Roz Savage Crosses Indian Ocean, One Stroke at a Time

Months at sea in a tiny purple rowboat.

Roz at the start of her amazing journey, in her boat, 'Sedna Solo.' (Photo: Colin Leonhardt/rozsavage.com)
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

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.

(Photo: rozsavage.com)

“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….”

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