Julen Sánchez wants you to know that anything is possible through human power and patience. And he proved that by traveling from Paris to Pittsburgh via bicycle and rowboat in what he calls the Zerow-Emission Project

Sánchez, a Spanish-born German athlete and adventurer, arrived in Pittsburgh last week after cycling from Florida over the course of 12 days. Before arriving in Ft. Lauderdale, he’d spent 131 days at sea alone in a small rowboat.

“An ocean row, it’s such a niche thing to do, but it gives you a platform to send a message,” says Sánchez. “My message is basically anything can be done sustainably.”

The 26-year-old language translator has spent a lot of time traveling — his family is Spanish but he grew up in Cologne, Germany, and he has visited the U.S., Australia, Canada and other countries prior to making this journey.

After years of saving up and physically preparing, the journey began in Paris in July 2020 when Sánchez cycled from the Arc de Triomphe to Portugal with a friend (another Pittsburgh hockey fan). That leg of the journey was 28 days of sleeping in tents in campsites with their belongings in three small bike bags.

After a break to deal with logistical issues, Sánchez packed up his boat in November 2021 with dehydrated food, a water desalinator (to take the salt out of seawater), a satellite phone and a few articles of clothing.

Crossing the ocean alone was one of the most difficult things Sánchez has ever done, he says, but you don’t need to do something so extreme to draw attention to a cause you care about.

Sánchez rowed across the Atlantic ocean alone over the course of 131 days.

“I’d never really tell anyone ‘you should do this or you should do that,’ but you can inspire people to think about their own ways to change,” he says. “Not everyone needs to cross real oceans, but they have their own projects they can do.”

Here’s what Sánchez has to say about the Zerow-Emission Project.

What made you passionate about taking on a project of this magnitude?

If you get the chance to see different parts of the world, you very quickly realize what a beautiful planet we have. I didn’t want to be the one to explain to my grandchildren why all those beautiful plants, animals and things don’t exist anymore. If I didn’t do anything, I would probably have a guilty conscience in 20-30 years. It’s the urgency of the subject that made me choose sustainability. To show that such a large distance can also be covered by human power —people think it would be impossible. People think the same thing about the climate problem. I wanted to show that we can tackle things that we consider impossible.

What made you choose Pittsburgh as your final destination? 

Since I was 10 years old, I’ve had a special affection for the city of Pittsburgh because I’m a big hockey and American football fan. I’ve always had this connection to the city. So when I heard five years ago that the cities of Paris and Pittsburgh were advocating for better climate practices, it was a perfect fit. Pittsburgh is in my opinion a really special place. It has made the transition from being a really polluted city to being one of the leaders in sustainability. It kind of feels like a second home.

What was the most difficult aspect of the trip? 

One of the biggest challenges for me out there was a mental challenge. My boat had a leak from about day 30 and on. So it was 100 days at sea with a leak. There was water in the cabin every day. It was leaking in at a constant rate. To be able to continue the journey with that in the back of my mind, taught me a very powerful lesson.

I also had a massive whale that started playing with the boat. … The boat got lifted a couple of feet out of the air. I was amazed to see such a massive creature. But I thought ‘If this whale wants, it could end my journey right here right now.’

“One of the biggest challenges for me out there was a mental challenge,” says Sánchez.
“One of the biggest challenges for me out there was a mental challenge,” says Sánchez.

What was your favorite part of the trip?

I loved the whole experience, but if I had to single out something it would probably be the Bahama Bank. It’s very shallow and has a lot of rocks, which is very difficult to navigate. But I didn’t really have a choice. I didn’t sleep for 48 hours. The bank is incredibly beautiful. I saw a group of 40 sharks at once, sting rays, turtles. After being on the ocean for 128 days, the bank was a road into this paradise. 

What’s up next for you? 

Home for right now is kind of the cabin of my boat or my tent. I’m still on the move. I’m still going to continue traveling by human power. I see this as my first big adventure in a young adventuring career. The next big thing I’ll do soon is a trans-Canadian trip and possibly even go up to Alaska. Bridging borders by human power. There is so much more that can be done without emitting CO2. I also got a device so that I can generate my own electricity while on the road, so that’s really going to take sustainability to the next level.

Cristina Holtzer is NEXTpittsburgh's Digital Editor. When she’s not laughing too hard at TikTok, Crissy can be found working on her novel or playing the Sims. Read her work in Everyday Health, The Kitchn, Pittsburgh Magazine, Inc and more.