Rowing against the current

Despite serious technology glitches and a hurricane, Tori Murden McClure didn’t give up on her dream of rowing across the Atlantic Ocean.

Megan Wollerton Former Senior Writer/Editor
8 min read
Courtesy of Spalding University

Tori Murden McClure's office tells a hundred stories. The countless books crowding the walls are a natural fit for her role as the president of Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. But look closer and there's much more to see here.

Rather than a collection of dry academic journals, titles like Ladies First: 40 Daring American Women Who Were Second to None; If Winning Were Easy, Everyone Would Do It; and Lessons in Leadership from the Ground Up: Turning Dreams Into Success all speak to a deep-seated drive.

Elsewhere the room is covered in mementos hard-earned from an adventurous life. Tall white boots from a 1989 ski trip to the South Pole rest on the top of a bookcase. On a nearby windowsill sits a miniature replica of the boat she used 10 years later to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Tori was the first woman and the first American to ski to the South Pole and to row alone across the Atlantic, but she doesn't keep the mementos just to show off.

Instead they're there as a personal reminder of what people can overcome, proof of her abilities after a difficult childhood where she was told girls shouldn't play sports, be intellectually curious or stand up for themselves and others.

"It was clear to me that the whole 'lady' thing was an evil conspiracy designed to keep girls incompetent and helpless," Tori wrote in her 2009 book, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean. But rather than accepting them, she fought against those stereotypes to achieve her dreams and has spent her life inspiring other people to do the same.

A solo trip

Tori started rowing as an undergraduate at Smith College in 1982. She was on her way to attend the USRowing trials ahead of the 1992 Olympics, but a car accident forced her to drop out.

She became a fixture at the community boat club in her hometown of Louisville and never stopped rowing. In 1997, she attempted an ocean crossing with a rowing partner during the Atlantic Rowing Race, but they had barely started when food poisoning and other delays forced them to stop. The next year, when Sector Sports Watches reached out to her asking if she was interested in attempting a solo trip, she jumped at the chance.

A few people pitched in to help her get ready. Rowing coach Bob Hurley was one of them.

He had some experience with building boats, but he wasn't an expert. None of her circle were. "If she bought the kit, could we build the boat here?" he remembers her asking. "I told her, 'I don't know, but we can look at it.'"

The critical electronics were the hardest part, Hurley says. No one had direct experience with solar panels or batteries, which meant they were basically winging it. The initial boat kit cost about $10,000, and the electronics and other equipment added another $10,000 to $15,000.

Tori Murden McClure's 23-foot rowboat at sea

Tori's rowboat weighs 1,800 pounds and measures 23 feet long and six feet wide. She built it over several months with friends in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

Courtesy of Spalding University

Hurley, who's been coaching rowers for 24 years, says Tori had a slow, consistent pace — something that's important for rowing, especially long distances. Her experience rowing at sea during the previous attempt would only help.

Equally important is the mental aspect of rowing alone for months on the open ocean. On a solo trip, Tori would have only a small watertight chamber to sleep in at night — or to retreat to during bad weather. "I told her to go home and live in her closet for a week. That's what it takes," Hurley says.

Tori wasn't worried about the solitude.

"You don't spend two and a half months alone in a rowboat if you're not an introvert," she tells me.

She set off from Nags Head, North Carolina, on June 14, 1998, with her rowboat, the American Pearl. The boat clocked in at 23 feet long, 6 feet wide and about 1,800 pounds. She lowered it into the ocean with a trailer hitched on the back of her Ford F-150.

Sector, her sponsor for the trip, gave her a video camera when she left and told her it would be her "best friend" as she crossed. She was doubtful, but they were right.

Tech at sea: All of the gear one rower hauled across an ocean

See all photos

A record of dubious merit

When she set out, she had food rations for 100 days, not expecting the trip to take longer than 80 days. But roughly a week into the trip, the boat capsized and salt water leaked into her boat's electronics compartment, knocking out her primary and backup long-range communications equipment.

"I'd have had better communications if I'd gone to the moon than I did in the middle of the ocean," Tori says.

She continued to row for another 78 days without any long-range communications before encountering a series of bad storms, including Hurricane Danielle. Hurley and everyone else back home could track Tori's location on the tracking beacon and saw the storm coming, but couldn't get in touch with her.

"It's kind of like watching a car wreck when you can't do anything about it," he says. "You just hope for the best."

Her boat was designed to self-right, but Danielle tested its limits. Tori capsized 11 times in one day, and at least twice the boat flipped end over end. During one capsize, she dislocated her shoulder; during the next capsize, it was knocked back in place.

Tori recorded a lot of video footage during the storm, as it was her only means of communication with the outside world, even though she had no way to send it.

On Sept. 5, at 6:30 a.m., she recorded this on her camera: "I'm definitely in something big, bad and ugly. I'm really hoping I live through this. And if I don't, I really love you guys."

Tori Murden McClure sits in front of the boat she rowed across the Atlantic in 1999.

Tori sits in front of the boat she rowed across the Atlantic, 20 years after her 1999 trip.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

After weathering several more capsizes, Tori set off an emergency beacon called an EPIRB, an emergency position-indicating radio beacon.

