PROLOGUE

THE SEED IS SOWN

‘Whatever you think you can do, or believe you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it’

Goethe



It all started while I was at Oxford. Room 24, Main Building, St Hugh’s College, December 2005. I was sitting at my desk chewing a pen, surrounded by open textbooks and piles of notes. I was trying, quite unsuccessfully, to write a proposal to study basking sharks in Scotland that summer. My degree was biology, so that wasn’t unusual and neither was my procrastination; it was a rowing day after all and I was hungry for some action after too many hours indoors. I typed distractedly at my laptop, clock-watching and already thinking about my pre-training snack: a banana, a malt loaf, a Mars bar or all three? For the umpteenth time that day I opened up my inbox and read through the already-read emails, taking as much time as I possibly could. While I was reading a new one arrived with a ping. Result; at least another two minutes of beautiful time-wasting lay ahead.

I paused. And then I smiled as I read the subject line: ‘Ocean Rowing Races’. This was going to be more than two minutes’ grace from the proposal; it was easily the most exciting email I had ever received. I clicked and read an advert for a rowing race across the Atlantic. I had only ever rowed on the Isis and, whilst I had sailed a bit, I had never crossed an ocean. An ocean! Across a whole ocean in a rowing boat? I was speechless. I put my feet up on my desk and leant back on my chair, rocking on the two back legs in exactly the way you’re always told not to as a child, thinking and spinning the pen in my fingers. I was hooked by the idea of it; oceans and rowing were two of my favourite words and I was sure that if I put the two together they would make an incredible adventure. I had always wanted to see what it was like to make a big journey in the wild under my own steam, living and breathing the raw power of the elements, at one with nature. With no specific plans for life after graduation in a year’s time, I decided there and then that I would start with an ocean row. I wasn’t sure which ocean, or when, or how, or who with, and I don’t know why I was so sure of myself but I knew that I would do it.

In 2009 I did it, rowing solo across the Indian Ocean from Australia to Mauritius. It was a journey of more than just an ocean and it was far more than a rowing trip. It made me and it has shown me all the more clearly that life is for living, here and now, not tomorrow or some other day – because you never know what might be over the next wave or round the next corner. You have to make the most of the moment, or the adventures and opportunities might fade with the sunset and you will be forever left wondering what was over the horizon.

This is my story and I hope you enjoy it.

Sarah Outen

November 2010



CHAPTER 9

OCEAN NEXT 6,000 KILOMETRES

‘The journey of a thousand leagues

begins with a single step’

Proverb



‘How are you feeling today, my little ocean-rowing girl?’ Ric was looking at me intently. I pushed my sunglasses up onto my head so I could see him properly.

‘Pretty good,’ I smiled back as I sculled with the oars to keep Dippers pointing into the waves. ‘Shall I row back in or do you want to tow me?’ We were just outside the harbour mouth, I was rowing Dippers and Ric was with a photographer in another boat. He looked serious and said that he had to tell me something before I made that decision. My mind leapt on to the alert – had I just said something really stupid? Would I be rowing against an outgoing tide or –…?

‘How do you fancy going rowing in twenty-four hours? The weather is looking great for tomorrow morning.’

I was silenced. My eyebrows shot up my forehead into a surprised arch and I grinned the wide gummy grin that I always do when I am nervous or excited. My stomach had just knotted itself and I clenched my teeth into gridlock, looking inward at the cacophony of emotion which had just burst out of nowhere. I was going rowing. I looked up at him and nodded, trying my best to look composed and serious. ‘Well, if you say it’s good, then it’s good for me, too.’

We hooked up the tow and their boat pulled out to the length of the line, leaving me to calm my little storm and think of the Final List of Things to Do before tomorrow morning. The list was huge and the clock was now ticking fast – really fast.

