Yale School of the Environment
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Rowing the World’s Oceans as a Call
to Environmental Action

Roz Savage during the Atlantic Rowing Race 2005
Photo by Dan Byles
The day dawned, like too many before it, overcast and gloomy. Roz Savage, alone in a twenty-three-foot carbon-fiber rowboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, was in tears. She’d been struggling from her start, weeks earlier, in the Canary Islands. First, it was seasickness. Then, tendonitis in her shoulder. “I’m surviving on painkillers,” she told the camcorder in her cabin, eyes brimming. Her schedule, which called for four-hour shifts at the oars, was in tatters. “I cannot stand this night rowing,” she confided in a tiny voice. “It’s just too dark. The water’s too bobbly, and I keep taking air strokes.” Savage braced herself as wave after wave smacked against her boat, whose forward and aft cabins gave it the look of a double-ended espadrille.
With winter storms holding her in place—or worse, sending her backwards—there was no way Savage would reach Antigua in less than a hundred days, her initial goal. Her skin was red, her lips burnt. She had blisters, calluses, and boils in unspeakable places. “My map instruments are broken, my cook stove’s broken, my oars have broken,” she glumly whispered to the camera. “I feel like I’m just physically falling apart.”
But when the satellite phone went, weeks later, Savage had an epiphany. “This is what the whole row, so far, has been leading up to – this time for me to be totally on my own,” she said to her recorder, her voice steady and her demeanor placid. There was no more whining on the phone to her mother, back home in Cambridge, England. There was no more self-doubt and criticism. Filled with energy, Savage was now rowing, with oars she’d repaired using duct tape and a boat hook, twelve hours a day. “Towards the end, the physical side of it mattered less to me because I was getting the hang of it psychologically.”
After 103 days, Savage landed in Antigua, thirty pounds lighter and determined to hang onto her feeling of mastery. The former marketing consultant from London, who’d never rowed on the open ocean before this mind-bending foray, would go on to row solo across the Pacific, and then the Indian Ocean—the first and only woman in the world to complete that particular hat trick. Having proved a simple point about the accumulation of small steps and the value of persistence, she was now out to spin her physical accomplishments into a call for environmental action.
Ironically, water is as much an adoptive element for Savage as is environmental campaigning. But that didn’t stop the tenacious Brit from throwing herself into eco-education and activism with the same fervor she’d demonstrated on her nautical journeys. While Savage rowed—and fund-raised in the gaps between expeditions—she also blogged and lectured on sustainability, ocean pollution and how the developed world might content itself with less. For her efforts, she was named a United Nations Climate Hero, a 350.org “athlete ambassador,” a fellow of both the Royal Geographic Society and the Explorers Club of New York, and a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for 2010.
Three months before Savage launched her next adventure, as a Yale World Fellow, based in New Haven, I met her in the lobby of a swanky hotel in lower Manhattan. The rower was dressed in a black wool skirt and black suede boots. Her hands were soft and small. Atop her sweater sleeve, on her left wrist, she wore an oversize chronometer. If I didn’t know that Savage was an anti-materialist, I’d swear the watch was a fashion statement. In fact, it’s a crossover totem, an object that bridged her old, pre-rowing life, and her new.
Savage grew up in Cheshire, England, the daughter of Methodist preachers who lived simply, rarely ate out and dressed their two children in second-hand or homemade clothing. If it sounds low-impact, congruent with an environmental campaigner’s values, it was. As a child, Savage was more bookish than sporty. Because her family moved frequently, she often felt left out, a step behind the gang. She found refuge in adventure books, never imaging she’d one day be writing her own (Rowing the Atlantic, published in 2009, chronicles her first transoceanic voyage).
When Savage was 16, her parents moved the family to San Diego for one year as part of a ministry exchange program. There, Roz visited Disneyland, wandered glitzy malls, ate in fancy restaurants, and hopped from hot tubs to swimming pools. Never had she experienced such a wanton disregard for parsimony. Returning to England, the teenager determined that one day she’d live equally large.
At Oxford University, where she studied law, Savage began rowing as a way to lose weight (self-improvement was another cause she’d adopted in California). She continued rowing after graduation but gave up after five years, too small to compete successfully. By now, she was working twelve-hour days in the City of London as a management consultant, living in a big house with an alpha husband, a little red sports car and all the consumer trappings her salary could buy.
But she wasn’t happy. One dark, rainy morning in 2003, riding the train to work, Savage asked herself why? Spurred by a self-help book, she wrote two obituaries for herself. The first described the life she wanted to have, filled with adventure and risk. The second was the life for which she was headed—ordinary and defined by convention. “It was a pretty neat exercise,” Savage says in the hotel lobby, sipping her English Breakfast tea. “It held a mirror up to my life that wasn’t very flattering.”
Slowly, Savage began to transform herself. She quit her job, divorced her husband, divested herself of possessions and became nomadic for a period of years. She read a lot of philosophy in borrowed cabins, spent three months traveling in Peru and became convinced that, “as the Hopi Indians believe, we have to look after the Earth if we want it to look after us.” This notion, Savage says, “struck me with all the force of a fundamental truth.” She started to ponder her own impact on the planet and to wonder how she could convince others to live more deliberatively. She was, after all, the daughter of ministers who believed in service to others.
Savage had recently read an inspirational book about an ocean rower. She liked the idea of an endurance feat, of enforced solitude, of stepping outside her comfort zone. Maybe she, too, could row an ocean.
