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Mission Blue Voyage

Roz Savage: Why I'm rowing across the Pacific

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Five years ago, Roz Savage quit her high-powered London job to become an ocean rower. She's crossed the Atlantic solo, and just 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.

- Ocean rower
Roz Savage gave up her life as a management consultant to row across the Atlantic in 2005. Her mission now is to row across the Pacific, from the West Coast to Australia, raising awareness along the way of plastic pollution, climate change and eco-heroism. Full bio

Hi, my name is Roz Savage
00:16
and I row across oceans.
00:18
Four years ago, I rowed solo across the Atlantic,
00:21
and since then, I've done two out of three stages
00:24
across the Pacific,
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from San Francisco to Hawaii
00:29
and from Hawaii to Kiribati.
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And tomorrow, I'll be leaving this boat
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to fly back to Kiribati
00:35
to continue with the third and final stage
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of my row across the Pacific.
00:39
Cumulatively, I will have rowed
00:42
over 8,000 miles,
00:44
taken over three million oar strokes
00:46
and spent more than 312 days alone
00:48
on the ocean on a 23 foot rowboat.
00:51
This has given me a very
00:55
special relationship with the ocean.
00:57
We have a bit of a love/hate thing going on.
00:59
I feel a bit about it like I did about
01:01
a very strict math teacher that I once had at school.
01:03
I didn't always like her, but I did respect her,
01:06
and she taught me a heck of a lot.
01:09
So today I'd like to share with you
01:11
some of my ocean adventures
01:13
and tell you a little bit about what they've taught me,
01:16
and how I think we can maybe take some of those lessons
01:18
and apply them to this environmental challenge
01:21
that we face right now.
01:23
Now, some of you might be thinking,
01:26
"Hold on a minute. She doesn't look very much like an ocean rower.
01:28
Isn't she meant to be about this tall
01:31
and about this wide
01:33
and maybe look a bit more like these guys?"
01:35
You'll notice, they've all got something that I don't.
01:38
Well, I don't know what you're thinking, but I'm talking about the beards. (Laughter)
01:43
And no matter how long I've spent on the ocean,
01:47
I haven't yet managed to muster a decent beard,
01:49
and I hope that it remains that way.
01:51
For a long time, I didn't believe that I could have a big adventure.
01:54
The story that I told myself was
01:57
that adventurers looked like this.
01:59
I didn't look the part.
02:01
I thought there were them and there were us,
02:03
and I was not one of them.
02:06
So for 11 years, I conformed.
02:08
I did what people from my kind of background were supposed to do.
02:11
I was working in an office in London
02:14
as a management consultant.
02:17
And I think I knew from day one that it wasn't the right job for me.
02:19
But that kind of conditioning
02:22
just kept me there for so many years,
02:24
until I reached my mid-30s and I thought,
02:26
"You know, I'm not getting any younger.
02:28
I feel like I've got a purpose in this life, and I don't know what it is,
02:31
but I'm pretty certain that management consultancy is not it.
02:34
So, fast forward a few years.
02:39
I'd gone through some changes.
02:41
To try and answer that question of,
02:44
"What am I supposed to be doing with my life?"
02:46
I sat down one day
02:48
and wrote two versions of my own obituary,
02:50
the one that I wanted, a life of adventure,
02:53
and the one that I was actually heading for
02:56
which was a nice, normal, pleasant life,
02:58
but it wasn't where I wanted to be by the end of my life.
03:01
I wanted to live a life that I could be proud of.
03:04
And I remember looking at these two versions of my obituary
03:07
and thinking, "Oh boy,
03:10
I'm on totally the wrong track here.
03:12
If I carry on living as I am now,
03:14
