Sarah Outen will tell you she’s impulsive by nature. The British adventurer first heard about ocean rowing as a college student and celebrated her 24th birthday on the Indian Ocean, which she rowed alone because she couldn’t convince anyone to join her. Back home in the U.K., someone asked what she planned as an encore. Circle the globe under human power, she blurted.
She started in April 2011 at Tower Bridge in London, kayaking down the Thames and across the Channel to France, where she mounted the bike she calls Hercules and pedaled 11,000 miles to the Russian Far East, where she joined her sea kayaking instructor turned part-time expedition partner, Justine Curgenven. The duo crossed to Sakhalin Island and then to Japan, and in November Outen and Hercules squeaked to a stop at the British Embassy in Tokyo, seven and a half months after leaving London.
The journey was about to get serious.
After a rest at home in the U.K., Outen set out to row across the Pacific in a 23-foot oceangoing rowboat. She named it Gulliver and stocked it with provisions for half a year. She’d needed 125 days to row 3,500 miles across the Indian Ocean; her route from Japan to Canada was 1,200 miles longer than that.
Outen was 600 miles off the Japanese coast when she received the storm warning. Typhoon Mawar was tracking north from the Philippines, packing winds of more than 70 miles per hour. It couldn’t miss.
Outen gave the storm a nickname (“Rosie,” because Mawar means “rose” in Indonesian) and prepared for the worst. Gulliver was built for heavy weather, with a watertight cabin, self-righting ballast, and a harness to hold her in her bunk. “All OK. Wind increasing. Strapped in,” Outen messaged her support team at 8 a.m. on June 6, 2012, her 26th day at sea. The storm built through the day and night. At 3 a.m. she wrote, “Everything ripped off. Nuts. Bit scared. Feel silly for riding storm.”
The vessel tumbled in 30-foot waves, capsizing more than 20 times as Outen stared at the tiny cabin’s fiberglass walls, covered in goodwill messages friends had written in black Sharpie. When the storm subsided, the Japanese Coast Guard sent a boat to evacuate her. Gulliver was too damaged to continue, and the same could be said for Outen. Her bruises healed quickly enough, but the emotional trauma grew deeper when she returned to the U.K. Outen fell into depression and suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress. “I avoided people mostly, but I found a couple of allies,” she told the Telegraph. Among them was her girlfriend, Lucy Allen. The couple retreated to Allen’s family farm, where Outen slowly gathered the resolve to continue her journey.
The storm and its emotional aftermath are the crux of “Home,” Jen Randall’s new film about Outen’s circumnavigation. Woven from hundreds of hours of expedition footage, the story conveys moments of great joy and sublime solitude, but it turns on those harrowing hours alone in the Pacific.
“Letting that rawness be seen and heard and viscerally felt, that’s a bit scary, but I want people to know that it’s okay to not be okay sometimes, and that there are ways and means of getting better,” says Outen, 34, who is studying to be a child psychotherapist while moonlighting as a motivational speaker.
“I want people to embrace fear and know that we needn’t let it stop us from chasing our dreams or trying new things. I want people to know that the biggest part of making something happen comes in saying ‘I’m going to give this a go,” she says.
Outen spent the rest of 2012 and the early part of 2013 beating back her demons and preparing a new ocean rowing boat, Happy Socks, for the Pacific crossing. She left Japan in April, bound for Vancouver, British Columbia. Again she encountered heavy weather, drifting hundreds of miles off course.
As weeks at sea became months, Outen recorded the passage of days on the walls of her cabin in blocks of five. Years before on the Indian Ocean she’d learned there’s a big difference between alone and lonely. “I’ve always loved being in nature, and to get that deep relationship with my surroundings for an extended period was sublime,” she told the Irish Examiner.
“I found that you are confronted with yourself, which can be frustrating and painful at times, but you get to find out what you feel, without the filter of anyone else.” Outen embraced the solitude but also drew strength from loved ones back home, and in a moment of inspired clarity she proposed to Allen by satellite phone from the middle of the Pacific. When she finally made landfall the Guardian proclaimed “Briton reaches Aleutian Islands after five months at sea, during which she capsized five times and got engaged.”
Outen had come ashore in Adak, Alaska, at the far western end of the Aleutian Archipelago, nearly as close to Tokyo as to Vancouver. She phoned Curgenven. “Fancy a kayak trip?” she asked.
Curgenven was game. “I’m attracted to sea kayaking in wild, challenging places and the Aleutians had been top of my list for years,” the Welsh kayaking filmmaker explains, though Outen’s relative lack of kayaking experience was a concern throughout the 101-day expedition. The 1,300-mile journey required more than a dozen sketchy crossings as the two women hop-scotched along the Aleutian island chain to the Alaskan mainland. Curgenven’s film captures the scale of the undertaking and the mixture of trepidation and pure delight with which they approached it.
“You don’t often see accounts of huge expeditions that are clearly incredibly tough but also so full of joy,” says Randall, who saw Kayaking the Aleutians at a film festival and later leaped at the chance to tell the story of Outen’s full journey. “I was interested in diving into bigger questions behind such an enormous journey, peeling back the layers that led to this young woman questing off for four years by herself.”
Outen wasn’t always alone, of course. Curgenven accompanied her for the kayaking legs and some of the cycling. In China, Outen met a young man named Gao who joined her on a whim and rode more than 3,000 miles. She says he represents the true spirit of adventure that inspired her journey, and that she hopes it awakens in others.
She rested just two weeks before climbing aboard the faithful Hercules for the penultimate leg of her journey, 5,000 miles by bike from Homer, Alaska to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Allen joined her for part of the seven-month ride through an unusually bitter winter. She’d considered quitting several times in 2014, but cycling with Allen gave her the boost she needed to carry on.
She reunited with Happy Socks on Cape Cod and in April 2015 set out to row her third ocean, the North Atlantic. Again she was unlucky with weather, and after four months at sea she was barely halfway. This time, when her shore team told her a cyclone was headed her way—Hurricane Joaquin, a storm even stronger than Mawar—Outen abandoned her round-the-world quest. A passing freighter picked her up about 1,000 miles short of her goal.
She took a victory lap the following fall, cycling 300 miles through England and finishing in her kayak at Tower Bridge, but she didn’t finish her circumnavigation, and has no plans try.
“I did my best out there, and nature is always boss,” she told Here & Now. “I’ve learned to accept a lot of things on this journey that I can’t control. I’ve always really enjoyed the quote, ‘the journey is the reward’ and I’ve had a really enriching, enlightening and challenging journey the whole way through. So for me it’s just part of the story now.”