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Roz Savage finishes historic solo row across Pacific

Completing a journey that took her from San Francisco to Papua New Guinea, the environmental advocate becomes the first woman to row solo across the Pacific.

Roz Savage
Roz Savage is welcomed to Madang, Papua New Guinea, on Friday after completing her historic row across the Pacific.
Peter Barter

After a month and a half at sea, British ocean rower and environmental campaigner Roz Savage made landfall Friday in Papua New Guinea, completing her three-stage trip and becoming the first woman to row solo across the Pacific Ocean.

"It's still sinking in that I've actually done it," Savage, 42, said in an e-mail Friday.

She set off in her 23-foot boat from Tarawa in mid-April on the final leg of her Pacific voyage. In total, she spent about 250 days alone at sea, rowing more than 8,000 miles and taking an estimated 2.5 million oar strokes along the way. Savage traveled from San Francisco to Hawaii in 2008, then on to Tarawa in Kiribati last year, before finally arriving in Madang, Papua New Guinea.

"For me the greater achievement is that people are getting the message that when it comes to taking care of our planet, just like my oar strokes, every action counts," Savage said. "Small, individual actions add up. We all have to do our bit, day after day, to keep our world healthy and beautiful."

As she pulled in to Madang, she was escorted by 100 traditional canoes from surrounding villages and guided into the harbor, former Madang Province Gov. Peter Barter said in a press release. More than 5,000 people, many wearing traditional dress, gathered at the entrance to Dallman Passage and the Kalibobo Village resort to greet her.

"I enjoy my solitary time out on the ocean, but I love the feeling of being around human beings again," Savage said in the e-mail. "A few weeks ago I felt sad that there wouldn't be anyone I know here to greet me, but now I feel like I have 5,000 new friends, and I'm really looking forward to getting to know Papua New Guinea and its people."

Roz Savage
Savage is escorted by canoes into the harbor in Madang on Friday. Picture by Jan Messersmith

While it was her fastest row yet, the trip was not without challenges--much of her route was, as she described it, an obstacle course of little islands. Then, at times, throw in unfavorable winds and currents.

Savage planned to chronicle the last leg of the Pacific row much as she had the previous stages--by blogging and using social media. But a little less than two weeks into the trip, she lost the ability to send and receive e-mail and was unable to post to her blog. From then on she called her mother, Rita, daily via satellite phone and left voice mail messages, which her mother would then transcribe and post to the Web site.

Also early on, her location transponder stopped working. Still, she was able to update her position twice a day. Followers could keep track of her progress through an interactive map known as the Roz Tracker on her Web site, as well as via an iPhone app. She also continued her regular podcast series on TWiT, as well as updates on Twitter and Foursquare.

En route to Madang, she encountered a variety of vessels--from fishing boats and cargo ships to helicopters and outrigger canoes--as well as sea life--from dolphins to booby birds to her "yellow fishy entourage" that kept her company for hundreds of miles of her ocean adventure.

As on the first two stages, Savage got an up-close look at the state of the Pacific Ocean, areas of which she found strewn with garbage. One particular day stood out.

"Unfortunately the most notable thing about today was the amount of plastic trash I saw littering the ocean," Savage wrote in a blog post on day 30. "Today was the worst I have ever seen it. I saw about 30 individual recognisable pieces: plastic bottles, yogurt pots, bits of packaging. There is something deeply upsetting about seeing a beautiful blue ocean glinting in the sunshine marred by a plastic bottle bobbing along on the surface."

Savage wrote about the good days too: "If only every day of ocean rowing could be like today, flat ocean, fair weather, regular rhythm, good book, forward progress. Though of course, if every day was like this I wouldn't appreciate it."

She went on to describe a more typical day, in that same post: "Wind coming from wrong direction, curse, row, just get the rudder set right for the conditions when the wind changes. Curse again, change rudder, winds and waves increase making it difficult to get both oars in the water at once; squally downpour, wind dies away. Curse again, change rudder, wind returns as headwind, put out sea anchor etc. etc."

In an interview with CNET earlier this year, Savage said that with each ocean row she is getting better at finding pleasure in it.

"I won't say that I positively enjoy it. It's more like enjoying not banging your head against a brick wall anymore," Savage said. "Some people love it out there on the ocean. I'm a land creature."

But her true mission is an environmental one and it came to her before the idea of rowing oceans did. Savage's green initiative for this year is asking people to do one green deed a day. Called Eco-Heroes, the online tool offers users a way to keep track of their progress and even compete with each other, a la Foursquare. She is also raising money to start a foundation with an aim to nurture and support people working to make the world a better place, according to her Web site.

After first taking on the Atlantic in 2005 and now having completed a voyage across the Pacific, Savage said she plans to row the Indian Ocean, launching from Perth, Australia, next year.