I'm just not going to end up where I want to be
03:16
in five years, or 10 years,
03:18
or at the end of my life."
03:20
I made a few changes,
03:22
let go of some loose trappings of my old life,
03:24
and through a bit of a leap of logic,
03:26
decided to row across the Atlantic Ocean.
03:28
(Laughter)
03:30
The Atlantic Rowing Race runs from the Canaries to Antigua,
03:32
it's about 3,000 miles,
03:34
and it turned out to be
03:37
the hardest thing I had ever done.
03:39
Sure, I had wanted to get outside of my comfort zone,
03:42
but what I'd sort of failed to notice was that
03:45
getting out of your comfort zone is, by definition,
03:47
extremely uncomfortable.
03:49
And my timing was not great either:
03:53
2005, when I did the Atlantic,
03:55
was the year of Hurricane Katrina.
03:57
There were more tropical storms in the North Atlantic
03:59
than ever before, since records began.
04:02
And pretty early on,
04:05
those storms started making their presence known.
04:07
All four of my oars broke
04:11
before I reached halfway across.
04:13
Oars are not supposed to look like this.
04:15
But what can you do? You're in the middle of the ocean.
04:18
Oars are your only means of propulsion.
04:20
So I just had to look around the boat
04:22
and figure out what I was going to use
04:24
to fix up these oars so that I could carry on.
04:26
So I found a boat hook and my trusty duct tape
04:28
and splintered the boat hook
04:31
to the oars to reinforce it.
04:33
Then, when that gave out,
04:36
I sawed the wheel axles off my spare rowing seat
04:38
and used those.
04:41
And then when those gave out, I cannibalized one of the broken oars.
04:43
I'd never been very good at fixing stuff
04:46
when I was living my old life,
04:48
but it's amazing how resourceful you can become
04:50
when you're in the middle of the ocean
04:53
and there's only one way to get to the other side.
04:55
And the oars kind of became a symbol
04:57
of just in how many ways
04:59
I went beyond what I thought were my limits.
05:02
I suffered from tendinitis on my shoulders
05:04
and saltwater sores on my bottom.
05:07
I really struggled psychologically,
05:09
totally overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge,
05:12
realizing that, if I carried on moving at two miles an hour,
05:15
3,000 miles was going to
05:18
take me a very, very long time.
05:20
There were so many times
05:22
when I thought I'd hit that limit,
05:24
but had no choice but to just carry on
05:26
and try and figure out how I was going to get to the other side
05:29
without driving myself crazy.
05:31
And eventually after
05:33
103 days at sea,
05:35
I arrived in Antigua.
05:37
I don't think I've ever felt so happy
05:39
in my entire life.
05:41
It was a bit like finishing a marathon
05:43
and getting out of solitary confinement
05:45
and winning an Oscar all rolled into one.
05:47
I was euphoric.
05:50
And to see all the people coming out to greet me
05:52
and standing along the cliff tops and clapping and cheering,
05:54
I just felt like a movie star.
05:57
It was absolutely wonderful.
05:59
And I really learned then that, the bigger the challenge,
06:01
the bigger the sense of achievement
06:03
when you get to the end of it.
06:05
So this might be a good moment to take a quick time-out
06:08
to answer a few FAQs about ocean rowing
06:11
that might be going through your mind.
06:14
Number one that I get asked: What do you eat?
06:16
A few freeze-dried meals, but mostly I try and eat
06:19
much more unprocessed foods.
06:22
So I grow my own beansprouts.
06:25
I eat fruits and nut bars,
06:27
a lot of nuts.
06:29
And generally arrive about 30 pounds lighter
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at the other end.
06:33
Question number two: How do you sleep?
06:35
With my eyes shut. Ha-ha.
06:37
I suppose what you mean is:
06:40
What happens to the boat while I'm sleeping?
06:42
Well, I plan my route so that I'm drifting
06:44
with the winds and the currents while I'm sleeping.
06:46
On a good night, I think my best ever was 11 miles
06:48
in the right direction.
06:50
Worst ever, 13 miles in the wrong direction.
06:52
That's a bad day at the office.
