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Rowing the Atlantic: Lessons Learned on the Open Oceanby Roz Savage
STUCK IN A corporate job rut and faced with an unraveling marriage at the age of thirty-six, Roz Savage sat down one night and wrote two versions of her own obituary -- the one that she wanted and the one she was heading for. They were very different. She realized that if she carried on as she was, she wasn't going to end up with the life she wanted./big>/b>… See more details below
STUCK IN A corporate job rut and faced with an unraveling marriage at the age of thirty-six, Roz Savage sat down one night and wrote two versions of her own obituary -- the one that she wanted and the one she was heading for. They were very different. She realized that if she carried on as she was, she wasn't going to end up with the life she wanted. So she turned her back on an eleven-year career as a management consultant to reinvent herself as a woman of adventure. She invested her life's savings in an ocean rowboat and became the first solo woman ever to enter the Atlantic Rowing Race.
Her 3,000-mile trial by sea became the challenge of a lifetime. Of the twenty-six crews that set out from La Gomera, six capsized or sank and didn't make it to the finish line in Antigua. There were times when she thought she had hit her absolute limit, but alone in the middle of the ocean, she had no choice but to find the strength to carry on.
In Rowing the Atlantic we are brought on board when Savage's dreams of feasts are nourished by yet another freeze-dried meal. When her gloves wear through to her blistered hands. When her headlamp is the only light on a pitch-black night ocean that extends indefinitely in all directions. When, one by one, all four of her oars break. When her satellite communication fails.
Stroke by stroke, Savage discovers there is so much more to life than a fancy sports car and a power-suit job. Flashing back to key moments from her life before rowing, she describes the bolt from the blue that first inspired her to row across oceans and how this crazy idea evolved from a dream into a tendinitis-inducing reality. And finally, Savage discovers in the rough waters of the Atlantic the kind of happiness we all hope to find.
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“A great armchair adventure.”
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WHAT WAS I THINKING?
day two of the Atlantic Rowing Race dawned clear and sunny. I was woken by a beam of sunlight shafting across my eyelids like a searchlight as the boat rocked on the waves. Eventually I had become too exhausted to worry any more and managed to get a couple of hours of sleep during my last rest shift. I took a physical inventory of my body. I was relieved to find that my seasickness had abated slightly, but I had woken up with a worrying ache in my ribs. When I'd been struggling with the watermaker the day before I'd leaned across my knee to reach something and had felt a sudden pain in the side of my ribcage, so I'd probably pulled a muscle. This was a cause for concern -- there would be no recovery time. I had to get back to the oars. But the brightness of the day helped to banish the demons that had haunted the night, and overall I was starting to feel more positive.
My appetite never disappears for long -- more's the pity. I hadn't eaten much the day before and I was hungry so I set about making a breakfast of tea and porridge. Although I had practiced the procedure a number of times on dry land, the prospect of using the camping stove apparatus on the open sea made me anxious. Highly flammable liquid fuel combined with an erratically tipping rowboat seemed a potential recipe for disaster.
I reached into my cabin, undid a couple of latches, and lifted out a section of the floor. Fixed to the underside of this panel was a nine-inch-high stainless-steel cylinder that would act as a windbreak. A camping stove was mounted to the board inside it. A flexible tube led from the camping stove to a pressurized fuel bottle, which was also fixed to the panel. To use the stove I inverted the whole assembly so that the panel formed a base with the cylinder on top, and secured the panel outside in the cockpit using a couple of swivel latches. Peering in through a viewing hole in the side of the metal cylinder, I pumped the plunger into the fuel bottle to create the necessary pressure, turned the valve to allow a teaspoonful of fuel to dribble into the top of the burner, and lit it with a barbecue lighter. Big yellow flames immediately erupted from the stove. This was exactly as it was supposed to work but the flickering flames leaped alarmingly from the top of the protective metal cylinder and I quickly pulled my long hair back out of the way to prevent it from catching fire. When the yellow flames subsided I turned the valve to change the flame from flickering yellow to high-pressure blue so I could start cooking.
