Colorado's Tez Steinberg Launches Mission to Save Ocean from Plastics | Westword


Testing the Waters: For Tez Steinberg, No Ocean Is Too Big to Cross for a Cause

The Nederland resident plans to start his 5,000-mile solo row tomorrow to raise awareness — and funds — to combat the effects of climate change.
Terrance "Tez" Steinberg is a man on a mission.
Terrance "Tez" Steinberg is a man on a mission.
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In 2009, after Terence (Tez) Steinberg graduated from the Adriatic International School in Montenegro, he fell into a depression so pervasive he didn’t want to go outside. He wasn’t in despair for personal reasons, but political ones. After having recently moved to Minnesota, he’d been learning about America’s colonization and historical mistreatment of Native Americans, and it left him deeply disturbed.

“What’s my responsibility for this?” he asked himself. “What can I do to make a difference?”

One day a friend encouraged him to start running to overcome his mental and emotional struggles. He took up the suggestion — you could say that he had a lot of pent-up energy. He entered a mini-marathon and then began competing in long-distance races in a way that would have shamed Forrest Gump. During the next fourteen years, Steinberg completed 46 full marathons, two Ironman Triathlons with top-five finishes, and an ultra-marathon in which he ran 145 miles nonstop. For his first Ironman, he raised $8,000 and donated it to the Minneapolis American Indian Center.

He also cycled solo across the United Kingdom and Ireland, and finished a Nordic ski marathon after only a dozen practice sessions. With each endeavor, he was discovering how to “turn pain into peak performance” and creating what he calls “endurance art.”

He’d need plenty of endurance in the future.

The more endorphins he released, the more his mental achievements expanded. He became a fellow at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and was among the youngest people ever invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In 2014, the Forum named him one of the “50 best young minds” on Earth, and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, endorsed him.

Tez moved to England to earn his MBA at the London Business School. He was setting larger goals when, in 2016, his father committed suicide. Tez was 29, and the death brought him to a halt.

To process his loss and grief, he needed to make changes within and without — and to confront how to live the rest of his life.

“I wanted to do something positive for society,” he says, “which came from how I grew up. When I was young, we didn’t have a lot. My father was a baker and my mom cleaned houses and was a bartender. I was raised with a conscience for helping others and did volunteer work as a teenager. My biggest fear is not making full use of being here.”
click to enlarge man in suit talking in front of screen
Terrance Steinberg shares life lessons in his “Tez Talks.”
By 2017, he'd finished his MBA in London and decided to move to Boulder, where he'd lived briefly in 2006. He liked the feel of the city, with its emphasis on health, exercise and environmental awareness and its proximity to the mountains. Following his father’s suicide, he didn’t want to be just physically healthy, but to work on his inner life. He'd eventually join a men’s group, while developing a very conscious identity/philosophy around how to interpret the things that happened to him or those close to him. When he talks about creating endurance art, made from discipline and pain, he evokes an ascetic or a monk.

After taking on competitive running, cycling and skiing, he became interested in rowing, dabbling in it before deciding to go all in. He signed up for the 2019 Atlantic Challenge rowing race, which traced a nearly 3,000-mile path from the Canary Islands to the West Indies; it’s been called the toughest row of its kind in the world. After three years of intensive training, while working full-time as a manager at New York-based Deloitte Strategy & Analytics, Tez failed to raise the money to take part in the race.

“I was devastated,” he says.

He’d bounce back with a new venture and a new home. He launched the United World Challenge, based on some of the same principles as the United World College he’d attended in Montenegro. Opened in 1962, United World Colleges is an international network of schools and programs with the aim of “making education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.” Tez hoped to do something with a global reach that contributed to that sustainable future. With the United World Challenge, he could set his own agenda and take control of the money-raising. If he couldn’t compete in the Atlantic Challenge, could he find a way to use his rowing expertise and help the environment? To facilitate his vision and nurture the piece of him that was introverted, he needed someplace “quieter” than Boulder.

