My Transoceanic Midlife Crisis

Savage-nb70-hsmall
After my Atlantic odyssey, I rowed the Pacific. If I make it across the Indian Ocean next month, I'll be the first woman to conquer the Big Three. Phil Uhl

In March 2006, I found myself, at 38, divorced, no kids, no home, and alone in a tiny rowing boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I hadn’t eaten a hot meal in two months. I’d had no human contact for weeks because my satellite phone had stopped working. All four of my oars were broken, patched up with duct tape and splints. I had tendinitis in my shoulders and saltwater sores on my backside.

I couldn’t have been happier.

After 3,000 miles and 103 days at sea, I was about to accomplish my goal of rowing alone across the Atlantic Ocean. I had wanted a challenge that would help me find out just what I was capable of when I put my mind to something. And now all my hard work was about to come to fruition. No doubt many of my friends thought I was suffering an early midlife crisis. If so, I believe that everybody should have one.

I had worked as a management consultant for my entire adult life, despite knowing from the very first day that this was not the career for me. I graduated from Oxford University in 1989. Most of my peers wanted to be consultants or investment bankers; I followed the crowd. The pay was good, and it would do as a stopgap until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.

Eleven years later, I was still in my stopgap, and increasingly unhappy about it. Who I was on the inside didn’t match the besuited management consultant I had, almost inadvertently, become on the outside. Desperate to figure out what I should do, I sat down one day and wrote two versions of my obituary. The first was the one that I wanted, one that read like the obits of risk takers whose lives were filled with spectacular successes and failures. The second version was the obituary that I was heading for—the type you wouldn’t want to read in the paper.

So I pared life down to the basics to find out what really mattered to me, to find out what was left when I was defined by who I was, not by what I owned or who I was with. I was letting go of everything that had represented security—my job, my husband, my home, my possessions.

It was liberating, but I was like a carpenter with a brand-new set of tools and no wood to work on. I needed a project. I tried out less extreme options, such as an organic baking business and planning a motorcycle trip. But none of them seemed quite right.

I knew that a few crazy people rowed across oceans. I had even met one. The idea must have been tucked away somewhere in the back of my mind. One day I was on the long drive north to see my mother and the lightbulb went on. I would row around the world. My first thought was, “That’s perfect!” My second thought was, “That’s impossible!” I spent a week trying to talk myself out of it, but each day I would wake up and think of more reasons why this was the perfect project.

Rowing my first ocean was incredibly tough—and not just physically. The ocean is scary and it’s daunting, and most of the time I wanted to give up. One day I was at my limit of pain and frustration. I was on the satellite phone to my mother, and it was one of only two times that I cried on the Atlantic. “Would you like to give up?” she asked. I thought about it for a moment. I wanted nothing more than to be off this tiny, tippy boat. But I knew that if I quit I would never forgive myself. “No, Mum,” I said. “I’ll stick with it.”

I had realized that the only thing worse than carrying on was to quit. And somehow, eventually, one oar stroke at a time, I made it to the other side.

I went on to become the first woman to row the Pacific solo. Next month, I’ll set out to row the Indian. If successful, I will be the first woman to complete the Big Three. In between, I travel the world as an environmental activist, doing work that I actually care about. I look back to that pivotal moment when I wrote the two obituaries and thank my lucky stars.

Savage is an environmental activist and author of Rowing the Atlantic. She blogs at rozsavage.com.