From Russia with Love

Globe-rounding adventurer Sarah Outen recounts her kayak crossing from Russia to Japan

By Conor Mihell

Sarah Outen may have been new to sea kayaking in early October when she completed a 40-mile crossing from Russia to Japan but she was no stranger to piloting small boats across lots of open water. In 2009, Outen became the first woman to row solo across the Indian Ocean, from Australia to Mauritius in 124 days.

Now, the 26-year-old Oakham-Rutland, U.K. native is well into a 2.5-year self-propelled journey around the world. In an expedition coined London2London: Via the World, Outen started in April by kayaking from Tower Bridge, down the River Thames and across the English Channel to France, where she got on her bike. She’s since cycled and trekked 10,000 miles across Europe, the Gobi Desert and Siberia. She recruited Welsh sea kayaker and filmmaker Justine Curgenven (of CackleTV.com), who accompanied her on the first paddling leg, to link up again on the most recent leg of her adventure, paddling from the remote Russian Island of Sakhalin to Japan’s Hokkaido Island across the exposed, current-swept and unpredictable La Perouse Strait.

On October 7, Outen and Curgenven began the crossing with a mandatory boat ride beyond Russia’s 12-nautical mile exclusion zone to comply with customs. In order to maintain Outen’s goal of going self-propelled the entire way, they promptly doubled back into Russian waters before striking off across 25 nautical miles to Japan. It took them over 11 hours of continuous paddling to reach Hokkaido. Curgenven handled the logistics and planning for the crossing, which involved strong currents, ice-cold water and rough seas.

“I spent many hours trying to figure out what the current would be doing during the crossing but the information I found varied wildly,” said Curgenven in email correspondence. An ocean scientist provided her with hourly current predictions that completely contradicted the local chart. “One said the tide flooded east, the other said it flooded west,” said Curgenven. In the end, the chart was right and the pair were “really lucky” that the 3.5-knot current carried them roughly in the direction of Japan, said Curgenven, parallel to the coastline.

For Outen, the crossing was the first big unknown on her London2London expedition. “The biggest challenge for me was fatigue after all the exertion and stress and lack of sleep in the weeks before,” she said. “But the following seas also meant I had to concentrate pretty hard. The strong Soya Current pulled us east of our destination so we had to paddle hard back into shore at the end of the crossing, turning it into a long, long day in the boat, with a body still mostly used to cycling.”

Next up for Outen is record-setting, five- to seven-month solo row across the North Pacific to Vancouver, B.C., more cycling across the North American continent and yet another stint alone in the rowboat on the Atlantic Ocean. Curgenven will join her again for the final leg of her journey, sea kayaking the British coastline back to London in 2013.

Curgenven said her time with Outen was uplifting. “She’s got amazing mental resolve and stamina and I am never worried about her giving up or saying she can’t go on,” said Curgenven. It’s typical of Outen to consider the dangers of cycling on the roads to be the riskiest part of the journey, Curgenven added. “She’s following her dreams and loving the challenges and the experiences.”

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