He quit his job and moved thirty miles outside of Boulder to Nederland, population 1,471. It reminded him of his hometown of Chestertown, New York, in the Adirondack Mountains, population 700. In Nederland, he could concentrate full-time on building the United World Challenge and on his own personal challenge as the face of the organization — rowing alone 2,700 miles from California to Hawaii in a 23-foot pink boat named “Moderation," even though he’d never been to sea.

Empty, Moderation weighed 300 pounds, but he’d need 1,200 pounds of supplies to make it across the Pacific Ocean. Half of those who’d attempted this journey in a rowboat had failed. Only eight had made it to Hawaii, and no one had ever done it on his first solo row.

Tez didn’t just want to test his endurance and skills on the water; he planned to use the trip to create scholarships for United World Colleges and to generate funds to reduce the amount of plastic humans have deposited in the oceans. The path he’d charted would pass directly through the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” the planet's largest single accumulation of ocean plastics, an area nearly twice the size of Texas.

“World Economic Forum research,” Tez said, “shows that unless we change course, we’ll have more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050. That’s why the United World Challenge is raising funds and taking action to help solve this crisis, by stopping plastic before it flows into the ocean.”

Years of preparation went into the row to Hawaii, but Tez had only three days and twenty miles of actual training on Moderation before loading his supplies and boarding for the expedition. He had myriad worries and doubts about what he’d thrown himself into, but countered them with some of the many sayings he likes telling himself and others: “Focus on connecting to a purpose that pulls you forward." "If you don’t love what you do, fall in love with why you do it." "We all have an ocean to cross. And most times our ocean is more mental than anything else.”

This ocean was decidedly physical.
click to enlarge man looking from window of boat
Tez Steinberg aboard his 23-foot boat, Moderation.
He kept a log of events unfolding on his boat. Just before embarking, he wrote: “Last minute shopping, repairs, packing, planning…The ocean has so much to teach me and I’m brand new to sea life. But I trust I will learn what I need to…That’s what I’m telling myself now, because when I slow down for a second, my eyes swell with tears…”

On July 3, 2020, he took off at night from Monterey Harbor, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. Twenty minutes after pushing away from the dock, he hit a fifty-foot fishing boat. The impact struck Moderation’s “crash zone,” which had a five-inch wooden buffer to absorb the shock. Tez didn’t know whether to return to shore to examine/repair the boat or to keep rowing. If he stopped now, he’d miss using the outgoing tide, and the next day's weather didn’t look good for launching. He trusted that Moderation could withstand the blow, and rowed for the next twenty hours straight.

He slept in a small bunk below deck, relieved himself in a “humble bucket,” took a CBD supplement and ate 5,000 calories a day, including a lot of protein shakes, to keep up his strength. The waters were choppy — he was lucky to get five or six hours of sleep a night. To freshen the smell, he stashed an orange peel in his sleeping bag. His journal captured the highs, the lows, the breakdowns and breakthroughs, the despair, exhilaration and almost unbelievable mental, physical and emotional demands he was placing on himself. The expedition was as much about the internal forces working on him as the external ones provided by nature.

“It’s not tired arms that make a rower want to quit,” he’s said. “It’s a broken spirit.”

To cope, he fell back on his main source of motivation when competing in long-distance races: his sense of curiosity.

“I want to know,” he wrote, “and actively explore the difference between my perceived and real limits. I pick races and challenges that seem nearly impossible. And I try to surprise myself by doing them anyway.”

Days three through seven brought a severe storm, and he wrote that he was “strapped down to my bunk with a helmet on my head — like living inside a washing machine tumbling down a never-ending staircase. During the mayhem…a key part of my steering system breaks, my storage hatches flood, and water begins pooling in my stern cabin...there’s no way I’ll make it to Hawaii.

