Why Rowing Across the Pacific is Probably Not the Only Amazing Thing You’ve Ever Done

When I was 16, I was working at the New York Boat Show at the Coliseum watching over the 26′ outboard boat with which my dad (with help from my brothers) had crossed the North Atlantic the summer before. Across the aisle were Kathleen and Curtis Saville, a quiet couple, with an infant, watching over their 25′ boat with which they had rowed across the Pacific a year earlier. I remember talking with the Saville’s and learning they had departed from Peru in 1984 and by the time they arrived in Australia a year later, Kathleen was pregnant! They wrote a book about the experience, Pacific Voyage: Rowing 10,000 miles in 392 Days (now out of print). And this wasn’t their first Ocean crossing; in 1981 they had rowed across the Atlantic, making Kathleen the first woman to successfully do so. Today I decided to “google” the couple, and learned that Curtis died in 2001 in the Eastern Desert of Egypt while on a solo desert mountain expedition. Clearly theirs was not an average life.

On the site www.oceanrowing.com, I found this memorial tribute to Curtis Saville:

Curtis’ other expeditions include exploratory mountaineering along the Virginia Glacier on the South East edge of Baffin Island in the High Arctic.  This was part of the Canadian Polar Continental Shelf Project.  In addition, Curtis Saville was a French horn player.  Educated a Juilliard School of Music (B.A.) and Yale University (M.F.A.);  he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in La Paz, Bolivia in the 1960′s and taught music and writing. 

Kathleen and Curtis Saville in 1987

Generally when someone has accomplished a remarkable feat, you’ll find other remarkable achievements along the way. In February of this year, John Fairfax, the first man to row solo across the Atlantic in 1969, died at the age of 74. Fairfax’s obituary in The New York Times reads like an early 20th Century adventure novel.

At 13, in thrall to Tarzan, he ran away from home to live in the jungle. He survived there as a trapper with the aid of local peasants, returning to town periodically to sell the jaguar and ocelot skins he had collected.

He later studied literature and philosophy at a university in Buenos Aires and at 20, despondent over a failed love affair, resolved to kill himself by letting a jaguar attack him. When the planned confrontation ensued, however, reason prevailed — as did the gun he had with him.

In Panama, he met a pirate, applied for a job as a pirate’s apprentice and was taken on. He spent three years smuggling guns, liquor and cigarettes around the world, becoming captain of one of his boss’s boats, work that gave him superb navigational skills.

In Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary film Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog visits McMurdo Station in Antarctica and meets a handful of extraordinary people for whom working in Antarctica is but one adventure they have experienced. When I first saw this film I thought it might have been partially fabricated (how could Antarctica attract so many daredevil poets and amateur philosophers?). But the more I learn about “seeker” personality types, the more I realize that their most publicized feat is usually far from their only one.


    10 Responses to “Why Rowing Across the Pacific is Probably Not the Only Amazing Thing You’ve Ever Done”

    1. JR says:

      I worked boat shows in the 80s in houston, we have something in common!

    2. Kathleen Saville says:

      Hi Andrea, My son Christopher – the infant (now 26!) you mention in your piece – sent me the link to your website. I enjoyed reading about our time at the NY Boat show. I’m still in Egypt and on faculty at the American University in Cairo. I love the book arts and will be checking out the rest of your site for ideas on artist residencies and all. All the best, Kathleen Saville

    3. Andrea says:

      Hello Kathleen, It’s wonderful to hear from you. Your story left a lasting impression on my 16-year-old mind. I’m going to look for a copy of your book, and look forward to meeting you again in the future. Please thank your son for forwarding my mention to you. I bet he is remarkable, too.

      Best wishes,


    4. Arlene says:

      I worked with Curtis Saville back in Rhode Island, before he and Kathleen embarked on their first ocean row. Although the term makes me cringe, Curtis truly was a Renaissance man – an adventurer, a musician, a poet, and a great friend. He was brilliant, tenacious, creative, and incredibly dedicated. I was shocked to read of his death. I’m sure he and Kathleen would have shared many more adventures.

    5. Andrea says:

      Hello Arlene, Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. There are very few people today who have the spirit and sense of adventure you describe, and they are well worth remembering.

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    9. chris scherf says:

      Hi Kathleen, I found the book Pacific Voyage you gave Pat & me in Vermont when your son Chris & our son Chris were toddlers in Derby Line. Now a retired surgeon I read your book avidly. I feel like I’m in the boat & don’t want to get out. It seems like yesterday that we were sharing dinner & talking . Curt taught me navigation & French horn fingerings. It gave me solace after my wife’s passing.

      Kind Regards & Fond Memories Chris Scherf

    10. Hello Chris Scherf!

      I just came across your posting on Andrea’s gentleridevan blog. It would be great to get back in touch. I’m at the American University in Cairo these days.

      Thanks again, Andrea for a fine posting, Kathleen Saville

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