Oration for Sarah Outen MBE

By Mr Nigel Siesage

Sarah Outen deserves a place in this country’s illustrious roll call of adventurers and explorers, from Francis Drake in the reign of the first Elizabeth, to Francis Chichester, Ellen MacArthur and (to name another of our honorary graduates) David Hempleman-Adams in the present reign.

If it is ever suggested that the 21st century world is too tame and offers none of the personal challenges available to earlier generations, Sarah Outen’s story rebuts that claim. At the age of only 24, she became the first woman and the youngest person ever to row solo across the Indian Ocean – a journey of 3,100 nautical miles – that’s 5,741 kilometres for the non-sailors present - a feat which took her 124 days. Let us pause for a moment to consider that: rowing 30 miles a day for four months, and not in boating lake calm but in all the weathers that an ocean can unleash.

How does anyone come to launch herself on such a gruelling experience? Surely none of the graduating students in today’s audience has ever been distracted from an academic project by looking at their emails – but that was apparently the case with our honorand. As a biology undergraduate at Oxford, she was engaged in just such procrastination when she received an email headed “Ocean Rowing Races” and, as she has said, she was hooked.

We should however look a little further back for the origins of Sarah’s attraction to challenge and adventure.  Her mother, Helen, who is with us today, says that she was always adventurous, drawn at school to a wide range of sporting activities and achieving the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award. Family holidays focused on the British outdoors, walking, climbing and camping. A competitive streak - vital to her ability not to be beaten by the elements - was also apparent and lay behind her decision at the age of 12 to join the local canoe club, in order not to be outdone by her brother, Michael.

Sarah’s father, Derek, was an RAF officer and her early life was peripatetic. His career was brought to a tragically early close by the onset of rheumatoid arthritis and the family settled not far from here, in Rutland.  There is no doubt that Derek, who died in 2006 when Sarah was still at Oxford and had just begun to plan her first adventure, was a formative influence, and the inspiration which lay behind her dedication to the expedition.

The story of Sarah’s crossing of the Indian Ocean, from Australia to Mauritius, in her six metre rowing boat, Dipper, defies summary. She was forced to restart, was thrown overboard and nearly ran aground on a reef, had to avoid being knocked about by flying fish landing suddenly on deck, and often found that hostile weather left her frustratingly further from her destination despite a day’s hard rowing. Sarah would claim that chocolate played a vital part in her ability to cope with such setbacks, but her naturally cheerful and defiant spirit in the face of adversity was a more important factor.

For ordinary mortals, the completion of this remarkable challenge would have satisfied any ambition, but a quiet life at home was not for Sarah. A new test was called for. Somehow she conceived a unique plan to row and cycle 25,000 miles round the northern hemisphere, from London to London, crossing two oceans, three continents and 14 countries. Starting in 2011, she finished this journey, for which words like adventure and challenge seem pitifully inadequate, in 2015 – just a little later than originally planned. In the course of it she was shipwrecked in the Pacific, survived terrifying roads in Russia and China and a close encounter with the bow of a cargo ship, evaded snakes and grizzly bears – and of course endured all the extremes of weather available.

The journey was extremely demanding both physically and mentally, but a particularly uplifting moment came when Sarah proposed to her girlfriend by satellite phone from the middle of the Pacific. One suspects that, important though this degree ceremony must be, her recent marriage to Lucy - also here today - will greatly outrank it in her memories of 2016.

Some might say that expeditions like Sarah’s are pure madness; indeed the word “bonkers” has been used. But it shouldn’t be assumed that our honorand is either crazy or self-indulgent. She is also driven by concern for others. Forced to spend the winter in Japan, Sarah worked as a volunteer in Ishinomaki, helping people rebuild after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Many charities have benefited from their association with her expeditions, most notably those carrying out research into arthritis or supporting people with the condition. When the Queen appointed her a member of the Order of the British Empire, it was for services to rowing, to conservation and to charity. Sarah takes great pleasure in sharing her experiences, helping and inspiring others - particularly young women - to have high aspirations, to seek adventure and to overcome adversity.

That pioneer of Everest mountaineers, George Mallory, is reputed to have said he did it “because it’s there”. But Sarah quotes Sir Wilfred Thesiger:  “It is not the goal but the way there that matters, and the harder the way, the more worthwhile the journey”. Sarah has shown us that taking the hard and challenging way brings reward, not only to the traveller, but to those of us inspired by her example.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present Sarah Dilys Outen, that you may confer on her the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Delivered by Mr Nigel Siesage on 15 July 2016

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