Home: An interview with Sarah OutenFrom The Field
‘It can be hard to trust the mess, but it’s a good intention to aim for. To imagine waves of chaos or challenge coming in as you watch them from a clifftop or float above them.’ Sarah Outen
After four and a half years journeying outwards on her human-powered expedition to navigate the globe, Sarah Outen MBE looks inwards in her latest feature film Home.
We spoke to Sarah following the release of Home to delve deeper into what made the adventurer push herself to her physical and mental limits, and why sometimes letting go is the best and only way forward.
Sidetracked: It’s been nearly nine years since you first departed Tower Bridge on your London2London: Via The World expedition. Did 25-year-old Sarah have any idea that the expedition story would turn out like it has?
Sarah: No, and that’s the magic thing about journeys. The only thing I knew was that I didn’t know anything about how things would pan out – whether I would even make it home or not. I only knew that it would be an adventure.
When you set out in Home you’re determined to stick to the dotted line, but in the end you abandon it. Why do you think it was so important to you to stick to your planned route, and what did you learn from letting it go?
I was always one for finishing off what I set out to do, what I said I would do. I had a difficult relationship with failure and stepping away from goals before they were completed. I think I have a boarding-school education to thank for that – I always set myself high standards and gave myself a hard time if things didn’t go to plan. So on the one hand, I was driven by this, worried about what others might think and how I would judge myself. On the other hand, I went back to the Pacific after my first attempt because I knew that just because it had ended that way once, it wouldn’t necessarily happen again. And there was so much left of the journey to complete – so many more stories to find.
Letting go of that on the Atlantic after I was picked up following the hurricane forecast felt easy and natural. Evolution had taken place and I could see the wider journey and its lessons and richness for all that it was – just loosely threaded by this line. It was as though that was the basis, but then the journey grew and I grew into it. There were so many changes, both forced and chosen, and often they became some of the best parts of the journey or those with the most profound lessons. There was something about letting go of expectations or the need for things to be a certain way – a letting go of other people’s expectations (or my perception of them), as well as letting go of the need to always push myself to oblivion. There’s been a softening and a learning how to rest, ultimately, although it has taken years since finishing to truly come to know that. I wish I had more fully understood the need for and role of rest before setting out.
As well as being a film about adventure, Home strikes me as a coming-of-age film, and I think many people in their twenties will relate to it. Based on your experiences, what advice would you give a 25-year-old struggling to make sense of the chaos?
It can be hard to trust the mess, but it’s a good intention to aim for, to imagine waves of chaos or challenge coming in as you watch them from a clifftop or float above them. Check in with yourself regularly – how does this feel? Am I happy with it or does something need to change? Listen to your gut instinct and trust it. Don’t be afraid to fail, nor to say no. And above all, be kind to yourself, the world and others.
Home tells of the physical and psychological landscapes that you journey through on the expedition. While you may have expected to travel through many unfamiliar physical landscapes, were you prepared for the mental toll the expedition would take?
No. I was open to the idea that it would be harder than anything I had experienced – or at least on a different scale to anything I had done previously. The crashes and episodes of PTSD following the Pacific in 2012, the journey’s end in 2016, and the return of my boat, Gulliver, in 2018 were on a whole different level to previous difficult times. I understand now that they were cumulative too, enmeshed with previous losses and traumas. It has taken until this year to truly feel that I have come home to myself, healed, and learned to understand and manage my triggers and return to a version of health approaching pre-expedition levels.
In the film, you describe yourself as a ‘rare bird in a strange land’. Did the expedition help you to feel more at home in yourself and the world around you?
Yes, it did – I always feel so connected to myself and the wider world when I am outdoors and in the wilderness. By contrast, on coming home and settling into post-expedition life, at times I have felt at odds with both myself and the world around me. There is still a part of me out there on the ocean or forever on the road.
You also say that you ‘grew up restless and rushing’ and that at boarding school you were taught not to ask for help, and that failure was not an option. Do you think that schools in the UK could do more to safeguard the mental health of children and young adults, and could time spent outdoors play a part in that?
I think that both children and teachers have far too much structured time in the school day and after school, far too many demands on their time, and there’s pressure to jump through league-table hoops of never-ending exams. Sadly it means that both children and staff are burning out. Teachers are leaving the profession and children are growing up more focused on what they need to learn for the exam rather than the joy of learning. I strongly feel that there should be more time spent outdoors, more unstructured play and more physical activity – for everyone, not just children.
Today, where are you most happy?
With my wife Lucy and our donkeys – Millie Mop, Jimbobs, and Doodles – out for a walk on the hill as a little tribe, then coming in close for nuzzles and cuddles, all of us safe and together, two legs and four. Or time outside – growing things in our garden, climbing trees or swimming in rivers with friends or hanging out under moonlit nights around the campfire. Outdoors and community – they are my big happy makers these days.
Finally, what does ‘home’ mean to you now?
It’s the place inside of me where I am welcomed, accepted and loved, held and heard. It’s the calm, safe space. One filled with the beings I love and the places I have been that mean so much to me. It’s a feeling I carry with me.
Written by Helen Taylor
Written by Helen Taylor