Outen is a BT Sport Action Woman of the Year Award contender for January. See the rest of the contenders here and join the conversation on Twitter #ActionWoman.
When actress Reese Witherspoon bought the rights to the story of a young woman who went into the American wilderness, hiking alone along 1000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trial, she was being acutely perceptive. The role in the film ‘Wild’, set in the American wilderness, has just won her an Oscar Nomination.
Now meet Sarah Outen. Like ‘Wild’ - only wilder. Currently on the last leg of her attempt to loop the planet by human power only, the 29-year-old Englishwoman has encountered every obstacle from nature’s most vicious storms to her own emotional breakdown - and triumphantly survived.
The adventure begun on April 1, 2011, and continues this month with a gruelling cycle ride en-route to New York.
Reese Witherspoon starred in the Oscar-nominated 'Wild'
Even though she’s on Skype, 4000 miles away, when we talk, with her bike Hercules propping himself up impatiently in the corner, the story unravels in all its gory and spectacular glory. She’s brilliant at making you see it through her eyes.
“It’s a little bit like being under a dining room table,” she says of her rowing boat. “You can touch either side of the cabin with your hands. If you sat up you’d hit your head. It’s quite a cosy little capsule.”
That’s one way of putting it. ‘Cosy’ is about the 3,658th word most of us would use and only when we’d exhausted every synonym of ‘horrifying’. When Outen decided to go round the world by bike, rowing boat and kayak in 2011, she had a strong conviction that - however vast and unknown the challenge - she would somehow succeed. Then she capsized in a North Pacific tropical storm.
There’s the fear that something really catastrophic is going to happen and wipe you out in an instant."Sarah Outen
“It was a monstrous one. Winds of up to 70mph. 50-60-foot waves, even bigger. It was terrifying. You’re being chucked and smashed in all directions. You sometimes struggle to understand which way around you are.
“There’s the fear that something really catastrophic is going to happen and wipe you out in an instant. And there’s nobody out there. You are totally alone.”
She was rescued 600 miles out to sea by the Japanese coast guard. “I saw my little boat disappearing. I had two senses. One, ‘That’s my boat gone but I’m going to come back and get it one day’, and two, ‘S***, now I really understand why people are worried about me because it’s tiny!’
“As they were feeding me, one of the coastguards brought me some things they’d removed from my boat without me knowing. One was the tracking beacon which I’d left on board deliberately to help me come back and find it. Gulliver (her boat) was gone. I didn’t know where. But I’m still hopeful that one day he’ll turn up.
Outen sets off from Tower Bridge on her adventure across Europe and Asia back in April 2011
“I fell into a big depression for six months after that. I went home and I collapsed really. I couldn’t even write an email without bursting into tears. I knew I loved the ocean still. I was really thankful I had that. But I couldn’t function. All my confidence had drained away. I felt like I’d lost a member of my family because I’d lost my boat.
“I remember my Mum’s face when I told her I had the opportunity to buy another boat and carry on. She looked at me with such confusion. ‘You can’t even look after yourself at the moment. How are you going to cope at sea?’
“But just because something bad has happened or you’re afraid, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”
The original spur for her adventure was the sudden death of her father, Derek. "He had rheumatoid arthritis from when I was a toddler but he loved the outdoors. All that time I saw him suffer huge amounts of pain and not be able to do the things he loved. So walks we did together were very, very special. We’d talk about kayaking and sailing and all the stuff he most enjoyed.
If I wanted to do something I had to make it happen. I couldn’t just sit there and wait."
“I had this sense. Life and time are really precious and you don’t know when they’re going to be taken away from you. If I wanted to do something I had to make it happen. I couldn’t just sit there and wait.”
It was at her father’s funeral that she stood up and announced her intention of rowing across the Indian Ocean. As her younger brother put it: “I was surprised.”
In 2009 Outen broke three world records when she became the first woman and youngest person, at 24, to row solo across the Indian Ocean from Australia to Mauritius.
In 2011 she completed 11,000 miles of biking and kayaking across Europe and Asia.
In 2012 she was rescued from the North Pacific Ocean after 28 days due to Typhoon Mawar.
In 2013 she spent 150 days alone at sea rowing the North Pacific from Japan to Adak, Alaska. She is the first person to have rowed from Japan to Alaska and the first woman to have rowed west to east across the Mid Pacific.
Outen arrives in Adak, Alaska in September 2013 after rowing the North Pacific
In 2014 she kayaked 1,500 miles from Adak (her landing place in the rowing boat she Christened 'Happy Socks') along the treacherous Aleutian Islands and the Alaskan Peninsula with her kayaking partner Justine Curgenven. The kayaking expedition took 101 days to link the rowing leg with the cycling leg. As far as we know no-one has made that journey before.
She is currently cycling 5,000 miles across Canada and North America to the Atlantic Coast.
And so to January 2015. On New Year’s Day she crossed the border from Canada into the US and is now cycling aboard Hercules via New York to Cape Cod. She plans to row the Atlantic (“nipping out to sea,” she calls it) starting in May and arriving back in London again in the autumn - the end of her extraordinary human-powered adventure circumnavigation.
It all begs the question: Why? Why cycle through endless countries, sleeping anywhere from forest floors, to filthy tunnels to beaches with ominous bear prints in the sand? Why wrench yourself from friends and family, especially when in the seven months she took to recover from her breakdown she met her now fiancee, Lucy?
“But there’s a risk to everything, isn’t there? I’d much rather be happy about having a go than failing to get out there and try,” she said.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be alone. Rowing solo that first time across the Indian Ocean came quite easily to me. My mind opened. It’s a total immersion in a different world. You’re surrounded by the wild 24/7 with just the things you need to survive. There’s no clutter out there. I just thought: ‘I’d like to do more of this. It’s not rocket science. I reckon I can pull off a big expedition’.”
And so she did.