Roz Savage – Living a purposeful life

There was an adventurer trapped in her body, but sitting as she was in her management consultant corporate suit, she did not know it yet. An attempt at writing her own obituary made her realize that our time in this planet is not infinite and that the person she was, was not how she would like to be remembered. Not having been particularly sporty and in a frame of just 1.60 meters, she had an epiphany. What if she crossed three oceans, solo: herself, her 7 meter boat and her oars; no boat behind her and no support system? Meet Roz Savage, the intrepid environmentalist whose 5 million oar strokes, 500 days at sea and 15 000 miles in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, brought purpose to her life and 4 world records. She has since become a United Nations Climate Hero, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Yale World Fellow, a National Geographic Adventurer and has been named one of the TOP 20 Great British Adventurers.

Tell me about how a management consultant suddenly takes a leap of faith and decides to cross three Oceans, alone.

I grew up in a family which did not have much money, and as a reaction against that I believed that money would be my route to happiness. In the Western World we have this belief that we can get to happiness through quick fixes like shopping rather than doing the deep work that leads to longer-lasting fulfilment, and I totally fell for the myth.

After studying law I became a management consultant. I had all I thought I wanted but eleven years on I was deeply unhappy. My self-esteem was plummeting. I was utterly unfulfilled in my work and I can see why I was underperforming: there was nothing in the work that I did that meant anything at all to me. I was doing a job I didn’t like to buy stuff I didn’t need.

And then you decided to write two obituaries, one for the life you were leading and another for the one you would wanted to lead.

Writing the obituary reminded me that I did not have unlimited amount of time to do whatever I wanted to do with my life. My fantasy obituary was very revealing: it did not say anything about the big house I would live in or how many cars I would have. It was not about stuff. It wasn’t even about what I would do. It was about how it would feel to be me.

In the fantasy obituary there was an element of living adventurously but not necessarily in the sense of physical adventure. I wanted to feel I knew myself and was honoring myself in what I did. I wanted to live without fear.

In my corporate life I felt trapped. I was fearful of losing a job I did not like and of losing security. I lived in my comfort zone and other than running a few marathons I kept myself right in the middle of my comfort zone.

I thought about the obituaries I enjoyed reading and about these people who just seem to have an immense reserve of self-confidence and fearlessness and get out and live. Compared to that, I felt like I was just existing. My life looked very black and white compared to their Technicolor lives!

So did the obituaries ignite the adventurer to come out?

At first I wasn’t brave enough to do anything about what I had learnt. My fantasy obituary was so far away from where I was I could not see a way to connect the two.

But even though it was so distant it still felt very real, almost like if I had lifted a veil and something shifted in my subconscious. once you lift the veil you can’t put it back again.

Initially, I was very scared of what I had done. I realized some of the things that gave me security were incompatible with the life I wanted to be living. I left my job. And also my marriage ended. Consequently, I ended up being very free to reinvent myself, with no career or home.

This may sound terrifying but it actually was also incredibly liberating. Even though things had changed so much for me, the world after all, kept turning! Another big liberation came from letting go of what other people thought of me.

In 2003, before your ocean crossings you went to Peru.

A string of serendipities led me there. A friend of mine was traveling around the world and invited me to join her for part of her journey. I had to choose which part, and I settled on the idea of Peru for no reason other than that it was the home of Paddington Bear! When I went to a bookshop to find a book about Peru, I was drawn to a book by Hugh Thompson The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland. I read it immediately and told my friend how much I liked it. A few days later she texted me to say that my “pal Hugh Thompson was in the news”. They had just found some Inca ruins and he was setting off on an expedition. I wrote to him and convinced him to take me in the expedition as his sponsorship organizer. It was hard to raise much money but they appreciated how hard I tried and took me along!

I went to Peru, specifically wanting to write a book. When that is your mindset you welcome anything that happens as long as it is interesting! The book was never published but the amazing experiences I had there were a crucial part of my evolution.

Since then, you have published two books: Rowing the Atlantic: Lessons Learnt On The Open Ocean and Stop Drifting, Start Rowing.

I always wanted to be a writer. And I really hope I have more books in me because I love writing. I have now worked so much with finding life purpose. I don’t think we have only one, we may have many and we can reinvent ourselves from time to time. But I think the key to life purpose is to find the things that we love to do, which are often the things that we loved when we were children.

How did you gather the courage and prepare for your crossings?

