The Small Strokes of an Epic Adventure
07 Jun 2010
An interview with Roz Savage; the first woman to row solo across the Pacific, from the United States to Papua New Guinea
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Several years ago, Roz Savage was a successful management consultant, with a regular income, a home, husband and little red sports car. Now, all that is gone, and as you read this, she is alone in a rowing boat in the middle of the ocean.
The change began when Roz, feeling unfulfilled, sat down to write two versions of her own obituary: the one she wanted, and the one she was heading for. “As I wrote my dream obituary, I felt excited and energised,” she says, “and my pen raced across the paper.”
Then, writing the obituary based on her life as it was, the pen slowed: “It was a nice enough life, but not what I wanted. After half a page I got bored and gave up.”
It was a huge wake-up call for Roz, who little by little, began to shed the trappings of her life and realign it more with her values: “I pared life down to the basics to find out what really mattered to me, to see what was left when I was defined by who I was, not what I owned.’ Roz felt like she was making progress, “but I was like a carpenter with new tools and no wood to work on,” she recalls. “I needed a project. And so I decided to row the Atlantic.”
Roz, now 42, rowed for Oxford University as a student, but previously would never have considered taking on such a challenge as the 3,000-mile Atlantic crossing. “I used to believe I couldn’t have an adventure,” she says, “I just wasn’t that kind of person.”
As her perspective changed, Roz first thought hypothetically about what preparations would be necessary and then divided it into small steps. “By the time I’d finished this list, broken down to a fine level of detail,” she says, ‘there was nothing on it that I couldn’t do.”
Roz achieved her Atlantic challenge in 2006 and two years later went on to become the first woman to row solo from California to Hawaii, the initial stage in a bid to cross the Pacific. Last year she continued her journey by rowing from Hawaii to Kiribati and took to the water again this year on 19th April for the third and final stage, attempting to row from Kiribati to Papua New Guinea.
With no support boats, Roz’s 23-by-6 foot vessel is a self-sufficient survival pod with two enclosed cabins for sleeping and storage. For nourishment, she eats dried fruit, nuts, the occasional freeze-dried expedition meal, and a lot of cereal bars — 633 during the first two stages of her Pacific voyage. She also grows her own beansprouts on-board in a tub, while a special filter enables her to convert saltwater to freshwater.
Roz is attempting to make landfall in Madang, Papua New Guinea, before the end of June. “This stage will be the most challenging yet, with southeasterly winds in the Coral Sea and a liberal scattering of islands and coral reefs in my way, so anything could happen.”
Her Atlantic crossing saw her battle 20-foot waves, break all four of her oars and be isolated, without communication systems, for the final 24 days of the row. She overcame self-doubt, depression and continually wanting to give up.
It was “very scary” and the toughest thing Roz has ever done, she says: “I was quite shocked by the ruthlessness of the ocean — I took it very personally. But eventually I realised it was just obeying the laws of physics, doing what oceans do… And I had to get on and do what rowers do: row!”
Despite the dangers, Roz feels more secure now than ever. “I have found that everything I need lies within me, which enables me to have tremendous confidence, that I can deal with whatever the future may bring,” she explains, adding: “It was fear that kept me stuck in a job I didn’t like, earning money to buy stuff that I didn’t need.”
When back on dry land after 100 or so days at sea, she feels, “a bit like an alien, observing human society from one step removed.” She continues: “I see all this busyness, pursuit of wealth and possessions, all this consumption, and wonder what it is all for. My goals in life are to be happy, healthy and wise. I would have thought these are fairly universal human aspirations but our behaviour generally doesn’t support these goals.” She feels there are however, “increasing outbreaks of common sense,” adding: “I hope that soon, there’ll be a collective awakening before it’s too late.”
As Roz’s life changed, it became clear to her, “intellectually, emotionally and intuitively,” that we have to look after our planet if we want it to look after us. Her experiences at sea led her to become an active environmentalist and she is now a United Nations Climate Hero, as well as an Athlete Ambassador for the 350.org climate change campaign. She is also an Ambassador for the Blue Project, which helps people connect with and protect the world’s oceans.
After promoting less car use in 2008 and tackling litter in the North Pacific in 2009, Roz’s new environmental project for this year is called Eco Heroes — a social media game, inspiring people to do green deeds every day. After logging their eco-activities online, participants are awarded points and rated by others, with prizes given to top scorers. Roz is hoping the scheme will help people develop green habits and contribute to a pool of solutions for a more sustainable future.
“It struck me during the first stage of my Pacific row, that my adventure was a perfect metaphor for what we need to do collectively to secure our future,” she says. “I worked out that each of my rows takes around a million oar-strokes. One stroke doesn’t get me far, but a million gets me across wide expanses of ocean.
“We’ve got into this environmental mess mostly through the accumulation of billions of shortsighted decisions that we each made, day after day,” she says. “And so, if we start acting with a sense of individual responsibility for the future, we can still turn this around. A single action, like using a reusable grocery bag might seem like a drop in the ocean, but it spreads ripples further than we’ll ever know. So we all have to be eco heroes.”
It is no surprise that Roz’s Eco Heroes campaign is internet-based. As someone who embraces technology, in her boat she has three laptops, three satellite phones, two cameras, data storage drives, six iPods and a waterproof stereo and speakers. These items, alongside her navigational equipment, are powered by the boat’s six solar panels. She podcasts and writes a regular blog while at sea, interspersing accounts of the day’s rowing with stories of wildlife encounters and her thoughts on life and environmental issues.
Roz’s continuing adventures enable her to draw more attention to such issues. “It’s not always easy to motivate myself to write a blog at the end of a long day’s rowing,” she confesses, “but it’s an essential part of what I do, to get the message out there. And I get so much back from my online community. If I can take that energy and direct it towards creating a positive future, I will feel like I’ve done something worthwhile.”
If Roz ever feels fearful, she reminds herself of what she has accomplished: “I tell myself that if I’m never pushed outside of my comfort zone, then I’m not growing. I am showing what an ordinary person can do when they put their heart and mind and soul into it.”
Roz Savage’s book, ‘Rowing the Atlantic:
Lessons Learned on the Open Ocean’
is published by Simon & Schuster
Overlay: Roz Savage. Behind: Roz at Diamond Head just before arriving in Honolulu, Hawaii, after rowing across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco
Photo: © Phil Uhl
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