Female SOLOists: Meet Ellen Magellan – the woman who’s rowing around the world

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Ellen Magellan had a mixture of emotions when she left her home in Texas in September to go around the world. It’s an adventure she’s been planning for three years that will take her to Tahiti, South Africa and Barbados. 

She has a pilot’s licence but there’ll be no planes. There won’t be trains or cars, either. Nor ferries, bicycles or horses. Ellen Magellan wants to be the first person to ever circumnavigate the world entirely in a rowboat. And she’s doing it by herself.

“I want to show that women shouldn’t be robbed of the life-changing experiences of solo travel,” she tells me, from a marina in Mississippi, just over a month into her trip.

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Ellen’s first solo voyage was in 2017

“We can travel alone, we can be pilots, we can be ocean rowers, we can be strong and we can go far. I would highly recommend that everyone do at least one solo trip in their lifetime,” she says.

Ellen’s first solo voyage was in 2017 when she became the youngest person to canoe down the Missouri River. “The first time I did a solo trip I was scared,” she says. “I didn’t know if I could handle being by myself as a young woman”. 

“But I became so comfortable. I realised that I felt much less alone because I felt more connected to nature,” she says. “After that, when I travelled with others, it was special because I felt so much more at ease with myself and with them,” she explains.

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The boat can self-right itself if she capsizes

For this trip – which Ellen anticipates will take her seven years and span 40,000 miles – she’ll be all alone. Well, just her and “Annie Mae”, the name for her rowing boat, specially designed to cross oceans. Named after her grandmother, it has space for Ellen to sleep and store her food, and it can self-right itself if she capsizes. 

“I call her the spaceship because she’s like a ship to another world,” she says. “And when you’re in the middle of the ocean, it’s kind of like being in space because you’re in this remote, hostile environment. You can’t get separated from your craft – so you have to be tethered to it.”

Ellen jokes that she washes “pits, bits and tits” while she’s on the water. At the moment, she has a small stove for cooking up pasta and rice. When she’s rowing across the ocean, she’ll only have space for freeze-fried food. But, what she lacks in fine dining, she makes up for in views. “The sunrises and sunsets have been unreal,” she says.

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The sunrises and sunsets have been unreal

For the last six weeks, Ellen has been rowing down an intercoastal waterway from Texas to Florida, causing a stir among passing tugboat captains. “When people see me they look at me like I have a third arm,” she says.

“Rowing isn’t very popular in the US, especially in the south, so it’s unusual to see a woman in a rowboat, especially one like mine. They shout ‘Where are you going?’ and I just say ‘Florida’ because I don’t want to freak them out by telling them I’m going all the way around the world.”

I ask Ellen what the biggest challenge she’ll face on her trip is. She replies “the health of the motor”. It takes me a minute to realise she’s talking about herself. Her own health. Because, on this boat, she is the motor.

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On this boat, Ellen is the motor

“I’m pretty small and not especially strong but, mentally, I’m tough,” she says. “I’m just going to row when I can and stop when I can’t. In a rowboat, you have to go with the wind because you’re basically just a poorly-guided cork.” 

On the upside, however, she doesn’t get sea sick. “Because I pilot small aircraft, I’m used to getting rocked around,” she says. “If anything I get land-sick. When I’m off the boat for a few days, I start to feel groggy.”

It’s a mind-blowingly ambitious trip, but Ellen has already undertaken some impressive adventures. When she was 18 she paddled a canoe up a tributary of the Amazon with her elder brother Patrick. 

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My brother taught me how to camp in the jungle and sleep in the trees

“He really opened up the world to me and showed me that you can travel without money,” she says. “Patrick taught me how to camp in the jungle, how to sleep in the trees.” Sadly, in 2016, Patrick died in a plane crash. Ellen marked the anniversary of his death by setting off on this trip. “He’s my inspiration and he’d be green with envy at what I’m doing.”

In 2016, Ellen also rode a tandem bike from England to Greece with her then boyfriend. “That was fun, we did 5,000 miles in four months,” she says. “After that I knew I could plan my own expeditions.”

She then hitch-hiked across Scotland. “As a woman, you might have to take extra precautions but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hitch-hike. The more women do it, the safer it becomes.”

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Being a woman shouldn’t stop you seeing the world

Ellen says she always takes a picture of the licence plate of any car before she gets in and sends it to a friend. “Being a woman shouldn’t stop you seeing the world in the way you want to.”

She says she’s not sure what the next adventure will be. “I’ve got quite a bit of time to think about that,” she jokes. To keep her entertained over seven years’ worth of solo nights, she says she plans to listen to audiobooks (The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and the 700-verse Hindu scripture, Bhagavad-Gita) and has curated some playlists to keep her going. Her current song of choice? Daft Punk’s Around The World, of course

Ellen Magellan spoke to Kate Wills, author of A Trip of One’s Own, for Female SOLOists – a monthly column for SOLO on women exploring the world their own way. Catch up on the other interviews with Ana HopJessica Nabongo, Anna McNuff and Leilani McGonagle now.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: Courtesy of Ellen Magellan

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