September 23, 2012

The First Woman to Row Solo Across “The Big 3.” (P.S. She did it for the Earth.) {Interview}

Roz passing Diamond Head just before arriving in Honolulu Hawaii after rowing across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco.

Born in Cheshire, England in 1967, Roz Savage holds four world records for ocean rowing, including first woman to row three oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian.

A rower for Oxford in 1988 and 1999, Roz has rowed over 15,000 miles, taken around five million oar strokes, and spent cumulatively over 500 days of her life at sea in a 23-foot rowboat. She uses her ocean rowing adventures to inspire action on the top environmental challenges facing the world today.

Many people may think that they are too small to make a difference, but it really does all add up. It has taken me around five million oar strokes to row 15,000 miles.

One stroke doesn’t get me very far, but you take a million tiny actions and add them all together, and you can really start to achieve something significant.

~ Roz Savage

I read about Roz and her rowing journey/environmental campaign a couple months ago. I’m all about spreading the word about environmental issues but—geez!—I’ll be the first to admit: I will never contemplate this type of bold crusade. Except Roz did and I needed to find out what drove her to undertake such an extreme, risk ridden feat. Something like that had to take blow-your-mind strength, both mentally and physically. And courage. Sh*t loads of courage.

I was honored when Roz answered my email and agreed to an interview.

Did anyone ever tell you that you were nuts for doing this? How did you respond and overcome?

Roz: Literally hundreds of people have told me I’m nuts/crazy, etc. Ignore and carry on. What I do now seems a lot less crazy than putting on an uncomfortable suit and getting on a crowded commuter train to do a job I don’t like to buy stuff I don’t need.

Why did you decide to fight for the environment? Why rowing solo across oceans opposed to other, less risky methods?

Roz: Seven years ago I set out to row the world’s “Big Three” oceans—the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian. After having spent 11 years of my adult life working in an office, I had woken up to the fact that I was doing a job I didn’t like to buy stuff I didn’t need.

Around that same time I also had an environmental epiphany, realizing that we can’t carry on treating the Earth this way and expect a happy, healthy future for human beings.

So I simplified my life, quit the job, got rid of all the stuff that was weighing me down, and found that I was so much happier.

I thought that maybe other people would benefit from a simpler life, with more time to focus on the important things rather than all that material stuff, but I needed a way to get people’s attention.

So I took up my “oars for the cause,” rowing across oceans and using my adventures as a way to raise consciousness and inspire action on environmental issues.

Roz arrives in Mauritius after rowing solo across the Indian Ocean, becoming the first woman ever to row across three oceans.

Is there a chaser on your trips? Are you provisioned for the entire trip or do you have to stop for things?

Roz: No, there is no chase boat. And generally there is nowhere to stop. I am rowing across the middle of the ocean so there aren’t too many stores along the way! So I have to take everything with me.

Have you ever run out of a vital staple and what did you do?

Roz: The main problem I’ve had was with my watermaker, which sucks in seawater and through a process of reverse osmosis

Plastic fragments found inside fish’s stomach.
Photo: Crew of JUNK Raft, 2008

turns it into fresh water. It’s electronic, powered by solar panels, and like most electronics it doesn’t take kindly to being in a wet, salty environment, so sometimes it breaks. I have spare water supplies with me, which double up as ballast, but once I was about to run out of water, when I was still about two weeks out from Hawaii.

Luckily, there were two other ocean campaigners out on the Pacific at that time, in a boat called the JUNK Raft, campaigning against plastic pollution. They were running out of food. We managed to meet up in mid-ocean, have a fresh fish supper together, trade food for water, and then continue on our way.

Did you have a GPS?

Roz: Yes, I always have a GPS. Usually several in fact, as it is one of the most crucial pieces of equipment on board my boat. Last year on the Indian Ocean I had four GPS units with me, and three of them failed!

What’s the most frightening thing that happened on your trip? 

Roz: Probably the scariest moment happened in 2010, on the final leg of the Pacific row. I had improvised a sunshade using a boat hook as a prop, and the boat hook slipped from its fixings and dropped overboard. I couldn’t just leave it there in the ocean, as I do so much campaigning against plastic pollution, so I stripped off my iPod, sunhat and rowing gloves, and jumped in after it.

By the time I got to it and looked back at the boat, the boat was quite a distance away, and was drifting further away all the time. I tried to swim back with the boat hook in my hand, but was making no progress. I had to abandon the boat hook eventually, but even then it was really hard work to catch up with the boat. At last I made it, and collapsed onto the deck with my heart pounding.

I was probably only in the water for about 15 minutes, but it was the longest 15 minutes of my life—and almost the last.

(Wow.) Anything humorous?

Roz: I loved the dorado fish that gathered underneath my boat. Between two and ten fish followed me halfway across the ocean. The dorados are beautiful fish—bright blue, and when they turn on their sides they flash silver. But the best thing is that they jump high in the air—six or even ten feet. As they reach the top of the jump, they arc their bodies so that when they land back in the water they make a big splash. The sight always made me smile.