“I am covered in bruises from bouncing into my cabin walls…I had looked forward to this time to myself to enjoy audiobooks and take photos and videos. Unfortunately, two days ago my iPhone reset itself while in my pocket. My music…the audiobooks and especially the camera on the phone that I bought specifically for this journey are all gone…there’s not much to keep me busy anymore.”

Without his technology, he did what countless earlier seafarers had done, spending hours staring at sunlight or moonlight playing on the face of the water, at the ever-changing shapes and colors of the ocean, and at the constant, mesmerizing “dimples, ripples, flutters” of the waves. As he gazed at the Milky Way and the massive number of stars he was seeing for the first time, he asked himself what was he doing, why he was doing it, and if taking on the Pacific was too big a challenge. Then he went back to rowing, drifting off course at times because of the winds and having to make up ground when the ocean was calmer.

"If you don’t love what you do, fall in love with why you do it."

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Surrounded by sea birds, jellyfish, squid, dolphins, flying fish, zebra fish and albatross, he watched humpback whales in full breach. When he wasn’t counting the wildlife around him, he meticulously documented the endless debris — discarded plastic, liquor bottles, rope, etc. — passing by every day.

Days 8-28: “Every day doubts and demons rage inside me, shouting at me to go home before it’s too late. But I know I can choose to listen to my doubts or replace them with something else. So I start to tell myself — out loud: ‘I can quit, but not today’…I keep reminding myself to look for beauty.”

He grew so weary of the food on board that he had to force himself to eat. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were often three or four spoonfuls of the chocolate/hazelnut spread Nutella. He was losing weight, and his injuries were piling up.

“Survival,” he wrote, “is a matter of managing the decline…Humans are incredibly adaptable — it’s our greatest strength!”

He’d brought along a satellite phone, but made only three calls during the entire trip. Instead of talking on the phone, he spoke to the ocean and the birds, expressing his doubts to them.

Day 45: “The [rowing] seat bearings are grinding to dust, and I don’t have spares. I get out my camp stove and begin boiling strips of plastic, shaping them into new bearings…as crazy as this idea is, it actually works!...Suddenly, a massive cloud lifts from my experience…From Day 46 onwards, although tendonitis, salt burns and bone-deep fatigue are my closest companions, I love being at sea...It’s no longer a matter of if I would reach Hawaii — it becomes a matter of when.”

The more exhausted he became, the more he leaned on the natural world to sustain him.

Day 55: “The deep, vibrant blue beneath me, its waves adorned with white jewels from one horizon to the other. The soft, silky, baby blue sky above me, hugging the world with a dreamy cradle of clouds. I can’t get over how many shades of blue this ocean creates. I sit in awe all day…”

Day 60: “I’ve been hit by flying fish. A group of four of them at once. At first I thought I was hallucinating when I saw something flying under the moonlight towards me. And they went thwack-thwack-thwack into me and started flopping around my feet. I shrieked and laughed and then threw them each back in.”

Approaching Hawaii, he rowed the last 36 hours without a break.

Day 71 (the final one): “Arriving is one of the hardest days in the whole trip. The heat feels so intense that I keep checking to make sure that I’m still sweating — a sign that I’m not in heat stroke. Then I begin repeating to myself, again and again, ‘My body is hot, but I am fine. I’m rowing to the finish.’ At first, it’s just a whisper. But slowly it grows into a full shout and I pull the oars while bursting, ‘I am rowing to the finish!’”

During his trip, the United World Challenge raised $77,000 through donations, enough to remove 5,000 pounds of ocean plastic: Each dollar prevented thirty bottles from entering the water.

Returning to Nederland, he took what he’d learned from ten weeks at sea and began sharing it as a public speaker with Tez Talks (he has an enthusiastic, youthful and upbeat voice that makes just about anything seem possible). After recovering from the 2,700-mile trip across the Pacific, he started planning a larger adventure: rowing 5,000 miles alone from Hawaii to Australia, requiring about two million oar strokes.

