In the 107 days that Brit Roz Savage has been at sea since leaving the coast of western Australia on April 30—attempting to row across the width of the Indian Ocean, solo—much has changed in the world: Osama Bin Laden took his last breath, Michelle Bachman officially became presidential fodder, Tim DeChristopher was still a free man and, in her home country, James Murdoch still expected to one day run the family business.
All that time, Roz has been afloat aboard her purple, 23-foot carbon-and-fiberglass rowboat, the Sedna Solo, enduring both the doldrums and 35-foot swells. By her own estimate, she’s only halfway home (her hoped-for landing point is still being kept secret, mostly to avoid curious pirates prowling the Indian Ocean). On day 106 she blogged that this is now officially the longest she’s been at sea (four previous adventures have taken her by oar across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans). Her previous longest was in 2009, when it took her 104 days to row from Hawaii to Kiribati.
Roz has managed to stay (mostly) upright in the past nearly four months and headed in essentially the right direction—winds and currents don’t always agree with her own hopes and plans—but there have been highs and lows. While keeping the electrical system alive—which allows her to recharge batteries for everything from the water maker to her satellite phone, laptop and iPhone—the constant wetness puts it continuously at risk. Without electricity, and the ability to blog or call her mother in England, she would be out there even more alone.
Some excerpts from Roz’s daily blog:
Day 17 (May 20): “Riding out a bout of thirty-plus knot winds might sound like a dangerously exciting, adrenaline-packed experience, but take it from me, it’s actually not. Or not on a rowboat, anyway.
“I am still convinced that my wind gauge underestimates the wind speed. Today it registered 20 knots, but I reckon it was 30 at least. This gauge is a Silva. Has anybody found a really good handheld gauge that you would recommend?
“With these kind of wind and waves running against me, all I can do is stick out the sea anchor and retreat to the Purple Palace and wait for things to improve, while watching my little icon on the GPS go somewhere I don’t want it to go. So I mostly leave the GPS turned off, as there’s nothing to be done about it until the wind shifts and/or subsides, and there’s no point in depressing myself.
“Today has been quite pleasantly lazy, which makes a nice change. Somebody once said, “One of life’s great pleasures is to be a little bit ill”, meaning that kind of mild illness when you really have no choice but to lie on the sofa all day. You’re ill enough to justify it, but still well enough to enjoy it. Riding out a storm on the sea anchor is much the same. Guilt-free indolence and a good chance to let my body recover. The main difference is that this particular ‘sofa’ has a nasty habit of lurching around somewhat violently.”
Day 54 (June 26): “I had a little star struck moment today, which boosted crew morale considerably. I had called Mum, as she’d texted to say that my transponder hadn’t updated my position for a few hours, and I wanted to reassure her that I was okay and to find out if it had started working again.
“We didn’t have a very good connection on the sat phone, so I was sure I must have misheard when Mum said that Anna Nicole Smith had posted a comment on my blog. This would have been very surprising, as a) I couldn’t imagine why a curvaceous starlet with a penchant for very rich, very old men, would be reading my blog, and b) she’s dead.
“So it made a lot more sense, although almost equally surprising, when Mum repeated the name: Alexander McCall Smith, author of Corduroy Mansions, the book that proved so wonderfully enjoyable and therapeutic after my trauma with the boat’s defective electrical system a few days ago. It is one of those books that is as comforting as a pair of old slippers, or, indeed, Belgian shoes (you’d have to read the book to understand that reference). The characters bore strong resemblances to people I know in real life, and the book mentioned one of my favourite London restaurants, La Poule Au Pot. It was all reassuringly familiar.”
Day 85: Barnacling (Photo: rozsavage.com)
Day 85 (July 28): “The trying times continue. I have now been stuck on the same small patch of ocean for the last 5 days. I advance a bit, the current pushes me back. I push again, the current pushes me back again. Repeat ad nauseam. I could use a good stiff breeze to help get me out of here. It will arrive eventually. But I don’t yet know when.
“Meanwhile, I decided that if today was not going to be a good day for miles, maybe it could be a good day in some other ways. I donned facemask and snorkel and hopped overboard to scrub barnacles.
“It didn’t really need doing, in truth. The rudder had a few outcrops of goosenecks, and there was a row of them along the chine (the pointy ridge that runs the length of the boat’s bottom), but other than that the hull was miraculously barnacle-free.
“Having got all salty during my dip, it seemed a good time to finally wash my hair. For the first time in nearly three months.”
Day 96 (August 5): “Three months. Phewee. It’s really quite a long time. If someone drew a boat-shaped outline on the floor, 23 feet by 6, and told you that you weren’t allowed outside it, nor was anybody else allowed inside it, for three months, it would sound a bit like—well, like solitary confinement. Then stick a rowing machine in the middle of it, and you’ve got solitary confinement with hard labour.
“The food is probably better than in prison (I’m guessing here, never having been in prison myself) but there’s nobody to serve it to me. This is a self-catering cell. The upside is that there is no jailer ordering me around, telling me what to do and when. Only my own conscience.
