How Ellen MacArthur changed my life

Sarah Outen believes there needs to be a change in policy among the broadcast media to produce adventure programmes that will capture the imagination, particularly of the young. Just like she was inspired as a teenager

It’s always the same. The television man’s pitch follows a depressingly similar pattern. “So, we’re looking for Lara Croft meets Bruce Parry,” he says. I laugh inwardly. I’m surprised and somehow not surprised that this was the brief for his adventure programme. A highly-sexualised fictional character crossed with a guy. Why not look for someone unique and talented in their own right? I wonder if they ever did find that hybrid vision they were after.

I’m still waiting to see the results of Discovery’s quest to broaden their presentership (if I can make up a word). I remember being in the flat of a pal who presents for them, seeing a flyer for the Discovery Adventure Season. Six square-jawed males in a row. And this is the 21st century. Women have been exploring and journeying since the year dot. But do we hear about them in the mainstream media? Often not. And when we do they are so far apart, names can get blurred.

Waiting for the loo at St Pancras one day, a lady asked if I was “that lady from the ocean”. I said yes, sheepishly, as I had just been all over the news after my rescue from the Pacific. As I came out from the cubicle and past the line again, I heard her saying: “I’ve just had my picture taken with Helen McArthy.” I smiled and walked on. That is a name I often hear when I ask people about the adventurous women they have seen on television in recent years. Cue thinking faces, furrowed brows and a lot of silence.

At around the age of 16 I remember watching the documentary about Ellen MacArthur’s Vendee Globe race and being totally inspired by seeing a woman kicking ass in a field of guys. And more importantly, she was the first woman of my time that I had seen fronting her own journey on television. Never since, to my knowledge, has there been a terrestrial TV programme of a woman’s adventure – there by her own rights. Of course, there are various celebrity stunts and travelogues where a female might travel with a crew on some route or other. But otherwise the channels are saturated with the journeys of guys – a lot of it hammed up to be hyperbolically dangerous.

  The lack of diversity is not just gender-based, but the sweep of ethnicity, sexuality and economic backgrounds is also pretty narrow. And to what end? The majority of people watching are not in that narrow band of middle-class white male. The hordes of youngsters tuning in are seeing a sliver of the potential and a tiny reflection of their population.

Thank goodness, therefore, for the internet and social media – the way that storytelling has become democratised. In my field of adventure, this means that there is an array of people from all across the spectrum, doing and sharing their journeys. Ditto for adventure and travel film festivals – the stories are more representative of the travelling masses than TV would have us believe. And yet there is still a bias. Fewer films by women and of women, and ditto BAME, sexuality and economic status. It’s hard to pinpoint the chicken and the egg for this – in terms of sponsorship, media coverage, audience and role models. Across the board we need greater parity, greater investment and more opportunities. We don’t need dilution of the meritocracy, but support for nascent talent to flourish.

For my own recent major journey – a pretty hefty four-and-a-half-year attempt to loop the planet using human power – it had always been my vision to share the story. Last year my book was published; next year I hope we will release the film. Before, during and after the journey we pitched to, and were approached by, various production companies and channels. We had an offer from one, which was laughable, and I turned down another which I now think could have come good. But mostly, after various discussions, the answer would come back with various versions of ‘no’. That’s fair enough, but it felt like they were cloaks of something else. The “there’s not enough jeopardy” or “there’s a lack of emotion” cards are just rubbish. I couldn’t have had much more jeopardy in my journey, short of actually dying on route. We didn’t need to hype or act up for any of it – the twists and turns of the journey provided it in bucket-loads. And the same for the emotion – the highs and the lows are etched in sharp relief.

While I would have been happy for the reach that a broadcast deal would have offered – the chance to get into hundreds of thousands of homes, and especially the heads of youngsters – I’m happy with where my film is right now. About to be crafted by acclaimed director Jen Randall, leaving us with full creative control and all the space and time of having had two extra years to process the journey’s happenings.

I think now, more than ever, television channels could do with broadening their pool and increasing their reach. As the NHS crumbles under the weight of non-communicable diseases such as obesity, diabetes and depression, children’s ranging radius from home shrinks ever closer to their screens, and the literacy of nature is being eroded before our eyes, we need to see a broader range of people accessing the outdoors. Future versions of themselves in worlds that are theirs for the exploring.

Watching Ellen’s documentary in my teens directly influenced my aspirations, decisions and perhaps most importantly my sense of self and self-belief. Stories can change lives and, equally, if the same story with the same characters and roles is played out over and over, we are containing and limiting our capacity to change and our imagination. And we might just be missing out on some of the best stories of our generation.

Sarah Outen MBE is a British adventurer with multiple world records to her name, a motivational speaker and author of two books. She was one of the BT Sport Action Women of the Year in 2015. She is currently crowdfunding to make the film of her London2London: Via the World journey. Find out more here.


Sarah Outen completed a six-year adventure to traverse the globe by bike, rowing boat and kayak. Sarah’s latest articles

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