Loaded with gadgets, British rower halfway to Hawaii

Roz Savage aims to be the first woman to row solo across the Pacific. We check in with her in the middle of the ocean to talk about tech, self-sufficiency, and those "a ha" moments.

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Anne Dujmovic
5 min read

Ask Roz Savage what her favorite gadgets are aboard her rowboat and she's quick to answer.

"The ones that are still working."

The 40-year-old Brit has set out to become the first woman to row solo across the Pacific Ocean, and she passed a milestone recently: She's now halfway to Hawaii. That's after setting off from San Francisco in her 24-foot rowboat just before midnight on May 24.

Roz Savage set off from San Francisco more than two months ago to row across the Pacific Ocean. Here, she's seen early in her voyage, near the Farallon Islands. Roz Savage

With under 1,000 miles left to go on the first leg of her voyage, she took time out late last week to talk via satellite phone. Her location? Somewhere in the Pacific. More precisely, around 140 degrees west.

So what's still working?

"The TomTom GPS is working. I consult that six times a day," said Savage, adding that she's been using it to update the ship's log. She got the TomTom GO 720 last year for her car. (Savage wrote in a photo caption on her blog: "The TomTom GPS from my car is rather confused to find itself in the middle of the Pacific.")

She also has a handful of iPods onboard, but she said she's only used one so far: the one that TWiT.tv's Leo Laporte loaded up with more than 300 audio books. (Laporte checks in with Savage a couple of times a week for the podcast series "Roz Rows the Pacific.") A few of the titles that have stood out so far include the fantasy novel A Game of Thrones and the nonfiction work A Crack in the Edge of the World, which covers the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

She has two laptops onboard, a MacBook and Panasonic Toughbook. Savage sends updates for her Web site via her satellite phone. (She also has a spare phone this time. When Savage rowed across the Atlantic Ocean in a race a few years ago, her satellite phone went dead about a month before she arrived at the finish.)

One gadget Savage is relying on is her TomTom GPS device. As she quipped in a photo caption on her blog, 'the TomTom GPS from my car is rather confused to find itself in the middle of the Pacific.' Roz Savage

What's not working? Her energy-efficient Spectra desalinator that was capable of producing 25 liters of water an hour. "It's totally corroded." But she has reserve water supplies and a hand-pump water maker. Her onboard chart plotter also isn't working, so that's where the TomTom comes in. (In a blog posting Monday, Savage wrote: "The death toll on electronic components continues." Over the weekend it seems chargers for her satellite phone and iPod conked out. Luckily, she's got backups.)

Even so, as Savage has said, her boat is a little model of self-sufficiency. She has solar panels and a wind generator providing the power for her electronics. She is growing her own bean sprouts. So what could this mean for the world at large?

"Sustainability is rather limitless," said Savage. While she doesn't currently have a home, Savage knows what she would do if she did. "I would very much want to make it energy-efficient, self-sufficient." She said she finds value in being an example to people in different ways, and one aspect of that is embracing green energy.

In addition to her major task at hand, Savage also aims to raise awareness about the effects of pollution--in particular, plastic--in our oceans. Her trip is a project of the Blue Frontier Campaign, whose focus is on "seaweed (marine grassroots) efforts" surrounding ocean and coastal conservation.

Savage's view from her boat on day 36 of her trek across the Pacific. Roz Savage

Are people more receptive to her message because people in general are more environmentally aware these days? Or is it harder to get people's attention because of all the news out there?

"It's hard to tell from the (reader) comments. It's a self-selecting sample," Savage said. "But something I set out to do is draw people to the Web site in hopes that...they'll stick around long enough to get the environmental messages."

Savage keeps people coming to the Web site with the help of her mother, Rita Savage. As part of her "shore manager duties," Rita keeps the blog updated, uploads photos, and has even written a couple of guest blogs. Rita, who turns 70 next year, has "moved along with technology,'' said Savage. It goes back to the early 1980s when Rita bought a primitive computer for the family: a Sinclair ZX81, which had to be plugged into the TV set and had 1 kilobyte of memory. She's very methodical and persistent, too. While "some of us would be heaving the laptop," Savage said her mother sits there and tries to solve the problem.

The same could be said of Savage and her own stick-to-itiveness. But she hasn't always been that way. "I did have to work up to this kind of thing. It was incremental...I didn't go from an office job to rowing across an ocean," said the former IT consultant.

And while you might think rowing solo across an ocean would make everything else in life seem easy, well, it doesn't. "There are so many different kinds of challenges," Savage said. Taking on these treks has given her more self-esteem, self-respect, and confidence. But, she said, she's aware of her limitations too.

Savage is rowing across the ocean in three stages over three years. So far she's been averaging about 30 miles a day. She is hoping to reach Hawaii by the end of the month. In all, she plans to travel more than 7,000 miles, ending up in Australia in 2010. (Among the safety gadgets she has aboard her boat, the "Brocade," is a positioning beacon from Marine Track. Find out her latest position by going to her blog. Information includes latitude, longitude, and speed.)

It is her second attempt to become the first woman to row solo across the Pacific. Last summer, Savage set off only to be foiled by bad weather some two weeks into the trip. She was rescued by the Coast Guard about 90 miles off the California coast.

In an interview with NPR last year, Savage talked about first coming up with the idea to row across the Atlantic: "My first thought was that is the best idea I've ever had. Of course, my second thought was that was without a doubt the worst idea I've ever had."

Savage has said that her ocean voyages lead to frequent "a ha" moments. So what are some she's had during her time on the Pacific?

"You never regret being ready sooner rather than later," she said Friday. "It was an absolutely mad scramble" once she got a window of good weather to set off on her trip this time around. She had only 36 hours' notice.

There's a flip side too. "You'll never be 100 percent ready." But, as Savage said, "I've managed." That applies on land too.

Updated 8:45 a.m. August 13 to correct the model of Sinclair computer. It was a ZX81.