In Peru I did mountaineering and a bit of trekking, which I really enjoyed. I started to feel I was finding myself, I was getting a hang of this thing called life but now I needed a bigger project. The spark that set it all was an environmental awakening. I became really alarmed about where we’re heading if we don’t change course. I felt even if I can only make a tiny difference, I have to do what I can. The idea of rowing across the oceans came up to me one day when I was driving and I wasn’t even thinking about this.

I had never really considered myself an adventurer. I am not naturally an athletic person. At that time, there were only about 200 people in the world that had crossed an ocean by rowboat. I read tons of books about explorers and adventurers. I stood on the shoulders of giants: I learnt about how they prepared and how they coped.

And then I met rowers, especially meeting female role models was important to me. Jan Meek rowed the Atlantic with her son Dan Byles while Debra Searle who set out with her then husband Andrew Veal concluded the crossing alone after he was rescued off the boat because he couldn’t handle the challenge. Meeting these women encouraged me to see that it could be done.

But, I suppose I rather naïvely thought that rowing an ocean would be not much harder than rowing on a river, just longer. I think I was in a stage of unconscious incompetence! As an ex project manager I was really good at planning the crossings, which gave me the illusion that I was in control. I got all the training and qualifications that I needed, and also went sailing, which was important, because I needed to get out far, out of touch with land so that I would know that I could cope with that situation. We are land-based creatures and one of the unfortunate things about rowing is that you face backwards, so as you are rowing away from land you can see your natural habitat disappearing in the horizon.

You were altogether 103 days at sea in the Atlantic crossing. Were the first day and night at sea the first huge milestone to get through?

I expected to be tired during the first couple of days. But on the first day I was very seasick. The water was much rougher than any of my practice rows. I had problems with the water maker and was bending down to fix it, which made things worse because when you are seasick its best to look out to the horizon. The waves during that first night were very loud and I was feeling very small. There is a lot to be said about having naïve optimism to get yourself into a situation, and too much stubborn pride to give up!

Did you feel despair at any point?

I would not say despair. But that first month, the conditions were terrible. 2005 was the year of Hurricane Katrina. The waves were very big. There was also very little sunshine so my batteries were running low. As a consequence, I could not listen to music to cheer myself up.

People told me the first two weeks would be the hardest. I held in there expecting a miracle to happen at two weeks, but it was just as hard after that. The conditions remained as difficult throughout. The only thing that changed was my ability to cope. I learnt to find ways to reframe my situation to make it less difficult for myself.

You mean things like salt sores in your body, pain and stiffness in your arms and back, all four oars breaking, the sound system dying and then finally when your satellite phone stopped functioning….

It was not so much the practical problems that bothered me, because then at least there was a practical solution. It was the emotional and psychological challenges which I had to overcome: the sheer boredom and frustration.

As with everything in life, adversity is not so much about what is going on but how you perceive what is happening to you. My mistake at the start was to perceive everything so negatively. I was expecting a serene ocean I would enjoy. But I was not enjoying it. Reframing things really helped me. When I admitted “ocean rowing sucks” I was released from feeling I had to enjoy it all the time.

Another reframing that helped me cope was to identify what I wanted to do was to be outside my comfort zone and by definition, that is uncomfortable. I stopped seeing discomfort as a failure and instead saw it as a growing opportunity.

The day after my satellite phone broke I made a video. That was 80 days into the voyage and in a way that moment felt perfect. I understood I was learning a lot about myself and that I had found much better ways to cope. One of the things I wanted was to be self-reliant. When the phone broke it made sense: now I could test how self-reliant I could be. In the end it took me almost twice as long to row across the Atlantic as I originally thought. I felt right I had to take so long so that I would experience the phone breaking!

What were you eating over 100 days at sea? Anything fresh? How did you keep a certain sense of time?

For fresh food, I sprouted lentils, chickpeas and seeds. I mixed them with Tahini, nama shoyu sauce and almonds. It was really tasty! I also ate snack bars, dried fruit, nuts, and freeze-dried meals.

I found out it is important to stick to a really strong routine. In the early days I played around with it. But that takes a lot of mental energy: one voice telling me to continue rowing and the other to stop. In the end I did four 3-hour rowing shifts per day, with one-hour rest between shifts, and I slept during darkness.

