Roz Savage MBE is the first woman to have rowed solo across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. She’s a passionate environmental advocate writer and speaker, Guinness World Record holder, and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Amanda Morison speaks to Roz about her adventures, environmental work and her network The Sisters
You might expect someone who has rowed across three oceans to have been the kind of child who captained her school hockey team to endless glories, but Roz Savage admits, “I was not the one being picked for teams. And as an under-confident child if there’s one message I’d like to pass on it’s that you don’t need to be an adventurous child to be a confident and adventurous adult”. Roz, however, was ambitious and determined – “I was good at getting badges at Brownies” – and good at what she terms, “Forrest Gump sports”. She would run and run until told to stop, and perhaps this early skill was what helped Roz keep going until she bumped into a continent or island during her three ocean-going voyages.
Roz’s studies got her into University College Oxford, where she read Law and earned two half-blues for – surprise, surprise – rowing! On graduation she worked as a management consultant for 11 years. Eventually she realised there was a mismatch between who she felt she was and who she was pretending to be. Inspired by The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Roz wrote two versions of what might happen at her funeral: a version of what she wanted people to say and the second what they would say if life continued its present course. “Morbid maybe, but was anyone going to say, ‘She was an amazing management consultant!’ at my funeral?” Roz felt there was nothing satisfying in her career, and she wanted to live, “a courageous life, to hopefully leave the world a slightly better place, and have a lot of fun and adventure”.
To this end she quit her job in 2003 and spent three months travelling around Peru. Seeing receding glaciers at first hand brought an environmental epiphany, and desperate to raise awareness of climate change Roz’s ideas “bumped into each other” when she became friends with, “A guy who had rowed across the Atlantic with his mother, and I realised you didn’t need a big bushy beard to have an adventure”. Roz decided rowing solo across oceans would give her the experiences she needed to raise environmental awareness through blogs, talks and further books.
Roz’s first solo, self-powered ocean voyage took over a year of planning. New to adventure, she managed her fear by “planning the heck out of it”. Excel spreadsheets tracked everything she ate and drank, her exercise and heart rate. Was it time well spent? “Probably not, in practical terms, but I wanted to do everything as professionally as humanly possible to build the belief that I could actually do this. But I don’t think anything can prepare you for spending months alone at sea”.
Roz had to be self-reliant for each of her three ocean crossings. Food was planned in terms of calories per cubic cm with freeze-dried meals, nuts, and beansprout seeds to grow. “After crossing the Atlantic I ended up addicted to sugar. It’s fine to eat sugary snacks when you need 5,000 calories a day, but after losing two stone while at sea I put it all back on, and then some, on dry land!” Her Atlantic music playlist also went awry. Electronics were solar powered and there wasn’t enough sunshine during the first month for anything but essentials – water purification and GPS satellite. After a month of silence there were two sunny days of music and then the stereo abruptly stopped: it had rusted in the hostile sea salt environment. But this was nothing compared to what else nature threw at her. “It was brutal. 2005-2006 was the roughest year ever for storms, which included Hurricane Katrina. Never mind getting into the smooth, meditative rhythm I’d imagined. I was terrified. It took weeks to believe the boat wasn’t going to break up.”
The physical environment was testing, and the mental landscape even worse: “I suffered overwhelming panic and depression and had to come up with ways to deal with the negative voices”. Roz coped by acknowledging that she had wanted to get out of her comfort zone. “Feeling so uncomfortable physically and psychologically was where I was going to grow as a person – it was a good thing that I was hating every moment.” Roz recalls actor Denholm Elliott’s quote to, “Surprise yourself every day with your own courage.”. “And, slightly glibly, I always ask myself, “How hard can it be?!”. I had a weather expert on call to keep me updated, and whenever I was having a bit of a whinge he’d remind me that if it was easy everyone would be doing it. It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun… When I look back I feel proud and privileged to have had these incredible experiences”’.
Asked who she would like to row across an ocean with, Roz suggested someone who could sing because it would be good to have entertainment in case the stereo broke down again: “Perhaps Robbie Williams because he’d be good fun. And Michael Palin. I once had lunch with him to talk about waves and he’s charming and twinkly and used to a bit of hardship while travelling. Sir David Attenborough would be wonderful, but at his age I probably shouldn’t take him out to sea. I like the Obamas, so could I take both of them?”
Ocean rowing days are behind her, but Roz still does some work around plastic pollution and is delighted to see it hitting public awareness – “In this country, anyway”. She cites Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet as doing a fantastic job, and admires Wastebuster.co.uk: “It’s about waste reduction and is targeted at kids”. She feels the “tragedy of plastic pollution” is as simple and as difficult as changing the thinking. “Generally as humans we have a feeling we are separate and superior to nature, but we are part of it and if we don’t have a healthy planet we aren’t going to have healthy humans. Why would anyone think it’s ok to chuck a bottle out of the window at a traffic light?”
“If I can inspire anyone, it’s to say that it’s OK to feel scared, daunted and overwhelmed, but just keep taking one stroke at a time and keep going. The Sisters is in rapid development and should launch in a big way in 2019.”
So: a new currency, the end of plastic pollution, and a mutually supportive society. In the words of one who has already achieved the impossible at least three times: “How hard can it be?!”
Roz currently holds the following four world records:
- Longest ocean row by a female solo – 154 days finished Oct 2011
- First female to row the Pacific ocean solo – finished June 2010
- Most days at sea by a female ocean rower – 510 days by Oct 2011
- First female to row three different oceans – 2005-06 Atlantic, 2008- 2010 Pacific, 2011 – Indian
Look out for The Sisters:
Having rowed across three oceans Roz Savage realised that she could achieve more than she’d ever thought possible. She also believes that if she’s not a little scared then she’s not aiming high enough. Hence her audacious vision to change the world by harnessing the strength of the world’s women. The Sisters will bring together women from around the world, offering support, empowerment and a vision of a more equal world. Visit the website to find out more.