Soon, Savage was mustering all her stubborn, organizational talent. She sunk her divorce settlement into an ocean rowboat with forward and aft cabins that act as buoyancy chambers, storage lockers, media and navigation center, and bedroom. She began wooing potential sponsors and erging for 16 hours a day. Meanwhile, she trained her mind to entertain itself for the long hours ahead.
I felt like if I could present a positive role model, how to live happily with a less materialistic life, then that is maybe what I could contribute, what my mission would be.
— Roz Savage
But that was an epic fail. For the first two thirds of her 3,000-mile journey, which began in 2005, Savage suffered alternating bouts of fear, depression, boredom, self-doubt and self-criticism. The mental challenges, she discovered, were far more daunting than the physical. And yet after recovering from this voyage and reflecting on its significance, Savage made a nearly unfathomable leap: she’d raise a bunch more money (the Atlantic trip cost $100,000), then tackle the Pacific—a three-year project that launched in 2008. Savage wanted to see which lessons from her Atlantic row had stuck and to collect the sea stories and images that would engage audiences for her future lectures, books and films. Reborn as an environmental campaigner, Savage would educate audiences about ocean pollution (after all, she’d rowed through or around three of the planet’s five trash gyres) and then, by telling her personal story, inspire individuals to take action.
Savage is obviously resourceful, and she has a real knack for capitalizing on her insights and achievements. Her thousands of hours alone in a boat gave her ample time to contemplate the power of, among other rhetorical devices, metaphor. Like her oar strokes, she says, many tiny individual actions can add up to big achievement. (Conversely, she says, our environmental problems aren’t the result of major catastrophes, but a massive accumulation of “tiny careless acts.”) And like a boat filled with finite resources that must be carefully rationed, she says, the planet, too, is a finite craft. “If we want our species to survive, we need to think carefully about how we use those resources, and not simply burn them up—literally.”
When people hear what Roz is doing, their jaws drop. They think, if this woman can row across an ocean, I can walk or cycle to the grocery store.
— Anna Cummins
The unlikeliness of Savage’s personal journey—from materialistic, nonathletic yuppy to world-class athlete waving an environmental banner—is perhaps its greatest appeal. “I felt like if I could present a positive role model, how to live happily with a less materialistic life, then that is maybe what I could contribute, what my mission would be,” Savage says, pulling her blonde hair up into a messy ponytail. “But I needed a way of getting people’s attention on me, so that’s why I took up the rowing.”
The plan worked: the fact that 10,000 people a week followed her online during the ocean crossings, that she’s in demand as a speaker, and is awarded honorary titles like “Athlete Ambassador,” is one proof of concept. “People are drawn to risky, dangerous activities,” Anna Cummins, a founder of the 5Gyres Institute, which combats plastic pollution, says. “When people hear what Roz is doing, their jaws drop. They think, if this woman can row across an ocean, I can walk or cycle to the grocery store.”
But whether they’ll do something larger to forward environmental goals is an open question. Savage, who readily offers up eco tips to individuals (eschew disposable plastics; compost food scraps), yearns for a way to influence more powerful actors: governments and corporations. “In these uncertain times,” she tells me, “many are looking for someone who has a vision of what we should be doing—and anyone who has that vision becomes a kind of energy vortex and people gravitate towards it.”
Looking to focus this vision, Savage applied to the Yale World Fellows Program, which offers a semester of leadership training for roughly 15 international candidates in government, business, religion, the arts and other fields. Fellows explore global issues through class work and seminars, and they raise international awareness on campus by guest lecturing. Interested in what motivates citizens to change their behavior, Savage plans to audit classes in philosophy and psychology that started in August.
The program will help elevate her trajectory. She’ll use her celebrity and good will to mobilize people to do something.
— Michael Cappello
“As I transition out of adventuring and into campaigning,” she says, “I’m hoping the program will help me to home in on where I can be more effective as an agent of change, given what experience and skills I have.If it’s talking to politicians about having the courage to step up and do the right thing or whether it’s to influence the masses, I don’t know. Can I be an intermediary between the grassroots and the policy maker?”
Michael Cappello, director the World Fellows Program, believes Savage will take good advantage of her time in New Haven “because of her tremendous capacity to reflect on her own struggle and weaknesses. The program will help elevate her trajectory. She’ll use her celebrity and good will to mobilize people to do something.”
My time with Savage is almost up: her phone keeps pinging and she has two more appointments before dinner. But I have to know: in an arena of near constant disappointment (environmental activism, that is), how does she avoid becoming cynical about her efforts?
“It can be quite difficult not to get burned out as an environmental campaigner,” she says. “But I’m a real believer in tipping points. As long as I know that I’m doing everything that I can to add my little straw to one side of the scale, and Bill McKibben is adding his straw, and you’re adding yours, and if we all keep doing that, then I hope that one day there will be this massive outbreak of common sense, and that the culture will shift. Things can happen very rapidly once that tipping point is reached.”
Savage smiles, then tempers her optimism with some pragmatism – plus a metaphor. “Of course, whether or not I can actually create that change is largely outside my control. It’s like the ocean.” She shrugs. “I can’t control what it’s going to do. But I just have to keep getting out there, sticking my oars in the water, chipping away at this enormous challenge. And I feel very much the same way about this environmental mission. I just have to keep doing everything I can on a daily basis to be as effective as I can be.” She takes a final sip of tea and checks her watch. “And then hoping it will do some good.”