1st woman to row solo across N. Pacific closes in on Adak

mtheriault@adn.comSeptember 11, 2013 

Sarah Outen's voice crackled over a spotty satellite phone connection Wednesday.

The 28-year-old British adventurer had sealed herself in the tiny cabin of her specially-built ocean rowing boat as it tumbled over 20-foot seas, alone in a storm at the heart of the North Pacific Ocean.

"I see lots of white foam," she said. "Lots of gray foam. Waves at the moment. Spray thrown about everywhere."

After more than four months at sea in her second try at becoming the only woman to row solo across the North Pacific, Outen is bearing down on Adak, in the middle of Alaska's Aleutian Chain. Her row across the world's biggest ocean is one leg of an ambitious trek around the world by paddle and bicycle.

She left Japan on April 27. On Wednesday, she was about 250 miles southwest of Adak. She hopes to make landfall in two to three weeks.

Time is of the essence: With every day that passes Outen gets deeper into the treacherous autumn storm season, said Rick Thoman, a climate science manager with the National Weather Service's Alaska regional office.

The North Pacific is always nasty weather-wise, Thoman said.

"On the climatological scale it's right up there with the toughest places to row, sail or really do anything," he said.

But right now, storm intensity is increasing as northerly latitudes cool while ocean surface temperatures in the tropics stay warm, he said.

"It's a volatile mix," he said.

"A SPORTS ADVENTURER BUT NOT MAD"

Outen is one of several international travelers fighting to finish their muscle-powered journeys before the onset of winter in Alaska.

They range from professional adventurers like Outen, who has corporate sponsors like the accounting giant Ernst and Young, a "team" that includes a public relations specialist and a sports psychotherapist, and the technology to tweet, blog and conduct phone interviews from the middle of the ocean, to Bob Vollhaber, a Minnesota man on a continuous, unsupported 5,000-mile trip through and around Alaska by canoe.

Vollhaber made news in Skagway last spring after portaging his canoe and supplies over the still-snowy Chilkoot Pass.

A tracking tool connected to his website showed him near the western shore of Cook Inlet Wednesday, north of Kalgin Island.

Frenchman Charles Hedrich had to scuttle plans to become the first man to row the Northwest Passage from the Bering Sea over the top of Canada to the Atlantic Ocean, in an ocean rowing boat similar to Outen's, when winter descended on his route.

Hedrich is known for being the first man to successfully row across the Atlantic Ocean, twice, without stopping.

His supporters wrote on a blog documenting his journey that he'd been paddling between large and unstable blocks of ice and had braved a gale to reach the village of Tuktoyaktuk in Canada's Northwest Territories.

"He is a sports adventurer but not mad," the supporter wrote.

"WE DECIDED TO HANG A LEFT"

Is Outen mad?

She says no, but realizes what she's doing comes with real dangers. Her own press kit lists four of them: capsizing, drowning, hypothermia and starvation.

But she's not an amateur, she said. After growing up in England, Outen studied biology at the University of Oxford and started rowing. After her father died suddenly, she knew she wanted to take on something big in his memory. In 2009, she became the first woman and youngest person to row solo across the Indian Ocean.

Her "London2London" expedition is much more ambitious. The "human powered loop" involves circumnavigating the globe by kayak, bike and ocean rowing shell. She's been at it since 2011.

"This north route is considered the Mount Everest of ocean rowing," she said. "It's cold and brutal and unpredictable. But it has been my favorite ocean, even though it nearly killed me last year."

In June 2012, during her first attempt at crossing the North Pacific, Outen and another ocean rower had to be plucked from the sea by the Japanese coast guard after their boats were badly damaged in Tropical Storm Mawar. She returned to England shaken and boat-less.

"I went into a really black period, just coming to terms with everything," she said.

But she knew she wanted to try again. She raised money for a new boat, trained all winter and returned to Japan in April.

Since she rowed away from Choshi, Japan at the end of April, Outen has been followed by a school of tuna, mourned eating her last piece of fresh fruit, gotten engaged by satellite phone to her longtime girlfriend in the United Kingdom (she drew a ring on her finger with a Sharpie marker to commemorate the moment) and covered 1,845 ocean miles, according to GPS.

Outen's expedition plan originally had her finishing the row in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The squiggly GPS line tracking her trip online illustrates what went wrong. She lost days and weeks pinballing around the sea, often being thrust backwards by storms, wind and currents, she said.

By July, two months into her journey, it had become clear that Outen would never make it to Vancouver by winter.

"We made the decision to hang a left," she said. "We started looking at our options and the Aleutians represent my best chance for a swift, safe landing."

Now she plans to visit Adak, fly home to England and spend the winter training. She'll return to the very spot she landed in the Aleutians next spring. From there she'll paddle to Homer and bicycle through Alaska and Canada, eventually rowing the Atlantic Ocean to London.

"IT'S A BIG DEAL"

Adak, an island so far west that the International Date Line swerves to avoid it, is home to about 200 people not counting seasonal fish processing workers, said city clerk Debra Sharrah.

It sees its share of adventurers circumnavigating the globe, she said. They usually come on sailboats.

Recently the community came out to welcome a pilot making a bid to be the youngest person to fly around the world. Signs were painted. Everyone was sad when the kid ended up landing in Dutch Harbor, 450 miles east, because of weather, Sharrah said.

She knows Outen is coming and has already written an item about her for the island's newsletter, the Eagle's Call.

"It's a big deal," she said. "I'm sure there will be something to welcome her."

Back in her cabin Outen was coming to terms with the fact she wouldn't be making any progress toward Adak on Wednesday.

In fact, at that moment, she was being blown backwards. She felt "too rubbish" to boil water so she was eating dry biscuits instead.

But she signed up for this, she said. And she's not really alone. She'd been seeing birds in the storm. Happily, she said, they are coastal birds.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

 

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