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Roz Savage: Why I'm rowing across the pacific

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Hi, my name is Roz Savage and I row across oceans. Four years ago, I rowed solo across the Atlantic, and since then, I've done two out of three stages across the Pacific, from San Francisco to Hawaii and from Hawaii to Kiribati. And tomorrow, I'll be leaving this boat to fly back to Kiribati to continue with the third and final stage of my row across the Pacific. Cumulatively, I will have rowed over 8,000 miles, taken over three million oar strokes and spent more than 312 days alone on the ocean on a 23 foot rowboat. This has given me a very special relationship with the ocean. We have a bit of a love/hate thing going on. I feel a bit about it like I did about a very strict math teacher that I once had at school. I didn't always like her, but I did respect her, and she taught me a heck of a lot. So today I'd like to share with you some of my ocean adventures and tell you a little bit about what they've taught me, and how I think we can maybe take some of those lessons and apply them to this environmental challenge that we face right now.

Now, some of you might be thinking, "Hold on a minute. She doesn't look very much like an ocean rower. Isn't she meant to be about this tall and about this wide and maybe look a bit more like these guys?" You'll notice, they've all got something that I don't. Well, I don't know what you're thinking, but I'm talking about the beards. (Laughter) And no matter how long I've spent on the ocean, I haven't yet managed to muster a decent beard, and I hope that it remains that way.

For a long time, I didn't believe that I could have a big adventure. The story that I told myself was that adventurers looked like this. I didn't look the part. I thought there were them and there were us, and I was not one of them. So for 11 years, I conformed. I did what people from my kind of background were supposed to do. I was working in an office in London as a management consultant. And I think I knew from day one that it wasn't the right job for me. But that kind of conditioning just kept me there for so many years, until I reached my mid-30s and I thought, "You know, I'm not getting any younger. I feel like I've got a purpose in this life, and I don't know what it is, but I'm pretty certain that management consultancy is not it.

So, fast forward a few years. I'd gone through some changes. To try and answer that question of, "What am I supposed to be doing with my life?" I sat down one day and wrote two versions of my own obituary, the one that I wanted, a life of adventure, and the one that I was actually heading for which was a nice, normal, pleasant life, but it wasn't where I wanted to be by the end of my life. I wanted to live a life that I could be proud of. And I remember looking at these two versions of my obituary and thinking, "Oh boy, I'm on totally the wrong track here. If I carry on living as I am now, I'm just not going to end up where I want to be in five years, or 10 years, or at the end of my life." I made a few changes, let go of some loose trappings of my old life, and through a bit of a leap of logic, decided to row across the Atlantic Ocean.


The Atlantic Rowing Race runs from the Canaries to Antigua, it's about 3,000 miles, and it turned out to be the hardest thing I had ever done. Sure, I had wanted to get outside of my comfort zone, but what I'd sort of failed to notice was that getting out of your comfort zone is, by definition, extremely uncomfortable. And my timing was not great either: 2005, when I did the Atlantic, was the year of Hurricane Katrina. There were more tropical storms in the North Atlantic than ever before, since records began. And pretty early on, those storms started making their presence known.

All four of my oars broke before I reached halfway across. Oars are not supposed to look like this. But what can you do? You're in the middle of the ocean. Oars are your only means of propulsion. So I just had to look around the boat and figure out what I was going to use to fix up these oars so that I could carry on. So I found a boat hook and my trusty duct tape and splintered the boat hook to the oars to reinforce it. Then, when that gave out, I sawed the wheel axles off my spare rowing seat and used those. And then when those gave out, I cannibalized one of the broken oars. I'd never been very good at fixing stuff when I was living my old life, but it's amazing how resourceful you can become when you're in the middle of the ocean and there's only one way to get to the other side.

And the oars kind of became a symbol of just in how many ways I went beyond what I thought were my limits. I suffered from tendinitis on my shoulders and saltwater sores on my bottom. I really struggled psychologically, totally overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge, realizing that, if I carried on moving at two miles an hour, 3,000 miles was going to take me a very, very long time. There were so many times when I thought I'd hit that limit, but had no choice but to just carry on and try and figure out how I was going to get to the other side without driving myself crazy.

And eventually after 103 days at sea, I arrived in Antigua. I don't think I've ever felt so happy in my entire life. It was a bit like finishing a marathon and getting out of solitary confinement and winning an Oscar all rolled into one. I was euphoric. And to see all the people coming out to greet me and standing along the cliff tops and clapping and cheering, I just felt like a movie star. It was absolutely wonderful. And I really learned then that, the bigger the challenge, the bigger the sense of achievement when you get to the end of it.

