Why would a woman in her mid-30s, with no previous record of either adventure or insanity, quit her job, leave her husband and home, and set out to row around the world?
No doubt many of my friends, and most certainly my mother, asked themselves this in 2004 when I announced my intention to row across the Atlantic Ocean. I went on to row across the Pacific from 2008 to 2010 and the Indian Ocean last year, being the first woman to row across each of the three oceans. During my time on the water, the reason for my decision became increasingly clear—I had suffered a double-whammy of revelations that simply made my previous life direction untenable.
First, I realized that my job, although it paid me well, was not making me happy. One day, I sat down and wrote two versions of my own obituary: the one I wanted to have, and the one I was heading for if I carried on my current path. My job was not taking me the way that I wanted to go. It was, in fact, taking me in the opposite direction, toward a life of tedium and obligation rather than one of freedom and fulfillment.
Second, I experienced an environmental epiphany, and developed a burning need to challenge people to think about the way we are treating the planet. Until that point, I had thought of “the environment” as a charitable cause or an issue—something that I could choose whether or not to engage with. But suddenly, I understood that it was inseparable from life itself—something on which our future existence depends. Activism was no longer optional. If I cared about my own health, happiness, and wellbeing, not to mention the continued existence of humanity, I had no choice but to engage.
But at that point in time I was a nobody—just a recovering management consultant, a London city burnout. Not a very compelling platform for launching a campaign of ecological awareness. So, with several years of rowing at university and a yearning for adventure, I took up my oars for the cause, using my ocean rowing adventures as a way to draw attention to my message.
I have since rowed over 15,000 miles, taken around 5 million oarstrokes, and spent over 520 days alone at sea in a 23-foot self-contained rowboat with nothing more than a huge supply of audiobooks and occasional wildlife sightings to keep me entertained. Life on the ocean is hard, with constant drenchings, perpetual discomfort, and endless challenges to my physical and psychological equanimity. Long periods of grinding boredom are interspersed with shorter episodes of abject fear. But the experience has taught me two useful things about fear.
First, fear is not to be feared. I spent much of my life trying to avoid fear by sticking to things that were safe and secure. But then, I became afraid of losing those things. While my sense of security was invested in my job, my husband, and my home, it was a weak and fragile thing that could be taken away from me by a financial crisis or a divorce. Now, my sense of security comes from knowing that I can deal with most things that life—or even an ocean—can throw at me. And I face the future with much more confidence.
Finally, I’ve learned that fear can be trumped by a greater fear—one that enables me to find the motivation and courage to keep going from day to day in the face of pain, frustration, and 20-foot waves. While I might be afraid of the incoming storm, I am even more afraid of what will happen to us collectively if I, and people like me, don’t keep doing all we can to spread awareness.
Many people ask me why I did what I did. They also ask me: Are you crazy? I’ve never figured out quite how to say this without sounding judgmental, but when I look around the so-called “civilized” world ashore—a world in which 1 billion people are starving while another 1 billion are overweight, a world in which single-use objects are made out of indestructible plastics, a world in which we spray herbicides and pesticides and other poisons onto our food and then eat it, a world in which multinational conglomerates take our tap water and put it into plastic bottles and sell it back to us at a thousand times the price—and I can’t help but think that if that represents sanity, then the world needs more people to be a little crazy.
Starting this week, Roz will be rowing with entrepreneur and rower Andrew Morris to the Olympic games in London—from North America. Follow their 2,500 mile journey across the Atlantic on the Olympic Atlantic Row website, or on Roz’s website.
Photos courtesy of Phil Uhl and June Barnard.