You’re definitely right that it can be daunting and massive to pull something off, particularly something like an ocean row where you’re out there, you’re committed, it’s an unforgiving kind of environment and there’s big consequences if you screw up and someone has to come and pick you out. So you need to get everything in place. Then just the other side of it is that financially it’s huge and that can be daunting.
When I said that I wanted to row the Indian Ocean, when I committed to it and said, “I’m going to do this in three years’ time,” I was 21 and really fuelled by the grief at my father’s death for one thing of, “I am going to do this.” I guess there’s a bit of naivety that comes there in age 21. You think you can take on the world, all of these things. I saw it very simplistically, I can’t think of what the right word is, but I looked at other big expeditions and I met Roz Savage [another Aquapaccer!] around about the same time. She’d just rowed across the Atlantic Ocean and I looked into it and thought, “Well, this isn’t rocket science. It’s just a big project and if I chopped that project down then I can make it happen.”
So the first thing is identify what you want to do, put a time frame on it – because then that immediately gives you a goal to work towards and a bit of structure to it – and then figure out all the steps that you need to take to get you there. And you might not know what all of the steps are at that first stage or you might not know how to do all of those steps, how to pull them off. But so long as you can figure out, “Okay, well actually I’ll go and find some people who can help me with X, Y, or Z,” and so on. And you start making a bit of a plan. So really, I think, it’s just like treating it as you would any other project. Identify what the project is, break it down into bits and put a time frame on it, it suddenly can happen. And you monitor your progress as you go along and you learn stuff on the way. I think so long as your flexible in that plan and willing to change and adapt, then it’s not rocket science.
Alastair: You’re mentioning rocket science, I’m going to send you a link of a few books that you should take on your next trips. I’ve become a bit of a rocket geek recently, simply from thinking, “Going to the moon is the best adventure that has ever been.”
Sarah: The biggest adventure, definitely.
Alastair: The idea of Adventure1000 is that people are going to do trips that are cheap, costing ideally £1000. But in reality, that’s more of a concept than a real thing. So a lot of people try to get sponsorship for their trips. So one, have you got any tips on getting sponsorship? And two, do you advise people to try and get sponsorship for their own trips?
Sarah: I think there’s only a point in having sponsors, trying to have sponsors, if you need them. If you can do your trip off your own back and be self-sustaining, self-sufficient, you’ve got no ties to anyone else, no obligations, definitely, definitely you should do it, because it makes everything a lot simpler and I think somehow truer to yourself in that you’re not going to be influenced by what anybody else wants. So definitely to start with, think about if you need sponsors. I think some people assume that if you have some sponsors you basically get a load of free stuff and don’t do anything in return and it’s a bit of a party box really. And I think if you can do it off your own back definitely do that.
So in terms of tips, I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned about sponsorships is that it’s all about relationships. It’s all about forging good relationships with people. So, approaching different people that you would like to work with and then once you’ve got them on board, really working with them to see what they want and provide good return for them as well.
In terms of who you ask and what you ask for, I’d definitely say being very specific about what you want is a good thing. Because if you say to somebody, “I’m doing this big exciting trip, would you like to be a part of it in some way?” they might say yes. But if you can say, “Would you like to be a part by doing X, Y, or Z?” I’ve found that’s really good for people. Because if you just say, “Do you want to help?” some people imagine that it might be way more committing than it might be and they don’t actually want to. So I’d say, be specific. Treat it as a relationship and a partnership and really work with them to find out what they want and provide things back for them. Yeah, they’d be my tips.
Alastair: Cool, thank you. You clearly enjoyed that row, because you’re now embroiled…
Sarah: Embroiled, good word.
Alastair: …in an enormous expedition, which really is what puts you right up in the very top notch of epic adventurers. It’s about as impressive as there’s been in many years, I think, probably since Jason Lewis. It’s right up there. And this is a topic which is probably going to annoy you but I need to talk about, it’s also very epic for a woman. So the two things, how does it feel to be right up doing something – because one thing that strikes about you is you’re a very normal, nice person, and I mean that in a complimentary way, and you’re now up there doing something that’s right at the very top notch of adventure. And also flying the flag for woman adventurers, how does that feel?
Sarah: The idea of what other people think of the expedition or how it relates to other people, other expeditions and so on, doesn’t really influence me, doesn’t influence how I do things, I don’t think. By that I mean, it’s not about records or about trying to do something that’s really impressive. I set out on this expedition because I wanted to, basically. I wanted to do this journey.
Alastair: That’s a good reason.
