Roz Savage: Rowing Three Oceans Alone

Roz Savage is a woman who doesn’t do anything halfway. A lawyer trained at Oxford University, by her early thirties she was married, had a promising career as a management consultant in London’s financial district, and owned a big home and a sports car.

Yet she was, in her own words, utterly miserable. Sensing that there was something more to life than material success, one night she sat down to write two versions of her own obituary—the first summarized the life she was leading and the second described the adventures she dreamed of. They were so far apart that she realized if she continued in the direction she was going, she would miss out on her own best life.

Her marriage already unraveling, Roz took the dramatic steps of quitting her job, leaving her home and embarking on a journey of self-discovery. Then she took the most daring step of all and entered the 2005 Atlantic Rowing Race—determined to become the first woman to compete solo in the race, which meant she would row the 3000 miles from the Canary Islands to Antigua alone in a 24-foot boat.

Battling record storms, self-doubt, and fatigue, Roz completed the trip in 103 days despite all four of her oars breaking and the loss of her satellite phone and cockpit navigation instruments. She went on to become the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, garnering four world records.

Today Roz Savage is a sought after corporate speaker and sustainability advocate, and has been named Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic, awarded the MBE (Member of the order of the British Empire) for her environmental work by the Queen of England, and honored as a United Nations Climate Hero, among other honors. A senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, she is the author of two best-selling books about her adventures.

Despite these extraordinary achievements, Roz is the first to tell you that she is not a world-class athlete or adventurer—but an ordinary person who had the courage to question the life she was living and take the leap into the unknown.

It becomes clear when talking to her today that she is first and foremost on a quest to live—and help others live—a life that is joyful, meaningful and sustainable. In this interview, she talks about her journey and how any woman can live a life of freedom and purpose.

Linda Egenes: I understand that you learned the Transcendental Meditation technique while teaching a course on courage at Yale University this spring. What led to you to add TM to your already busy daily routine?

Roz Savage: I’m new to TM but I’m not completely new to meditation. The last time I was consistently meditating was in early 2004 when I spent an amazing month living in solitude in Ireland. I had stopped working and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. It was a few months later that the crazy idea came to me that I was going to row across oceans and use that as my platform to raise environmental awareness. It was like a brainwave—so brilliant and bright—and I absolutely connect it to that time of solitude and introspection.

And right now, as I’m trying to figure out the next chapter of my life, it felt like a good time to reconnect with meditation. I have a wonderfully spiritual friend and I asked her what was the best kind of meditation to begin my practice again, and she immediately recommended Transcendental Meditation.

What has been your experience?

Roz: I’ve found with TM it’s almost like a kind of ease, of flow, of magic comes into your life. You feel the road rising up to meet you. I have a greater sense of feeling supported by life, what I could say is a sense of feeling connected to something that’s bigger.

In the introductory lecture, when my TM teacher asked us why we were interested in TM, other people said they had come for better health, or less stress.

But I said I was coming from a spiritual curiosity. And it certainly has enhanced my sense of spiritual connection over the past few months.

On your trip across the Atlantic Ocean, which took three months, you lost your satellite connection and were utterly isolated for the last 24 days, but instead of feeling panicked, you noted in your video log, “I’ve never known peace like this . . . . I’ve just been feeling so serene and calm. It’s been one of those magic moments . . . . . This is what the whole row so far has been leading up to.” Were you seeking a kind of transcendental experience when you started on your journey?

Roz: When I set out on the ocean I really hoped it was going to be a completely spiritual experience. I’d been reading Henry David Thoreau and I think I probably imagined that my little rowboat was going to be my cabin on my Walden Pond. Of course rowboats and cabins are very different things. And so I didn’t find it especially serene, because you’re being bounced around and kicked and capsized by the ocean. It was a particularly terrible year for weather on the Atlantic, the year of Hurricane Katrina—so it was not the serene experience of enlightenment that I’d rather fondly imagined.

Once you’re on that spiritual quest, once you’re trying to understand how the world really works, you start to see things. For me, even before I started the rowing, there were bits of awakenings about the stories we are told. For instance, I suddenly saw that the story I was being told—that working really hard to make money and buy a big house would make me happy—was false.

It was like the veil had been lifted. Certainly for me, there was no going back. I wanted to continue down that path and keep looking for what felt true to me. I feel like we are all on the quest for truth, not only an objective truth, but even just a subjective truth of what works for us.

So that’s very much what led me back into meditation and brought me to learn TM. My entire quest is about how to live a good life, how to feel connected and at one with the world.

You also mentioned in your TED talk that becoming free of those stories was one of the important lessons you learned. Do you have an example of this?

Roz: I trained as a coach about three years ago, and thus was working with my own wonderful coach who got me to do an experiment. For three months I wouldn’t do something if I didn’t absolutely love it. I remember that this sent me into a complete panic. “But I have to earn money!” I told her.

But there was no point paying this much for a coach and then ignoring her advice. So I decided, OK, I will trust that she knows what she’s talking about, and for three months I did what I love to do, which was pretty much what I was doing in Ireland in 2004. I would read books, formulate ideas, have interesting conversations with people, write in my journal, and reflect and do the work.

And the weirdest thing was that during those three months I started getting so many inquiries from people wanting me to speak to their organization or company without any effort on my part whatsoever.

I thought, well, this is strange, because sometimes you try so hard to make things happen. And my coach had a phrase for this: Stop efforting. Stop trying and just do what you love and see what happens.

And it really did seem like something quite magical happened. And that’s the same feeling I’m having this spring—the ease and the flow and the magic—that happens when you have a TM practice.

At the beginning of your documentary, you said, “I was a woman who had everything, yet I didn’t feel satisfied. I knew I had a purpose—I just didn’t know what it was.” What do you consider to be your life purpose and how did you find yours?

Roz: I feel like my purpose is to help humans find a better relationship with the planet that we live on. To heal the rift, this separation that we’ve created between ourselves and nature.

How do you find your life purpose? One thing I had to let go of was fear of failure. Because growing up I was very good at passing exams, I was very good at jumping through other people’s hoops. I was very good at doing things that got me a pat on the back from parents and teachers and society as a whole. I think, for me, having a failed career and a failed marriage and pretty much a fall off the track was incredibly liberating. Because then I was free to be me, to do the things that I loved, not trying to please other people.

Do you feel like anyone could do this?

Roz: Yes. I’m a beginner on this path. I’ve learned practically everything I’ve learned in this life by doing it wrong the first way. So I can absolutely remember what it feels like to feel constrained by society, by work, by what my parents expected of me.

And I kind of think that is part of my purpose too, to inspire others that if I could wake up, they can too.

I was lacking a sense of agency; I expected other people to fix the world. Now I have a sense that I can do something. I can actually be effective, to make a difference.

When I started to find out about our environmental challenges in early 2004, I was on fire about that. I thought, I cannot stand by and let this happen. I don’t know if I can be effective, but I have to do something. I was just so revved up. Never before in my life had I had a sense either of this burning passion or this sense of agency. I didn’t know at that time whether that agency was real or not, but I had a hunch I was onto something.

And that’s what I really want to share with people—if they’ve got a hunch that there’s something wrong with this picture—if they’ve got a hunch that there’s so much more that they could offer, if only they knew what, they, too, can make that leap out of ordinary.

We’re at a point in human evolution where we all have a role to play, we all have to do something—and we need to believe deeply that we have important work to do. There’s not really room for passengers and bystanders any more. We are a world in crisis and we all need to wake up to that and face it. Because we can make a difference.

More on Roz Savage
TED Talk

About the Author

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

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