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First woman to row across Atlantic remembers the journey 20 years later

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Right now, she’s known as the president of Spalding University. But, her mural along I-65 alludes to another one of her accomplishments.

Twenty years ago, on Dec. 3, 1999, Tori Murden McClure became the first woman to row across the Atlantic Ocean. 

“I’m known for rowing a boat alone across the ocean and skiing across Antarctica to the geographical south pole,” she said Tuesday morning.

The boat she rowed, now sits in a maintenance warehouse on Spalding’s campus. Tori sat on its edge, as she reflected on her journeys at sea 20 years prior. 

Tori said the idea came after she tried out for the Olympic team in 1992. In 1998, she made her first attempt, sailing west to east across the Atlantic.

“The first try I rode about 3,000 miles, got hit by a hurricane named Danielle. This boat capsized 11 times in one day. Probably 14 or 15 times in the course of that storm,” she said. 

One of the capsizes dislocated her shoulder, while another put it back in place, 

“There was a point mid-hurricane when I thought you know what, I can’t do this anymore,” Tori said. “I’m coughing up sea water and I remember the first word that came out of my mouth was coward.”

Two days later, she faced another storm, causing her to set off her distress beacon and be rescued by a freight called “Independent Spirit.”

But it was the motivation she received from another Louisville great, that helped convince her to try again. 

“He knew I was knocked down, like really knocked down and felt like a failure,” Tori said. “It was Muhammad who said ‘Tori you don’t want to go through life as the woman who almost rowed across the ocean.'”

It took Tori 85 days on her unsuccessful attempt, and 81 days on her successful attempt to complete the journey. At most, she said she’d complete 90 miles in a day on her boat, with no engine or sails.

“This boat is named the American Pearl,” she said. “It’s a huge boat to row. It’s a tiny boat to go through hurricanes in.”

The boat is 23 feet long and about 1,800 pounds and Tori built it herself. 

“The best part was the wildlife. Whales and dolphins and sea turtles,” Tori said. “That sense of solitude, that sense of aloneness, that sense of loss of communication in some ways was really freeing and liberating and at other times was really challenging.”

On her first trip, Tori didn’t have communication with people for 78 days. 

“As university president, I kind of long for those days. Like oh my god, four days with no communication would just be awesome,” she said. 

Most days, Tori said she was at peace being alone on her journey. It was a chance for her to gain new knowledge and learn valuable lessons. 

“It’s about endurance and the persistence and the resourcefulness that it takes to make a journey like this is exactly what it takes to make a difference in this world,” she said. “Opportunities will come your way. Have courage and just chase them down.”

Tori was met by friends and family in Guadeloupe, a Carribean island, as she stepped foot on land in 1999 for the completion of her successful attempt. 

“There were tens of thousands of young people following the trip,” she said. “I remember coming back and having a sense of all these people that cared and all these people that followed the journey all over the world and was still baffled by it.”

 It was on the trip she asked her now-husband, Mac McClure, to marry her. She stepped right off her boat into his arms as she finished the trip. The two have now been married for 20 years.

After her trip, Tori was met with national attention for her accomplishment. 10 years prior, she was also the first American and woman to ski to the South Pole. She said that accomplishment didn’t get as much national acclaim. 

Since then, McClure has also written a memoir about her time at sea, called “A Pearl in the Storm.” She considers herself still a student, learning new things alongside the students she oversees at Spalding University. 

“When I talk to young people I say I rowed across the ocean because I was stupid. Most women don’t need to row 3,000 miles to figure out that love and friendship are what makes life worth living, but I had to go the hard way,” she said.

Tori said a musical called “Row” has also been written about her life and rowing. She said it will hopefully be in production by Summer 2020. 

►Contact reporter Tyler Emery at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter (@TylerWHAS11) and Facebook. 

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