When Sarah Outen, the 34-year-old adventurer who in 2009 became the first woman and youngest person to solo row across the Indian Ocean, felt drained at sea, she would recite poetry to herself.
"I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, / And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…", she would say to the open spaces devoid of humans, pulling lines from John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’ as she pulled herself through the waves in her rowboat, named Dippus - short for Serendipity . Her sea was not a lonely one, though, and was, in fact, one place where she felt the most comfortable.
"In general, I have found solitude to be quite a beautiful thing, a gift, really, to be that present with yourself. Nobody else’s projections getting in the way of things."
Outen, already a seasoned adventurer, has racked up more achievements that this 125-trek, completing an almost totally solo loop around the world just two years later, in her London2London: Via the World trip. This journey carried out on rowing boat, bicycle and kayak took more than four and a half years, and is the topic of her film, Home, which is released on June 15th.
Oh, did we mention the degree in Biology from Oxford University? There’s that, too.
Living as part of the waves
It was in Oxford that Outen first took up rowing, a sport that would eventually lead her to and through some of the most harrowing periods in her life. She had always felt most at home out of doors, and one motivation for taking on the Indian Ocean row was "wanting to get out and experience living on the ocean, to see what it was like, to power myself across and live as part of the waves alongside wildlife", she tells me.
"There was a really personal motivation, too, certainly to go solo in as much as my father died three years before that journey happened", she added. At this point, she was already planning to tackle the feat, albeit as part of a team. However, after her father’s death, "it just felt like I needed to go solo".
"I wanted to use the journey as a way to, in some part at least, get through that grief, as a physical way of charting this complete unknown of grief in a world without my dad."
Anyone who has lost a loved one, be it suddenly or not, will know the sea change it creates in their life. For many, physical exercise and endurance challenges become a natural outlet, a constructive and healthy way to run, swim, climb or otherwise push yourself out of uncertainty and fear.
Cheryl Stayed arguably made the physical challenge as coping mechanism mainstream in her memoir Wild, in which she wrote about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail after the death of her mother, inspiring as many travelers to trek out with just their boots and their problems as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love inspired the same to eat pasta and buy bigger jeans.
The same was true for Sarah, and endeavouring to row alone across all 5,889.85 km of the Indian Ocean, from Freemantle, Australia to Mauritius, presented itself as a natural way to process her grief. "It was a reflection of my default way of processing stuff, which is to be outside and I’m a very physical person", she says.
Grief is still grief
How helpful was such a trek? Helpful to a degree, says Outen. "I think grief is still grief and there’s lot of layers and it’s not linear and it can’t be boxed, which is definitely something I’ve learned since getting a little bit older. It certainly helped as part of a process, both in a way to make something positive come from it and literally move forwards, to always be moving forward with the journey and across the ocean."
Being outdoors alone, she said, also brought her nearer to her dad. "That’s where I feel closest to him." Indeed, her book based on the experience, A Dip in the Ocean, was dedicated to his memory.
When it comes to grief, the majority of our experience of it is purely reaction, responding to the unknown, but for a solo journey across the Indian Ocean, there is as much preparation required as you can imagine.
"[It] felt like a bit of an experiment to me", Outen says with a laugh. "Naively or not, I had this sense of ‘well, I’ve survived a couple of years of grief, so I know that I’m tenacious enough to survive what the ocean has for me’."
So what does it take to row alone across an ocean?
"I prepared mentally and physically in different ways", Outen says, "but they all tie in together because I think part of the mental preparation comes from knowing that you’ve done everything else as well as you possibly can."
Aside from readying equipment, learning how to use it, training for protocols and completing enough physical training to allow your body to "keep on trucking", there is the tortuous whipping of your mind into shape, something much more demanding than any cardio or resistance training you can do. Let’s call it "resilience" training.
