Sarah Outen was rowing somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean in 2009 when she decided to go on a longer journey. "I wanted more of it," she said in a recent email. "And I wanted to experience that same human-powered pace on land too." Not long after, she became the first woman to row across that ocean. Last year, she started a two-and-a-half-year journey to bike, kayak, and row from London to London. We emailed her, 404 days into her quest, to see how things were going.
April 1, 2011, to Autumn 2013.
From London to London. So far, I have kayaked and cycled 11,000 miles from London to Choshi, Japan. With my kayak, Nelson, I traveled from London's Tower Bridge down the Thames and across the English Channel to France. I then jumped on my bike, Hercules, and cycled through France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and Russia’s wild Far East. For the final leg of this part of the journey, I used Nelson and Hercules to paddle and cycle my way over 1,000 miles to Japan via the remote island of Sakhalin. I over-wintered in Japan and am now waiting for a gap in the weather to let me start my solo ocean row from Japan to Canada—about 4,500 nautical miles.
The Toughest Leg:
There have been all sorts of challenges along the way. The Gobi Desert in China was hideous at times—with no water and scorching temperatures—but I think the most challenging leg was from the Russian mainland down to Japan. I hopscotched via the island of Sakhalin. Mentally and physically I was exhausted by this time. I was pushing as hard as possible to make the weather windows in time and dealing with all sorts of external pressures: visa issues, kit failure, and complex logistics. After months of cycling, it was a bit of a shock to the system to jump back in a kayak and make some really tough crossings, then go back to the bike, and then go back to the boat. I really battled to keep it together at times. Thankfully, that was also one of the most beautiful legs too—rugged landscapes, close encounters with wildlife. Looking ahead, this Pacific row is likely to be the most challenging of the whole journey, I think.
The Most Rewarding Moment:
I love wildlife, so my favorite moments have come from close encounters with animals. But the best story so far has to be that of Gao, a young guy I met in a petrol station in China. He was interested in my bike and journey and I encouraged him to make his own journey one day, reassuring him that the tough bits make the good bits even better. He took the website details and off he went. Ten minutes down the road my pedalling was interrupted by shouts from the other side of the road. Gao had driven back to find me and shouted that he wanted to ride to Beijing with me. He was grinning nervously. We talked and I tried to dissuade him at first—on grounds of a tight schedule with big miles ahead, a desert, etc. He came up with an answer for everything. He said he could buy a bike, that he would be my guide and translator, etc. After a few more minutes I said yes and drew up a shopping list, bike included. Two days later we set off together, bound for the capital. He had shaved his head, was dressed top to toe in red lycras, and had a huge Chinese flag flying from the back of his bike. Every day his bike fell apart and his wheels punctured dozens of times, but every day we found a solution. After 35 days, we arrived in Beijing together after a wonderful adventure. It is such an inspiring story and makes me smile every time I think of it. It just goes to show attitude is the most important thing—not fancy gear or planning or experience.
I wanted to experience the world from a human-powered perspective, challenging myself across different environments by land and sea. I also wanted it to be a shared experience, bringing the adventures and lessons to classrooms in particular. Though I am solo most of the time, it is not just my expedition, it's a shared journey.
Sarah talks about her fears for the upcoming Pacific rowing leg: