GUY RAZ, HOST:
Before you went out to do this epic thing, can you tell me what you did every day?
ROZ SAVAGE: Yes, I'll try to do this without breaking out in a rash or a panic attack. I would get up at about 6 o'clock, walk across Kew Bridge, catch the train at five to 7, crowd on with all the other commuters reading their newspapers and, of course, not talking. You don't talk on a commuter train. So I'd be at my desk by about 8 o'clock in my little gray cubicle in this enormous office, row upon row, upon row of desks, producing whatever it was that we were supposed to produce.
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SAVAGE: And I think I knew from day one that it wasn't the right job for me.
RAZ: This is Roz Savage, and she told her story of going to the edge on the TED stage.
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SAVAGE: That kind of conditioning just kept me there for so many years, until I reached my mid-thirties and I thought, I feel like I've got a purpose in this life. And I don't know what it is, but I'm pretty certain that management consultancy is not it. I sat down one day and wrote two versions of my own obituary, the one that I wanted, a life of adventure, and the one that I was actually heading for. I made a few changes, like there were some loose trappings of my old life, and through a bit of a leap of logic, decided to row across the Atlantic Ocean.
RAZ: And where did you go from there?
SAVAGE: When I first had the idea, I thought I had really no ocean experience. In fact, really, apart from being able to row, I had no other relevant skills whatsoever. But I got to that dangerous stage where I thought, well, just hypothetically, supposing I was going to do this, what would be on my to do list? And so I made this enormous Excel spreadsheet, this list of all the things I would need to buy and people I would need to talk to and books I would need to read and courses I'd need to take in order to make this happen.
And I'd written the list at such a low level of detail that when I looked down at it I thought, there isn't actually anything there that I don't know how to do. At least I know where to start with it. And so the whole thing started to seem rather frighteningly doable.
RAZ: How long was the time frame from the moment where you said, I think I want to row across the Atlantic, to the time when you actually did it?
SAVAGE: Fourteen months.
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SAVAGE: And it turned out to be the hardest thing I had ever done. Sure, I'd wanted to get outside of my comfort zone, but what I'd sort of failed to notice was that getting out of your comfort zone is, by definition, extremely uncomfortable. And my timing was not great either - 2005, when I did the Atlantic, was the year of Hurricane Katrina. There were more tropical storms in the North Atlantic than ever before, since records began. And pretty early on, those storms started making their presence known. All four of my oars broke before I reached halfway across. But what can you do? You're in the middle of the ocean. Oars are your only means of propulsion.
So I just had to look around the boat and figure out what I was going to use to fix up these oars so that I could carry on. So I found a boat hook and my trusty duct tape and splintered the boat hook to the oars to reinforce it. Then when that gave out, I sawed the wheel axles off my spare rowing seat and used those. And then when those gave out, I cannibalized one of the broken oars. I've never been very good at fixing stuff, but it's amazing how resourceful you can become when you're in the middle of the ocean and there's only one way to get to the other side.
RAZ: I think about what you did, and I think, you must be fearless, like, you must fear nothing.
SAVAGE: I wish that were true. The first two weeks that I was out on the Atlantic, I was terrified. I didn't have confidence yet in my boat that it wouldn't break up. And I also didn't have too much confidence in myself. But I think I learned a few things about fear, and one of them is that there's sort of a limit to how long you can be afraid for.
And after a couple of weeks of being abjectly terrified, you sort of get used to it, and your comfort zone expands to accommodate your new normality. And the other thing about it is I think you can conquer a fear when you're more afraid of something else. And I was so determined not to go back to my bad old office job that I would have rowed 10,000 oceans rather than admit defeat and go back to the office cubicle.
RAZ: Your fear was not doing it.
SAVAGE: Yeah, well, I'd say, I don't know if it's because both my parents were Methodist preachers. They were both full-time working for the church. So maybe as a child I just sort of internalized this idea that you're supposed to have some sort of a higher purpose, some bigger mission in life other than just feathering your own nest.
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SAVAGE: So this might be a good moment to take a quick time-out to answer a few FAQs about ocean rowing that might be going through your mind. Number one: What do you eat? I grow my own bean sprouts. I eat fruit-and-nut bars and generally arrive about 30 pounds lighter at the other end. Question number two: How do you sleep? Well, I plan my route so that I'm drifting with the winds and the currents while I'm sleeping. On a good night, I think my best effort was 11 miles in the right direction, worst ever, 13 miles in the wrong direction. That's a bad day at the office. Do I have a chase boat? No I don't. I'm totally self-supporting out there.
I don't see anybody for the whole time that I'm at sea. And finally, am I crazy? Well, I'll leave that one up to you to judge. I really struggled psychologically, totally overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge. There were so many times when I thought I'd hit that limit but had no choice but to just carry on and try and figure out how I was going to get to the other side without driving myself crazy. And eventually, after 103 days at sea, I arrived in Antigua. I don't think I have ever felt so happy in my entire life.
It was a bit like finishing a marathon and getting out of solitary confinement and winning an Oscar, all rolled into one. I was euphoric. And to see all the people coming out to greet me and standing along the cliff tops and clapping and cheering, I just felt like a movie star. It was absolutely wonderful. And I really learned then that the bigger the challenge, the bigger the sense of achievement when you get to the end of it.
RAZ: One hundred and three days to row all the way across the Atlantic, but she wasn't done.
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SAVAGE: So how do you top rowing across the Atlantic? Well, naturally, you decide to row across the Pacific.
RAZ: Naturally. When we come back, more stories from the edge, including Roz Savage's Pacific journey. I'm Guy Raz, you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, to the edge. What makes somebody walk to the North Pole or go deep underground or row across an entire ocean by themselves? Well, we pick up our story of Roz Savage. She's a rower who crossed the Atlantic all by herself. And then the next year, she took on the Pacific.
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SAVAGE: If the Atlantic was about my inner journey, discovering my own capabilities, maybe the Pacific has been about my outer journey, figuring out how I can use my interesting career choice to bring awareness to environmental issues and to bring a human face to the ocean. Well, I'd thought the Atlantic was big, but the Pacific is really, really big. The first attempt didn't go so well. In 2007, I did a rather involuntary capsize drill three times in 24 hours.
Boat got a bit dinged up. So did I. I blogged about it, and unfortunately, somebody with a bit of a hero complex decided that this damsel was in distress and needed saving. First I knew about this was when the Coast Guard plane turned up overhead. I tried to tell them to go away. We had a bit of a battle of wills. I lost and got airlifted.
RAZ: Were you embarrassed about that, or more angry, or both?
SAVAGE: I was mortified, absolutely mortified and angry. I hadn't called for the Coast Guard. I'd run into a storm about 10 days off the California coast, and the wind speed was, oh, I don't know, 40 or 50 knots, and the waves were about 20 feet high. And my boat's only 23 feet. The first time the boat capsized was at night, and I was in the cabin. I was actually in there strapped down to my bunk. But on the second capsize, those straps pulled out from the floor of the cabin, so then after that, when the boat capsized again, I was being thrown around a bit like a rag doll in a washing machine.
RAZ: That sounds terrifying. That sounds totally terrifying.
SAVAGE: It's certainly miserable. I didn't think I was going to die, because, by this point, I'd already spent three and a half months in my boat on the Atlantic, and I knew that it was a strong boat and that it could withstand some pretty horrendous conditions.
RAZ: You eventually went back to continue the journey.
SAVAGE: Yeah, the following May, I was able to set out again from under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco on that 8,000 mile voyage across the Pacific, which I did in three stages over the course of three years.
RAZ: Do you think that you'll ever be able to really understand what motivated you to do those things?
SAVAGE: That's a very interesting question. I wanted it to be adventurous. I wanted to learn self-reliance. But it still somehow feels like that idea came almost from another place. It was already so fully formed when it popped into my head, and it seems to me, you know, I've sort of been trying to recreate that process recently now that I've hung up my oars and I'm trying to figure out, you know, if there's going to be a puff of smoke and another big idea pops out. It hasn't quite happened yet, but maybe I just need to be patient with it.
RAZ: Was there a moment when you were out there, you know, in the middle of the ocean all by yourself, and you're just like, I'm just, like, thinking, I'm so lucky?
SAVAGE: Yes, definitely. I think one of the most magical moments was more or less in the middle of the Pacific. It was normally too rough to sleep out on the deck. You just get wet. But this one night was relatively calm, so I dragged out my sleeping bag to make a comfortable little nest between the runners of my rowing seat. And I just lay there looking up at the stars, and there just seemed to be absolutely thousands and millions of stars up there.
I just felt incredibly tiny and humble, but at the same time very much connected to and part of it all. And in fact, quite a lot of the time on the ocean, I kind of lost track of self. When you're just there and you're in your routine, you sort of forget about being English or being a woman or being white. You're just another creature. You're just a rower. You're just there to do your job, to make a few miles across the ocean each day. I imagine it's almost like being a monk or a nun, where you just have your routine and you do your work. And there's a real freedom to be found in that simplicity.
RAZ: Roz Savage has rowed across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans in a 23-foot boat. Her latest book is called "Stop Drifting, Start Rowing." It's due out in October. You can hear her entire talk at TED.com.
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