Almanac

News - April 18, 2007

People: Solo rower makes Woodside her home before epic Pacific voyage

by Andrea Gemmet

Roz Savage didn't want to have a boring obituary. Frustrated with her comfortable but dull life as a married consultant in London, she chucked it all for a life of adventure while in her mid-30s, and just a few years later, has pretty much guaranteed that her life story won't be run-of-the-mill.

Ms. Savage's latest quest will take the 40-year-old Englishwoman on a precedent-setting journey: This summer, she aims to become the first woman to row solo across the Pacific Ocean.

Last year, she completed a grueling, 103-day voyage across the Atlantic, from the Canaries to Antigua, as part of a trans-Atlantic race. Now she hopes to put everything she learned from that experience to the test in an epic, three-stage voyage from California to Hawaii, then to American Samoa, and finally, to Australia.

Her boat, a 23-foot Sedna Solo with a light-weight carbon-fiber hull, has cabins in the front and the back, and a seat in the middle where she spent 12 or more hours a day rowing.

Ms. Savage, who is currently making her home in Woodside, is gearing up to leave from San Francisco in July. In the meantime, she's going at top speed to get everything ready — raising money, finding sponsors and coordinating with researchers on several projects.

Jamis MacNiven of Buck's restaurant has helped her organize a private fundraiser this week, and she's set to speak in Menlo Park on April 25. Ms. Savage and her boat will be on display at the Tech Museum in San Jose on Saturday, April 28.

Out of the armchair

"I worked in an office for 11 years, and I was your classic armchair adventurer," Ms. Savage told the Almanac. "I dreamed about it, but I never thought I had it in me. In my mid-30s I found my job not at all fulfilling, and I was not getting any younger, so if I was going to do something adventurous, I had to get on it."

So she left her job, her marriage and her home, and set off on a life of adventure. To hear her describe herself, she seems an unlikely candidate for highly physical aquatic endurance challenges.

"I'm not very sporty," she said. "If I had the choice, I could happily spend my life sitting on the sofa eating ice cream, but I can't because I'd be 400 pounds."

And, she said, she actually prefers the mountains to the sea.

But the trans-Atlantic trip was ideal because, once she started, there was no turning back, and it suited her goal of "going out of my comfort zone," she said.

She was one of a few solo rowers in a flotilla of 26 that set out on the 2005 Atlantic Rowing Race. She met a man who had done the race with his mother, and figured it couldn't be too bad.

"If I'd known at the start just how hard it would be, I wouldn't have done it," she said.

Surviving the sea

Only 20 of the boats made it all the way to Antigua, she said. One boat sank, one was attacked by sharks, and four capsized, she said.

There were two support boats along in case of emergencies, but she managed to make the journey unsupported, despite breaking all four of her oars, having to cut loose her sea anchor and suffering the loss of a number of key supplies.

"Seawater and technology are not a happy combination," she said.

In some ways, her Atlantic voyage was aided by high-tech gizmos. She posted regular blogs, received text messages on her satellite phone (until it gave out) and used a sophisticated navigation system.

"After the satellite phone broke, I became much more Zen, because I focused on the present moment," Ms. Savage said. "I couldn't talk, I couldn't get messages or dispatch messages, so I became much more accepting of things."

In some ways, being alone at sea was as basic and elemental an experience as anyone can get. She grew bean sprouts so she'd have some fresh greens, just as ancient Chinese sailors did to ward off scurvy. She was prey to the whims of the weather, and deeply attuned to the phases of the moon, she said.

"You spend a lot more time thinking about all kinds of nature," Ms. Savage said. "Whether you have a full moon or not makes a huge difference. If there's no moon, it's darker than you can believe."

She wrestled with fear, frustration and despair, she said.

"I never really felt lonely, but at times I felt very alone," she said. "You really get to know yourself, and if you have any demons, they come out."

Shortly after the last of her four oars broke, she wrote in her blog: "When I told my mother about the latest casualties, she commented, 'The ocean is really stripping you down, isn't it?' And this is true, metaphorically as well as literally. As I'm left with less and less, it makes me realize how little I actually need, how little is actually important. Everything happens for a reason."

For the Pacific Ocean voyage, she's participating in a psychological study with researchers from the United Kingdom, who plan to monitor her via questionnaires throughout the journey.

Her boat is being outfitted with cameras for a documentary, and she's working with the Blue Frontier Campaign to raise awareness about ocean conservation, she said. A book about her Atlantic voyage is in the works, she said.

Even on the worst day of rowing the Atlantic, it was better than what she'd left behind, Ms. Savage said.

"I wrote a blog entry called 'schadenfreude' on the day when everyone in London was going back to the office after the Christmas holidays," she said. "I remembered that horrible feeling of standing on a platform in the dark, waiting to go back to the office."

INFORMATION

• Photos, video, blog entries and more are online at RozSavage.com.

• Roz Savage will give a presentation on Wednesday, April 25, at the Menlo Park City Council Chambers, 701 Laurel St. Admission is free; doors open at 6 p.m. and the one-hour presentation starts at 6:30 p.m.

• Roz and her boat will be featured at the Tech Museum of Innovation's Tech Challenge on Sunday, April 28. The museum is located at 201 South Market St., San Jose. Information at TheTech.org or by calling (408) 795-6105.

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