Life can seem pretty bleak when you’re in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and all four of your rowing oars are broken. And you’re alone. And you don’t have a motor.
That happened to Roz Savage, an environmentalist and the first woman to row across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.
“Very quickly I just became overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge I had taken on,” Savage said to a crowd packed into Hendricks Chapel Wednesday night for the Syracuse University Lecture Series. Students, faculty and community members sat inside the glowing chapel, with a soft rain pattering outside. They came to hear how one woman abandoned everything she knew for a dream that to many, seems out of this world.
Savage said she didn’t come up with this dream until 2005. She was in the midst of a top-notch career as a management consultant in London. Despite her success, something didn’t feel right to her.
“I wondered what was wrong with me,” Savage said.
So she said she wrote her own obituary — twice.
“I remember looking back and thinking, ‘So, how was it for you?’” One was a fantasy version, the tale of the life and legacy she wanted to leave behind. The second was the reality, which was not as satisfying. Soon after writing these obituaries, Savage began reading about environmental issues and started to realize the negative impacts humans were having on the earth.
Then the idea came to life — to row across the Atlantic, while raising awareness about the environment. Savage had rowed for Oxford University, but the endeavor she was about to take on was incomparable to the seemingly tough races against Cambridge University. Besides the daunting task of taking on an entire ocean, Savage’s oars broke, her camping stove broke, her navigation instruments failed, her stereo stopped working and her satellite phone died. Savage showed to the audience some of her video logs out on the water. There are times where Savage chokes back tears in those videos, looking hopeless, strained, sun burnt and defeated.
“They were without a doubt the worst 103 days,” she said. “But the sense of achievement at the end was incredible.” That sense led Savage to tackle the Pacific Ocean. On the 8,000-mile journey, Savage came across more than just the occasional shark, sea turtle or hitchhiker bird. She saw plastic in the water—trails of trash stringing through the ocean. It motivated her to continue the fight for a greener earth, and eventually to row across the Indian Ocean.
After capsizing her boat three times, nearly losing her boat when she dove off of it to rescue her boat hook and almost losing her sanity during times when the loneliness was overwhelming, Savage completed her journey across three of the world’s largest bodies of water in 2011. In 2010, National Geographic had already named her “Adventurer of the Year.”
“It’s amazing,” said Hanna Strong, a sophomore and sports management major at Syracuse University. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I don’t know how she didn’t go crazy by herself the whole time.”
Savage inspired Rachel Blum, an advertising junior, too. “All the troubles you have here seem insignificant to those out there,” she said.
That’s exactly what Savage realized while completing her journey. “I’m really living now,” Savage said. “I was in real danger of just carrying on with business as usual. The world isn’t as big as sometimes we think it is. We have fundamentally changed our climate, the chemistry of the oceans, many different aspects of the way that this earth functions.”
Savage has changed her style of living. She shops at thrift stores, drinks tap water instead of bottled water, creates her happiness not by the material items in her life, but by the things she does and the people she is with.
This change in Savage’s life struck a chord with Art Rees, a retired accountant and resident of Syracuse. He had read one of Savage’s books, and came to hear her speak. It was a nostalgic night for him; he hadn’t been in Hendricks Chapel since a student protest against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. He was back within the same walls, which he said hadn’t changed much, but for a very different reason. “I just think the decisions she made to leave her career, I mean, it really was a gutsy move she made to give all of that up,” he said. “To be able to come from that experience and see a deeper insight into her world and herself—it’s inspirational.”
Savage hopes her talk will resonate with people to conserve, not consume; to make the future and not take it; and to reach for long-term goals and not short ones.
“Maybe it’s time to reconsider how we define happiness,” she said.