By Ford Cochran
Roz Savage, whose months-long ocean rows have captivated thousands, has embarked on the third and final planned leg of a trans-Pacific voyage. The first portion of the traverse took her from San Francisco to Hawaii in 2008. She followed this up by rowing from Hawaii to Tarawa in the island nation of Kiribati last year.
Monday morning, Kiribati president Anote Tong joined other well-wishers for a ceremonial send-off.
I spoke with Roz shortly before she left Kiribati.
What made you decide to venture out on tiny boats for months, tackling the elements and entire oceans under nothing more than your own power?
For eleven years I was a management consultant in London, working a job I didn’t like to buy stuff I didn’t need. I knew from practically the first day that it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. The trouble was, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
I sat down and wrote two versions of my own obituary–the one I wanted people to read one day, and the one I was headed for. They were poles apart. I realized that I needed to make some big changes if I hoped to get where I wanted to be in five or ten years.
So gradually, but with a few scary leaps into the unknown, I got rid of the trappings of my own life.
I was starting to get things figured out, developing life skills that made me happier. I needed some kind of a project to bring these skills to bear. I had rowed competitively when I was a student. At that time, there were about 200 people in the world who had rowed across some ocean or another. The fact that I had rowed in college gave me the notion that this was something I was qualified to do.
Well, how wrong could you be? But with more experience and effort, I discovered that I could do it.
Are you still on course for the life you wanted?
I had a moment of insight while on the ocean last year. It was a beautiful night, but hot and stuffy in my cabin. I was lying on the deck, looking up at the stars. It was like one of those Hollywood moments, gazing up at the stars. I suddenly felt incredibly lucky to be there–all the more so when I thought about my life ten years before in London. This was such an amazing place to be geographically, emotionally, psychologically. I was due to go to Copenhagen in December. My new book (Rowing the Atlantic: Lessons Learned on the Open Ocean) was about to come out. Being there, that moment: It was extraordinary.
Your ocean crossings take months and involve enormous discipline and hard work. Does each hold a distinct significance for you?
I feel like the Atlantic was about the inner journey. I was still at a fairly vulnerable stage, coming out of the old life and into the new one. I had gone out to learn about myself and what I was capable of. And I had a really, really, really, really rough year out there.
The Atlantic had the worst possible weather year, with hurricanes and other big storms. My equipment kept breaking–instruments, oars, everything. The experience came with a steep learning curve. It took me a couple of years to figure out all that I had learned out there.
The Pacific rows have been much more about the outer journey–taking that knowledge and figuring out how I could use it in service to the world.
In my old job, I didn’t feel as if I was doing anything really useful, bringing anything of value to humankind. The Pacific has been about discovering that role for myself. I’ve been finding my voice as an environmental campaigner.
What’s your environmental message?
To come back to the central metaphor of my journeys, the rowing works in so many ways. Each of my big crossings has taken about a million oar strokes. A million. By themselves, one or two strokes don’t get me very far. It takes a million to do the job.
Much of what we’ve done to the Earth involves killing it by a thousand, a million, tiny cuts: Millions of people going out every day without consideration for the planet. If we develop good habits, we could still turn things around. But time is running short.
What are some of the challenges you anticipate during this leg of the crossing?
This is going to be the most challenging one yet, I think. Just looking at the charts, there are far more islands on this stage of the row than I’ve ever encountered before. There were no islands between North America and Hawaii, just an awful lot of nothing out there. It was pretty much the same story between Hawaii and here. But from here to Australia, there are lots of islands.
It’s not just the islands, it’s the coral reefs that might be concealed beneath the ocean. My boat has a draft of only two feet, but coral can come right up to the surface, and often you don’t see it until you’re right on top of it. I’ve got good charts. But if there’s a strong wind blowing I could still land in trouble.
Once I get into the Coral Sea for the second half of the journey, the winds will be blowing out of the southeast, and I’m trying to go southwest. So whenever I stop rowing, the winds will blow me away from where I want to be. On some of the other crossings, I could make good miles overnight. But this will be a tough one, and I’ll need to work hard for every single mile.
I suppose I got into this for the challenge, to find out where my limits are. So far I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the things I could endure and accomplish.
Although you’ll be blogging and tweeting your journey, you’ve lost communications with the land while en route before. Is that the largest obstacle you’ve faced?
Actually, I was quite happy to lose communications while on the Atlantic. It was the real test, not having anybody to lean on, and I was quite excited to get that opportunity.
Really, the biggest problems on my rows so far have been the most mundane: Skin problems, since I’m fair and I’m English. I get terrible heat rash, which is itchy and uncomfortable. Then there’s the boredom. Audio books have definitely helped. I didn’t have them in the Atlantic, and finally not even music because my stereo broke. Motivation is also a constant struggle. Doing it for one day, rowing all day long, that’s manageable, but for a hundred days–that’s another story.
I’m not a natural athlete, one of these people who bounces out of bed every morning saying “Let’s get exercise!” So I feel that it’s very much by the grace of Mother Nature that I am allowed across the ocean.
The thing most likely to sabotage my expedition is usually myself: I’ll implode with boredom. So I’ve become much better at marshaling my thoughts than I used to be, channeling and reversing negative thought patterns whenever I start marching down that path. I gauge my happy place and come up with more constructive things to think about: The big picture, the reasons why I’m doing this, the message I want to get out there. Once I come up with those reasons, I can usually come up with the motivation.
If you’re not a natural athlete, what do you do to stay in shape when you’re not rowing across an ocean?
My training is patchy at best. But it’s easy to get in shape on the job once you’re on the water, and by the second week at sea, I’m usually pretty fit.
At first, I trained up to 16 hours at a stretch for the Atlantic on the rowing machine. And I got tendinitis in the first week. I’ve been lighter on the training since, more balanced, and that’s usually worked out well.
Apart from finishing, is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to on this portion of the Pacific journey?
I don’t have anything formal planned, and don’t know how big my fan base in the Solomon Islands is. But I’d love to have a mid-ocean rendezvous. I had a great rendezvous with a boat on my way to Hawaii. I was running low on water, and they were running low on food. We had a bit of a party together and it was absolutely fantastic.
David de Rothschild’s Plastiki will be on a similar course to mine. It would be absolutely fabulous if we could get together! If you’re in touch, please tell him that if he wants to bring me an ice-cold drink, that would be very welcome.
I’ll be certain to pass that on!
Mostly, though, ocean rowboats and land don’t get along very well. Once I’m out there, it’s easier just to keep going. So unless there’s a major disaster–say, my water maker is broken–I’ll probably keep rowing and avoid most of the islands along the way.
Where will you complete the voyage?
Plan A: Cairns, Australia. Plan B: Thursday Island, also Australia. Plan C: Papua-New Guinea. If the boat and I make it in one piece to dry land, I would like to cross the Indian Ocean next year. So either mainland Australia or Thursday Island would be my preference.
Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share with National Geographic readers?
Eco Heroes is something I’d like people to get behind: Millions of tiny actions adding up to a big change in the world. I know that changing a light bulb won’t change the world. But generating that awareness, that consciousness–that’s what will save humanity.
The world is fine, it’s us that’s in trouble! That sounds a bit earnest, but it’s meant to be fun as well–being acknowledged, rewarded for doing the right thing, connected to a global community of people also trying to do the right thing.
Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.