Value of Virtual: Sarah Outen – ‘A Virtual Lifeline – rowing solo across the Indian Ocean’

23 09 2010

Sarah Outen is a young woman who decided, while studying at Oxford, that she wanted to row, solo, across an ocean. She decided to row from Perth (Australia) to Mauritius (Africa) – that’s from east to west (usefully she has shown a map of her route).

The only way she was able to do this was by using new technology to stay in touch with her family and team. Her weatherman, Ricardo, for example, was in Portugal.

She also explains how she fed her energy requirements… 500 bars of chocolate! And she still lost 20 kg in weight… so a diet worth following for anyone who has time to row the atlantic.

The first lesson she learnt from this massive task was, as the leader of the team, she should have asked everyone how they felt. She assumed everyone was as enthusiastic and positive as she was at the start…but in retrospect that might not have been the case.

The technology helped in the first instance by having a GPS tracking beacon that allowed Sarah and her mum at home and Ricardo in Australia and other supporters around the globe to track her and see, unfortunately, that due to currents and wind directions, she spent 10 days rowing in an enormous circle.

Positive thinking helped here… she decided that that was not a failure, but a ‘warm up lap’.

The second attempt, one week later, was more successful…and still an odd challenge given that Sarah was frightened of deep water and didn’t want to have to swim under the boat to scrape the barnacles of the bottom. She made friends with some local fish though, which she ended up speaking to as the great technology of the satellite phone proved too expensive to use often.

Second question to ask her team: how do we measure progress?

After spending 40 days to reach what should have taken a week, since she kept getting blown back towards Australia and spent eight hours a day trying to stay still, Sarah heard Ricardo suggesting she rowed forty miles due west where the weather was better. However, she was unable to row closer to Mauritius and unable to row closer to the better weather. So, how do you measure progress?

She decided it was progress if she got to the end of another day.

Lesson two: set reaslistic goals when working with virtual teams and accept that what might seem simple to you might be near impossible for the person on the other side of the world.

The third question she asked herself was: how do you keep people motivated in virtual teams?

“If you have lemons, make lemonade!”

Look for the albatrosses that might illuminate your day…look for the good when everything is bad…look for

Two storms colliding and Sarah had to try and row 20 hours a day to get out of the centre of it.

Imagine waves as tall as the Ashridge steeple.
Imagine wanting to stay in your cabin all the time and hide from the storm, which is big and scary and throws you around.

Would you want to go out and row and be in the storm that is big and scary and throws you around?

Individual choices…Sarah went out to try and do something…and while nipping back in the cabin for a moment, Sarah’s boat got capsized.

She floated in the salt water, trying to hold her breath, desperately hoping that the boat woiuld right itself as it was supposed to.

The boat did turn the right way up again. Life ain’t so bad after all, even if she was hanging off the side of the boat by her lifeline with huge waves crashing over her.

Eventually, she got through to Ricardo who thought – on her capsizing – that it would probably have refreshed her!

All told she spent over four months rowing in a long doodle of a route that did its utmost to avoid any straight lines – what can you do with the wind? But Sarah managed – against the odds – to close to Mauritius and began to talk to her team and a Mauritian friend to try and arrange the arrival.

She needed a pilot to guide her over the reef for the final stretch.

The pilot only had a rubber dingy that was not allowed to go past the reef.

There was no plan B.

Unfortunately, Sarah was rowing through large waves that meant the support boat couldn’t find her. The boat capsized twice more over the reef…and Sarah decided she needed to get inside the cabin. As she was entering, another wave came, half-flooded the cabin and capsized the boat again.

Not a good place to be.

Sarah made a MayDay call, but only got silence. She tried the satellite phone. No answer. She used flares. She saw three flshes that said ‘help is coming’ – but was it three flashes or was it a tree swaying infront of a street lamp on shore?

The helicopter finally got her off the boat, and she finally met Ricardo…who – communication problems apart – had helped her across the ocean and whom she trusted completely.

Final message? Sarah gives some take-aways…

Lessons from the Ocean

  • Defined goals and secondaries
  • Clear systems and contingencies
  • Progress and praise and follow up
  • Know thyself, know thy team
  • Strong leadership
  • Attitude
  • Energy
  • Trust, respect, value

The positive attitude is essential. If the team is not on the same page, they won’t get to the end of the book. Sarah is planning to row around the world, but is choosing a team only of people who are positive that the project can be achieved.

Finally, communication is essential – say what you mean and mean what you say.

You can follow Sarah at: or on Twitter @sarahouten