A small figure in a kayak amid a flotilla of waving Union Flags, passed under Tower Bridge last week. Primary school pupils lined the bank while their teachers exhorted them to cheer. “Come on, make it a big noise,” the children were told. “You would if it was One Direction.” “I don’t like One Direction,” shot back one little girl, inevitably.
But the awkward one seemed truly taken with the smiling, waving figure in the tiny boat, rocking on the grey-brown river far below, and duly bellowed her support. As it happens, Sarah Outen has been involved in one direction herself: travelling around the world from London to London (in an easterly direction) for the past four and a half years, journeying 25,000 miles by rowing boat, kayak and bike. On November 3 she kayaked back under Tower Bridge to complete her epic round-the-world adventure in front of a jubilant welcome-home party.
It has been quite an adventure.
She fell in love with farmer Lucy Allen on one of her land breaks and got engaged. She has faced the most terrifying, life-threatening experiences and survived.
Rutland-born Outen has dragged herself from the depths of depression to continue her expedition after being rescued from a tropical storm in the Pacific in 2012. She lost two boats on hostile oceans, traumas which she has compared to friends dying.
And she has raised almost £50,000 for four separate charities.
That explained both the relief, joy, emotion and jokiness of her arrival home. It was simply overwhelming to the woman who for so much of her adventure has been alone, both battling and revelling in nature. Typically, the first thing she did as she came up the gangplank was hug her girlfriend, her family and then apologise for her unsightly mud-plastered water-proof trousers. “I really stink of the River Thames, so I think the first thing I’m going to do now that I’m on dry land is have a shower,” she said wryly.
Before that, though, she paid tribute to those who had supported her journey, from the home crew in England to the accidental friends she made all over the world. “People who were strangers became friends for the moment. It shows what you can do if you just step out of the normal and have a go. That defines the spirit of the journey.”
This was never a journey designed to break records, shatter expectations or achieve the impossible. Rather, it was an extraordinary feat, but one completed for the sheer love of adventure, rather than the desire to be the best. And that was the story Outen wanted to tell. “The reason why is because I love it,” she said simply.
“I love journeying, I love the challenge of it, the intimacy with your surroundings. It’s like a geography lesson, a biology lesson and a politics lesson all in one. You’re just continually getting stories and experiences you wouldn’t get if you stayed at home.
“Record, shmecord. I’m not in it for that. It’s about the stories and the experiences I have had and then the good I can pass on to folks.
“I travelled the world under my own power, slowly and calmly. I wasn’t intimidating to anything and that means you experience everything in its fullness. You don’t scare people, you don’t scare animals, you feel every bump on the road, the oppressive heat or the biting, chilly wind in winter.
“This journey has been a huge part of my life and so many people have helped me make it happen. The support of family and friends, my team, and then that untold number of people you meet on the road who become a part of the journey. It’s really humbling to have so many people believe in the journey and become a part of it.”
Outen may not be in it for the glory of world records, but she has accidentally picked up a few along the way. In 2009 she became the youngest person, and the first woman, to row solo across the Indian Ocean, a journey inspired by the death of her father when she was 21. He died aged 53 of a pulmonary embolism after suffering with rheumatoid arthritis, and both his premature passing and his rich, full life inspired his daughter.
She said: “I decided I would row solo in his memory and use it as a really positive way to remember him. His life and his character still inspire me today to make the most of the good times, keep your head down and get through the bad times and really shake every ounce of life for all it’s worth. Life and health are finite and precious and we shouldn’t waste them.
“My dad would be really proud. He’d be really glad I was home safe and he would have loved to have come with me. His health would have prevented him, but in some parallel universe, if he’d been granted good health, then he’d have been out there being a part of it.”
Very often travelling alone, this has been a journey which has tested Outen to her limits. She began at Tower Bridge, before kayaking the Channel and cycling more than 10,000 miles across Europe to China and Russia’s eastern border. She cycled and paddled across islands to reach Japan before the fateful crossing from Japan to Canada in 2012. Outen was rescued from the 4,500-mile row after just 25 days, having spent three days believing she would die.
But she returned, after a battle with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, to traverse the North Pacific before cycling across North America with Lucy in tow.
This year her Atlantic crossing from Cape Cod to Falmouth was also cut short. She was rescued after 143 days of rowing as Hurricane Joaquin put her life in jeopardy.
But the intrepid explorer said: “One of the best things this journey has taught me is to embrace change. I wasn’t doing this to tick boxes, I was doing this for the journey, the experience and the lessons and stories. I have that in bucket-loads.
“Looking back, I would not change a thing. I would do it again. No regrets. Even the failures, and the things that went wrong, and the things that really hurt – good things have come out of all of those, even if just life lessons or good photos.
“2015 has been an epic year for me and I don’t use that word lightly. I’m alive and this expedition has shown me on many occasions that being alive is just the best thing and only goal to aim for sometimes.”
Though Outen has admitted she will miss being on the open road, there is plenty to be getting on with now that her feet are firmly back on home soil. There is a book to write and a film to make. Dare to Do, which will be published in May, will document those incredible six years.
And beyond the whirlwind of the publicity machine, Outen has a wedding to organise and a new venture to embark on with Lucy.
“Lucy and I have plans to set up an adventure farm where we bring kids and get them outside, muddy, building dens, cooking over fires and learning about the farm and food production,” Outen explained.
“I will miss being away at times. Once you have done something you enjoy so much, and get such positive experiences from, you want to do that all the time,” she said.
“But equally, I love being home and being part of my friends’ and family’s lives in a way I haven’t been, and the way I have wanted to be for the last few years.
“But I’ll do other journeys; that will always be in my blood.”
— Action Woman (@BTSportAW) November 7, 2015
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and was part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.
Sarah Outen has been nominated for the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year 2015.
During the voting process for the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year, the Mixed Zone will be publishing exclusive interviews with all 10 contenders to help you make your choice.
The winner will be decided by public vote, which closes on Monday, November 23, and will be revealed live on the Action Woman of the Year Awards show, presented by Clare Balding on BT Sport 1, on Tuesday, December 1.
For a full list of the 10 sportswomen in line for the prestigious title – and details of how to vote CLICK HERE.