Sarah: Yeah, because I wanted to basically have an adventure and link land and sea like that and learn about the world. It was from that Indian Ocean experience, like you say, I enjoyed that. Just totally opened my mind. It literally blew my mind away and showed me that it’s not rocket science, there’s that phrase again, of, “Well, here’s a big project that I did break down and it worked and wow, I’d like to do some more of that.”
So it doesn’t really bother me how it compares to other people’s expeditions. I think the cool thing for me is the idea that people can share in the adventure as they go along, or as I go along rather, and that that inspires people to do other things. So it’s really cool when you get a little message saying that someone’s been off on their own trip or is thinking about doing something. That, for me, is not the reason why I do it, but it’s cool to think that there’s other people getting out and having adventures. And that’s kind of where my journey is going to take me afterwards is I’d like to teach, but I don’t want to be in a classroom. So I almost want to set up an adventure school where we get kids who don’t get an opportunity to spend much time outside having little adventures.
Alastair: You can sign me up for that as well.
Sarah: Nice one, Al. We’ll have you, definitely. In terms of being a woman, that’s a cool message to share with people, I suppose, of just, “Get out there and have a go.” Because I guess I do meet women, quite a lot of women, who ask, “Is it safe? Did you feel safe? I can’t do it,” and I think, compared to guys, often are held back by the negative chatter and perception of what it might take to be safe out there by themselves on an expedition. So in that respect, again, the idea of just hopefully if by sharing stories you can show that actually it’s all right. It’s just the world, wherever you are in the world. Mostly people are very friendly and keen to help you. Then that’s cool to think that people are getting out, having trips.
Alastair: So you don’t think that being a woman is a sufficient of a hurdle to stop people having good adventures?
Sarah: There’s no hurdles to stop people having adventures, apart from being dead really. I think that’s true to anything in life, isn’t it? Where people are talking about, I don’t know, just whingeing about stuff and they can’t do this, they can’t do that, I just kind of go, “What’s stopping you? It’s you, isn’t it?” That’s the thing, mostly. If you want to do something, you’ll move the things around in your life a little bit to make them work. You’ve just got to have a go, I think.
Alastair: The final thing I want to ask you then. Two questions here – one, if I was going to give you £1000 pounds, all in, to go do any adventure you wanted, what would you do?
Sarah: Well, because I have some of the kit already I’m hoping that this is going to work – it should do, I can’t see why it wouldn’t – I would love, love, love to kayak around the UK going in and out of all the wonderful coastline that we’ve got. I think that should more than cover the extra bits of kit that I’d need and food along the way.
Alastair: Did you see the Night of Adventure guy Dylan Winter whose project – “Keep Turning Left” – is sailing around Britain like that?
Sarah: No, I didn’t.
Sarah: Write that down. That sounds very cool.
Alastair: Because I don’t want it to be just UK-centric, if I was also going to give you a flight anywhere in the world and then £1000, what would you do?
Sarah: Oh, this has been hard. I’m split between the opposite ends of the world as I look at my map. It’s been a bit of a trade-off between Alaska, Siberia, Africa, but I think what I’m actually going to plan for is some islands in the South Pacific. I’d love to fly out there and go and learn from some of the locals about building the traditional boats and then do some trips around the islands camping on the beaches in one of the traditional dug outs with the locals and so on. So, I’d go to the South Pacific.
Alastair: Brilliant. And the very final question, because you’re currently, essentially, cycling and rowing your way around the world…
Sarah: Kayaking. Cycling, rowing, and kayaking. Don’t forget.
Alastair: And kayaking… In brief, what is better? Rowing trips or cycling trips.
Sarah: I won’t have that trade-off. That’s like asking to choose between your children. I think cycling’s probably a bit more accessible compared to ocean rowing, just because it’s more accessible on so many levels. But for me, there’s cool stuff about all of the different disciplines.
Alastair: You’re going to be a good politician when you come home.
Sarah: Well, no. I just really don’t have a favourite. I love the ocean because you’re out there totally by yourself with the wildlife and it’s the ocean. I love land because of the people that I meet and the different foods along the way. And then I love the kayaking, for the fact that I always kayak as a pair – you get to put your tent somewhere different every night, providing you’re not mashed in a storm and staying there for a week. So, I really can’t choose between the three of them.
Alastair: Okay, fair enough.
Sarah: Months from now, it might change.
Alastair: The answer might well be, or certainly this is how I would answer, is whichever one I’m not doing at the time.
Sarah: Yeah, maybe. Yeah.
Alastair: Cool, thank you very much for your time, Sarah. Good luck with your trip!
Follow Sarah’s expedition here.