Goodbye husband and career, hello high seas

Roz Savage ditched her career, her husband and her house to row solo across the Atlantic. Now she's tackling the Pacific, and she's never been happier

By Hayley Mick
The Globe and Mail

Roz Savage, whose memoir was released this month, takes a breather during one leg of her attempt to become the first woman to row solo across the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: Lucy Pemoni/Sipa Press.)
Roz Savage, whose memoir was released this month, takes a breather during one leg of her attempt to become the first woman to row solo across the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: Lucy Pemoni/Sipa Press.)

It's in the early 2000s in London. Roz Savage sits on a commuter train, brooding about her seemingly perfect life: husband, corporate career, big house, little red sports car.

Skip ahead several years: She's 38, single, homeless — and alone on the Atlantic, in a 23-foot carbon-hulled rowboat. Here's the strange part: She has never been happier.

The environmental activist has chronicled her transition from her "cubicle days" as a consultant to ocean adventurer in Rowing the Atlantic: Lessons Learned on the Open Ocean, released this month. She lost 30 pounds, battled rogue waves and once had to be rescued during those 3,000 miles and 103 days at sea. Through it she gained personal satisfaction and a commitment to protecting the planet. And she's not stopping there.

Next spring, Ms. Savage will embark on the final leg of a three-stage bid to become the first woman to row solo across the Pacific Ocean. She speaks to The Globe and Mail about pushing boundaries.

Take me back to that day on the commuter train. What was the source of your unhappiness?

I was stuck in this job, feeling like I was just on a treadmill of having to earn enough money so that I could afford to buy the house that was near enough to my job. It was just like this crazy cycle. On Sunday nights, me and my husband would be just grumpy and unhappy about having to go back to work. And I'd think, you know, we don't have to do this. … I felt like I wasn't being true to myself.

You eventually wrote two obituaries for yourself, the first reflecting where you felt your life was headed and then the obituary of your dreams. What did the first obituary describe?

I thought it would be a pleasant life. In 2001 we bought a big house in west London. But I think it was the purchase of the house that helped bring about crisis. Because I heard my husband say, we need never to move again. And I just thought, oh my God, is that what the rest of my life going to be like? There's a part of me that always wanted to be a writer. And I felt like, to be a writer, I needed to get a lot of rich life experiences. Maybe when I heard him say that, I realized it was incompatible with this dream.

How did you feel after you wrote the second obituary — the one you wanted?

I just felt so energized and excited. And it almost felt like it had been my life. It felt very real to me. It wasn't about what I would do, but it was about the kind of person that I would be. And I think I recognized in that moment that I had that potential to actually become that more happy, more achieving person.

Why couldn't that life include your husband?

I think I just sensed that he was too conventional to come on this path with me. But the primary reason was more selfish than that. When you're in a relationship, you always have to compromise to a certain extent. … I felt like I needed to be on my own to have the freedom without compromise to follow my own path.

Why row across the Atlantic?

I dabbled with many things at first. I tried an organic bakery business and an organic coffee shop. But all these projects didn't seem quite right. They either involved too much money up front or maybe they were too much about stuff. I suppose at that point I was really about freedom. I had this list of criteria. It was going to be something that would help me to grow as a person, so ideally it would have to be something solo. It needed to be adventurous. And I wanted to stand up and say, I'm leaving this materialistic life behind.

What was your worst day at sea?

I think the first two weeks on the Atlantic were the worst. Because there was this dawning realization that I was going very slowly and I was going to be out there a very long time. The weather got very rough very quickly. I thought, I can't do this. But I thought, I don't have any options. I'm out here now.

Between the Atlantic crossing and the first two stages of the Pacific crossing, you've spent 306 days alone at sea. How has that changed you?

When I'm out there, I love the solitude, which isn't to say it's easy. The Atlantic, especially, was a very intense time for thinking. Maybe too intense. But I was just reading back through my Atlantic blogs. And I could actually see on those blogs the "aha" moments. The times when I had a little epiphany about how I could make life easier for myself psychologically. For a lot of the time I was being exceptionally hard on myself. A lot of the aha moments were related to being a bit gentler to myself.

You describe a particularly terrible day on your blog: two broken oars, tendinitis in your shoulder, salt-water sores and huge waves. Yet, you had never been happier. How could that be?

It was because I was about to arrive. It was about to be over. And I'd taken on the biggest challenge of my life and I had made it happen. I had not only rowed across the Atlantic, I'd done it all on my own.

What do you hope people take from your story?

I hope that I come across as very human, very fallible. I want people to relate to me and say, hey, she's nothing special. If she could go out and do this amazing thing, then so could I.

Are you on track to achieving that dream obituary?

Yes, I am. I had a lovely day on this last crossing, when I crossed the equator. Some friends of mine had given me a goody bag that included a mini-bottle of Champagne. I drank the Champagne, which you get a really good buzz from when you haven't drunk Champagne for three months, and sat there talking to my video camera about this dream that I'd had and how it's all coming true. I just thank my lucky stars that through a strange combination of circumstances I managed to take that different fork in the road.

October 19, 2009 — Return to cover.