YHA’s newest ambassador is the extraordinary Sarah Outen MBE. The 31-year-old is best known for her epic expeditions, the most recent of which saw her making a 25,000-mile “London2London” loop of the planet using a rowing boat, a bike and a kayak
What do you remember about your first outdoor experiences?
I just remember being outside all the time – in the garden, in fields, wherever I could get to. My parents would always take us caravanning to random little campsites beneath the bottom of mountains or next to rivers, so we spent many of our holidays on or near national parks. When I was 9 or 10 I went on an activity week at Llangollen. They called up the week before we were due to go and said, “You’re the only girl. Does that matter?” I said, “No! I’m still going!”
Do you have a favourite part of the UK?
I love the southwest coast down in Cornwall. I like the fact that it’s quite rugged – there are plenty of places you can go where you don’t see any signs of people, no buildings or telegraph poles. It’s just sea and beach and cliffs. That’s what I like. I like being away from people.
Being away from people is a bit of a running theme, given your longer journeys.
(laughs) Yes! Although I should clarify that I love people! It seems I’ve got both parts of that personality, in that I embrace solitude and love being in places that feel wild, but then equally I do enjoy being with others and learning from them.
Your London2London expedition took four and a half years and at one point involved spending 150 consecutive days alone at sea. Was there a particular moment that was toughest to bear?
Some of the hardest bits were when I was actually back in this country. I’d never planned to be back during the journey but events forced me to. I got caught in a tropical storm out in the Pacific in 2012. Before being rescued I spent three days being confined to my cabin, just getting smashed about. That was a really scary time, but coming home it was almost even worse. The psychological fall-out of going through that experience alone was tough. And then within that context, trying to get the journey up and running again, to go back and have another go – that was really difficult.
And the highlight of the expedition?
There are so many. One moment that particularly comes to mind is on the Atlantic Ocean in 2015. I was a few hundred miles west of the Azores and found myself in really biologically rich waters. One day I had four sperm whales just hanging out next to the boat for about an hour, two mothers and two calves. They were rolling over on their backs. I could see their teeth, their eyes, the scratches on their bodies. That was really special.
What keeps you going during the hardest moments?
When things are really tough, or scary, you know they’re not going to last forever, so if you can keep holding on for the better times, that’s really powerful. You have to celebrate small successes and the fact that you’re still going.
What do you miss most when you’re away?
I don’t crave home comforts. I appreciate them when I have them, but it’s not as though I’m out in the ocean thinking about my bed or a shower. It’s people that I miss the most, and more so as I’ve got older. One thing I do dream about out at sea is fresh food! I do always make sure I have some chocolate bars to hand though.
What does the future hold?
My partner Lucy and I got married in the summer and I’m really enjoying being at home, putting down roots, building a garden and spending time together. I have ideas for other journeys but I’m not sure at what point they’ll happen. Lucy and I have plans to create an adventure farm, to get kids out onto the farm learning about food, building dens, camping out, jumping in rivers. That’s our goal. Spending time outside is so important. A lot of people’s health problems would be much improved if they only spent more time outside.
What’s the most important piece of advice?
My parents set a great example. They taught me to make the most of the good times and hold on through the not so good times. That was really important for me. Their advice was go and do whatever you want to do, go and make it happen, no one’s going to do it for you. It was almost permission to dream.
Read Sarah’s account of her epic London2London expedition in her book Dare To Do, which is out now on Nicholas Brealey Publishing. sarahouten.com