Roz Savage / In mid-April, British eco-adventurer Roz Savage is set to row her canoe from Fremantle, Australia, to Mumbai, India–that’s 5,000 nautical miles across the Indian Ocean. Her sleek metal canoe looks like a modern space capsule outfitted with solar panels, a computer, a GPS, a satellite phone and enough food for up to five months.
Scores of fans and incredulous onlookers will gather at the docks to watch this small, blonde woman row off into the deep blue. With each oar stroke, she will move farther away from the comforts of land, her back arching toward an unknown and fluid future.
Before leaving on this epic journey, Savage flew to Honolulu at the end of March to be a keynote speaker for the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference. An engaging speaker and author, she was invited to talk about her upcoming voyage, her previous crossings of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the plastic pollution she has seen first-hand in these oceans.
“Rowing is a means to an end–it’s not an end in itself,” she explains. “It’s what gives me a platform to talk about the things I care about.” Like taking better care of our planet and oceans.
During the conference, I had a chance to speak with Savage about her journey to become the first woman to row across the world’s oceans. I first met this plucky British athlete in 2008 after she had finished a 99-day ocean crossing from San Francisco to Honolulu. Since then, she has come back to the Islands several times between her ocean journeys.
“I really do consider Hawaii a home away from home,” she says.
As a fellow PK, or preacher’s kid, I wanted to find out what inspired her to venture out on these seemingly impossible voyages. What would drive a person to give up all of the comforts of home to spend up to five months at sea, alone in a 23-foot canoe, rowing 12 hours a day, with no land in sight?
Savage, who is 43 years old, jokes about the mid-life crisis that motivated her to take on such monumental tasks, but also reflects on the serious environmental mission that compelled her.
“I tend to go to extremes, as you can probably tell by my chosen career! I actually used to be the arch-materialist. I came from this poor family and used to think that having lots of stuff would make me happy and bring me security,” she says.
After rowing in college, Savage went on to become a successful management consultant in London. She had a handsome husband, a big house and a nice car. But she felt empty, and at a pivotal moment in her life, she wrote two versions of her own obituary.
In the first version, she imagined continuing to work the rest of her life as a management consultant in London. In the second version of her obituary, she conjured up a new image of herself, doing something adventurous and living life by her own rules.
“By the time I finished, I almost believed I had lived that life,” she says. “It was quite an epiphany.”
After much painful deliberation, Savage decided to end her marriage and her career and to give up the material things she once coveted. That’s when she came up with the crazy idea to row across the Atlantic. After selling everything she owned, she built a high-tech ocean-going canoe.
“Now I’ve got practically nothing, no house, no car. I live out of a suitcase, but I can honestly say I’ve never been happier.”
In her attempt to row across the Big 3–the Atlantic, the Pacific and now the Indian Ocean, Savage reflects on what each crossing has meant to her.
“I tend to think of the Atlantic as my personal journey,” Savage says. “I had a lot of growing up to do, and that’s what I did on the Atlantic. Then, with the Pacific, I started to find my voice as an environmental advocate. I was able to focus less on myself and more on the state of the planet.”
Her mid-life crisis happened to coincide with the growing environmental crises around the world. She saw plastic marine pollution first-hand in the North Pacific Garbage Patch, as well as and the effects of global warming and rising sea levels on the Island of Kiribati in the South Pacific.
Though she worries that Somali pirates may kidnap her and fierce storms might capsize her canoe, Savage has faith that her voyage across the Indian Ocean will offer new personal insights and adventures.
“It’s hard to tell in advance, but I’m open to the possibility that the Indian Ocean might be more of a spiritual journey. That’s why I’ve decided to call it ‘Eat, Pray, Row!’”
Faced with the prospect of spending months alone at sea in potentially deadly conditions, Savage struggles with motivation.
“I have to remind myself that each oar stroke, even though it only moves me a short distance, gets me a little closer to my goal. It takes about a million oar strokes to cover 3,000 miles, which is pretty mind-boggling,” she says. “But if you just take it one stroke at a time, it really adds up to something significant. And I think that’s a great metaphor for so many of these environmental challenges we’re facing right now.”