Roz Savage rows the ocean blue for a green cause

British adventurer has a mission: take better care of the planet. And she's crossing an ocean--blogging and tweeting all the way--to inspire others to join her.

Anne Dujmovic Senior Editor / News
Anne Dujmovic is a senior editor at CNET. She can trace her start in tech journalism back to the San Jose Mercury News during the dot-com boom and bust. Her areas of focus include the climate crisis, democracy and inclusive language. She believes in the power of great journalism and art, and the magic of tardigrades.
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Anne Dujmovic
9 min read
Roz Savage
Roz Savage plans to set off soon on the final leg of her solo row across the Pacific Ocean. Anne Dujmovic/CNET

PORTLAND, Ore.--After rowing solo across the Atlantic Ocean and a good stretch of the Pacific for more than 8,400 miles so far, Roz Savage 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 in a recent interview. "Some people love it out there on the ocean. I'm a land creature."

So what's a land creature like her doing in a place like that on a 23-foot row boat?

Partly, to challenge herself. But mostly, to inspire people to take better care of the planet. This week, the ocean rower and environmental campaigner is temporarily trading her boat for a much bigger one, the National Geographic Endeavour, where she will speak at an ocean-themed TED Prize conference in the Galapagos. Next week, if conditions are right, she plans to set off on the final leg of a three-stage trip in her attempt to become the first woman to row solo across the Pacific.

Savage admits she does not fit the description of your typical adventurer of old. As she puts it in her book "Rowing the Atlantic," she doesn't sport "a frost-encrusted beard," nor is she tall. She is just under 5'4" and blonde. Savage, 42, was born to Methodist preachers in Cheshire, England, and attended Oxford University, where she first took up rowing. For more than a decade, she worked as a management consultant and project manager. While she may not be a Shackleton or a Cook, she does have a name fitting of an explorer. (A student asked her during a recent visit to a San Francisco Bay Area school, "How did you come up with your stage name of Roz Savage?")

"The mission happened before the rowing did. The rowing is almost a means to an end. It's certainly not something I love for its own sake. I find it very challenging."
--Roz Savage

In 2004, Savage had what she calls her environmental epiphany. "It sounds blindingly obvious now--but to me in 2004 it wasn't blindingly obvious--if we don't take good care of the planet it's going to go badly for us," she said. Some months later, she decided to start rowing oceans as a challenge to herself and as a way to share her environmental epiphany with others. (By that time she had left her husband, her home, and her office job.)

In addition to making public appearances, Savage gets her message out as you might expect a 21st-century adventurer to do: by blogging, using Twitter, shooting video, and doing podcasts. She's even got her own iPhone app, called the Roz Tracker, which enables users to follow her along as she navigates the Pacific.

As immersed as she is in social media, however, Savage says she has mixed feelings about it. "I don't want to sound churlish about it but it can be just physically very uncomfortable to try to write a blog when you're on a boat that's tipping around," she said. "But it's really important that I do it."

Rowing solo across the Pacific (photos)

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"The mission happened before the rowing did. The rowing is almost a means to an end. It's certainly not something I love for its own sake. I find it very challenging," Savage said. "So it really is about the blogging and the tweeting, and trying to create an appreciation of the oceans to an extent."

But Savage says it's more than that. On average, she has spent 100 days alone at sea at a stretch--giving her lots of time to think, come up with ideas, formulate philosophies, and share them. "It's a little like stepping off the planet for a while because I'm out there alone, to an extent quite vulnerable, very in touch with nature, very aware that as far as nature goes I'm just another animal with no special rights and privileges as a human being. And that has certain implications, I suppose, for the environmental message. I do think a lot about these things even when I'm on dry land."

One of her biggest trips on dry land in recent months was attending the Copenhagen climate summit in December. She says she is still recovering.

"If we had any illusions that our esteemed leaders were going to save us, I think that Copenhagen pretty much shattered those illusions," Savage said. "I felt like I was having illusions shattered every day there, which is always a painful experience. But I think it was important to go through that because I arrived there very naive, very idealistic, and I came away seeing the world as it is, rather than as I wish it was. And that's a much stronger position for the future."

Copenhagen may have been a bust at the geopolitical level, but some good things did come out of there, Savage says, especially among the NGOs and campaigners. And she remains optimistic. "It was amazing, the outpouring of human energy, just all these people focused on this one issue. There were ripples going out from Copenhagen. I think it did do a lot to raise awareness generally and I think also there were some strong relationships forged between the people who were there trying to make a difference."

In her role as an environmental campaigner, Savage has been named a U.N. Climate Hero. She is also a trained presenter for Al Gore's Climate Project, and is an Athlete Ambassador for 350.org, whose mission is to inspire and unite people to find solutions to climate change. Bill McKibben, who co-founded 350.org, says Savage's perseverance is part of what makes her such a good spokesperson.

"Environmentalists have spent a long time thinking about bar graphs and pie charts. Important stuff, but there are other parts of our heads and hearts that need reaching, and that's what Roz is good at," McKibben said in an e-mail.

Although she's been at it for a while now, Savage says she still feels like she's learning how to talk about environmental issues to reach the "unconverted," particularly, when it comes to climate change. "I actually now try not to talk about climate change because especially in this country it's so polarizing," she said. "I prefer to talk about sustainability because it is just kind of common sense on a finite planet. And the other thing is that sustainability is a positive thing to move toward."