This time he wouldn’t just be rowing and writing down his observations. He’d gather data on biodiversity, on global warming’s effects on the waters, and — in conjunction with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography — on the impact of micro-plastics on marine health. He’d also try to penetrate a fundamental scientific mystery: What becomes of most of the plastic that humans feed into our oceans? Researchers estimate that 90 percent of it is “missing.” Tez would use the expedition to raise funds to build river barriers in the globe’s most polluted urban regions, designed to keep plastics from ever reaching the ocean. In addition to all those things, he hoped to inspire others to take on challenges that pushed "you to become someone else to meet them.”

The trip to Australia would again expose him to massive waves, tropical storms and things he couldn’t anticipate or imagine until they happened. Because of global warming, the oceans were hotter than ever, and with El Niño expected to be in full effect, he’d face many days over 100 degrees. If he completed the row, it would be a “world first” for the Guinness World Records. He’d need to be in the best shape of his life. He began training.

click to enlarge man rowing boat on ocean
The first United World Challenge stretched for 2,700 miles across the Pacific Ocean.
On July 13, 2022, the trim, lightly bearded, well-muscled 34-year-old with a large tattoo spread across his left shoulder awoke to something new. After working out that morning, his chest started to tighten and ache. He sat down, drank a glass of water and waited for the pain to subside, but it got worse: Was his torso caving in? He dropped to the floor, rolling from side to side, still thinking this would pass.

For nearly an hour, blood flow was cut off to his heart and cardiac tissue was dying. When he finally realized he was having a heart attack, he called a friend who drove him to Boulder’s Foothills Hospital. For the next 48 hours, he was in the advanced cardiac care unit. After two days, the doctors were ready to discharge him, but with strict warnings. Recovering from the heart attack, his cardiologist told him, would be “the hardest thing you’ve ever done, harder than rowing across an ocean.”

Tez’s very active physical life was completely shut down. For years, he’d emotionally processed his setbacks using exercise to get through stress and pain. If he exerted himself now, the doctor said, the increased blood pressure could tear open the damage inside his chest and kill him. His heart needed to rest.

He went home enraged, asking himself all the questions that come with serious illness: Why did this happen? Why did it happen now, when he was doing so many things he loved? And when he was in such good shape? People had constantly told him he was the healthiest person they knew. When the anger subsided and the questions stopped, he delved into statistics: Thirty-six percent of men who survive heart attacks don’t live through the next year. Other studies showed that 50 percent of men die within five years. Mulling the numbers, he went into seclusion, declining all social invitations and informing close friends that he was in recovery and needed to be alone. He’d also decided not to inform his mother on the East Coast about his medical crisis just then because he didn’t want to cause her stress.

He later wrote, “I didn’t want to hang out with anybody or even be seen. I felt like since I was so down, I shouldn’t go to events or see friends, because I’m not adding to the vibe. Many of us are our own harshest critics and treat ourselves differently than we treat others, and this summer reminded me of that. I want to see and support my friends while they go through challenging times, and it’s up to me to allow my friends to do the same for me.”

When he felt able to hide the sadness in his voice, he called his mother, but she didn’t answer. Over the past few days, she’d passed away in her apartment. He was stunned, crushed again over the loss of a parent, needing to come to terms with her death as he’d done six years earlier with his father’s. He had to get back to exercising, even if it involved risk.

On September 18, just over two months after entering the hospital, he went on a three-mile hike in the woods near Nederland. Afterward, he felt better physically and mentally. In the coming days, he walked farther and then farther still. By October, he was fly fishing and running country roads. After a follow-up MRI and other tests, his doctor said he could resume training. He increased the running and planned to announce the Hawaii-to-Australia expedition in late 2022, but rescheduled it for 2023.

Once he began regaining his strength, he put a positive spin on his recent medical scare.