06:55
What do I wear?
06:57
Mostly, a baseball cap,
06:59
rowing gloves and a smile -- or a frown,
07:01
depending on whether I went backwards overnight --
07:04
and lots of sun lotion.
07:07
Do I have a chase boat?
07:09
No I don't. I'm totally self-supporting out there.
07:11
I don't see anybody for the whole time
07:14
that I'm at sea, generally.
07:16
And finally: Am I crazy?
07:20
Well, I leave that one up to you to judge.
07:23
So, how do you top rowing across the Atlantic?
07:26
Well, naturally, you decide to row across the Pacific.
07:29
Well, I thought the Atlantic was big,
07:33
but the Pacific is really, really big.
07:35
I think we tend to do it a little bit of a disservice in our usual maps.
07:40
I don't know for sure that the Brits
07:43
invented this particular view of the world, but I suspect we might have done so:
07:45
we are right in the middle,
07:48
and we've cut the Pacific in half
07:50
and flung it to the far corners of the world.
07:52
Whereas if you look in Google Earth,
07:55
this is how the Pacific looks.
07:58
It pretty much covers half the planet.
08:00
You can just see a little bit of North America up here
08:03
and a sliver of Australia down there.
08:05
It is really big --
08:08
65 million square miles --
08:10
and to row in a straight line across it
08:12
would be about 8,000 miles.
08:14
Unfortunately, ocean rowboats
08:16
very rarely go in a straight line.
08:18
By the time I get to Australia,
08:20
if I get to Australia,
08:22
I will have rowed probably nine or 10,000 miles in all.
08:24
So, because nobody in their straight mind would row
08:29
straight past Hawaii without dropping in,
08:31
I decided to cut this very big undertaking
08:33
into three segments.
08:35
The first attempt didn't go so well.
08:38
In 2007, I did a rather involuntary capsize drill
08:40
three times in 24 hours.
08:43
A bit like being in a washing machine.
08:45
Boat got a bit dinged up,
08:47
so did I.
08:49
I blogged about it. Unfortunately, somebody
08:51
with a bit of a hero complex decided that
08:53
this damsel was in distress and needed saving.
08:55
The first I knew about this was when the Coast Guard plane turned up overhead.
08:58
I tried to tell them to go away.
09:01
We had a bit of a battle of wills.
09:03
I lost and got airlifted.
09:05
Awful, really awful.
09:07
It was one of the worst feelings of my life,
09:09
as I was lifted up on that winch line into the helicopter
09:11
and looked down at my trusty little boat
09:14
rolling around in the 20 foot waves
09:16
and wondering if I would ever see her again.
09:19
So I had to launch a very expensive
09:21
salvage operation
09:23
and then wait another nine months
09:25
before I could get back out onto the ocean again.
09:27
But what do you do?
09:29
Fall down nine times, get up 10.
09:31
So, the following year, I set out
09:33
and, fortunately, this time made it safely across to Hawaii.
09:35
But it was not without misadventure.
09:38
My watermaker broke,
09:40
only the most important piece of kit that I have on the boat.
09:42
Powered by my solar panels,
09:45
it sucks in saltwater
09:47
and turns it into freshwater.
09:49
But it doesn't react very well to being immersed in ocean,
09:51
which is what happened to it.
09:54
Fortunately, help was at hand.
09:56
There was another unusual boat out there
09:58
at the same time, doing as I was doing,
10:00
bringing awareness to the North Pacific Garbage Patch,
10:03
that area in the North Pacific about twice the size of Texas,
10:06
with an estimated 3.5 million
10:09
tons of trash in it,
10:11
circulating at the center of
10:13
that North Pacific Gyre.
10:15
So, to make the point, these guys
10:17
had actually built their boat out of plastic trash,
10:19
15,000 empty water bottles
10:22
latched together into two pontoons.
10:24
They were going very slowly.
10:27
Partly, they'd had a bit of a delay.
10:29
They'd had to pull in at Catalina Island shortly after they left Long Beach
10:31
because the lids of all the water bottles were coming undone,
10:34
and they were starting to sink.
10:37
So they'd had to pull in and do all the lids up.
10:39