Finger-wagging is not her style. Instead, she wants to focus on a more affirming way to motivate people to act.

Using social media is one way to get there. Savage's green initiative for the year is asking people to do one green deed a day. Called Eco-Heroes, the online tool will offer users a way to keep track of their progress and even compete with each other, with a point system and medals, too, a la the geolocation social network Foursquare. Online registration opened about two weeks ago. The aim is to give people feedback and make them feel good about acting on their beliefs.

"I'm hoping that that's going to catch on and be a much more affirming way of tackling these challenges," Savage said. "I'm not into the fear-mongering and the doomsday scenarios because I've been out on the ocean and felt overwhelmed by the scale of a challenge. And it absolutely made me slump into despondency and depression. And it's de-energizing. Whereas I find crossing milestones as I'm rowing and ticking off the numbers very energizing, very motivating," she said.

"So I'm extrapolating wildly from myself to the whole human race and hoping that other people feel the same way. But I think the success of things like Foursquare shows that people do respond. They find it fun to accumulate points and get a bit of recognition. So I'm hoping that we can take that and apply it to greendom."

Setting the rhythm
While rowing at Oxford, Savage set a goal for herself: to make the Women's Lightweight Eight crew the upcoming year. Her summer of sweat paid off, and there was a bonus. She was selected to the stroke seat, the position that sets the rhythm for the rest of the crew.

Now, about 20 years later, Savage is sitting in the stroke seat once again, but with a much larger crew falling in with her.

"If I'd been a more normal person and done my adventuring in my 20s rather than in my 40s, I wouldn't have had any of these tools at my disposal. I feel so lucky that I'm doing what I do now."
--Roz Savage

To the online community that has sprung up around her adventures, she provides the "salty sea stories" and inspiration. But Savage, who says the community has strengthened in the past 18 months or so, also gets a lot in return. Dubbed Rozlings, followers of her blog have provided moral support, especially when she's been out on the ocean and wondering at times, "Why am I doing this?" They have given her financial support--for example, when her backpack containing her laptop, phone, ID, and credit cards was stolen in Copenhagen. And they have offered tech support, too.

"If I'd been a more normal person and done my adventuring in my 20s rather than in my 40s, I wouldn't have had any of these tools at my disposal. I feel so lucky that I'm doing what I do now," Savage said. "And in fact technology or, more specifically, the intelligent use of technology is another one of my causes for optimism because I think that it allows us to build communities and transmit messages in a way that we've never been able to do before."

While she gets much-needed support from her online community, she also hears from members when they disagree with her--and she believes that's a good thing.

"I am proud that we've got some people in the community who don't believe in climate change and they don't always agree with me--and they tell me they don't agree with me," Savage said, adding that it gives her a better understanding of the other side of the argument. "Hopefully, that will enable me to become a better communicator."

Getting to where you want to go
Next week, if conditions are right, Savage plans to set off from the atoll of Tarawa in the central Pacific on the third and final leg of her historic row, with her sights set on Australia. But making landfall there--despite its continental size--won't be easy.

"You can know exactly where you want to go but you can't physically get there--like I couldn't physically get to Tuvalu," Savage said, referring to her intended destination of the second stage of her row. Strong winds, a dwindling supply of food, and a broken water maker meant she had to change course and head to Tarawa instead. "It'd be a lot easier to end up in Papua New Guinea."

Savage expects this stage to be the toughest one yet--navigationally because of the strong winds and lots of little islands in the way, and psychologically because from the get-go the pressure will be on to just keep rowing. "No guilt-free rest," she said. But Savage says she has lined up the best weatherman she knows of: Lee Bruce.


A tale of two bathrooms
Listen to an excerpt from CNET's interview
with Roz Savage where she discusses
the facilities on her boat vs. in a hotel.

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Through it all, Savage plans to chronicle the last leg of the Pacific row much as she has the previous stages. (See her entry "7 things you wanted to know but were afraid to ask.") In addition to posting blogs, once a week she'll shoot a video, which will be uploaded via satellite phone. ("I've got the world's worst bandwidth.") Also, she'll continue her regular podcast series on TWiT.

Her gadget lineup won't change much from the last time around. She's been loading up an array of iPods with music and audio books to keep her company. And she'll tote a waterproof, high-definition Sanyo Xacti to capture images of wildlife she meets along the way. Because this trip will require a bit more fine navigation, she plans to have her Garmin GPS visible from her rowing seat, instead of relying only on the compass during her rowing shifts. One of the most notable changes is that she is going fossil-fuel free. In the past Savage has used propane for her cook stove, but this time she'll use 12-volt kettles plugged in to the general electrical system, which is powered by the boat's solar panels.

So what's an ocean rower to do once she's crossed two? Take on another one? Maybe.

"I'll only do the Indian Ocean if I feel there's a purpose in doing it--either for me personally or for my message," Savage said.

For now, she's concentrating on her TED talk, recruiting Eco-Heroes to help save the planet, and preparing for the few thousand miles of the Pacific she has left to row.

"One of the challenges to myself is if I can learn to be happy on a 23-foot rowboat on my own in the middle of an ocean, I think I can learn to be happy pretty much anywhere."