I leaned back against my cabin hatch and closed my eyes to the sun, trying to comprehend what was about to happen and willing the gentle waves to soothe me. This was a big day. A definitive day: my life was about to change forever as I rowed into a whole new era. Before the row, after the row: that is how my timeline would read from this day onward. Life was about to get serious and very salty. Departure was agreed for 6 a.m. the next morning and I floated on adrenaline. My appetite had disappeared and Ric kept pushing food my way, while also fending off enquiries and phone calls for me, telling me what I needed to do next and organising the willing helpers.

We worked right through the night to complete everything, with help from club members, friends of friends and people I had never even met before. They were all part of the team now, keen to help and excited to be a part of the adventure. Some were unwittingly signed up to Team Sarah, having arrived for a sociable evening at the weekly club barbecue; thinking they could have a little chat to us as we worked at the boat, they found themselves carrying jerry cans away to fill with water, or were sent off in search of a paintbrush, a pair of nail scissors, a bailer perhaps. We emptied the boat, cleaned the boat, capsized the boat, packed the boat, sorted the gear, resorted the gear, repacked the boat, took delivery of all the food, sorted the food, resorted the food, constructed netting stowage in the forward cabin and turned Dippers into a reflective beacon with strips of shiny tape. At one point the pontoon was completely covered with piles of my stuff, leaving any bystanders bewildered by the notion of fitting it all away into Dippers, floating alongside. My attitude was that ‘if it has to fit, it will’. And it did, somehow, even though I would have to share my bed with two huge 100-litre bags filled with my food packets until I had eaten it all. Respite arrived with a trip to the supermarket and the chandlery – there I was anonymous and free to wander aimlessly down the aisles, deciding on what extra provisioning I needed and whether my last few Aussie dollars would stretch to it. Certainly my bank balance would be very pleased to see me so many thousands of miles out to sea.

As the sunset rolled into darkness, Clem fixed up an outside light on the pontoon, and I left Ricardo and some others sorting the piles into different piles and packing the boat through the wee hours. I sat in the office, wired on fizzy drinks and nerves, making final phone calls to the UK, emailing sponsors and friends with goodbyes or instructions for various tasks. At 2.30 a.m. I climbed into Dippers for a couple of hours of rest. But how do you rest when you’ve got a butterfly brigade marching up and down shouting, ‘You’re going! You’re going rowing!’? I didn’t sleep more than a few snatches; my mind was full of thoughts and fears, wanderings and wonderings, and my tired brain buzzed until Ric opened the cabin door to rouse me at 4.30.

‘This is it, Sarah, this is it,’ I whispered to myself. My toes curled up, my tummy turned, and I took a deep breath before climbing out into the cool dark morning. ‘We can do this, Sarah, we can do this.’ It was still and quiet, but for the chatter of those who had already gathered or who had stayed up through the night. In the quiet sanctuary of the showers of the club I wallowed under the warm flow, savouring every last drop, reminding myself what it felt like to have fresh water run over my body. I kept pushing the button for more water, each time trying to coax myself out. I talked myself through what I needed to do, and what I would focus on for the next few days. ‘Eat. Row. Sleep. Row. Eat. Row. Sleep. Row. Row.’ The nerves were chattering quietly, but I felt fairly calm and in control; Ric had ticked everything off our list and there was nothing more to do except get in the boat and row.

More people had arrived while I was in the shower and I felt as though my every move was being watched. I tried to avoid eye contact and conversation and just muttered to myself as I went about my final checks, the realisation of the huge task ahead now dawning on me. Ric handed me a pile of sandwiches and pestered me until I had washed them all down with as much water as I could manage while everyone else was busy with their appointed jobs. Clem had prepared boxes of fruit and a huge bag of sandwiches; Margot filled up the water bottles; Sally was on chart-folding duty. After my breakfast I padded down to the pontoon, enjoying my last steps on land. I climbed on board and then flopped through the cabin door very ungracefully, and much to the amusement of the onlookers. I pointed out to them that it takes a certain art to nip in elegantly through the little hatch – and I had yet to master it.

Ric ran through where the packing team had stowed everything – besides my chocolate stash (which I had loaded up), most of my kit had been packed during my final office session, so the whereabouts of everything from undies to suncream, and from pasta to plasters would be a surprise, for better or for worse. He promised that I would find messages and surprises as I went. Then we hugged and I stepped outside to say my goodbyes. I had known some of these people just a few hours and, beside Ric, none of them for more than two weeks. Yet they had become part of my team and would be a part of my journey and memories of it forever. It was only because of the collective effort of folks like these, here and abroad, that I had made it anywhere near that jetty. This was all a team effort. I wanted to soak up every moment – these were the last times I would have human contact for months. Equally, I wanted to get going. I was feeling a bit sick from nerves and I knew they would settle once I got to the oars. One last phone call to Mum and I would be ready to go. After she told me to be safe and have fun, I told her that I would ring her from my satellite phone once I was out there, slipped in a quick ‘ I love you’ and had to press the red button before either of us got emotional. Neither of us wanted to be the last to say goodbye.

Realising that I hadn’t brushed my teeth, I set about one last clean on the jetty, much to the delight of the two agency photographers, who snapped my foaming spit fest from every angle. Then I looked round at the smiling semicircle of people around me before running a final little circle on the pontoon and climbing aboard. I strapped on my safety harness and clipped the line to the boat; Dippers and I were now connected and I promised myself (and had promised Mum) that we would remain that way for the rest of the voyage while I was not in the cabin. That was my lifeline, literally.

Everyone was silent as I closed the hatches, fired up the GPS and sat down on my seat, securing my feet in the foot straps. I looked up, tapped the pontoon one last time and they prepared to cast me off.

‘THREE CHEERS FOR SARAH!’

Oh my goodness me – what am I about to do?!

‘HIP HIP!’

Oh shit!

‘HOORAY!’

Heart racing, mouth dry.

‘HIP HIP!’

Keep it together Outen, keep it together.

‘HOORAY!’

Oh shit, oh shit!

My inner monologue competed with the three cheers and willed me to look composed. Instead, all I could manage was a huge beaming nervous grin before swallowing back a tear and taking my first pull at the oars. Those first few strokes felt perfect as we slicked through the silky black waters of the silent harbour, like an old carthorse slow and steady, finding its rhythm. Dippers and I were away and would next be touching down in Mauritius. Gulp. The distance ahead was huge and the ocean vast and that scared me, so I just focused on the song which I had chosen to play through the speakers for those first few moments, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ by Queen. We had played it at Dad’s funeral as the curtains closed around his coffin and so for me it spoke volumes. Instead of worrying about how far I had to journey, this song reminded me of how far I had already come. All the same, I cried as I sang and I sang as I cried.

Outside the harbour the darkness went on forever. Lights punctuated channels for this, safety zones for that, shipping lane this way and danger over there; red dots blinked, white lights flashed and greens and oranges danced to some unheard beat. I concentrated on the compass in front of me, trying to row on the course Ricardo had suggested. The idea was to push to the north of Rottnest Island which lay 12 miles out, and gradually edge out to sea. A support yacht was going to escort me for the first few hours, just to see me safely away from the main port entrance and so that the agency photographer could get some good shots. I felt so self-conscious with everyone on the support yacht watching me, tracking me, and occasionally crackling some instruction through on the radio. There were some serious sailors on board and I wanted to impress them; I wanted to be credible. I also wanted to go to the loo, but there is no polite way to do it when you have a little troupe of kayaks beside you and a boat full of supporters watching your every move; it was a bucket and chuck it set up so not the sort of thing you do in the company of people you’ve only just met. I tried to think of other things; not water and not toilets and not the ocean. Not water and not toilets and not the ocean. The stars were a good distraction. They made my world huge, emphasising the dimensions of my new home. And to think that the sea beneath me was only a blip of the space above me – that was weird. My mind boggled at how humongous the world is and how humongous my task was to me, but how small and insignificant it was in the grand scheme of the universe and all that space. Gulp. That was almost as bad as thinking about needing the loo. Something else, Sarah, find something else. Sunrise? To the east, dawn seeped into the corners of the night sky, lightening the black through greys and pastel shades to welcome in the day. Not just any day but The Day. I didn’t know how yet, but I was sure that this trip would change me.

After an hour Geoff the Expert and his little troupe of kayakers bid me a hugged farewell over the side of my boat and turned back to shore, my last hug for goodness knows how many months; it was a strange feeling and my stomach knotted for a moment as I waved them off. They would be going back to get some breakfast now and a shower, perhaps a snooze, and then they would get on with their day. I would carry on rowing for the next four months before I had another shower. The escort boat played around me, sometimes dropping back to get some wide-angle shots and at others coming alongside for close-ups or to say hello. From time to time Ric whistled like a songbird to get my attention for the cameras or to show me what they hoped looked like a Mexican wave. They made me laugh and I enjoyed the company and our odd bites of conversation, again trying to soak it all up before they turned back for the harbour. They said they would come straight back out to find me in a faster boat to check on me one last time, but it was still a goodbye and I only had one left after this; then I would be completely and utterly alone. Part of me wanted to eke out the company as long as possible; another wanted to get out to sea and another was now desperate for a pee. So in the same moment that I waved them off I dived into the forward cabin to find the bucket and sweet relief.

As the sun climbed higher through clear blue skies, I picked my way through the container ships moored outside the port. They were metal giants, vast as sprawling warehouses. None answered my calls on the VHF radio and I suspected they were all having a lie-in or tucking in to a hearty breakfast. Mmmm. Breakfast. I had been rowing for four hours now and had eaten my sandwiches and fruit a few hours before, so popped inside to find something to munch. I had to throw some sandwiches overboard, regretting that I hadn’t mentioned to Clem that I didn’t like mayonnaise as I watched them float away; what a sorry waste of sandwich potential. My last for months, lost to the deep. At this point I should probably describe just what ‘popping inside’ entailed. The hatch door to my cabin was less than a metre across and a metre tall, so involved simultaneously crouching and stepping through into the cabin space – not the easiest of manoeuvres but one which I would need to perfect if I was to be efficient and safe at sea, particularly in the rough weather.

An increasingly boisterous sea followed me round the north of Rottnest and waves bounced up over the side of the boat to soak me every so often. I welcomed the cool contrast to the 40°C heat, which was already wearing me down and at times making me nod asleep at the oars as my tired body rocked up and down the sliding seat, up and down, down and up. Legs, back, arms. Legs, back, arms. Over and over, hour after hour. I longed for night-time, both for the cool air and the opportunity to snooze; I had only clocked about forty minutes’ sleep the night before and that was definitely not enough. ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ I joked out loud and chuckled to myself. Then I let out a few big shouts of nothing in particular, just testing the acoustics of my new home. There was no reply and no echo. Nothing; just the sea doing its thing, gurgling and rippling and fizzing. I returned to the oars and rowed on.

I had been scanning the horizon for a while now, wondering if any of the boats I could see were the Fremantle Sea Rescue Boat RS100, which I knew would be heading out to find me for a final hello and goodbye. There was the fast ferry nipping back and forth between Rottnest and the mainland as well as various other motor boats and small yachts. I waved at some and tried hailing others over the radio. With no response from the waving or hailing, I imagined that I must be invisible. It turns out I was. It took RS100 over twenty minutes to find me when they made it back out to where they thought I would be, Dippers’ little white cabins lost in the cresty white surf which now rolled with the growing swell. It was quite emotional saying hello when they arrived, never mind saying cheerio. All of those people had come back out to look for me, to be a part of my adventure, and I was grateful to them for it. If hello had been hard, then goodbye was even harder – both to hear and to say. They must have been quite emotional, too – there were mothers on there, seafarers who knew the ocean and folks for whom this was completely alien. It was a bizarre day for us all, I suppose. We reached out in gestured hugs and then waved each other home. The only difference was that they had just 10 miles back to shore and I had over 3,000 before I was home and dry. I waved them into a distant dot, tears washing suncream and sweat into my eyes and making them sting. I hoped they wouldn’t have their binoculars out as I didn’t want anyone to see; this was a private moment, just for me and Dippers. Relief, pride, happiness, sadness, nerves, exhaustion – it all came crying out until there were no more tears inside and nothing left to do but row. The thought scared me a little bit, especially as I would probably have another couple of weeks wobbling while I settled in to the journey. Whatever feelings emerged, I would need to embrace them and relax into all that it threw at me if I were to make it to the other side. I later found out that Ric had summed it up beautifully on my website that evening, writing: ‘The task ahead is huge. The first night at sea is always one of mixed feelings. Sarah now has to be born again, into the oceans and gradually switch off from earthly thoughts and emotions if she is to be happy alone at sea.’

As with all major changes, it took me a while to get my head around it.



CHAPTER 10

FEEDING THE FISHES

‘A sure cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree’

Spike Milligan



Forty-five miles out from Fremantle made a great start for my first day. I ate one of the dehydrated meals for dinner as the sky turned pink, sitting out on deck waiting for the stars to arrive, trying not to think about the waves of nausea quietly stirring inside me. I pulled on some more clothes as the temperature dropped and rowed on through the night, fighting to stay awake and keen to put as many miles between me and Australia as possible. I finally collapsed onto my beanbag bed at 2.00, not even bothering to undress and leaving the thick zincy sunblock all over my face. I was spent and a bit dehydrated, with a little bit of seasickness round the edges; sleep was all I needed and all that I was capable of now. I had been awake and rowing for nearly twenty-four hours. There was no autopilot on
Dippers so besides setting the rudder and pointing her in the right direction before I turned in, there would be no way of controlling her course while I slept. This close to land, I couldn’t afford to drift backwards – out at sea I knew it would happen and I knew it wouldn’t be the end of the world. But until I made it clear from the coast, I had to do everything I could to keep her moving in the right direction.

Inside my cabin, wedged in between the two big food bags that didn’t fit inside the front cabin, I slept sweetly for a few hours and woke to see a cloudless sky through my hatches. There was one above my head which I had to be careful not to hit as I sat up, and the other was at my feet, looking out on to the deck – both less than a metre across and opened by two swing handles. Outside it was cool and fresh with dew – a welcome contrast to the stuffy and airless cabin. I was feeling sick so I didn’t manage much breakfast, especially as the porridge mix looked rather like pale vomit once I had added some water and stirred. I smiled, thinking of Mum and me covered in porridge dust at home in January, mixing up deep bowls of oats and dried fruit, a spoonful of salt, a cup of sugar and half a tub of dried milk. That was the easy bit; vacuum packing it into individual sachets had been some Herculean effort. Once I had tidied away the breakfast clutter and my bedding I pushed on in much the same way as before, making steady progress under the relentless sun. I was already doing battle with sleep monsters and fighting off hallucinations, convinced that Ricardo and Margot were in the cabin, packing things away as they had done the night before I left. I had to keep opening the hatch to tell them to go away, warning them not to be there when I went to bed later. It was all very strange and I hoped they would leave me to cross the ocean in peace; the last thing I wanted was to be haunted the whole way to Mauritius.

By the afternoon of my second day, seasickness had added another layer of fatigue as I alternately nibbled on food, sipped energy drinks and fed the fishes with it all. The wind was also causing me some issues and had shifted to a not-very-helpful direction. Given that it was still fairly calm, I decided the best thing was simply to monitor my course over the next few hours, suspecting that it wouldn’t cause too many problems. I was not a happy rower but a tiny part of me was strangely relieved that I could lose myself in a sweet and sleepy oblivion while I waited for it to blow through. How wrong I was. The wind had picked up so much by the third day that I wasn’t making any useful progress on the oars. The waves were too much for me to row into and I was just getting blown backwards towards land, watching my newly won miles un-tick themselves on the GPS. To have this happen so close to land was frustrating, and I’m sure I did a bit of crying. There was no use trying to fight it as I wouldn’t win, so I decided the best thing to do would be to sleep and deploy the sea-anchor. I had already nicknamed it ‘Bob’ – a 3.5-metre parachute, ‘flown’ beneath the waterline to hold the bows of the boat in to the waves, thereby reducing drift and stabilising the craft. Unfortunately, Bob acted like a sail in the current and meant that although we didn’t lose much ground to the east, we were pulled steadily south in the famous Leeuwin Current. When I say we, I mean me and Dippers: talking about Dippers as a member of the team meant that I wasn’t alone. It was another of those little tricks that would see me safely to Mauritius.

By now I had already exchanged numerous text messages with Ricardo via my satellite phone. Now came the news that the weather had shifted from what we had previously expected and that the sea would become ugly, uncomfortable and messy as a low pressure system rumbled up from the south.

I later found out that he had written this on my blog:

‘My only hope is that this weather system doesn’t change its mind yet again and hang around for a day longer or provide stronger winds than forecast. This part of the ocean is known for its dramatic weather and Australian Navy rescues. So we hope.’

I pulled Bob back in after twenty-four hours to see if I could make any more progress. Rowing and sleeping alternately in blocks of a few hours through day and night for the next four days, we were pulled further and further south with only the tiniest bits of progress west. I was going anywhere but towards Mauritius and spent a lot of time crying at the oars in frustration; this was not how my first week at sea was supposed to be. Even so, I managed to put on a surprisingly cheerful bit of chat for Radcliffe and Maconie on BBC Radio 2 one evening. Amusingly, in my brain-mush state I had confused my time zones and when I woke up to wait for the call, I quickly received a worried call from my PR manager Adrian Bell on the satellite phone. Apparently the BBC had being trying to get hold of me for an hour and were concerned that I had been lost to the sea, to sharks or seasickness. I had in fact just been sleeping with the phone turned off to save batteries.

Sitting out on the deck underneath a full moon and a canopy of stars, surrounded by waves and occasionally being rinsed by an over-excited one, I chatted live with ‘the boys’ in Manchester; it was surreal. Metaphorically, there were a lot of people on that boat already, supporting me from all corners of the globe, and I was pleased to share my experience with the rest of the world over the airwaves. As I pressed the red button to end the call, I marvelled at this little phone which could connect me with anyone, anywhere on the planet via a teeny satellite way up in the ether; we humans have invented some ingenious technology over time.

I had forgotten that Ric was due back in Portugal, so the news was crushing when I heard from Clem via text message that he was en route to Sydney for his flight home. Even in these six days I had already come to depend on him so much for weather information, motivation and morale. He had done this ocean-crossing lark a number of times before as a sailor and had gone solo too, so he knew what it was like to push out to sea and renounce normality for an unknown period of time. That meant he understood something of what I would be going through.

His departure coincided with a worsening of the already unhelpful weather, which made me feel inadequate and powerless, as though all my dreams about this voyage were disappearing towards the raging Southern Ocean. I was just below thirty degrees south at the moment, remembering the whalers’ saying that, ‘below forty degrees there is no law; below fifty there is no God’. I was scared, I was embarrassed by my lack of progress and I was cross with myself for worrying friends and family. While struggling into the waves in the afternoon of my sixth day at sea, I stopped to look for a ship. My sea-me (a radar reflector) was beeping, which meant that a ship’s radar must be hitting it. There was someone else out there, but where were they? The beeping got louder until I eventually spotted a yacht, rising and falling over troughs of waves; I had found it. This was exciting – I hadn’t seen anyone since leaving Fremantle a week earlier and had only spoken to one ship so far and they hadn’t been too keen on chatting. I held on to the top of my cabin, straining for another glimpse. What sort of yacht was it? Length? Colour? Who was on board? Where were they going? Friend or foe? Most importantly I wondered if it would see us; I hoped so.

I had been struggling to interpret weather and information, so I didn’t trust my judgement completely and wondered if I was hallucinating again. But it looked like a yellow yacht was heading straight for us. Apart from hoping that we would rendezvous, I was worried that we might collide. I picked up the VHF.

‘Yellow yacht, yellow yacht, yellow yacht – this is rowing boat Serendipity. Do you receive me? OVER.’

I was prepared for them not to answer, but to my surprise and delight, a response swam back to me through the squelch.

Serendipity, this is Spirit of Rockingham. I am receiving you loud and clear. OVER.’

The name sounded familiar and I frowned in concentration for a second before I realised to whom I was speaking.

Spirit of Rockingham! Is that you, Jamie?’ I squealed down the radio, both surprised and excited that my new friend, Jamie Dunross, the quadriplegic sailor from Perth, had sailed out to see me.

I rowed on a bit further to turn us back into the waves, now rolling on a 5-metre swell capped with white. Any meeting with another boat at sea is exciting, but Jamie’s arrival was pure magic. To see another person I could speak to was wonderful out here, particularly at this point when I was so low and going nowhere fast. I watched in admiration as he moved in and out of the cabin: here was a quadriplegic man, sailing solo offshore on a 40-foot yacht. What on earth did I have to complain about? Over the radio he said that he had brought something which I had forgotten and I racked my brains to think what it could be. He pulled out Wilson, a painted volleyball named after the Castaway film character, from below deck and threw it into the water for me to row on to and pick up. Wilson had been given to me by the boys of Hale School before I left Fremantle, so he was a special addition to my on board crew and I was glad to have him back.

Jamie said that he would circle me for an hour just to make sure I was OK, before he headed back to shore. It would take him nearly two days to sail back in and he admitted that he wasn’t looking forward to battling the Leeuwin, which had slowed his progress out to me. I hated that he was watching me struggling. Frustrated and shattered, I cried and cried angrily, pulling hard into the waves and head wind, hoping that he couldn’t see my tears. I must have looked like a complete idiot, out of my league and making almost no progress. I admire him for not telling me as much – if anyone knew about fight in this life he did, and he also knew that I would give it every ounce of strength I could muster. He sailed back close in to me for one final chat then disappeared as quickly as he had arrived. I sat down on my seat to cry, my energy all gone and my morale plummeting, not really very keen on this rowing lark any more.

That evening I put Bob out, resigned to the fact that I would be pulled further south and even further off course, but not knowing what else to do. Soon the seascape was a foaming white mess of giants, dancing wildly beneath grey skies, sending Dippers and me crashing into walls of water as waves rolled through underneath or into us. Curled up in my cabin, over the next few days I drifted in and out of sleep through some of the scariest hours of my life. Night-time was the worst; at least in the daylight I could sit up and see the waves out of the hatch so that I could brace myself as they charged at the boat, ready for the impact. In the dark my ears provided my only reference, of rushing water, of waves thudding into us and the creaking lines of the sea anchor.

Ric promised that I would soon be out of it, that the current was kicking me south and out into the open ocean; he said that he wasn’t too worried, although I think he was just trying to make me feel good. I got quite angry at his suggestion that I was ‘so close to being OK and out of trouble’ if only I could row a ‘teeny bit west’. How teeny? ‘Forty miles.’ That was not very teeny in my books, not when I couldn’t even make one mile west in these conditions. How did he not see that I was as good as 300 miles from clear water? The Australian authorities had a different take on the situation and were concerned. Paraphrased, our phone call went a bit like this; ‘Sarah, we’re worried you’re going a bit too far south, mate.’ It was true; I was en route to dinner with the penguins, in some of the world’s toughest and roughest waters. The Southern Ocean officially started just a few hundred miles to the south and the no law, no God thing kicked in soon after.

I struggled to remain optimistic amidst talk of rescue and huge bills to tow me in for a restart and I got quite upset, rationale and reason being hard to accept in my fatigued and fragile state. So I thought I would put the question to the floor and see what my friends and ocean-rowing buddies thought. At three o’clock in the morning I rang twice-Atlantic rower and friend Sally Kettle for some wisdom and she agreed in her sleepy state that a tow seemed like the best option. Another veteran rowing buddy, Roz Savage, reassured me that this was the right thing: ‘Spectacular ending to first attempt, glorious success second time round: it’s what all the best adventurers do.’ Her first attempt to leave America on her Pacific row in 2007 ended with a rescue and restart so she knew what she was talking about. Poor Mum – I had these conversations with her too and it wasn’t easy. I cried, she cried and I wished it all wasn’t happening.

There were ships about and I was worried that we were going to be squashed; I felt overwhelmed and I was getting myself worked up about the options for a restart. Would I tow the boat north? Would I go from Fremantle again? I grew more and more agitated and scared at feeling so small, so lonely and so out of depth, that I was soon blubbering and reaching for the phone to call Sally again. I hate ringing people when I am upset but I was so soothed by the voice of someone who I knew had been out in big seas in small boats and I knew she would make me laugh, too. And she did.

As it happened, the following day saw a significant drop in the sea state and wind strength; it was as though the nasty stuff had blown through to test us. I was quietly proud that we had survived, even if I was a little annoyed at being so far off course. I felt like Dippers and I had earned a stripe and knew that although I had a lot to learn still, we had come through some very rough stuff and she had proved her place on the team. With the easing of the seas, I pointed to Fremantle and started rowing back in to shore, calling off the tow. The next two days were like a welcome weekend to my dreadful week; the sun shone, the wind disappeared and the sea smoothed to a gentle rolling swell. This allowed me to do some washing of myself, the boat and my clothes – I was a bit smelly by now and there were splashes of dried sick all over the deck where I hadn’t quite made it overboard. For the first time in days I brushed my teeth and washed my hair, which I hadn’t done since my last morning on land. My appetite returned as my seasickness waned and I ate everything I could get my hands on, cooking for the first time in a week. The on board kitchen was fairly limited in terms of facilities and consisted of pulling out my little gas stove and a plastic spoon-fork hybrid from one of my hatches and boiling water in the footwell to add to whatever sachet of dehydrated food took my fancy. I loved this new found tranquillity in my feelings and stomach, and I was glad to be rowing again – albeit back to base to loop the loop. Now that I had found my sea legs and was ‘in the groove’ with a new routine, I decided that I wouldn’t go back to shore, but would instead row up the coast to where the Leeuwin Current was narrower, and perhaps offered my best shot at getting through. I was relieved to hear that everyone, including the knowledgeable locals, had been surprised by how much the wind and current had affected my course and this made me feel less silly.

One night on that return row I listened to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto through my speakers on deck as I paddled under a blanket of silver stars; that piece will forever remind me of the deep peace and contentment I felt at that moment, rowing through inky seas, with bioluminescence twirling off each stroke. The sea stayed smooth and I surfed up the coast, helped by following seas. Late one afternoon, I spotted a pod of about one hundred spinner dolphins chasing each other across the sea, cavorting and somersaulting, while the horizon to my left showed signs of land. I rowed outside of Rottnest Island on the evening of day ten, under a dramatic sky of pinks and reds, enjoying the fact that I had something other than sea to look at, but on the other hand a little bit nervous at being so close to land and ships again. I was on high alert and slept in short bursts, waking regularly to check for ships, while trying not to disturb the tern who was hitching a ride for the night, perched on my forward cabin, his black head tucked under his wing, showing only one eye to the world.

At three o’clock I woke again and puzzled over why the cabin looked so different. There were two sets of very dim lights on each side of the cabin which I had never seen before. They were the LEDs of the cabin lights. I noticed that all of the other lights on the boat were either off or extremely dim. The VHF radio display no longer glowed orange and the voltmeter read way below what it would normally do. Clearly, something was very wrong with the electrics. A phone call back to my electrician in the UK and some investigation left me with no option but to radio in for a tow. It would be stupid to carry on with a problem like that, especially given that I was just 10 miles out of Fremantle, from where I had launched eleven days before. I guess some things are just meant to be.

Either way, I decided that it was a blessing in disguise and had proven to be a damn good shake down for the ocean ahead; in short, a 400-mile practice run. Some asked if I would be going home and I laughed – I wasn’t going to step down that easily.