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A Young Wavemaker: Katie Spotz Makes Change on the High Seas

6 April 2010 5 Comments

We can do far more than we believe we can. We’ve all heard this before. But let me tell you, hearing it from a 22-year old woman who just rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean gives the sentiment a whole new meaning.

Katia Spotz and her rowboat, Liv. Together they set a world record by rowing across the Atlantic Ocean.

This week I had the opportunity to talk with Katie Spotz, who is adjusting to life back on land after singlehandedly rowing 2,817 miles (4633.5 kilometers) on open ocean waters to raise funds for 2,600 people to access safe drinking water.  The sheer details of her feat inspire awe.

On January 3, Katie set off from Dakar, Senegal in a 19 foot rowboat – affectionately referred to as Liv – with half a million calories to sustain her body, a slew of navigational and communication equipment to keep her on track, and audio entertainment to comfort her during the difficult moments. Everything on the boat was solar-powered, including the water desalinator she used to produce drinking water. For 10 hours a day Katie was harnessed to the boat, rowing. At 8 each night she climbed into a watertight, coffin-like cabin six feet long and three feet wide to sleep. There was no support boat trailing her; Katie was absolutely alone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. On March 17, a total of 70 days, 5 hours and 22 minutes after she departed, Katie landed in Guyana, South America. With much fanfare, she assumed the title of youngest person to ever row solo across an ocean.

Even Katie didn’t realize that any of this was humanly possible three years ago.

Before she traveled to Melbourne, Australia as an environmental studies student Katie didn’t know that rowing oceans was something people did. She also wasn’t aware that over 1 billion people in the world don’t have access to safe drinking water. Katie was immediately captivated by the fact that oil wars will soon be a thing of the past only to be replaced by water wars and that if we continue on our current trajectory 50% of the world’s population will lack water by 2050. Wherever you are in the world, water is no small deal.

Katie explained, “Just finding out about this sparked something in me. It didn’t feel right to me that so many people were without something as basic as water. It just made sense that everyone should have clean water.”

So what did Katie do with this newfound knowledge? Unlike many of us who may care deeply about a cause yet are held back by a nagging sense of “what can I possibly do to make a difference,” Katie let an uninhibited sense of curiosity and compassion guide her. Simultaneously she researched what kind of people are ocean rowers and what it would take for more people to access clean water. Katie learned from Blue Planet Run that it takes as little as $30 to provide one person with access to clean drinking water for a lifetime. The technology and solutions exist to do this; it is the funding that is lacking.

And with that Katie had a plan – she would row across the Atlantic Ocean to raise awareness and funds on behalf of Blue Planet Run.

What struck me most as I was talking with Katie were her candidness, compassion and humility. She spoke as if rowing the ocean was an obvious endeavor — not entirely different than volunteering daily at a food shelter or running a marathon. The importance wasn’t in what she accomplished but that it was both personally challenging and helped other people.

Katie isn’t new either to endurance challenges or to doing them for what she refers to as a “higher purpose.”  Her first endurance challenge was a marathon at the age of 18. According to Katie before that she was “more or less a bench warmer.” Once she had proven to herself that she could run a marathon Katie was ripe with curiosity about what else she could do. The Big Ride Across America, a seven-week, 3,300-mile ride from Seattle to Washington D.C. to raise funds and awareness for the American Lung Association, soon became her next challenge.

“When I found it I knew it was the thing for me to do. My grandmother had passed away from lung disease a few years prior to that so it was really a perfect match. I wanted to do something in honor of her. Together we raised over $250,000 for the American Lung Association. That is where I started using endurance to raise awareness for causes. From then on I found it so much more fulfilling to be able to help via these challenges.”

Katie confided in me that contrary to what many people think most of the growing she has experienced occurred before she put her boat in water. She described the difficulty of confronting an initial lack of support from her family and friends and “that self-doubt that comes with taking on a challenge that is bigger than yourself.”

Blue Planet Run Community Solutions

So, it’s not that Katie is immune to a nagging sense of doubt. It’s that she doesn’t let it stop her.

Read below to find more of Katie’s inspiring and heartfelt thoughts. Her strength and endurance have inspired millions. She is living proof that one ordinary person, you or I, can have an impact.

A: What has it been like for you since coming back?

K: People have asked me if the last few days I was just so excited to be close to land but the last few days were kind of tough on me because I was holding on to the sea. I was holding on to the simplicity. Those final few days were difficult because I knew it was ending. The first week back everything was really overwhelming and exciting, almost like I was seeing everything for the first time again. Sleep never felt better and food never tasted better. (chuckles) Right now I think I’m starting to move to the “what next” phase and looking at my options.