“As to whether this gives me a sense of freedom—I suppose that is up to me. I can look on it as “here I am, confined to this tiny boat for months at a time”, or I can take the positive view: “look at this huge sky, and this vast ocean, and nobody to get in the way of my view—wow!”
Day 105 (August 16): “A super-quick blog as this is the roughest day yet and I don’t want to keep the laptop out of its case for a moment longer than necessary. I’m temporarily quite grateful for the flooded lockers, as the extra ballast has, I’m sure, saved me from several knockdowns today. There have been too many close calls for comfort. There seems to be a temporary lull (relatively speaking—only 30 knots instead of 35) so I’ll make the most of it.
“I rowed for a little while this morning, but as well as high winds, it has been raining much of the day, and having raindrops flying at you at 35 mph is no joke. So I have spent most of the day confined to the cabin, doing just about everything one can do while strapped to a bunk on a small rowboat.
“I have read my one hardcopy book— “Perseverance” by Margaret Wheatley— from cover to cover. I have played Bejewelled 2 on my iPhone until I couldn’t stand any more. I have explored every app on my iPhone that will work without an Internet connection or mobile phone signal.
“And I have listened to the wind roar around my boat, and the waves slam into the side of the hull, and the rain rattle on the roof. Each time there is a near-knockdown my stomach clenches and I get that goosebumpy feeling that you get if you trip and nearly fall, or have a near miss in your car. The cabin is damp and stuffy, and I feel grimy and sticky. I can’t say it’s the most fun-filled 24 hours I’ve had in my life.
“According to the forecast, only about another 18 hours of this before the conditions start to abate slightly, and by the 18th I should be able to open up the cabin for airing, pump out the lockers, and get some fresh air into my lungs. Until then, I am counting the hours….”
(For the rest of my dispatches go to takepart.com)
“Rescue crews rush to aid naked Irish solo adventurer.”
The headline was too horrid on so many fronts to pass up.
It turns out 29-year-old Irishman Keith Whelan, attempting to become the first of his nation to row solo across the Indian Ocean—despite having little rowing experience, just naked ambition and a Twitter account—had been slapped by a big wave 128 miles off the coast of Australia and cracked his head on a protruding bolt. After calling for help, a cargo ship, the Fujisuka—having nothing better to do—diverted course, picked him up, and delivered him back to shore at Bunbury, where he held . . . drum roll . . . a press conference.
Photo: Ho New/Reuters
How do we know all of this? Thanks to his constant tweeting and blogging and the 24/7 reach of the global media.
Before we go any further with the story of this faux adventure, why, oh why, did he opt to row naked? According to his website, it was “to avoid painful chafing from salt-encrusted clothing.” (“Having gotten into a rowing boat for the first time only a year or so beforehand, he will spend 110 days alone at sea, facing 50-foot swells, hurricane-force winds and unrelenting sunshine . . . and he’ll be naked.”)
Not to mention the attention the word naked still garners in headlines, Twitter feeds, and Google searches.
I’m not suggesting the guy shouldn’t be able to define adventure in his own terms. With most corners of the world already explored in every imaginable fashion, those who seek adventure today are forced to find new ways of doing so. People have walked up Mount Everest on behalf of every imaginable disease, attempted long walks, long rows, long sails, etc., going forwards, backwards, sideways, and upside down in efforts to draw attention to their pursuits. Whelan is hardly the first to use showmanship in support of a worthy cause to rationalize his effort. (His charity is Keep A Child Alive, for which to date he’s raised about $700 . . . out of a hoped-for $15,000.)
But there is something missing, something lackluster, about much of the “adventuring” we’re seeing in the early years of the 21st century. Rather than truly fulfilling lifelong dreams or accomplishing something brand-new (Ed Stafford’s walking the length of the Amazon stands out as a good example of a truly audacious, smart adventure) it seems all you need today is an attention-grabbing moniker, a sat phone for delivering constant updates to your blog, a charitable cause, some kind of “first” (will climbing Everest naked be next for Whelan?), a contact for “media requests,” and—succeed or fail—a now-mandatory press conference.
I’m not suggesting we go back to the days when Robert Falcon Scott and team froze to death 10 miles from a depot (texting might have actually helped keep them alive), or when the best rationale climbers could come up with for risking their lives on Himalayan peaks was “because it’s there,” but it seems there are more and more inexperienced people launching adventures these days and getting sizable attention most often for their ineptitude, thanks to the instant reach of social media.
According to his tweets, Whelan is back on shore (after a “tough day, very long” aboard the cargo ship) and “up for trying the 3,600-mile solo row again.”
Given the way this adventure started for the lad, I’d advise the “freelance events manager” from County Kildare consider a year off for further planning.
Even before being rescued, his Indian Ocean attempt suffered a variety of setbacks, beginning with severe seasickness. On May 11 he ran into trouble soon after launching and had to be rescued by a passing fishing boat, which towed him to a nearby island. After setting out again, he blogged that he was back on the mainland because strong winds and bad weather had blown him off course. Ready to depart one more time, he was alerted—by his Australian host, since he apparently hadn’t noticed himself—that the boat’s rudder was badly damaged and needed serious repair.
