First Woman to Row Atlantic on Her Hard-Won Success

By Tom Foreman
Inside Base Camp
June 18, 2003
The rough waters that took the lives of nine weekend boaters near Oregon last weekend underscore an old lesson: the waves that pound our shores can, under the right conditions, be impenetrable and deadly barriers.

Yet, since some of mankind's earliest days we have attempted to sail the oceans from one shore to the next.

Tori Murden McClure is a modern woman who has carried that ancient quest to extremes, attempting to become the first American and foremost woman to row solo across the Atlantic. Her original attempt found her beaten by relentless winds, hammered by walls of water, and finally rescued—her shoulder dislocated, her boat torn to shreds. One year later, she set out again, leaving the coast of Africa, aiming for the Caribbean; and after 81 days and 3,333 miles, she made it.

Walking into my studio she moved with the powerful, sure step of a born athlete, but her struggle to conquer the tides was full of uncertainty.

Tom Foreman: Let me start with a basic question: What is the difference between being foolhardy and being courageous and where do you fit in?

Tori Murden McClure: I think what moves you toward to being courageous, as opposed to foolhardy, is preparation. You do run into surprises, but how you handle them is very important. On my first attempt, I'd rode 3,000 miles and a storm called Hurricane Danielle came and hit me. The boat capsized five times in a very short period of time. I went outside, I got my emergency distress beacon, I was gonna set it off. I looked out at the storm, and I'm looking at waves that were averaging 70 feet (21 meters) in height. The boat flipped end over end, pitch-poling. And I realized I could not set off that distress beacon and ask another human being to come out and get me. I went back inside and went through six more capsizes that day. That's the difference between daring and foolhardy. Foolhardy is, Come get me, I'm in over my head. Daring is, I put myself out here, I made the choice, and I have to accept the consequences.

Tom Foreman: There are a lot of us who would like to do adventurous things, but what about family and friends who arent as adventurous? How do you ease their fears?

Tori Murden McClure: That's a hard one, because I think it's far harder on them than it is on us being out there.

Tom Foreman: Why do you say that?

Tori Murden McClure: Well, some of the best days of my life I had at sea, but friends sitting back home imagining where I am, thinking about storms, thinking about waves, thinking about wind, are always imagining conditions as worse than they are. And in my first trip I lost communications for 78 days, and they just had to guess as to what was happening. That's hard on good friends.

Tom Foreman: You went with a very low calorie diet getting ready to do this.

Tori Murden McClure: Actually, it wasn't that low calorie, and on the trip I ate about 6,000 calories a day. To row 12 hours a day, you have to have a lot of food on board, (but) I think it's a mental challenge, because I think physically you can always go a little more and its when your mind quits when you're really in trouble.

Tom Foreman: What was the scariest moment?

Tori Murden McClure: Probably the first pitch pole. The boat flipped end over end and I was smashed into the very stern of the boat, my six-foot (183 centimeter) frame in a two-foot (61 centimeter) ball, and I couldn't breathe because all the wind was knocked out of me. And I look up and I see ocean everywhere

Tom Foreman: You're not even sure if the boat's gonna come up out of the ocean at that point?

Tori Murden McClure: Right, right, right

Tom Foreman: At times like that, did you say to yourself, I shouldn't be here; I want to be somewhere else? Or did you say, 'This is what I bought in for.'

Tori Murden McClure: Both. Everything all at once. Immediately. I prayed to God for my life. There were moments I said, I'm done, take me now. I can't take any more pain.

Tom Foreman: At those times, did you think, I have a happy, healthy life and what am I doing out here? Is this a death wish? People ask that, don't they?

Tori Murden McClure: They do ask that and I think there are so many things that we learn from exploration, and I mean exploration rather than adventure in the sense of pushing your limits. There are intangible things you get from it. I learn how to be with people by being alone on the ocean and sorting through my thoughts and coming back and being that much more alive.

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