Sarah Outen has rowed oceans and survived typhoons, but the Lismore bound adventurer and travel writer tells Ellie O’Byrne that the toughest journey can sometimes be coming home.
Explorer Sarah Outen has rowed the Indian Ocean solo, traversed countries by bike in temperatures ranging from 40 degrees to minus 40 degrees, and made it out of a terrifying typhoon in the Pacific alive, but her biggest voyage of discovery has been her inner journey.
These days, the 34-year-old lives happily with her wife, Lucy Allen, and their pets in Oxfordshire. Outen is studying to be a child psychotherapist, working as a freelance tree-climbing instructor and motivational speaker, and preparing to release Home, the documentary film of her dramatic “London 2 London: via the world” journey by bike, kayak and rowing boat, which she completed in 2015.
Before that voyage of over 32,000km, Outen had become both the first woman and youngest person to row solo across the Indian Ocean, a journey of 125 days. For most people, that much time alone would be tough, but Outen is quick to point out that there’s a big difference between alone and lonely.
“Maybe the difference was that I had chosen solitude,” she says.
"I felt like it came naturally to me, though, and I found beauty in that solitude.
“I found that you are confronted with yourself, which can be frustrating and painful at times, but you get to find out what you feel, without the filter of anyone else; you get to be uninhibited.
“I’ve always loved being in nature, and to get that deep relationship with my surroundings for an extended period was sublime: it was quite a spiritual experience at times. It would be hard not to be touched by it.”
As a child, Outen went to boarding school at eight. Her father, an officer in the Royal Air Force, suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis that eventually left him wheelchair-bound; Outen says both her love of nature and her desire to seize a hold of life and live it to the fullest come from the experiences of her early life.
“From a very early age I was conscious that there were days Daddy couldn’t do things because he’d be in splints; he’d be all laid out flat because he was so sore.
“In my teens, that grew into an awareness of how difficult it was for him and then, ‘Oh crikey, what if that happens to me one day?’. There was a sense of the finiteness and preciousness of health, so I had a real drive to fill my days and hours with doing as much as I could.”
It was her father’s sudden death when she was 21 that precipitated Outen into her record-breaking Indian Ocean quest, setting out from Fremantle in Australia and rowing to Mauritius in 2009.
Having taken up rowing in college, Outen became hooked on human-powered travel. “You travel quietly and slowly when you’re human-powered,” she says. “You’re not bundled up in a metal box travelling so fast that you don’t see anything; you get a chance to really deeply experience what’s going on around you: the elements, the wildlife. There’s something really visceral about that.”
Outen’s London to London voyage, originally meant to take two and a half years, took four years to complete, due in part to the storm that she still finds hard to talk about to this day; in 2012, she was 900km off the Japanese coast when Typhoon Mawar hit. Believing she could weather the storm, she endured days of 30ft waves and over 20 capsizes before she was rescued from her damaged boat by the Japanese coastguard.
The experience left her with PTSD; asked to describe the storm, she pauses. “Here’s me with my new boundaries: I still get triggered by it so I keep it at arms’ length when I can. If it’s ok, I’d rather not talk about it? You can read about it in the book.”
Although her London to London journey also came with emotional highs — she proposed to her wife via satellite while at sea in 2013 — she suffered a break-down and severe struggles to control her anxiety in the aftermath of her triumphant return in 2015.
The history books are full of gung-ho explorers, seemingly invincible heroes who have undertaken journeys like Outen’s. But she says admitting to vulnerabilities has ultimately made her stronger, and being open about her mental health issues is, she feels, destigmatising for others.
“The biggest difficulty was initially being able to declare that I wasn’t coping,” she says. “The attitude I was brought up with was, you just get on with it. I felt if I’d grown up with more of an awareness of looking after yourself, maybe I would have been able to deal with those issues differently and not come to such explosive crescendos with it.
“Hearing about the experiences of other people proved really powerful for me so I felt being open about the down parts was really important. If that can be helpful to one other person, that’s good.”
Although she does call out the machismo exhibited by some of her male adventurer counterparts — “I call it ‘willy-waving’,” she says with a chuckle — she’s not keen on gender generalisations and doesn’t connect her willingness to admit vulnerability to being a female explorer.
Even in love, she says, it’s never been about gender; in her college years at Oxford, she had a long-term boyfriend. Her wife was her first girlfriend.
“It wasn’t like coming out for me, it was more like, ‘oh, I’ve fallen in love with a woman’. I met Lucy and we fell in love very quickly. I suppose it was a realisation that it’s not about gender for me, it’s about two human souls that connect.”
Outen has written two books chronicling her adventures, A Dip in the Ocean, covering her Indian Ocean voyage, and Dare to Do, the tale of her London to London circumnavigation. Despite her love of writing, Outen says both books were the product of a “really difficult, pressured process.”
“For my first book, we found a publisher who wanted a manuscript in eight weeks, so I was writing late at night, in hotel rooms and on trains.
“Coming back from my London to London journey, I had six months to write my second book. But that whole coming home process, with such extremes of survival situations and emotional trauma, I ended up having a breakdown towards the end of the six months, which was horrible, and a really difficult time to be writing.
“I felt I didn’t have the time to honour that process and the story as much as I’d like to. My aim one day is to write a book where I do have time, and my next book will be for children.”
Sarah Outen will give a keynote address at the Immrama Festival of Travel Writing on Saturday, June the 15th at 8pm in Lismore, Co Waterford. www.lismore-immrama.com