Before starting this misadventure, this is how Whelan explained his motivation on his website: “I am a risk taker, and risking your life to achieve a dream is the biggest risk you can take. Some might say it’s foolish, but to my mind it is only foolish if you don’t know the risks and you don’t prepare for them and train for every possible scenario.”
My question is, did he really understand the risks and was he prepared for “every possible scenario?” Or was he just being foolish?
Whelan is not the only soloist attempting to cross the Indian Ocean this season; my friend Roz Savage—who at the very least has earned her headlines by previously having rowed across the Atlantic and Pacific—is now 38 days out.
Her daily blogs often tend to focus as much on the high-tech side of modern-day adventuring—whether its her failing GPS, trickiness downloading emails, or disconnected sat phones calls “with Mum”—as the ocean world around her (the daily repetitiveness of which can, I’m sure, get very boring to post about).
Reading posts from the middle of the ocean by these modern-day adventurists makes me wonder what 140 character missives Thor Heyerdahl would have sent back from the balsa wood raft Kon Tiki in the 1940s.
“Another yellowfin committed suicide by throwing itself aboard; Bengt keeping the three of us up with incessant snoring”
(For the rest of my dispatches, go to takepart.com)
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the ill-advised risks private boats take by venturing into pirate-heavy parts of the Indian Ocean. Every new killing and hostage-taking puts more people at risk, and not for reasons of national security or economic necessity. It’s a big world … why not stay out of “the most dangerous waters on the planet,” unless sailing them is absolutely necessary?
A quick response came from my friend Roz Savage, who is about to set off by 21-foot rowboat to cross a section of … the Indian Ocean. This is the fourth leg—out of five—of a seven-year adventure that will take Savage around the globe solo and self-propelled.
“The pirates are ranging up to 1,300 miles from the Somali coast, which covers a large swath of the Indian Ocean, but by no means all of it,” she wrote. “About 75 percent of the Indian Ocean is as yet untouched by piracy. I am all in favour of mitigating the risks involved in adventuring, but we need to get the right balance between sensible caution and over-reaction. These opportunistic pirates are already causing enough trouble. Let’s not give them more power than they merit.”
Fair point. But when Savage departs from Freemantle, Australia, Tuesday, April 12, her destination will be kept hush-hush, out of respect for the pirates.
Initially, her goal was to cross the entirety of the Indian Ocean, east to west, landing somewhere along the coast of Africa. To avoid ramped-up pirate activity, the end-point was switched to Mumbai. Now, she won’t say where she’s intending to make port. Unlike previous rows, global satellite tracking will not be posting daily locations at her website.
Here’s what she wrote to me a week ago: “I had an interesting meeting with the Australian maritime authorities yesterday. A pirate attack was reported further out into the Indian Ocean, closer to their territory, just a day or so ago. So you are quite right to urge caution.
“I just hope that NOT having a big white sail advertising my presence will stand me in good stead….”
To date, the former management consultant has covered about 11,000 miles of ocean by oar, crossing the Atlantic in 2005-2006 in 103 days, then across the Pacific in two stints (San Francisco to Hawaii in 99 days and Hawaii to Kiribati in 104 days) Once successful across part of the Indian Ocean, the final leg—New York City to London—is scheduled for 2012.
Some highlights from recent Q&As with Roz as she prepared her boat, the Sedna, in Freemantle:
What fuels you when you’re all alone out on a big ocean with just your boat and oars?
I can’t lie—I find it very challenging being out on the ocean. It’s not my natural habitat. It has its moments of beauty—the stars, the sea creatures, the sunrises and sunsets, and of course the moments of accomplishment—but generally it’s uncomfortable at best, and terrifying at worst.
But the ocean has been an incredible teacher. I’ve discovered resources within myself I never would have known existed if I hadn’t taken this leap of faith.
What is the single strongest lesson the open ocean offers an individual soul?
I am all too aware that I get no special privileges just because I am a human. Out there, I am just another animal, and subject to the laws of nature.
When I was rowing my first ocean, the Atlantic, I kept wondering why it was being so mean to me. I was (I thought) a good person doing the right thing for the right reasons. So why was it making my life so difficult? That year, 2005, was officially the worst year ever for weather in the Atlantic, including Hurricane Katrina. In the rough conditions, all four of my oars broke, I got tendinitis in my shoulders, and the 103 days of the crossing were mostly uncomfortable, and sometimes downright dangerous.
Ultimately, I learned not to take it personally. Nature does not make moral judgments—on me individually or on all of us collectively. Our continued existence as a species does not depend on whether we “deserve” to survive in a moral sense, but rather a practical, scientific sense. Given what we have done to our only planet, is human life sustainable in the long term? Time will tell, but big brains and opposing thumbs won’t help us much if we have poisoned our ecosphere beyond what our bodies can adapt to.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)