Rowing against the current
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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 patek philippe nautilus gold replica of the she used 10 years later to 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.rest on the top of a bookcase. On a nearby windowsill sits a miniature
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.
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.
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.