A Royal Air Force plane circled over her location in the North Atlantic Ocean to confirm someone was alive and in need of rescue. She was roughly 1,000 miles from her goal of reaching Brest, France. The aircraft then signaled a nearby container ship called the Independent Spirit to pick her up. She'd spent a total of 85 days at sea, setting a record for the longest amount of time anyone had spent alone on the ocean.

Tori calls it "a record of dubious merit," since it shouldn't take that long to cross an ocean, alone or otherwise. (In 2007, Charles Hedrich would set the record for the fastest solo rowing trip across the Atlantic. It took him 36 days, 6 hours and 37 minutes.)

An emergency position-indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB.

Tori held onto a lot of the tech she took across the ocean. This is the EPIRB she used to signal for rescue.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The interim

The Independent Spirit dropped Tori off in Philadelphia, and she headed back home to Kentucky without the American Pearl, injured and unsure of her next steps.

Two and a half months later, she received a call that an oil tanker had found the American Pearl about 80 miles off the coast of Portugal. The tanker's crew recovered the rowboat, and it was shipped back to Kentucky.

Mac McClure called Tori soon after with an offer to help her rebuild the boat. Now her husband, at the time he was only an acquaintance. They worked in similar circles for local government and had attended some of the same events around town.

Around the same time she also began working for heavyweight champion boxer and Louisville native Muhammad Ali to develop the Ali Center, a multicultural center and museum that opened in the city in 2005. In the course of working for Ali, they became close. Today a picture of her with Ali hangs in her office. He told her, "You don't want to be known as the woman who almost rowed across the Atlantic."

It was true. She didn't.

"It was the first time she had ever failed at anything in her life," Mac says.

Along with Hurley and some others, he pitched in to help Tori rebuild.

"Everybody thought she was crazy, but she's got her mind set that when she starts a project she's gonna finish it," Hurley says. "And so we all kind of figured if the boat came back, she'd do it again."

Tori and Mac began dating as they worked to rebuild the American Pearl. He was extremely particular about the construction of the boat.

They once broke up during a fight over the daggerboard, a hunk of wood that looks vaguely like a kickboard kids use when they're learning to swim. It sticks up from the deck like a tongue and helps stabilize the boat. They reconciled the next day and continued building.

Along with the new daggerboard, they made the cabin taller so she could sit up in it more comfortably. Tori added foam rubber to the inside, too, so it would hurt less when she got knocked around during storms. And this time, she brought more communications systems.

Tori Murden McClure in her rowboat near her final destination in Guadeloupe, after rowing 3,333 miles over 81 days.

Tori nears her final destination in Guadeloupe, after rowing 3,333 miles over 81 days.

Courtesy of Spalding University

Back to the beginning

On Sept. 13, 1999, Tori set out again across the ocean in the American Pearl, this time from Spain's Canary Islands heading for the Caribbean to take advantage of the trade winds.

She had better luck with technology and the weather this time around, although she did run into Hurricane Lenny along the way, which brought 30- to 40-foot waves with it. She was afraid, but that storm paled in comparison to Danielle's 125-foot waves the previous year.

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Her daily routine was highly regimented on the American Pearl. She rowed for 12 hours a day and took 5-minute breaks. If she took a "too-long" 6-minute break in the morning, she took a 4-minute break that afternoon to stay on track. On her best days, she could travel 80 to 90 miles.

When she wasn't rowing or fixing things, she was sleeping in a watertight chamber in the back of the boat or recording video footage.

She filmed sea turtles and dolphins. On camera, she made breakfast and dinner, freeze-dried packets from a company called Natural High. She used her solar-powered desalinator often to make fresh water.

She ate a lot of granola and pasta primavera, aiming for around 5,000 calories per day to offset the physical toll of rowing for hours straight. One day she ate a peanut butter and chocolate "pie" that looked like dirt mixed with gravel.

Tori checked in with friends back home and talked with Mac regularly via her Iridium satellite phone. He describes periods of synchronicity where he'd randomly want to talk to her and she'd answer, despite it being via a battery-powered phone that she'd only turn on occasionally.

"It was one of those of unusual, faraway connections," he says.

During one of their calls, Tori proposed to him. "When I get out of this boat, will you marry me?" Mac recalls her asking. "Sure, why not?" he replied.

A Motorola Iridium satellite phone

Tori used this Motorola Iridium satellite phone to talk with friends back home.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Shortly after, on Dec. 3, 1999, Tori set foot on Guadeloupe in the Caribbean after rowing 3,333 miles and 81 days. Mac was waiting for her.

"She got out of the boat and got into my arms, and that's basically where we've been for coming up on 20 years," Mac says.

I ask Mac if Tori's bad at anything, only half joking. He just smiles and says that knowledge is everything to her. "She has the capacity to help 6,000, 60,000 or 600,000 people because that's who she is."

He was just glad to have her back, but for Tori, it was something she had to do.

"What you're willing to suffer for is what you're passionate about," she says.

Nowadays, Tori is focused on helping other people achieve their dreams. She gave two people the rights to adapt her book into a musical called Row, because "they're young people with a dream." One of the songs addresses a question Tori gets a lot. "Why did you row across the Atlantic?"

The lyrics simply answer, "Because it's there for me." Tori really likes that. 


In addition to her solo rowing trip, Tori was also the first woman and the first American to ski to the South Pole. 

Courtesy of Spalding University

This story appears in the Summer 2019 edition of CNET Magazine.

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