Roz Savage in her ocean rowboat, about 4 weeks after setting out from the Canary Islands on the Atlantic Rowing Race 2005.

I.  When I was a teenager, I read Frank Worsley’s Shackleton’s Boat Journey, about British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s desperate move in an open boat, to rescue his stranded crew from the Antarctic ice, in April and May, 1916.  At the time, I didn’t know much about the ocean, sailing or extreme condition adventures.

By my mid-twenties, though, I was fishing commercially year-round in Alaskan coastal waters, having multitudes of such hazards under my belt, including being pulled overboard and 60 feet underwater by a 8-foot-by-8-foot crab pot.  Between fishing trips, my reading list included Joshua Slocum’s seminal 1900 memoir, Sailing Around Alone Around the World, every book I could find on Captain Cook’s voyages, Herman Melville’s White-Jacket, and other volumes on the extremes the sea can fetch into the laps of anyone who dares to seek the edge.

I avidly devoured Tristan Jones‘ accounts of solo ocean sailing voyages as they were published, between 1977 and 1991, beginning with The Incredible Voyage, in which Jones sailed half the world’s oceans, as he sought to sail the lowest (the Dead Sea) and highest (Lake Titicaca) bodies of sailboat-navigable water on this planet.

These books were all by men, about themselves, or other men.  But I knew from my Alaskan experiences than many women loved the sea and testing their limits there as much as I did, or more.  Sadly, there aren’t nearly as many historical books about women braving the extreme hazards of solo trekking, sailing, climbing and exploring.  This has changed markedly since the 1970s, and the trend is accelerating in our new century.  Here is a book list of adventure books featuring women who dared challenge not just the odds, but the conventions of their times.

This new century has brought not only more women adventurers to the fore.  It has brought them and their male counterparts the opportunity of keeping us up-to-date on their progress (or not!) via blogs, vlogs, social media and other almost instant communication.  My first close encounter with this approach to extreme trekking was in late 2007, when I discovered Erin McKittrick and Bretwood Higman, as they walked, pac-rafted and skied from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands,  blogging as they progressed.  Additionally, some of these new wave adventurers were using their journeys to heighten awareness of environmental issues.

Simultaneously, I became more interested in rowing, women rowing and extreme rowing, as I followed my daughter Julia’s journey to an NCAA team championship in 2008.  The same week my daughter was rowing to a gold medal on Lake Natoma, near Sacramento, solo ocean rower, Roz Savage, was departing Sausalito in San Francisco Bay, 110 miles west, on her way to Hawaii, the first stage of Savage’s trans-Pacific crossing.  Savage eventually became the first woman to successfully row solo across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.

II.  Since achieving this remarkable set of feats, which included over five million oar strokes, Roz Savage has been lauded worldwide.  Most recently, Queen Elizabeth II honored the adventurer on the Queen’s Birthday, awarding Savage the  Order of the British Empire.  Although she has been lionized for her rowing accomplishments (including National Geographic‘s 2010 Adventurer of the Year), Savage has been honored, perhaps more significantly, for her efforts to bring more attention to oceanic plastic pollution.  Her campaign, along with many others, to end plastic bag use at the Olympic Games, symbolic as that is, has been commended.

Roz Savage’s second book, Stop Drifting, Start Rowing: One Woman’s Search for Happiness and Meaning Alone on the Pacific, was released on October 1st.  It is one of the more important personal narratives by a woman explorer yet written.  Her first book, Rowing the Atlantic: Lessons Learned on the Open Ocean, was about the first leg of her three-ocean odyssey.  Even though written after Savage had completed the final, Indian Ocean leg, her new one covers only the three-stage Pacific Ocean leg.

In Stop Drifting, the author looks back at what it was that brought her to become an ocean rower.  Here she recounts her earlier life as a management consultant, her wake-up call to reinvent her life, and the many frustrations as she encountered adversity after setback after near-disaster on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans:

Roz Savage would not have been able to successfully engage her dedication, pluck and resolve as rower-adventurer, had she not brought with her into the mission her excellence as a fundraiser.  This is part of the book, though more needs to be written about how important that is to someone who embarks upon a great and expensive human-powered quest meant to bring attention to global environmental challenges and disasters. Savage concentrates more on the details of putting together the boat-survival package, and the alternation between long days just rowing, rowing, sleeping, rowing, rowing – and sheer terror in the face of the overwhelming power of the sea.