You said somewhere that the Atlantic was about your inner journey, while the Pacific and Indian Oceans were much about your outer journey

I set out to do the Atlantic to raise environmental awareness, but I spent most of that voyage getting to know more about myself and getting my head together. I didn’t really have the capacity to write about the environment. In some ways it reminds me about how I was caught up with my own self-pity when I was a management consultant. That limited my capacity to engage with global issues. It was only when I learnt self-care that I found the emotional generosity to care about the world outside of myself. That is why one of my passions is to help people be OK in themselves so that they have the bandwidth to care about the very big global issues we have.

The Pacific crossing allowed me to put into practice what I had learnt in the Atlantic. Writing the book helped me internalize what I learnt.

Many people may have ticked “ocean crossing done” and not pursue the Pacific which is a much bigger Ocean. What kept you motivated?

From the start I knew I wanted to do the three oceans. Even in the bad days in the Atlantic I would reflect on how what I was learning would help me next time. It gave me a purpose, so that when I rowed the Pacific, I had more energy for the environmental mission.

A highlight of Pacific trip was meeting in the ocean with Joel Paschal and Marcus Eriksen aboard the JUNK Raft to exchange provisions. I was lacking water because my desalination system broke. They were running out of food. It took us a week to make the rendezvous with each other. Our meeting in the middle of the ocean brought an immensely human dimension. We had a surreal dinner party. Life has a way of coming up with incredible things!

You had a failed attempt when you first set out to do the Pacific crossing. Tell me about that. How did you get the boat back?

I ran into a big storm and the boat capsized repeatedly. I would probably have carried on, but a zealous supporter thought I ought to be rescued, and sent out the US Coast Guard to pick me up. So very reluctantly, I ended up in the back of a Coast Guard helicopter, heading back to California.

I was then back on dry land with no money or passport. But people showed up and helped me: people I had recently met took days off work, found a research vessel that had a crane used for lifting research buoys and we headed out to sea to get my boat. I have experienced so much generosity from people during this journey.

I was hoping to restart the voyage straight away. I did not want to wait a whole year to set off in summer again and the Internet trolls were getting really mean and I wanted to show them I could do it. But it was already too late in the year, and the weather conditions were deteriorating. So I had to come back to dry land and wait.

The Pacific is so large it required three crossings of 99, 104 and 45 days. You were the first woman to row it solo. How does it make you feel?

When I look back at the 7 years of the crossings I think what a great privilege it was to be alone at the ocean and to meet people. Reaching unusual and very far places like Tarawa was a real privilege. I was never really expecting anyone coming to receive me when I arrived to my destinations – for example, I did not know anyone in Papua New Guinea. But someone in Tarawa alerted people there and there were 5 000 people receiving me!

When you sailed the Indian Ocean, you had to keep your route secret because of threats from pirates. But that did not prevent you from rowing.

It was just the start of 2011 when there were many concerns about pirates. Reliable advice from pirate consultants was that I should not go. Four Americans were shot aboard a sail boat along the route that I had intended to take. I decided to go but changed my route so that I was aiming for Mauritius instead of Indian, which kept me South of the Equator, which was less risky. Keeping my location secret was a compromise between the advice I received and wanting to row the ocean. It was a shame because people like to follow the map online to see how things are going.

Is there anything you fear left in you?

It’s a great question. I think I have great strategies for coping with fear. I have gained confidence from doing very big scary things. These experiences have given me self-belief and I am certainly less easily daunted. The story I tell myself is that the ability I developed to tackle big unpleasant things will be of use also in the future.

Is love for the environment still the biggest motivation for you?

Yes, but there is something even higher than that which is the maximization of human potential, and the two are connected. What upsets me about our present unsustainable path is that we limit our potential by making ourselves extinct or making the world a very difficult place to live. We are too distracted by consumerism when there are much more rewarding things to value instead. 

What is happiness to you?

Happiness is a clear conscience, and knowing that I’m doing my best to make the world a better place.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Everywhere! There are so many stories of people overcoming adversity and/or improving the lives of others through their research, inventions, and wisdom.

What is the most underrated value?

Consistency. Simply showing up, day after day, and doing the work that gets you to where you want to go.

What is the most overrated value?

Materialism. Buying stuff might make you happy for a short while, but it doesn’t last. Psychologists call it hedonic adaptation – which really just means that the novelty of new things wears off quickly.

Do you have a life motto?

Whatever you do, put your whole heart into it. That’s what my dad used to say.

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