Sarah Outen – Rowing Solo, first woman across the Indian Ocean

A few weeks ago she set off on her epic adventure to get to London.  From London.  Via the world.  Sarah Outen is travelling Eastwards, around the globe, on land and sea, by rowing, kayaking and cycling.  It will take her around two years to complete this incredible feat.  And I thought my journey on the M4 today was a challenge.  At the moment she is somewhere amongst the former Soviet States, but a few months ago she was my first interview subject for Beyond Limits Magazine.  So, courtesy of Beyond Limits, here is that interview in full:

24-year olds with a degree are spending their time carving out high-flying careers in the City or studying for the next level of academic attainment.  Not so Sarah Outen.   An email in her second year of university introduced her to the concept of ocean rowing and, in 2009, she became the first woman to row across the Indian Ocean: a journey of over 4000 nautical miles and 124 days.  And she did it completely solo.  Beyond Limits caught up with her between cycle training in Ireland, expedition planning and sponsorship meetings to ask her about how she did it and why.

“I love rowing, I love the oceans and it seemed like a brilliant adventure,” says Sarah, who had initially been putting together a team attempt.  But a few months into the planning, Sarah’s father died very suddenly.  Sarah didn’t let this sad event stop her, but used it inspire her to an even greater achievement.

“I decided to row solo as a tribute to him and as a charity fundraiser,” she explains, “My Indian Ocean row was a survival bid too.  It was a metaphor for my grief at my father’s death.  So it meant more than adventure.”

It was a long road getting to it too, with 3 years of training, preparation and fundraising to get to Australia.  Sarah did this alongside a degree and work.  “There were plenty of barriers along the way,” she muses, “But I think that if you want something badly enough, you’ll put everything into it and work to overcome those barriers.  The financial side of the expedition was huge and the logistics was challenging too, but you learn on the job, you innovate, you keep trying and you make it happen.”

Sarah began her challenge from Perth in Western Australia, but there was an immediate setback when the weather resulted in her doing a 400 mile loop and ending up back where she had started!  Rather than be disheartened, she waited till the weather got better and started again.  Sarah believes that,

“Failure isn’t failure if you learn something.  Failure can be reframed and used as something positive.  The failed attempt became my Warm-Up Lap.”

During her trip, Sarah’s boat capsized several times, which was “always very scary” but it’s the sublime that really stands out: “There were so many moments where I was completely quieted by the beauty, scale and colour of my surroundings: everything from swimming in 6km water so bright and blue; to having a fifteen metre whale swim under the boat and looking up at me; to the stars that tracked across the sky each evening.”

Sarah used her journey to draw attention to Wildlife and the impact of humans on the environment.  She studied Biology at Oxford, and it was moments seeing the graceful movements of albatross and whales on her journey that really stood out to her.  “Their finesse on the water put me to shame,” she reflects, “I felt very human out there when these ocean cruisers popped by.”

124 days in a boat is a long time.  And Sarah learnt a lot from it.  “The biggest thing is that I now know I can do solo expeditions – and long ones too.  Before the Indian Ocean I had only ever spent a day in my own company.  It was a complete unknown.  I’ve also seen how I work under pressure and in extreme endurance settings – I know I can plumb the depths of my energy and won’t give up, even when I’m scared.  That is satisfying.  And it is good to know I can keep my humour too!

“Everything is transferable. It has reinforced the value of positive attitude, perseverance and good discipline.  The project management and business side of it has been an excellent apprenticeship too.”

The use of the word apprenticeship suggests that Sarah views this as the first step in a lifetime of adventures.  For many people, doing one challenge like this is enough and they return to a life most of us would be familiar with.  But the itch has not been scratched for Sarah.  Whilst settling down and teaching is something she can imagine doing one day, for the moment she is living a life she didn’t imagine she could have: enjoying writing her book, being a motivational speaker and planning her next challenge.  “My next two oceans are an extension of the adventures and my love of storytelling and sharing.  It’s not just my adventure,” she says.  Of course, there has to be sacrifice and Sarah says that “various parts of my personal life have been put on hold to pursue my ambitions at the moment.  That’s my choice though, so I’m happy with that.

“There’s a time for everything in life and right now this is my adventure time.”

“I don’t know where the future will take me. I have ideas and I know that serendipity will present opportunities too. So I’m keeping my options open and as long as the track changes fit with my ideals and energies then that’s great.”

Expect to hear plenty more about Sarah Outen and her adventures over the next few years as she has a lot more to come.

“I hope I leave a legacy of can-do kick-ass spirit – encouraging people to follow their dreams while also doing good for other people and the planet. It’s a story of feeling alive, I suppose, and making the most of now. Always.”


Sarah Outen studied Biology at Oxford University and became the youngest person, and only woman, to row solo across the Indian Ocean in 2009.  Sarah is now engaged in “London 2 London: Via The World”, a 2 and a half year project to run, row, cycle and kayak right around the world.  You can visit Sarah’s website here.  Her book, A Dip In The Ocean, is available from February 2011 onwards.

About Ash Bhardwaj

A storyteller, travel writer, journalist and film-maker. I am a regular contributor to Huffington Post, The Telegraph and the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. I spent much of 2013 working on Walking The Nile, Levison Wood's attempt to walk the world's longest river. I founded Digital Dandy, a video storytelling company, in 2012 to produce content for brands and businesses.
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