“Instead of seeing the heart attack as something that happened to me,” he wrote, “I am starting to see how it can be a value for me — providing useful stories and insights to empower others…”

He kept pushing himself to get into shape.

click to enlarge boat on ocean at sunset
Tez Steinberg is ready to row again.
In every case when something bad happened to Tez or those around him — his depression after college, his father’s suicide, his failure to raise the funds to compete in the Atlantic Challenge, the countless things that had gone wrong on his first ocean expedition, his heart attack, his mother’s death — once the initial shock wore off, he realized that he had choices. If he couldn’t control what life threw at him, he could stop himself from being controlled by anger and fear and then decide what to do next.

This took discipline, which he had in abundance, as he’d proven on the 2,700-mile row. The more he worked at self-control and refusing to see himself as a victim, the better he got at it. On both land and sea, where he’d had more than enough time to think, he hadn’t just studied the ocean, but himself.

“Rather than let an event sweep me away,” he says, “I try to notice whatever emotion I’m experiencing and then choose how I want to respond and what story I tell myself. Easier said than done! But this ‘training’ is not only great for ocean rowing. It helps with any challenge.”

Less than six months after his heart attack, he finished a 28-mile marathon. By late summer 2023, he was in full prep mode to take on the ocean in the same vessel as before. This row would last approximately 125 days and be almost twice as long as the first one.

On September 25, Tez made a “global announcement” about the upcoming mission, setting a November launch date (weather and readiness permitting) and a target of completing the trip in either March or April 2024. He’d lined up nearly twenty corporate sponsors to help pay the bills, while retrofitting his boat for the grueling journey ahead.

One sponsor was Sungai Watch, the world’s leader in creating river barriers to catch plastics trying to enter the oceans. The company had installed more than 180 such barriers and collected over 1.1 kilograms of plastic.

Tez’s crew replaced the old decals on Moderation with new logos, made repairs on the boat, installed audio and visual equipment to record more of his experiences at sea, and handled the endless logistical details leading up to the launch. He was packing enough food for at least four months and would be able to use ocean water by putting it through a desalinization machine.

“This is daunting,” he said during preparations, “but I’m excited. In this time of struggle in so many places around the world, I want to inspire others who believe in taking on ‘impossible causes.’”

“The ocean is our greatest ally in fighting climate change, but we treat it like a dumpster."

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His group was set to chart his progress and offer regular reports to the public via social media. They’d created a campaign to receive donations and put together a video about Tez’s upcoming row. A technical crew had installed Artificial Intelligence sensors on his boat to gather ocean health data. Both high tech (AI experts standing by to interpret the data) and low tech (pulling oars all day and sometimes all night) would be needed to fulfill the goal.

The summer of 2022 was behind Tez; he believed that he was physically and mentally ready, trusting that his heart would hold up. He was steeling himself to be alone at sea, rowing as many as twelve hours a day.

Would he get lonely crossing the Pacific?

“I’m an equal mixture of introvert and extrovert,” he says. “I’m not close to a lot of people, but really enjoy being around my friends. I’m not in a relationship — one of the many sacrifices I’ve made to plan and execute something like the expedition to Australia. It’s a complication I don’t have.”

Five weeks before launch, he left Nederland for Hawaii and final preparations. As he went through an inventory check to make sure everything was in place, what message was he trying to send to others?
“I want people to know,” he said, “how important the ocean is for everyone.”

His website provides statistics to back this up:

“The ocean supplies 50% of the earth’s oxygen.
Absorbs 25% of our excess carbon.
Regulates our climate by absorbing 90% of excess heat from global warming.
Provides a livelihood for 12% of the world’s population.
Generates vital renewable energy.”

“The ocean,” he says, “is our greatest ally in fighting climate change, but we treat it like a dumpster. I’m doing what I’m doing not only so people can see that they can make a difference in their own lives, but they can have an impact on the world itself. I hope this is a catalyst for seeing the ocean in a more caring way.”

After some unexpected last-minute repairs, Tez is now scheduled to launch on Tuesday, December 19, weather permitting.
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