ST. PETER — It’s hard to imagine what would possess a woman to spend three months alone in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean, risking her life and sanity to become the first woman to ever row across the Atlantic.
It took Tori Murden McClure a long time herself to figure out what her reasons were. She said it was just something she needed to do, believing mental enlightenment would come. But actually, the lessons learned were of the heart, as she realized how emotionally stupid she’d been.
“I finally figured out what I was suppose to learn,” McClure said Thursday night at Gustavus Adolphus College. “Love and friendship are good things. I had shut love out.”
McClure is an author, explorer and college president at Spalding University in Louisville, Ky. In addition to becoming the first woman to row across the Atlantic in 1999, she was also one of just two women and six Americans who were the first to travel over land to the geographic South Pole.
Her book, “A Pearl in the Storm,” is the 2013 Reading in Common book at Gustavus and the St. Peter Reads selection. Hundreds of students, faculty, staff and community members gathered in Christ Chapel to hear McClure speak and read from her book, which is about her two journeys across the ocean in a 23-foot plywood boat with no motor or sail.
It took two journeys, McClure explained in her “CliffsNotes version,” because her first attempt in June 1998 failed as she left the coast of North Carolina, bound for France, and rowed right into Hurricane Danielle.
“I didn’t know the name at the time; I just knew it was really bad,” she said.
Locked in the water-tight cabin, she endured huge waves that capsized the boat numerous times, including end over end, she said. McClure endured Danielle, not wanting to endanger the life of someone else if she called for help. She waited until the next hurricane to make the call because the waves weren’t as big, she said.
After her failed trip, she went to work for Muhammad Ali, assisting him with efforts to create the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. She felt knocked down, and she took Ali’s advice when he encouraged her to get back up and try again.
“I still get letters from people who are furious. ‘How could you go back?!’” she said. “‘Well, I just did.’”
The second time, McClure decided to opt for the “kinder, gentler” area of the Atlantic. She left the coast of Africa the same day as another woman wanting to set the same record, Dianna Hoff. Both were headed to the Caribbean with the current working with them.
“If you leave the coast of Africa in a barrel, you will get to the Caribbean,” McClure said.
For three months and 3,000 miles she rowed through rising mists, chased rainbows and followed the paths of shooting stars. She had visits from whales and dolphins and sea turtles, which would pass her, she said.
“It’s annoying being passed by a turtle,” she said.
And despite a warning she received of yet another hurricane in the Caribbean, McClure arrived safely and ahead of Hoff on Dec. 3, 1999. Her fiance was waiting, which perhaps made the loneliness of the past several months even more visceral.
“Probably half of you could (physically) row a boat across the ocean,” she said. “It’s the solitude that’s hard. … If you can spend three months alone in a rowboat, you are an introvert.”
McClure has a master’s in divinity from Harvard University, a juris doctorate from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law, and a master of fine arts in writing from Spalding.
“I’m a rower, so I do everything backwards,” McClure said. “I went to divinity school first and then I went to law school. Most people do it the other way around to atone for their sins.”