Alone with the Sea

From an interview with Roz Savage

Roz Savage was formerly a management consultant and project manager at an investment bank. In 2005, she competed in the 4,800-km Atlantic Rowing Race as the first solo woman to compete in that race and the sixth woman to row solo across any ocean. Three years later, she became the first woman to row from California to Hawai'i. In 2009, she continued her Pacific adventure by rowing from Hawai'i to Kiribati. In April-July 2010, she will attempt to row from Kiribati to Australia, the third part of her Pacific journey. She is a United Nations Climate Hero, a presenter for Al Gore's Climate Project and an Athlete Ambassador for She was listed among the Top 20 Great British Adventurers by the Daily Telegraph and the Top 10 Adventure Twitters by Outside magazine.

As she says on her website, "A few years ago I wrote two versions of my obituary, the one I wanted and the one I was heading for. They were very different. I realized I needed to make some big changes if I was going to look back and be proud of my life. I am making those changes, and now I have a life worth living."

I went out on the ocean in search of solitude, self-knowledge and self-fulfillment. Many indigenous people have rites of passage in which they go into the wilderness to prove their inner strength, their ability to survive and their readiness to become a mature member of their society. Their wilderness might be the desert, the savanna or the outback. Mine was the ocean. It is where I came of age, mostly by putting myself into a very challenging situation that there was no way out of except to keep on rowing, and to figure out how I was going to get to the other side without driving myself crazy.

Roz arriving in Honolulu, Hawai'i, after rowing across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco

On land I'm quite gregarious--I love being around people--but mine is a life of contrasts, and I love the solitude of my ocean life as well. It gives me time and space to think about what is really important in life and to see things clearly as if from a distance. Out there I'm not someone's daughter or sister or friend or wife. I am free to be purely me. I've certainly found out things about myself on the ocean that I don't think I could have learned in the midst of all this busyness on dry land. On my first ocean row, I struggled with some personal demons, the negative voices in my head, telling me I wasn't good enough. I had to learn to come to terms with them. It wasn't a comfortable experience, but in the long run it has helped me to be at peace with myself and become a happier, more fulfilled person.

I have rowed across the Atlantic and also completed two out of three stages of a row across the Pacific, from California to Hawai'i (2008) and from Hawai'i to Kiribati (2009). I thought the Atlantic was pretty big when I rowed across it--my voyage from the Canaries to Antigua was around 3,000 miles and took 103 days. My route across the Pacific will be nearly three times that distance. In this era of affordable flights, it's easy to forget just how big our Earth is--until you experience it from the deck of a slow-moving rowboat. But despite that enormous size, humankind has managed to trash the oceans. Even a thousand miles from land, on a calm day I could look down into the water and see a multitude of little pieces of plastic, like a plastic soup. And the oceans connect us all. They remind us that no nation is independent. We all share this fragile ecosystem, and one nation's trash will end up on another nation's beach.

Looking for Tomorrow

In 2009, I ended the second stage of my voyage at the tiny island of Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, a scattering of small coral atolls lying one degree north of the equator, on the far side of the International Date Line from Hawai'i. It is one of the first nations to enter tomorrow--both literally and figuratively. Not only is it in the first time zone west of the dateline, but it is likely to be one of the first nations on Earth to fall victim to climate change. As the oceans rise and extreme weather events become more frequent, this fragile nation clinging to the edge of the world will become uninhabitable, its water supply contaminated by salt water even before the low-lying islands disappear beneath the waves.

I met with the president of Kiribati and asked him how he felt about the future. He replied, "It's not just about the polar bears. It's also about the people." That really struck home with me. I wondered how I would feel if it was England, my country--the places where I had been born, grown up, gone to school, got married and raised children--that would soon be gone forever. So I decided to do something about it.

A friend of mine uses a great quote in his e-mail footer: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has," a quote from the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-78). I truly believe that our every thought, word and deed makes a difference. On a practical level, the degradation of the Earth has generally not occurred through a few major disasters. It has happened as the result of thoughtless decisions taken day after day, year after year, by most of the billions of humans alive on the planet. But likewise, we can start to allow the Earth to heal, by doing the right thing day after day, year after year.

And I believe that there is a ripple effect--both directly and spiritually. When we do the right thing, other people will notice and be influenced to do the same. And because we are all connected, the new, better ways will become the norm. By being the change we want to see in the world, to quote Gandhi, we can change the culture of carelessness to one of awareness. I can see this movement growing. We are raising our collective consciousness, and each and every one of us needs to continue doing that for the sake of our future.