A: When you were at sea, were there particular times in a day that you found most challenging?

K: Mornings! They were absolutely the most difficult. In the morning… well, I didn’t really sleep well because I would be waking up every time I was hit by a wave or to let some fresh air in. So mornings were really difficult.

Self-potrait of Katie in the Atlantic Ocean

A: Was there anything specific you did to get yourself past that early morning hurdle?

K: (Chuckles) Well… the motivation to continue and to get up and get going was usually pretty easy in that there wasn’t anything else to do in the rowboat. I could stare at a wall inside the cabin for a few months – it would take at least six months to get across if I did that – or I could get out there and get rowing.

I kind of sought a challenge like this. A challenge where I had no option but to overcome it. I did have a device that was basically like a help button and would relay an SOS if I needed it but I was really determined to fulfill this mission of rowing solo across the Atlantic for safe drinking water. I enjoyed that attitude of needing to overcome no matter what.

A: I read that one of the things you listened to while you were at sea was Zen meditation audio tapes?

K: There is meditation teacher called Cheri Huber who has her own center in California. I was doing a retreat and ran across one of her books, so I just emailed her and said “I appreciate your work.” She sent me about 30 of her audio books for the adventure. I would listen to those sometimes. I would listen to music, to comedians. There was a wide range. I actually had more audio entertainment than I needed but it certainly helped me get through.

Living on a row-boat things are constantly changing. In the matter of a day I could feel completely exhausted and then by theend of the day I could feel like I have endless amounts of energy. My moods, my feelings, everything, was always changing out there.

A: At any point did you just feel like “I just can’t do this anymore.”

I definitely had several moments when I didn’t know if I had the strength to continue and go on. I don’t think I lost the overall vision or overall goal. Sometimes I was just so completely exhausted. As if rowing for 10 hours wasn’t difficult enough, doing so on very little sleep definitely played on my emotions. And there were other times that I would call home or call some of my best friends and when I would hang up I would be overwhelmed with a bit of sadness to just realize that I was without them and faced with this massive challenge on my own.

A: Did knowing that you were doing this for a cause motivate you while you were out in the middle of the ocean?

K: It really depended. Before embarking on this it was really important to me that this needed to serve a higher purpose and so tuning into that – remembering that it’s not just about me – while in the ocean was helpful. But there were other moments when I was so consumed with the challenge that to even think about what’s going to happen tomorrow or what’s happening beyond the boat was really limiting … something about it, if I thought too far or too wide it might be overwhelming, so I did need to just tune into the moment.

A: What are the lessons you took away from the experience?

K: I’ve definitely learned to be a bit more patient. Everything moves slowly out there. And I’m in an environment where I don’t have much control over the weather or even my equipment. So I definitely had to be a bit more open and accepting of the conditions. I think being open, accepting, and patient are what really got me across.

A: If people are to walk away with one impression from your story what do you want them to take away?

K: I guess there are two things. One would be that sometimes people are held back by what they think is possible. I think it is important to question that and to challenge that. And I think most people will be surprised by how far they can go.

Another thing is about water. One of the biggest things that attracted me to Blue Planet Run is that they are able to provide one person access to safe drinking water for life for as little as $30. For my row I am promoting that for every mile – it was a total of 2,817 miles – one person makes a $30 donation. I am almost there.

*     *     *

Help Katie reach her goal of $84,510 by clicking here! And be sure to check out Katie’s blog at She promises to keep us updated about her next adventure – which she plans to be on by next year. Personally, I can’t wait to see what else this young woman gets up to and how she continues to inspire others.

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5 Comments to “A Young Wavemaker: Katie Spotz Makes Change on the High Seas”
  1. Lauren says:

    Wow! This is such an inspiring story. I love the concept of “using endurance to raise awareness”. Thank you for sharing this great interview.

  2. Jacki Wilson says:

    Amazing story!I am forwarding it to my daughter, who is 12 but would aspire to follow Katie’s “strokes”. I am also pleased you look at peace as life together on a shared planet…Thanks!

  3. Liora says:

    Womens eNews even added this article to their Breaking News section. Great job Alicia, and thanks to Katie for her story that continues to inspire others.

    I have to hold back the tears when I read this.

    PEACE AND ENDURANCE- my new personal slogan.

  4. Betty says:

    What a great article–you really did a great job of digging into what Katie took away from this exciting adventure–thanks for sharing!

  5. [...] exponential impact an individual can have on the world. Check out the article in its entirety at Spotz is just one of the many women, pushing their limits and challenging the odds, who are [...]

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