Via the World: The challenge of returning to land after 150 days alone at sea

Sarah Outen

Indy Blogger Sarah Outen MBE rowed solo across the North Pacific ocean this summer between Japan and Alaska, landing in Adak in the Aleutians at the end of September. Her row was just one phase of her ‘London2London: Via the World’ expedition, which sees her aiming to complete a loop of the planet using a rowing boat, a bike and a kayak. By rowing over the International Date Line during this row, Sarah is now over half way home to Tower Bridge. The journey relaunches in April 2014 when she will kayak from Adak Island to the first road…some 1400 miles away on the Alaskan peninsula.

Adak arrival 300x200 Via the World: The challenge of returning to land after 150 days alone at sea

Arriving in Adak

Since coming ashore

Last week my good friend Mylene Paquette crossed the finish line of her trans Atlantic row – landing safely in France 130 days after casting off the bowlines in Halifax, Canada. Seeing the pictures of her emotional reunion with her sister, of holding the orange flares aloft in a blaze of happiness and relief, brought back the emotion of my own landing in Alaska at the end of September. I had been alone at sea for 150 days, rowing solo across the North Pacific, having left Japan at the end of April.

The Indy wrote a lovely article about my landing and row, which you can read here. My own writing from the tiny island of Adak was limited by dodgy satellite connections – all the internet and phone lines on the island come in and out via a satellite dish.  When the wind is up (which is often) the satellite dish wobbles and  the connection with the outside world drifts away. This was great for me and my ‘just-got-off-a-tiny-boat-’ headspace but meant that my comms out was limited. My blog  for my own website about the landing and following days on the island is here.

Half-way house

I spent a week on Adak – recovering my land legs, sorting out my boat Happy Socks, visiting the local school and community and exploring the island. Physically the landscape reminds me of Scotland – lush, green and mountainous, with green blue bays full of otters and seals, dipped by eagles hunting on the wind. And here comes the interesting juxtaposition – of rusting, wasting infrastructure and empty homes and building, deserted vehicles left by the US Air Force after they pulled their 10,000 troops at the start of the millennium. Adak had been an important base from the First World War to that point and has a rich military and cultural history. With fewer than 200 residents on the island during my stay, the space, quiet and laid back vibe made my return to land relatively easy. In that first week, at least. There is a lot to be said for landing away from crowds and media attention when you have spent months alone talking only to your boat and passing wildlife. My welcome on Adak was gentle and warm.

ADak hug 300x200 Via the World: The challenge of returning to land after 150 days alone at seaTotal exhaustion and high levels of stress on the boat in those final weeks had left me pretty ragged. I hadn’t slept for the 30 hours before landing, instead just rowing, eating, rowing, eating, rowing, eating through the day and night in a bid to row safely ashore. The simple act of stepping ashore and handing over responsibility for decisions and my safety to my team took a huge weight off me.  Five months on high alert and my job was done. Stand down. We had achieved our goal. Smile and breathe…

On the way home from Alaska I met my fiancée Lucy in New York for a week’s holiday together. I had asked her to marry me over the satellite phone while at sea. Day 66, July 1st. It’s a date we will always remember.

Challenges of re-entry

It was coming home to the UK that proved the most challenging part of the transition from my sealife of solitude. Normally, transitions between different phases of the expedition or the journey and home prove challenging psychologically as I adjust to a different way of life, goals or being around people or alone. This time it was the physical challenges which tested– and continue – to test me. 24 hours after coming home I was in hospital with suspected pulmonary embolism (blood clots on the lungs). The diagnosis changed to pneumonia after a scan and, four days later when I came home, I had a severe allergic reaction. Since then, the allergies and associated effects have proven rather tricky and there is still some investigation to be done as to exactly what is going on. One thing is clear – my immune system took a hammering in those final weeks at sea and the whole thing has been throwing a tantrum since. Thank goodness it waited until now to do so.

Adak banner 300x200 Via the World: The challenge of returning to land after 150 days alone at seaAs such, the last seven weeks since landing in Alaska have blurred and my time at sea seems rather surreal and distant. My focus has been on getting healthy, catching up with family and friends, and then on starting to plan and train for the onwards leg of my expedition. In April next year I shall return to Adak with my kayaking team mate Justine Curgenven to paddle the 1400 miles along the Aleutian Islands and Alaskan Peninsula to the nearest road. It is going to be a grueling but beautiful expedition, wild and remote. The logistical considerations  are as immense as the scale of the physical challenges – multiple long open water crossings challenged by feisty, unpredictable currents; blasting winds and limited landing options on uninhabited islands. There are various stretches of a few hundred miles where we expect to see no one and will be unable to restock our supplies. We shall be relying on fishing to supplement our diet and, if things get really desperate, foraging on the seashore for anything edible – sea urchins, chitons and the like. And after the half way mark there will be bears and lots of them. Plenty to keep us busy with planning and researching for now and fuel aplenty to drive wild dreams and imaginings. It’s all rather exciting.

Meanwhile, the focus for me is on getting strong and healthy again, training for the kayaking leg with Justine and planning and researching that phase. There are sponsors to engage, funds to be raised, talks to be given. I think the time will fly.

Sarah Nelson splash 300x168 Via the World: The challenge of returning to land after 150 days alone at sea

The next leg...

A few people have asked me if I am disappointed at not having made it to Canada. I chuckle and grin. Not a bit of it. I still shiver with excitement every time I hear, read or say the word Alaska. It is going to be an amazing journey next year. Brutal and beautiful, challenging and raw. And for now I am able to be at home with friends and family and my fiancée Lucy. In my head, that is just perfect.

Sarah is blogging for the Indy all the way back to London, as well as on her own blog and tweeting and phonecasting too. Folow her here. She is fundraising for CoppaFeel!, Jubilee Sailing Trust, MND Association and WaterAid. You can donate to support her charities here.

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