But, as I was approaching the end of my water reserves,
10:44
luckily, our courses were converging.
10:47
They were running out of food; I was running out of water.
10:49
So we liaised by satellite phone and arranged to meet up.
10:52
And it took about a week
10:55
for us to actually gradually converge.
10:57
I was doing a pathetically slow speed
10:59
of about 1.3 knots,
11:01
and they were doing only marginally less pathetic speed of about 1.4:
11:03
it was like two snails in a mating dance.
11:06
But, eventually, we did manage to meet up
11:09
and Joel hopped overboard,
11:11
caught us a beautiful, big mahi-mahi,
11:13
which was the best food I'd had
11:15
in, ooh, at least three months.
11:17
Fortunately, the one that he caught that day
11:19
was better than this one they caught a few weeks earlier.
11:21
When they opened this one up,
11:24
they found its stomach was full of plastic.
11:26
And this is really bad news because plastic
11:28
is not an inert substance.
11:30
It leaches out chemicals
11:32
into the flesh of the poor critter that ate it,
11:34
and then we come along and eat that poor critter,
11:36
and we get some of the toxins accumulating
11:39
in our bodies as well.
11:41
So there are very real implications for human health.
11:43
I eventually made it to Hawaii still alive.
11:47
And, the following year, set out
11:50
on the second stage of the Pacific,
11:52
from Hawaii down to Tarawa.
11:55
And you'll notice something about Tarawa;
11:58
it is very low-lying.
12:01
It's that little green sliver on the horizon,
12:03
which makes them very nervous
12:06
about rising oceans.
12:08
This is big trouble for these guys.
12:10
They've got no points of land more than about six feet above sea level.
12:12
And also, as an increase in extreme
12:15
weather events due to climate change,
12:17
they're expecting more waves
12:19
to come in over the fringing reef,
12:21
which will contaminate their fresh water supply.
12:24
I had a meeting with the president there,
12:27
who told me about his
12:29
exit strategy for his country.
12:31
He expects that within the next 50 years,
12:33
the 100,000 people that live there
12:35
will have to relocate to
12:37
New Zealand or Australia.
12:39
And that made me think about how would I feel
12:41
if Britain was going to disappear under the waves;
12:43
if the places where I'd been born
12:46
and gone to school
12:48
and got married,
12:50
if all those places were just going to disappear forever.
12:52
How, literally, ungrounded
12:54
that would make me feel.
12:56
Very shortly, I'll be setting out to try and get to Australia,
13:00
and if I'm successful, I'll be the first woman ever to row solo
13:03
all the way across the Pacific.
13:06
And I try to use this to bring awareness to these environmental issues,
13:08
to bring a human face to the ocean.
13:11
If the Atlantic was about my inner journey,
13:14
discovering my own capabilities,
13:17
maybe the Pacific has been about my outer journey,
13:19
figuring out how I can use
13:22
my interesting career choice
13:24
to be of service to the world,
13:26
and to take some of those things that I've learned out there
13:29
and apply them to the situation
13:32
that humankind now finds itself in.
13:34
I think there are probably three key points here.
13:37
The first one is about
13:40
the stories that we tell ourselves.
13:42
For so long, I told myself
13:44
that I couldn't have an adventure
13:46
because I wasn't six foot tall
13:48
and athletic and bearded.
13:50
And then that story changed.
13:53
I found out that people had rowed across oceans.
13:56
I even met one of them and she was just about my size.
13:59
So even though I didn't grow any taller,
14:02
I didn't sprout a beard,
14:04
something had changed: My interior dialogue had changed.
14:06
At the moment, the story that we collectively tell ourselves
14:09
is that we need all this stuff,
14:12
that we need oil.
14:14
But what about if we just change that story?
14:16
We do have alternatives,
14:19
and we have the power of free will
14:21
to choose those alternatives, those sustainable ones,
14:23
to create a greener future.
14:26