So this might be a good moment to take a quick time-out to answer a few FAQs about ocean rowing that might be going through your mind. Number one that I get asked: What do you eat? A few freeze-dried meals, but mostly I try and eat much more unprocessed foods. So I grow my own beansprouts. I eat fruits and nut bars, a lot of nuts. And generally arrive about 30 pounds lighter at the other end. Question number two: How do you sleep? With my eyes shut. Ha-ha. I suppose what you mean is: What happens to the boat while I'm sleeping? Well, I plan my route so that I'm drifting with the winds and the currents while I'm sleeping. On a good night, I think my best ever was 11 miles in the right direction. Worst ever, 13 miles in the wrong direction. That's a bad day at the office. What do I wear? Mostly, a baseball cap, rowing gloves and a smile -- or a frown, depending on whether I went backwards overnight -- and lots of sun lotion. Do I have a chase boat? No I don't. I'm totally self-supporting out there. I don't see anybody for the whole time that I'm at sea, generally. And finally: Am I crazy? Well, I leave that one up to you to judge.

So, how do you top rowing across the Atlantic? Well, naturally, you decide to row across the Pacific. Well, I thought the Atlantic was big, but the Pacific is really, really big. I think we tend to do it a little bit of a disservice in our usual maps. I don't know for sure that the Brits invented this particular view of the world, but I suspect we might have done so: we are right in the middle, and we've cut the Pacific in half and flung it to the far corners of the world. Whereas if you look in Google Earth, this is how the Pacific looks. It pretty much covers half the planet. You can just see a little bit of North America up here and a sliver of Australia down there. It is really big -- 65 million square miles -- and to row in a straight line across it would be about 8,000 miles. Unfortunately, ocean rowboats very rarely go in a straight line. By the time I get to Australia, if I get to Australia, I will have rowed probably nine or 10,000 miles in all.

So, because nobody in their straight mind would row straight past Hawaii without dropping in, I decided to cut this very big undertaking into three segments. The first attempt didn't go so well. In 2007, I did a rather involuntary capsize drill three times in 24 hours. A bit like being in a washing machine. Boat got a bit dinged up, so did I. I blogged about it. Unfortunately, somebody with a bit of a hero complex decided that this damsel was in distress and needed saving. The first I knew about this was when the Coast Guard plane turned up overhead. I tried to tell them to go away. We had a bit of a battle of wills. I lost and got airlifted. Awful, really awful. It was one of the worst feelings of my life, as I was lifted up on that winch line into the helicopter and looked down at my trusty little boat rolling around in the 20 foot waves and wondering if I would ever see her again. So I had to launch a very expensive salvage operation and then wait another nine months before I could get back out onto the ocean again.

But what do you do? Fall down nine times, get up 10. So, the following year, I set out and, fortunately, this time made it safely across to Hawaii. But it was not without misadventure. My watermaker broke, only the most important piece of kit that I have on the boat. Powered by my solar panels, it sucks in saltwater and turns it into freshwater. But it doesn't react very well to being immersed in ocean, which is what happened to it. Fortunately, help was at hand.

There was another unusual boat out there at the same time, doing as I was doing, bringing awareness to the North Pacific Garbage Patch, that area in the North Pacific about twice the size of Texas, with an estimated 3.5 million tons of trash in it, circulating at the center of that North Pacific Gyre. So, to make the point, these guys had actually built their boat out of plastic trash, 15,000 empty water bottles latched together into two pontoons. They were going very slowly. Partly, they'd had a bit of a delay. They'd had to pull in at Catalina Island shortly after they left Long Beach because the lids of all the water bottles were coming undone, and they were starting to sink. So they'd had to pull in and do all the lids up.

But, as I was approaching the end of my water reserves, luckily, our courses were converging. They were running out of food; I was running out of water. So we liaised by satellite phone and arranged to meet up. And it took about a week for us to actually gradually converge. I was doing a pathetically slow speed of about 1.3 knots, and they were doing only marginally less pathetic speed of about 1.4: it was like two snails in a mating dance. But, eventually, we did manage to meet up and Joel hopped overboard, caught us a beautiful, big mahi-mahi, which was the best food I'd had in, ooh, at least three months.