Putting together her idea of solo ocean rowing with a wider long-range environmental activist role, Savage writes that she:

began to compile a grand to-do list of all of the things I would need to read, learn, finance, buy and otherwise do . . . had broken the list down to such small steps that there was nothing too far outside of my existing abilities. It felt as if everything that had happened so far in my life had been leading me to this point, preparing me for this task, and that I was uniquely equipped to pursue this quest. It was a perfect collision of personality, past experience, purpose, and timing.

In the very long leg of the trip between Hawaii and Kiribati, Savage sometimes found herself losing ground over the course of a day.  Savage’s encounters with fish, birds, turtles and marine mammals were mostly routine, although she had to put up with a lot of bird poop, and – on one occasion – flying squids, landing on deck, injuring themselves fatally, as they tried to escape an underwater predator.  Her encounters with marine pollution saddened her, even though she knew beforehand that there would be such occurrences.  But in mid-Pacific, Roz learned that two ocean scientists had created a raft of ocean-borne plastic pollutants, and were crossing part of the Pacific on it.  For days, their paths slowly converged, until they met, and shared experiences, food, watermarking equipment, and fragrances.

The book’s narrative is rich with her encounters, remembrances and bits of wisdom gleaned from isolation, exhaustion, exhilaration and struggle.

III. As with any environmental crusader who travels the globe promoting his or her cause or book, Savage has been called to task for the carbon footprint left behind by those efforts.  How one gets around that is one of the best questions out there.  Are iconic environmental crusaders who are also public speakers, educators, board members and delegates to conferences around the world supposed to walk, swim or row in recycled wooden boats to attend to their roles, rather than fly by jet, motor by Subaru, or – as some Roz Savage critics have written in CAPS – row against plastics in a plastic boat full of solar-powered electronics made out of precious rare earth elements?

Some of these same critics, though, acknowledge the power of Savage’s story-telling in the book. reviewer Russell Bradley wrote:

Excellent book which is both a fantatsic adventure story and a real world example of someone chasing their dreams to challenge themselves. And try to make a difference at the same time. I was one of the biologists Roz passed by at the Farallon Islands. I remember watching her disappear over the horizon and thinking I may be the last person to ever see her. But she did it and helped inform, educate and inspire along the way. Though it’s obvious this publisher deals primarily in “self help books” which may be offputting to some, this is a great easy read that does have lots of life lessons anyone can appreciate – like dealing with the failure of her aborted first attempt. She’s a badass (but a delightful one)…

Back in March, 2012, I brought up the issue of spending environmental resources to make people aware of environmental degradation, in an interview with Roz, and with fellow adventurer-environmentalist Erin McKittrick.  Here’s Roz’s response to my question about this:

I have a unique vessel, but I have recycled the same vessel for all 6 of my voyages. The initial purchase of the boat was expensive – for which I used my life savings – but since then my expeditions have operated on a shoestring budget, largely “crowdsourced” by a multitude of supporters. As to “the logistics to support it”, this may imply that I have a support vessel – which I don’t. I do what I can to recycle as much kit as is still working at the end of every voyage, and to select foods that have minimal packaging, with as much of it as possible being recyclable or biodegradable. I am quite proud of my frugality and regard to environmental impact in this regard……

The need to raise funds has had significant side-benefits in terms of outreach. Much of my funding has come from a multitude of people who have donated anywhere between $10 and $10,000 to support my adventures. This has three huge benefits – firstly, it gives them a sense of ownership towards my mission. Because they have parted with hard-earned cash to help make it happen, they are more likely to check in and read my blog while I am at sea to reassure themselves that I am using their money wisely – thus increasing my outreach.

Secondly, when I am having a tough day on the ocean (like, most of them!) it really helps to keep me going to think of all those people who have invested in me – emotionally as well as financially. Even if I am struggling to find the motivation to keep going for my own sake, I do it for them. I feel I owe it to them to complete what I set out to do.

Thirdly, it gives me freedom. I’ve never been in the situation of having to decide whether to accept a huge sponsorship deal from an environmentally reckless company – but if I did accept such a deal, it might have raised question marks over my independence on environmental issues. By being funded largely by individuals, I don’t have to toe any corporate line, giving me freedom to express my own views.

Please join us Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Pacific Time, as we ask Roz Savage about what meaning there is in such wondrous epic adventures, even as people question how we can get the word out on impending environmental catastrophe without using too many resources presenting the message.

Photo taken from her support vessel Aurora by Dan Byles.



Alaska progressive activist, notorious composer and firedoglake devotee.