I turned the valve too far and the flame went out, starved of fuel.
"Bugger." I swore out loud.
This was not supposed to happen, but even in practice on dry land it had done so with annoying regularity. Now I would have to wait for the apparatus to cool down before I could try again. If I tried it too soon, the residual heat would cause the fuel to evaporate before I had time to light it.
At the second attempt I got the stove fired up and put the kettle on to boil. In just a few minutes it was steaming away and I used an oven cloth to lift it and poured the boiling water into a wide-mouth thermos, over the instant porridge I had already put in there. I gave the mixture a good stir and then put the lid on to allow the porridge to "cook." It was supposed to be cooked over heat while stirring, but a sticky porridge pan was too much trouble to wash up, and I'd found through experimentation that the porridge would absorb the water quite adequately if I left it to sit in the thermos for a while. I put the remainder of the hot water into a larger thermos to be used later for hot drinks and to rehydrate my dinner. After waiting ten minutes I opened up the thermos of porridge and added dried fruit and ground cinnamon and ginger, stirring them into the gooey porridge mixture.
"Mmmm. Yummy." I sat on the deck by the hatch to the aft sleeping cabin, my feet in the footwell, and spooned the hot food into my mouth, relishing the comforting sensation as it warmed my core and restored my blood sugar levels. I immediately started to feel better. I congratulated myself on managing to prepare breakfast without setting fire to either the boat or myself, and decided that maybe the ocean wasn't such a bad place after all. Maybe I could even begin to feel at home here. I needed to start focusing on the positive aspects of my experience, rather than the negative. This one small victory helped restore my sense of self-belief, which had taken such a knocking the night before. As I ate I looked out across the waves, sparkling in the morning sunlight. I wondered where the other crews were, and how they had fared during their first night at sea.
I looked over at the Argos locator beacon, blinking its red light in the corner of the cockpit behind my rowing position. It was sending a message from my boat that would bounce off a network of satellites orbiting the earth to a central control center in France. Each of the boats in the race had been equipped with one of these, so the race organizers and anybody checking the race website would be able to see the latitude and longitude of every crew. I knew that Mum would be anxiously watching the little purple blob that represented Sedna and me, as we edged our way slowly across the online map of the Atlantic. It made me feel irrationally safer to know that she was watching over me. I made believe that the red blinking light of the Argos was beaming a slender umbilical cord through the ether, from me to my mother, and found the thought reassuring.
I scraped the last of the porridge out of the thermos, savoring every last dollop, washed up using a little hot water from the large thermos, and returned the camping stove to its stowed position inside the cabin. I was just about to start my day's rowing when I spotted a white sail wending its way across the waves toward me. As the sail came closer I could see it was attached to a vessel -- the support yacht Aurora.
I had not seen the yacht, nor indeed any of the rowboats, since they had disappeared into the distance while I was struggling with the watermaker. During my preparations for the row some people had seemed disappointed to hear that I would be a competitor in a race, rather than going totally solo. They seemed to imagine that I would be in a little flotilla of boats rowing together across the Atlantic, chatting and laughing and comparing notes at the end of each day. There was also a misconception that the support yachts would be constantly on hand to provide tea, sympathy, and homecooked food. The truth was that I would be very unlikely to see any of the other competitors, and the support yachts would be there for me only if I chose to contact them, and even then they could be up to a week away. But I did not plan to make contact, for I was afraid that if I started an ongoing dialogue with them I would fail in one of the key tasks I had set myself: to assert my independence and self-sufficiency, and to find out what I could do when cast entirely on my own means.