Fortunately, the one that he caught that day was better than this one they caught a few weeks earlier. When they opened this one up, they found its stomach was full of plastic. And this is really bad news because plastic is not an inert substance. It leaches out chemicals into the flesh of the poor critter that ate it, and then we come along and eat that poor critter, and we get some of the toxins accumulating in our bodies as well. So there are very real implications for human health.

I eventually made it to Hawaii still alive. And, the following year, set out on the second stage of the Pacific, from Hawaii down to Tarawa. And you'll notice something about Tarawa; it is very low-lying. It's that little green sliver on the horizon, which makes them very nervous about rising oceans. This is big trouble for these guys. They've got no points of land more than about six feet above sea level. And also, as an increase in extreme weather events due to climate change, they're expecting more waves to come in over the fringing reef, which will contaminate their fresh water supply. I had a meeting with the president there, who told me about his exit strategy for his country. He expects that within the next 50 years, the 100,000 people that live there will have to relocate to New Zealand or Australia. And that made me think about how would I feel if Britain was going to disappear under the waves; if the places where I'd been born and gone to school and got married, if all those places were just going to disappear forever. How, literally, ungrounded that would make me feel.

Very shortly, I'll be setting out to try and get to Australia, and if I'm successful, I'll be the first woman ever to row solo all the way across the Pacific. And I try to use this to bring awareness to these environmental issues, to bring a human face to the ocean. If the Atlantic was about my inner journey, discovering my own capabilities, maybe the Pacific has been about my outer journey, figuring out how I can use my interesting career choice to be of service to the world, and to take some of those things that I've learned out there and apply them to the situation that humankind now finds itself in.

I think there are probably three key points here. The first one is about the stories that we tell ourselves. For so long, I told myself that I couldn't have an adventure because I wasn't six foot tall and athletic and bearded. And then that story changed. I found out that people had rowed across oceans. I even met one of them and she was just about my size. So even though I didn't grow any taller, I didn't sprout a beard, something had changed: My interior dialogue had changed. At the moment, the story that we collectively tell ourselves is that we need all this stuff, that we need oil. But what about if we just change that story? We do have alternatives, and we have the power of free will to choose those alternatives, those sustainable ones, to create a greener future.

The second point is about the accumulation of tiny actions. We might think that anything that we do as an individual is just a drop in the ocean, that it can't really make a difference. But it does. Generally, we haven't got ourselves into this mess through big disasters. Yes, there have been the Exxon Valdezes and the Chernobyls, but mostly it's been an accumulation of bad decisions by billions of individuals, day after day and year after year. And, by the same token, we can turn that tide. We can start making better, wiser, more sustainable decisions. And when we do that, we're not just one person. Anything that we do spreads ripples. Other people will see if you're in the supermarket line and you pull out your reusable grocery bag. Maybe if we all start doing this, we can make it socially unacceptable to say yes to plastic in the checkout line. That's just one example. This is a world-wide community.

The other point: It's about taking responsibility. For so much of my life, I wanted something else to make me happy. I thought if I had the right house or the right car or the right man in my life, then I could be happy. But when I wrote that obituary exercise, I actually grew up a little bit in that moment and realized that I needed to create my own future. I couldn't just wait passively for happiness to come and find me. And I suppose I'm a selfish environmentalist. I plan on being around for a long time, and when I'm 90 years old, I want to be happy and healthy. And it's very difficult to be happy on a planet that's racked with famine and drought. It's very difficult to be healthy on a planet where we've poisoned the earth and the sea and the air.

So, shortly, I'm going to be launching a new initiative called Eco-Heroes. And the idea here is that all our Eco-Heroes will log at least one green deed every day. It's meant to be a bit of a game. We're going to make an iPhone app out of it. We just want to try and create that awareness because, sure, changing a light bulb isn't going to change the world, but that attitude, that awareness that leads you to change the light bulb or take your reusable coffee mug, that is what could change the world.

I really believe that we stand at a very important point in history. We have a choice. We've been blessed, or cursed, with free will. We can choose a greener future, and we can get there if we all pull together to take it one stroke at a time.

Thank you.


Video Details

Duration: 17 minutes and 3 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 238
Posted by: tedtalks on Apr 27, 2010

Two years ago, Roz Savage quit her high-powered London job to become an ocean rower. She's crossed the Atlantic solo, and she just this week started the third leg of a Pacific solo row, the first for a woman. Why does she do it? Hear her reasons, both deeply personal and urgently activist.

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