The most surprising?

Roz: The most sublime moments have been mostly centered around wildlife sightings—a whale shark that spent 20 minutes swimming around my boat, whales that come up and spout close by, dolphins, and turtles. I have also seen a moonbow—like a rainbow, but it happens at night when you have a really bright moon and a rain shower. And some awe-inspiring sunrises and sunsets.

What are the biggest difficulties you had in rowing and being so alone, and how did you overcome them?

Roz: My crossing of the Indian Ocean in 2011 year was really tough. Very, very long—154 days alone at sea— and some seriously feisty weather. About a month before the end of the voyage, the wind rose to about 30 knots, gusting to even higher speeds, and the waves became very big. My boat capsized twice, both times at night. I was inside the cabin, and strapped to my bunk for safety, but even so it was quite scary. The boat self-rights after a capsize, but it’s still not a fun experience, as it causes general chaos, damage, and stress.

Of all the experiences you had in rowing and/or being an environmental activist, which ones have stuck with you the most and affected your life today?

Roz: I’ve learned that no matter how big a challenge, you can do almost anything if you just stick at it and keep chipping away. I use the image of my ocean rowing to show what I mean. One oar stroke doesn’t get me very far, but over the last six years I have taken over five million oar strokes and covered 15,000 miles, so all those tiny actions really do add up.

This really helps keep me going when our environmental challenges seem overwhelming. I am a real believer in tipping points. If we just keep doing what we can, each and every one of us, we will eventually change the thinking. Every action spreads ripples of change. I hope that in my lifetime I will see world in which ecologically selfish behavior is a thing of the past and we will have evolved to a more enlightened mindset.

Meanwhile, just do something! We need to tackle this problem every way we can. Do the right things, and get the conversation going with your friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. Awareness is the first step on the way to action.

Showing off her boat, Sedna Solo, before setting out from Fremantle, Western Australia, to row solo across the Indian Ocean. (Photo: by Colin Leonhardt)

What would you say to people who have a dream of something they really want to do, but don’t know how to get started.

Roz: I think a lot of people have a dream, something they would like to achieve in their lives that they can be proud of. But they often don’t believe that they can do it. I used to be exactly like that. I spent 11 years working in an office, and looked set to stay that way. But then I decided that I wanted to break out and leave some kind of a legacy. And I’m so glad that I did, or I would always have wondered “what if?”. There’s nothing exceptional about me. I just made a decision, then made myself an enormous to do list, and committed to carrying it through. That’s all.

What are you doing now and what’s next for you?

Roz: Although I am now hanging up my oars in favor of land-based activities. I’ve done everything I set out to do with the ocean rowing, creating some ripples of change and clocking up four Guinness World Records along the way. The vision that I had eight years ago has come true.

So now it’s time for the next chapter. I’m taking part in Yale’s World Fellows Program. Sixteen of us from fourteen countries will be tackling topics like world poverty, sustainable development and globalization. It will be an incredibly intense 17 weeks, and I believe it will be the perfect transition into the next phase of my life. I want to carry on generating change for the better, finding ways that human beings can be happier while creating a genuinely sustainable way of living on this beautiful Earth.

Do you have a fave environmental organization that you stand behind?

Roz: I am associated with a number of environmental organizations (United Nations Climate Hero, an Athlete Ambassador for 350.org, and an Ambassador for the Blue Project, among several other things) but at the moment I am doing a lot of work with the Plastic Oceans Foundation (plasticoceans.net). They have an important documentary film coming out next year, backed by a foundation committed to creating a real impact on the amounts of plastic escaping into the environment, operating on the levels of government, industry and consumers.

Roz photographed in Oxford for her role as co-patron of the Greener Upon Thames campaign to make the 2012 London Olympics plastic bag free.

Who’s your biggest inspiration? (cliche question, I know!)

Roz: Biggest inspiration is the people who have supported me by giving money, time, energy and moral support to my projects. Also Harbo and Samuelson, two Norwegian clam fishermen who rowed the North Atlantic in 1896 with no GPS and no water maker, and not even a watertight cabin!

Would you like to add anything else for our readers?

Roz: What motivates me to keep on going when the going gets tough is concern over our future if we continue to treat the Earth so carelessly. This worries me more than any number of capsizes. There are now seven billion of us, buying and consuming more stuff than ever before, and we need to start taking a view to the long-term future if we are going to avoid drowning in our own toxic waste.

This doesn’t mean reducing our quality of life. It means finding happiness in things like fulfilling jobs, meaningful relationships, and good health rather than in an addiction to shopping and excessive consumerism.

Thank you, Roz!

Roz: All best!

You can connect with Roz on Facebook and twitter @rozsavage. For more information about Roz, visit her website RozSavage.com.


Bonus: Roz Savage’s TED talk

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