The woman who rowed solo across three oceans to fight climate change
“The Atlantic pushed me so hard. I suffered every single day, I was injured, everything was breaking, I was utterly miserable most of the time - but it was the most transformative experience. It’s a bit like your first love. It’ll always have a special place in your heart, even though it probably broke your heart at the time.”
So says Roz Savage about her 103-day trip rowing across the Atlantic in 2006 – the first of three big trips that has seen her cross 15,000 miles of ocean, take 15 million oar strokes and earn four Guinness World Records in a bid to raise awareness of the threat of climate change.
But it wasn’t a lightning bolt moment that persuaded Roz to quit her job as a management consultant and throw herself into environmental campaigning. She had dabbled in baking, painting, and writing before making the decision… “It was a transition of about five years,” she says. “When I left my job, I still hadn’t really figured out what I wanted to do. For me, and for many women, we can be perfectionists, we don’t want to fail, so we wait to be really sure before we embark on a new career.”
In fact, it wasn’t until she went on a three-month trip to Peru that she recognised her true calling. “It was there that I heard about the retreating glaciers,” she explains. “I was in the Andes and I met pilgrims who told me that every year, they would have to trek a bit further to get to the glacier because it was receding. This was 2003 and I hadn’t really got the memo about climate change yet, but I did my research and found out about that, about deforestation, about oceanification... I was on fire with it. I desperately wanted to do something.”
With experience of rowing at Oxford University, Roz decided to take part in the 2006 Atlantic Rowing Race, using her voyage as a platform to raise awareness about environmental issues by writing a blog. It was a trip that would see her face challenge after challenge; her stereo broke not long after crossing the start and her stove gave up on day 20. And, when she eventually reached the finish line in Antigua, she had spent nearly two weeks without a satellite phone and with four broken, but carefully patched up, oars.
“I had no experience of going to sea,” she says. “I rowed in a crew of eight at university, and that was enough to give me the delusion of ‘How hard can it be? It’s just further.’ But it’s a completely different beast, and it’s one of those things where, if I had known from the outset how hard it was going to be, I’d never have done it. But in retrospect, I’m so happy and grateful that I did.”
For Roz, one of the greatest personal challenges was overcoming her fear of being alone in such an exposed environment. “There was a lot of fear out at sea – the first two weeks on my boat on the Atlantic were absolute hell, especially at night. It was so scary, but as humans, we’re a lot more adaptable than we tend to give ourselves credit for, and pretty soon it started to become my new normal. I found ways to cope with and contain the fear so that it didn’t completely incapacitate me.”
Thirteen years on from that first row and Roz has now rowed across the Pacific and the Indian Ocean too, making her the first – and, so far, only – woman to take on the ‘Big Three’. As well as four world records, she has been named a United Nations Climate Hero and has been heralded as one of the top 20 British adventurers. But taking that first step wasn’t easy. “I absolutely believe that you can’t find your courage by sitting on the sofa waiting for it to show up. You have to get out there and do something that scares you, even if it’s just going on that fairground ride that makes you think, ‘I really don’t want to do that’. We can tap into the inspiration of other people and use their courage to help embolden us. But ultimately, there’s no easy way around it – you’ve got to do something that pushes you outside of your comfort zone. It’s the only way.”
And Roz admits that, for her, the biggest fear was the very water she would be rowing across. “I’m actually quite scared of the ocean, which I think is a very rational fear – it can kill you. But what drew me to it was trying to find something sufficiently unusual that people would go ‘She’s doing what?!’. I wanted to make sure they would read my blog posts and get the environmental message that I wanted to put across out there.”
Along the way, Roz learned to love the loneliness. “There are things I love about the ocean - it’s a fantastically good teacher, it strips you down and humbles you every single day. The solitude was very empowering and I discovered a self-reliance I didn’t know I had. There’s something about just being out in nature; you know what time the moon’s going to rise and what phase of the moon it will be. When you don’t have a TV or any other input, your sunrises and your sunsets become your entertainment – you really feel very connected with it all.”
“I had three and a half months with nothing but my own thoughts to entertain me,” Roz continues, “And it took me a long time to look back and go, you know what, I’m so grateful that this happened because, although it was really hard at the time and I went into a lot of dark places, I also found ways to get myself back out of them. On later voyages I listened to audio books, but it was so much easier that it almost felt like cheating. I really think it’s good for all of us to allow a bit more silence and boredom into our lives.”
Now Roz, who lectures at Yale, is focusing her work on creating a shift in the way people view the planet. “I still talk about plastic pollution and climate change, but more and more I think that what we need is a fundamental shift in our world view,” she says. “We’ve had over 50 years of environmental campaigning and the problems are still getting worse. We need to remember that we are part of nature and that, if we damage nature, we’re damaging ourselves. Everything is connected and that needs to inform every decision that we make; what we buy, how we throw it away, how we choose to get from A to B; we just need to see it in a much more holistic and connected way. It’s a whole different story about what it means to be a human in the 21st century.”
60 Seconds with Roz Savage...
Home is… Wherever I am.
The book everyone should read? The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.
Word you over-use? ‘Wow’, but it’s lovely to be amazed many times a day.
Guilty pleasure? Killing Eve, I try not to watch TV, but it’s so good.
Love of your life? In terms of who I would do anything for, my highest self.
Favourite place on earth… My new home in the Cotswolds, I've only been here eight days but I'm absolutely loving it!
How do you take a moment for yourself (to relax and unwind)? A glass of wine...but earlier in the day I love walking in nature.
What’s the one thing people would be surprised to know about you? I seriously don’t like exercise. I don’t even go to the gym, I just walk miles and miles.
Life motto? Act in faith, not fear.
Next adventure? I’m creating a global women’s network called ‘The Sisters’; doing what I can to help women really stand up and speak up for a better future for the whole world.
To find out more visit Roz's website here.