Found At Sea

A memoir by Tori Murden McClure ’85 tells the story of how her historic voyage across the ocean led her right back to herself

by Christina Barber-Just

In her new book, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean (HarperCollins, 2009), Tori Murden McClure ’85 starts off by writing that “normal, well-adjusted women don’t row alone across oceans.” But she did. In 1998, McClure set out in the American Pearl, her 23-foot plywood boat with no motor or sail, in hopes of becoming the first woman to row across the Atlantic Ocean alone. After several days she lost all communications and later was nearly killed in several violent storms. Ultimately she had to signal for help, ending her attempt.

Not wanting to be known as the woman who “almost” rowed across the Atlantic, she tried again the following year. In 1999, she reached her goal, traversing 3,333 miles of the North Atlantic in the American Pearl, going from Tenerife, Spain, to Guadeloupe in eighty-one days.

A Pearl in the Storm, McClure’s memoir about her solo journeys across the ocean, is being hailed as a story of adventure, courage, and personal discovery.

McClure’s day job is a little tamer: She serves as vice president for external relations, enrollment management, and student affairs at Spalding University, in Louisville, Kentucky, where she lives with her husband, Mac. The Quarterly recently spoke with her about her historic transatlantic row and the book that took her nearly eight years to write.

What is A Pearl in the Storm about?

On the surface, it is about a woman rowing a boat alone across the Atlantic Ocean, but the book has multiple layers. It begins with a question: If I wrote the story of my life, should I do it as a comedy, a history, a tragedy, or a romance? I was advised to write it as a romance, but there was a problem; at the time, I had no experience with romance. The book begins as part comedy and part history. Later, tragedy works its way in. The book ends as a romance. [McClure proposed over the phone to Mac from the middle of the ocean.]

Why did you subtitle the book How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean?

I was searching for enlightenment, and, being a good Smith woman, I went about it in a rather cerebral manner. Only after many trials and failures did I realize that, for me, enlightenment is a matter of heart. The elements of memoir in the book explain why I had evaded romance at every turn. Ultimately, I opened my heart to romance and my world changed.

What was the most significant thing you learned from your experience?

We all get knocked down. We all fail. This is part of being human. The only things that make our flaws and our brokenness tolerable are laughter and the love of friends.

What did you accomplish?

In the grand scheme of things, nothing. It doesn’t matter at all that a woman has rowed alone across the ocean. What matters is how I translate that experience into my civilized life. What matters are the persistence, the endurance, the passion, the comfort with uncertainty, and the tolerance for adversity that I bring to my day-to-day activities. These are the things required to make a difference in the civilized world.

What do you hope people will gain from reading your book?

I hope they will understand that this is not a unique story. Not everyone rows a boat alone across an ocean, but we all tangle with waves, we all face storms that twist our lives and harm people for whom we care. There are “pearls” in every storm. Often they are the people—the mentors, the friends, the teachers, the guides—that come to offer assistance. We must recognize and honor the pearls in our lives and we must seek as best we can to be pearls in the lives of others.

Summer ’09 SAQ