The second point is about
14:30
the accumulation of tiny actions.
14:32
We might think that anything that we do as an individual
14:35
is just a drop in the ocean, that it can't really make a difference.
14:38
But it does. Generally, we haven't
14:41
got ourselves into this mess through big disasters.
14:43
Yes, there have been the Exxon Valdezes
14:46
and the Chernobyls,
14:48
but mostly it's been an accumulation
14:50
of bad decisions
14:52
by billions of individuals,
14:54
day after day and year after year.
14:56
And, by the same token, we can turn that tide.
14:59
We can start making better,
15:01
wiser, more sustainable decisions.
15:03
And when we do that, we're not just one person.
15:06
Anything that we do spreads ripples.
15:08
Other people will see if you're in the supermarket line
15:11
and you pull out your
15:13
reusable grocery bag.
15:15
Maybe if we all start doing this,
15:17
we can make it socially unacceptable
15:19
to say yes to plastic in the checkout line.
15:21
That's just one example.
15:24
This is a world-wide community.
15:26
The other point:
15:29
It's about taking responsibility.
15:31
For so much of my life,
15:33
I wanted something else to make me happy.
15:35
I thought if I had the right house or the right car
15:38
or the right man in my life,
15:40
then I could be happy.
15:42
But when I wrote that obituary exercise,
15:44
I actually grew up a little bit in that moment
15:47
and realized that I needed to create my own future.
15:50
I couldn't just wait passively
15:53
for happiness to come and find me.
15:55
And I suppose I'm a selfish environmentalist.
15:58
I plan on being around for a long time,
16:00
and when I'm 90 years old,
16:02
I want to be happy and healthy.
16:04
And it's very difficult to be happy
16:06
on a planet that's racked
16:08
with famine and drought.
16:10
It's very difficult to be healthy on a planet
16:13
where we've poisoned the earth
16:15
and the sea and the air.
16:18
So, shortly, I'm going to be
16:21
launching a new initiative
16:23
called Eco-Heroes.
16:25
And the idea here is that
16:28
all our Eco-Heroes will log at least one green deed every day.
16:30
It's meant to be a bit of a game.
16:33
We're going to make an iPhone app out of it.
16:35
We just want to try and create that awareness
16:37
because, sure, changing a light bulb isn't going to change the world,
16:39
but that attitude,
16:42
that awareness that leads you to change the light bulb
16:44
or take your reusable coffee mug,
16:47
that is what could change the world.
16:49
I really believe that we stand
16:52
at a very important point in history.
16:54
We have a choice. We've been blessed,
16:57
or cursed, with free will.
16:59
We can choose a greener future,
17:01
and we can get there
17:04
if we all pull together to take it one stroke at a time.
17:06
Thank you.
17:09
(Applause)
17:11

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About the speaker:

Roz Savage - Ocean rower
Roz Savage gave up her life as a management consultant to row across the Atlantic in 2005. Her mission now is to row across the Pacific, from the West Coast to Australia, raising awareness along the way of plastic pollution, climate change and eco-heroism.

Why you should listen

A latecomer to the life of adventure, Roz Savage worked as a management consultant for 11 years before setting out in a new life direction -- in a rowboat across the Atlantic Ocean. She completed her solo row across the Atlantic in 2005 and is now on a mission be the first woman to row solo across the Pacific, from the West Coast of the US to Australia. She began the pursuit in 2008, rowing from California to Hawaii, and rowed from Hawaii to Kiribati in 2009. In April 2010 she began the third and final stage of her Pacific row, from Kiribati to Australia.

When not on the open seas, Roz is a passionate environmental campaigner, focused on sustainability and ending plastic pollution. She's working on the new site EcoHeroes.me, where everyday acts of environmental heroism (as simple as refusing a plastic carrier bag) can be tracked and celebrated.

More profile about the speaker
Roz Savage | Speaker | TED.com