A few years back, after 11 years as a London management consultant, Savage sat down and wrote two versions of her own obituary -- one that she was headed for in the life she was leading as a married employed woman living in a big suburban house, and the other for the life of adventure she had always wanted. When she looked at the two hypothetical versions of her life, she quit her job, soon was divorced, and set out on her rowing odyssey.
Savage's first ocean crossing was as a contestant in a 3,000-mile race, a 103-day journey from the Canary Islands across the Atlantic Ocean to Antigua, completely solo. (She rows truly solo, without a chase boat.) This was in 2005, the year of Katrina and a record number of other tropical storms that were generated in the Atlantic. Savage describes the nearly 2,500 hours crossing the Atlantic -- without a roof over her head, working only with the natural forces of weather and sea current, able to rely only on her own muscle power as propulsion, drinking the sea water that had been pumped through a desalinizer, and nobody to talk with but the wind -- as an inward journey, a psychological odyssey. In the process she also had formed a connection with the ocean that was not over yet.
When Savage decided to row across the Pacific, she leveraged the notoriety she had gained to advocate for protection of our oceans that are under assault, a situation that gets much less media exposure than global warming and other environmental crises, perhaps because so many humans do not live near the ocean and are out of touch with the critical role it plays in the health of our whole planet. From 2008 to 2010, Savage became the first woman to row solo across the Pacific, in three legs, after an abortive troubled start that ended in Coast Guard rescuing her against her will. She was a designated 350.org Athlete and wore their t-shirt. Mid-ocean she encountered the crew of the "Junk Raft," a boat made mostly of plastic water bottles that Savage said was built to call attention to "the North Pacific garbage patch, that area in the North Pacific about twice the size of Texas, with an estimated 3.5 million tons of trash in it, circulating at the center of that North Pacific Gyre."
Before the final leg of her Pacific journey, Savage gave a TEDtalk, "Why I'm rowing across the Pacific," to bring awareness to her voyage and to report first-hand on the evidence of plastic poisoning she had encountered in the ocean. Just afterward, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, causing the biggest oil spill in history and at least temporarily calling sharp public awareness to the state of affairs with our pollution of the oceans.
When she completed her Pacific journey, Savage wrote this piece for cnn.com:
In the couple of months since this TEDTalk was recorded, I have rowed 2,000 miles from Kiribati to Papua New Guinea in the third and final stage of my Pacific crossing, becoming the first woman to row solo all the way across the Pacific.
During those two months the ocean has suffered new assaults -- notably the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but also smaller insults, as I have witnessed with my own eyes. On a beautiful calm day, with sunlight glinting off the waves, it is heartbreaking to see a plastic bottle floating on the water. Even thousands of miles from land, the ocean wilderness is no longer pristine.
Mankind's impact is felt everywhere. When I have been alone for a long time at sea -- sometimes over a hundred days without seeing another human -- this evidence of our carelessness is especially jarring. There are times when I feel ashamed to be a human being, and feel obliged to apologize to the small community of fish that congregate beneath my boat for the mess we have made of their home.
And it doesn't impact just the fish. Oceans cover 71 percent of the Earth, and are an integral part of our weather systems, climate control, and food supply. How can we have a healthy planet -- or healthy bodies -- if we don't have healthy oceans?
I row across oceans to inspire people to take action on environmental issues. Something the ocean has taught me is that any challenge, no matter how huge, can be tackled if you break it down into little steps. Crossing the Pacific has taken me about 2.5 million oar strokes. One stroke doesn't get me very far, but you take all those tiny actions and you string them all together and you get across 8,000 miles of ocean. You can achieve almost anything, if you just take it one stroke at a time.
And it's the same with saving the oceans. On a day like Oceans Day, when we feel part of a huge global community, it's easy to believe we can change the world. But there will be other days when maybe we feel alone, and that anything we do as individuals won't really make a difference -- that it's just a drop in the ocean.
But every action counts. We all have it in our power to make a difference. In fact, we're already making a difference -- it's just up to us to decide if it's a good one or a bad one. Every time we say no to a plastic bag or refuse to drink bottled water, it matters.
If I can row 8,000 miles to make a point about the state of our oceans, then you can do your part too. Start by going to http://ecoheroes.me/ and log a single green deed that you are going to do today, Oceans Day, to help save our seas. We have a lot of work to do, but the longest journey starts with a single step -- or oarstroke.