"I knew that mentally I needed confidence in myself beyond anything I’d done before", Outen says, "so my attitude to that was, ‘right, I need to go and do some challenges that really, really hurt and where I’m really, really tired and that will give me a boost of confidence.’" She ran the London Marathon among other endurance challenges, creating a well of motivation and self-empowerment from which Outen could pull in times of need.
Possibly more daunting, however, was a particular solemn conversation Outen needed to have, one that essentially laid out everything that could do wrong and plans for how to deal with them - even ones they had no way of predicting.
"One of the most important parts was sitting down with another person and considering what was going to happen at sea, while also not really having a clue. Part of it was accepting before setting out that there was going to be a lot of stuff that I have no warning for and is out of my control. So thinking about strategies, how I can help manage those out-of-control feelings or frustrations and building a little safety protocol. It takes some of the uncertainty out."
Just you and the waves
Here’s a fact that we take for granted when considering these incredible feats of incredible resilience and endurance by solo adventurers: you have to do everything yourself. Even Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus had a team to help clean, prepare food and share a laugh with. When it’s just you and the waves, it really is just you and the waves.
"It sounds really obvious but the reality of it is it’s really tiring, really stressful and obviously you’ve got all those different responsibilities that maybe in another situation you could maybe share with someone else", Outen says. There would be days, Outen explains, where she would long for someone to take responsibility for the journey for a day, make her lunch or simply give her a cuddle.
"I know that I’m going to get stressed by the fact that I’m doing everything myself, that I’m going to get really tired, from both the physicality of things - your body is always moving, you’re always having to think about holding onto something or the next job you have to do.
"I know there’ll be rough weather, I just don’t necessarily know when it’s going to come, I know that I’m probably going to get a bit bored of some of the food, I might miss my friends or family or feel a bit homesick, I know I’m going to hurt - in fact, I could end up with salt water sores."
This is where mental dexterity and fortitude comes into play, as loneliness and weariness are factors Outen could predict and prepare for. "Going out to sea, the same as you’ve got a toolbox and bits of equipment for the boat and a first aid kit, I had that toolkit of things to keep my mojo going and to keep my headspace as balanced as it possibly could be", she says.
People often assume I was lonely out on my ocean rows, but I only ever felt lonely when I was really scared. With wildlife visiting regularly, I didn't feel lonely at all. I felt connected and a part of the universe in a very special way.#adventure #nature #HomeTheFilm pic.twitter.com/FwIP6cwi9y— Sarah Outen (@SarahOuten) June 6, 2019
"Often in those situations, a really basic [driver] is this basic need of like, ‘if you do not carry on, you are going to die. If you stop cycling at -40 degrees, you’re going to freeze.’ So, on one level there’s this really practical, pragmatic [sense that] you’ve just got to keep going and it doesn’t matter what it takes.
"I think that’s probably more relatable than people think. It might be that we’ve got kids, and ‘okay, if I stop here and give up those kids aren’t going to survive. They need a parent.’"
"I took cards and letters and presents from people that I could open at different times, that reminded me of them. It reflects how important social contact is and for me, the best way to deal with that has always been to create ways in which they can sort of be present.
"One of the tricks I’ve developed over the years is to imagine an invisible peloton of all these people around me, beside me, pulling me on, pushing me on."
Treats help, too, of course. For Outen, among her menu of dried fruit, jerky and nuts where the treat days when she could tuck into a tin of peaches or a slice of malt loaf.
Somewhere over the moonbow
But for Outen, living on the waves is worth it for what you see, wonders that the vast majority of us will never see, or even conceive of.
"There are things that you just never see before, things like squid jumping up onto the boat", she says, the wonder still ringing in her voice. "Moonbows, where you get a rainbow but it’s at night and it’s where the sun’s reflection off the moon is bright enough and the rain happens to be in a particular part of the sky and you get a beautiful, silvery moonbow. Ditto, out on the Pacific, I saw mistbows, so you get a rainbow but it’s happening in the mist.
"Ditto, wildlife, the array of different wildlife that you see from plankton floating along right up to sperm whales that are as big as swimming pools. That’s why I go to sea."