There are people for whom traveling means reading a guidebook on the couch in their home, or lounging by a swimming pool in a posh sea resort. Then there are those who, like Sarah Outen, can’t wait to go out there and see the world, challenging themselves in the process.
The English adventurer, 26, is in the midst of her “London2London” loop of the planet. Her only companions during this worldwide journey are Hercules, Nelson and Gulliver — respectively her bicycle, kayak and rowboat.
She has recently reached Tokyo after leaving London on April 1 and covering 18,700 km in 226 days. She plans to spend the winter in Japan before tackling the hardest part of her project: a 4,300-nautical-mile (about 8,000 km) solo row across the North Pacific Ocean from Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, to Vancouver, British Columbia, spending up to 200 days alone at sea — a feat that only two men have accomplished so far.
After crossing North America in the dead of winter by bicycle, she plans to paddle under London’s Tower Bridge in September 2013, hopefully in time for tea.
“When I consider the magnitude of the project,” Outen says, “it freaks me out sometimes. But if you divide it into smaller sections, when you are actually doing it you just focus on the moment, and little by little you reach your goal.”
Things have gone as planned so far, with a couple of challenges and hiccups, and some surprises, like when she met a boy named Gao in China and he decided on the spot to cross the country with her, pedaling 4,000 km, all the way to Beijing. “The land sections have been absolutely defined by the people I met along the way,” she says. “It’s been an amazing experience that’s helped widen my perspective.”
Outen is not new to this kind of exploits. In 2009 she became the first woman and youngest person to row solo across the Indian Ocean, spending 124 days paddling from Australia to Mauritius.
A sports lover since a very young age, bicycles and boats have long had an important place in her life.
“I was biking before I had anything to do with boats,” she says. “I started rowing when I went to St. Hugh’s College in Oxford and joined their boat team. Before that I had been doing some kayaking since the age of 13, and I later started sailing too. The London2London project has been the first time I have done something big with a bike.”
Asked about any early influence on her love for traveling, she is quick to mention some of her favorite books. “When I was a child I read a popular series called ‘The Famous Five’ by British author Enid Blyton, which is about five children having adventures together. That really fired my imagination at a younger age. Then, when I was 15 or 16 I read a book by English yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur, who is very famous in the U.K. because at a very young age she took the sailing world by storm, and at 28 she broke the world record for circumnavigating solo nonstop around the world.”
When Outen heard about ocean rowing, during her university days, she thought that was something she wanted to try. “I loved rowing, and I loved the ocean, so putting them together was pretty cool. Being part of the ocean like that, living life according to the rhythm of the sea, it’s very special. Also, it’s very satisfying when you take a map and see the journey that you made. That’s true even when I cycle around Tokyo, for that matter. You don’t have to do exceptional things to enjoy it.”
While the Indian Ocean crossing has been Outen’s biggest breakthrough, her current project is much bigger. “It’s been a big challenge so far — physically, mentally, emotionally and logistically. In my enthusiasm and naivete I hadn’t anticipated the scale of it. In particular, being on land has been both interesting and complicated compared to the ocean. When I go out rowing, of course I have a phone and can contact people, but still, it’s much more insular, and much simpler. When I bike, I have to do many things, like sorting out visas or sending out things. So I’m learning all the time. I’m really looking forward to going out to sea again and being simpler. Life on land is great because you meet people, but those same people sometimes complicate your life.”
Commenting on the physical challenge of her project, Outen stresses the need to test one’s own limits. “You have to learn how far you can push yourself,” she says. “Even when you are tired, if you need to get something done you just have to find a way to get it done, while other times you can just have a break and relax. For instance, in Kazakhstan I cycled an average of 120 km every day for 24 days because I needed to reach Japan before the winter. I knew the sea-crossing leg between Russia and Japan was awaiting me, so I just kept going. But once I reached Aomori, I could finally relax. So coming from the top of Honshu down to Tokyo, I had no pressure whatsoever and I cycled about 20 to 30 km each day.”
The very last part of the Asian leg has been very emotional. “I felt quite overwhelmed,” she confesses. “I think it’s because I knew this part of my journey was coming to an end. You got one goal, and work hard toward that end, and then you realize it’s over and your goal’s gone. It takes some time to readjust. So when I was coming down to Tokyo on one side there was excitement — thinking back to what I had achieved, the people I had met — but on the other side I felt a little empty and sad. So yes, it’s been quite an emotional few weeks.”
Traveling through Tohoku — including the areas devastated by the March 11 disasters — made the last stretch of Outen’s journey even more tasking. “When I reached Ishinomaki (in Miyagi Prefecture) I spent one night and half a day there, and it was a really humbling experience. While I was there I met a British volunteer who said that warm clothing was most needed, so now I’m trying to organize something, maybe with my friends back in U.K.”
Probably the weirdest thing Outen has experienced after reaching Japan has been the “electrocution session” she had in Aomori. “Oh, it was horrible,” she says laughing. “At the time I was staying with some English teachers, and I said I really could do with a massage. So they took me to this guy. He told me to lie down, but he didn’t give me a massage. He had different pieces of equipment, and I was shuffled between each one, each time getting a different kind of electrocution. It all was so odd, I had a hard time trying not to laugh! It all looked very space-agey.
“Luckily I’ve just had a good massage in Tokyo, which is great because at this point my body needs some repairs. I’m now working with a physiotherapist to sort out some of the problems I have accumulated.”
Among other things, in December Outen will have minor surgery on her right hand. “I have a lump here, which is uncomfortable when I’m cycling and paddling. Next I’ll work on developing my upper body strength again because I’ve been very leg-dependent these last few months.”
The next stage of Outen’s journey is also the hardest one: tackling the huge Pacific Ocean in a 7-meter-long rowboat. “I’ll be carrying 200 days worth of food, and I have a desalination unit so I can purify saltwater and make it drinkable. So water should not be a problem, as long as the pump works. . . .”
Outen said she is also going to hide chocolate in different places to provide a morale boost whenever she feels wet and sad.
All in all she is going to move about 1 ton worth of stuff across the ocean, at an estimated speed of 2 knots (3.7 kph), depending on the wind and current. “I’m certainly not gonna be running across the sea, that’s for sure,” she says with a chuckle.
Even though Outen will not resume her journey until spring, she has decided to stay in Japan in order not to disrupt the project’s continuity. “Going back to England for a few weeks would be too distracting,” she says, “and then I would have to say goodbye to everybody all over again. While I’m here I can prepare myself better for the next leg of my journey, and I definitely want to go back to Ishinomaki. Anyway I have some friends coming over, and my family as well, so I won’t be completely alone.”
Another thing that Outen would like to do while in Japan is work with schoolchildren. “Since I left London, I have been sharing my experience with schools around the world. It would be wonderful if my journey had a tangibly useful impact on their life, maybe in some small way. For me it’s an exciting thing to do.”