I had spent most of my life relying on other people for support -- my parents, teachers, boyfriends, and my husband -- and now I wanted to find out if I was strong enough and resourceful enough to survive alone. I was tired of having to rely on other people, for a few disappointments had taught me that I could truly rely on nobody but myself. Within the last couple of years I had some grand schemes that had depended on other people to provide something -- the financing for a coffee shop, a boat for a trip around the world, the premises for a baking business -- and in every case the plans had fallen apart. It had been nobody's fault, but circumstances change, as do people's priorities, and each of these promises of support had failed to materialize. More recently, the drive to raise corporate sponsorship for my row had been one letdown after another -- promises implied, only to be told, "Sorry, we've had budget cuts," or "There's been a change of strategy." As for men, in no other area of my life was it more true that hope had given way to disappointment. In my headlong, headstrong way I had tended to throw myself wholeheartedly into relationships, with giddy expectations unfounded in reality, only to suffer disillusionment and pain when the honeymoon period ended and the violins of romance trailed off into discord and then embarrassed silence.
My lifelong tendency to rely on others meant that my repertoire of practical skills was sadly limited, and although I suspected that I was capable of more than I imagined, in ordinary life the temptation to take the easy option and ask for help was too much for me to resist. The only way that I could resist the temptation was to remove myself from it -- so one of the reasons that rowing the Atlantic had appealed was that it would be the perfect way to effectively cut myself off from any hope of assistance. I would be forced to fend for myself. A blunt-speaking Australian oar maker had summed it up when we had been talking at Henley Regatta the summer before. "You women," he'd said. "I know what you're like. You flutter your eyelashes and you get someone else to do the dirty work for you. You're going to have to stop fluttering the eyelashes and start doing things for yourself if you're going to survive out there on the ocean."
So this was my goal: if I could get myself from the Canaries to Antigua, alone and unsupported, I would have passed my selfimposed test of self-sufficiency. This meant that I felt very protective about my solitude, and did not welcome intrusions. The less contact I had with the outside world, the better -- I did not want to be tempted into relying on anyone else for support. For better or worse, right or wrong, this was my adventure and I would do it my way.
The sleek white craft pulled alongside and the skipper, Lin arker, called me on the VHF radio to ask how I was doing. The truth was that after my hearty breakfast I was once again feeling nauseous from the motion of the boat, and the discomfort in my ribs was bothering me, but I assured Lin I was doing just fine. I didn't want them fussing over me.
I asked for an update on the other competitors. I wanted to know how my progress compared with theirs. "You're not coming last, but most of the crews are ahead of you," Lin told me. "You're doing just fine, especially as you're the only solo woman."
But I wanted to do better than "just fine." I wanted to be a contender.
"You need to row more hours in the day," declared Mr. Competitive, smugly. "I know," I shot back, through gritted teeth. "But my ribs hurt and I feel seasick, so it will just have to wait until I feel better. There are still plenty of miles ahead for me to catch up with the rest, so there's no need to panic." Mr. Competitive gave me a superior, you-know-I'm-right kind of a look.
After five or so minutes of chatting with Lin on the VHF radio, I was getting impatient to get on with rowing, so I signed off. The Aurora turned to allow the wind to fill her sails and took off with enviable speed to visit the other crews ahead of me.
I returned to my rowing seat and took up the oars once more. Slide, dip, draw, finish. Slide, dip, draw, finish. Stroke after stroke after stroke. Stop for a drink of water every fifteen minutes. Stop for a five-minute snack break every hour. Stop for a longer rest every three hours.
I had worked hard to train my muscles for this, but despite the rigorous training program of the last fourteen months my body already seemed to be cracking under the pressure. As well as the persistent pain in my ribs, I was developing an ominous grinding pain in my shoulders that I knew from my Oxford rowing days indicated the onset of tendinitis, an inflammation of the tendons that should be treated with rest and the regular application of ice. Neither rest nor ice were options right now. I winced with every stroke, as the pain between my shoulder blades increased as the day wore on.
