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Drinking the Grace and Mystery

On December 3, 1999, Tori Murden became the first woman and the first American to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean

By Tom Reed
Reprinted from The Leader, Winter 2000, Vol. 16, No. 2

One night last October, Tori Murden saw a "moon-bow."

She was alone at sea, a tiny speck with nothing but the night sky overhead and saltwater everywhere else. For hours, she had been silently rowing her 23-foot rowboat, the American Pearl, when the moon-bow flashed bands of color into the night sky.

A moon-bow is a rare phenomenon that is the moon's equivalent of a rainbow. For Murden, it was a spectacle inspiring awe... and it was also a harbinger of something to come. For a month and a half, she had been strapped into a routine of rowing a strong, steady course west towards a world record. Murden was attempting to become the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. And until she saw the moon-bow, she had been on a pace that would have shattered the world's record--73 days set by a Brit in 1970--for rowing across the Atlantic. Murden was attempting a southern route, tracing east to west as many of the world's early explorers did. She left the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa on Sept. 13, 1999, and was following a route that would hopefully end in the Caribbean some 2,900 miles later.

For the next few days, things followed the routine and it looked as if the record could indeed fall. Up before the sun. Steady rowing. Incentives like cashews for a reward if she stayed at the oars for a certain amount of time. A goal of 12 hours of rowing each day, often listening to books or music on CD. Cooking, maybe a little reading. Sleep. Back up again before dawn. Gradually, work-like, an average of 36 miles disappeared in the wake of American Pearl each day. But change was coming. First, the moon-bow. A couple of days later, in a moment that Tori would later recount as a "wake-up call" from the ocean, she lost an expensive video camera overboard. In a desperate attempt to grab it, she pitched headlong into the water. Thankfully, she was tethered into the boat with a line, but she took the moment as a lesson. Had she not been tied in, she may have easily become separated from her boat and in the middle of the ocean, that tiny mistake could have been deadly. In her journal, which was being published on the Internet, she made a point of reprimanding herself for the next several days, "let that be a lesson to me. I am entering the phase in the trip in which it is tempting to focus on the end instead of the moment at hand. My safety will depend on paying strict attention to the little things... It is my opinion that big mistakes don't kill people in the wilderness, little mistakes do. Little mistakes domino. I drop my camera, I dive overboard to get it; I'm not tethered. This would have been a fatal error."

The next day began the big stall, a change in the weather that would throw Tori off her record-setting pace and inside the security of her boat's cabin. The cause was Hurricane Lenny, brewing in the ocean to the west. The winds, instead of the favorable trade winds, the same winds that had pushed Columbus across the Atlantic 500 years earlier, were coming out of the southeast. For a week, she battled them, sometimes rowing in uncomfortably high seas, other times retreating to the safety of the cabin where she stewed. On Nov. 8, she recognized her foul temper and tried to douse it with the teachings of Lao-Tzu, quoting in her journal, "He who wants to have right without wrong, order without disorder, does not understand the principles of heaven and earth. He does not know how things hang together. Can man cling only to heaven and know nothing of earth?"

In the next few paragraphs, she dispenses with the notion of breaking a record. "Even if I broke the record, it would have less to do with my rowing than with the weather that pushed me across the Atlantic. So, I have gotten over my foolishness (most of it anyway). I will arrive, when I arrive."

The next day, a butterfly visited the American Pearl. Tori, in her new optimism, wrote, "I took it to be a good sign."

It was not to be. The very next day, it turned worse. Recounted Tori in her journal, "Rowing as hard as I could, I was barely able to force the boat to maintain its position in the water. As soon as I gave up on the oars the boat flew toward the north at a rate of three miles an hour. I rowed until I was completely exhausted, then I threw out my biggest sea anchor. When I climbed into the cabin I was soaked with rain and sweat. My mind was soaked with despair. For the first time on this journey since the first week, the boat was traveling in the wrong direction. More than that, there was not a thing I could do about it."

The weather teased. For a couple of days she made slow progress on her journey, but the true impacts of the hurricane were yet to be felt. On Nov. 15, after a particularly rough night, she wrote, "I feel as if I have been body-slammed by the Governor of Minnesota, several hundred times."

Two days later, it looked as if Lenny was coming for a visit. She posted this journal entry: "All the experts said, 'not to worry hurricanes do not travel east.' Lenny moved east all day... I am beginning to think that fear on the ocean is qualitatively different than most other fears. It lasts longer. If one is confronted by a grizzly bear (as I once was in Denali National Park) or a lion (Maasai Mara National Game Reserve), one knows within minutes whether one is going to survive the encounter.... Here I have only to sit and wait."**

Her fear of the ocean abated a little bit when Hurricane Lenny stalled the next day, then was downgraded to Tropical Storm Lenny. But the excitement was not over. On Nov. 20, while she was in her cabin, a huge wave hit the American Pearl and capsized it. It was a rogue wave, a castoff from Lenny approaching from the west. Tori was battered by such waves for several hours that day.

American Pearl was built and designed by Tori (see sidebar) and is a self righting boat, so when it capsizes, it quickly bobs back up. The cabin is watertight and when inside, it is fairly safe. Tori endured much worse capsizes on her first attempt to cross the Atlantic in 1998. She wrote, "compared to other capsizes, this one seems quite gentle... The first instinct after a capsize is to panic. There was a tremendous urge to open the hatch and set off the distress signal. Instead, I took a deep breath."

The uncertainty of the ocean seemed endless. While the renegade western waves had passed, Lenny wasn't quite ready to give up. Instead, the storm coughed up gusts to 77 knots, battering the American Pearl all that night. "I did not sleep. I passed much of the night with my fingers in my ears singing hymns at the top of my lungs."

Early the next day, she called her fiancée, Mac MacClure back home in Louisville, Ky., "I was in tears when I called. I desperately wanted Mac to tell me that the worst was over," she wrote. "He tried his best."

It turned out it was and even though the eye of what was the hurricane passed directly over her head, Tori was on her way home. On Thanksgiving Day, she wrote: Before the wind stalled and then stopped me a few weeks ago, I planned to be on land before Thanksgiving. Had I arrived in the Caribbean when I was expected, Lenny would have still been a hurricane when it crossed me. So, I'm not sorry the wind stranded me out here. In fact, I am THANKFUL I couldn't make any progress west. I do not think Lenny was meant for me anymore than the sunrise is intended for me. However, I learned much from the storm and I dearly loved the sunrise that followed it."

A few days later, on Dec. 3, 1999, Tori Murden rowed into Bas du Fort Harbor in Guadeloupe, the Lesser Antilles. She had made history, becoming the first woman and the first American to row across the Atlantic.


** Editor's note: both the encounter with a grizzly bear in Alaska and the lion in Africa were experiences as a NOLS student. (return to body of article)


About the author: Writer/editor Tom Reed is a NOLS instructor and the editor of The Leader. He lives outside Lander, Wyo., with his English setter Hank, a calico cat named Filbert, and a string of saddle horses. When he's not writing, he's working on his homestead, or outdoors gathering more material for his stories. He can be reached at tomreed@wyoming.com.


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