I felt indignant. This was not fair! I had, as far as I knew, trained longer and harder than any other ocean rower ever had. I had built up a solid base of fitness by training for between one and four hours a day -- lifting weights, running, and training on a rowing machine -- until my schedule eventually peaked with weekly sixteen-hour rowing sessions, split into four shifts of four hours. I would start at noon on a Sunday and finish around dawn on Monday morning. These sessions had been tough. Physically, my lower back would be aching and my body protesting that it wanted sleep. Psychologically, I fought boredom and mental fatigue, training my mind to entertain itself while my body rowed on through the night. I passed the time listening to music and visualizing what life would be like on the ocean. At last the sixteen hours of rowing would draw to an end and I would collapse gratefully off the rowing machine, drained and sweating, but proud of my perseverance and growing in confidence that I could rise to the physical challenge of rowing an ocean.
But now I was starting to wonder if all those hours spent in training had been a waste of time. The whole point had been to prepare my body for this kind of punishing rowing schedule, but the movement on the rowing machine had been comfortable, regular, forward and backward, which was ideal for rowers intending to compete on smooth waters but was poor preparation for the ocean. Out here the water was choppy, the boat tipped from side to side, and my oars rarely made a solid connection with the water -- or at least not simultaneously. It seemed that my eight years of rowing experience would be of little use to me now. On the flat, calm rivers where I had spent most of my rowing career, I had been able to compensate for my lack of size by rowing with a sharp, precise technique that moved the boat efficiently through the water. In response to the rough water and large, heavy boat, I was now developing an odd, syncopated rowing rhythm. My rowing coaches would not have been proud. Ideally I would have done more of my training in the boat, rather than on the rowing machine, but the boat had not been ready in time. "If only, if only," I thought regretfully.
As the second day of the Atlantic Rowing Race passed slowly, the seas rose, pounding the oars and sending shock waves traveling up the shaft to my shoulders, until they felt as if I was taking a beating in the boxing ring rather than rowing an ocean. I also found that I was unable to row at full slide as I had done on the rowing machine. In a rowboat the shoes are fixed to a plate so that the rower's feet stay in one place while the rowing seat slides back and forth. This allows the rower to exploit the power of the large quad muscles in their legs as well as the smaller muscles of their upper body. But I was finding that the rougher the water, the less of the slide I could use, so most of the power of the stroke was coming from my relatively weak arms and shoulders rather than my stronger, fitter thigh muscles.
I had believed that with my fitness, determination, and sleek new carbon fiber boat, I might succeed in my objective of not coming in last -- but my strategy hinged on spending sixteen hours per day at the oars. This goal was undoubtedly ambitious. Most of the competing crews were pairs, and would row in alternating shifts of two hours on, two hours off, making a total of twelve hours apiece in any twenty-four-hour period. I was intending to row a third as much again -- on my own.
As I thought about the pairs, just for the briefest of moments I wished I had a crewmate sharing this experience. I wanted to ask, "Am I doing this right? Is it really meant to be this hard?" Having a partner would have had another advantage, too -- as a solo rower, while I was sleeping my boat would just drift with the wind and the current, whereas the crews of two or more would always have someone awake and rowing, keeping the boat moving faster and in the right direction. But almost as quickly as those thoughts came, I banished them from my mind. I had good reasons to be doing this alone, and I had to accept that with the advantages would also come some disadvantages.
But no sooner had I banished the negativity from my mind than it surged back again. Could I really do this? In the bustle of preparation there had been no time to stop and ponder this question. All my energy had been focused on getting to the start line, which many people had told me was the hardest part. It had undeniably been challenging, but it had been mostly within my comfort zone. The skills involved were fund raising, training, and project management -- all of which I had done before. The actual act of rowing an ocean, on the other hand, was totally new to me. The fact that I had eight years of rowing experience behind me had given me the happy delusion that I was qualified to take on this challenge, but rowing on the River Thames and rowing on the ocean were proving to be as different as climbing the stairs and climbing Mount Everest.
The enormity of the task ahead was starting to dawn on me, and it was not a comfortable feeling. Self-doubt overwhelmed me. What on earth had possessed me to take on this challenge? I must have been crazy. And I had nobody but myself to blame.
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