Adventurer Tori McClure (center), president of Spalding University.
Adventurer Tori McClure (center), president of Spalding University.

Longwood students found out what courage, perseverance and personal growth look like last month when they met the first woman to row a boat, unassisted, across the Atlantic Ocean.

During a visit to Longwood in February, Tori McClure, a longtime explorer who is currently the president of Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, provided a glimpse into what motivated her to get into that boat, twice, and face the 3,300-mile journey. She told students and those attending a public lecture that she did it to overcome lifelong “feelings of helplessness,” which she called her “constant demon.”

“I had to row 3,000 miles across the ocean to learn that to be human is to be flawed,” McClure said. “I learned that I’m only human, and that’s enough. Halfway across the ocean on my second trip, I realized that I could bicycle to the moon and still feel helpless, which is being human.”

She made the historic 81-day, 3,300-mile trip in 1999 aboard American Pearl, a 23-foot boat she built herself. Waves were sometimes as high as a seven-story building; some days she traveled as little as 15 feet.

Her attempt to row across the ocean the year before ended after rowing for 85 days across more than 3,000 miles, only to be stopped by Hurricane Danielle, which nearly killed her.

“The hurricane was flinging me around like a pingpong ball, and my boat capsized five or six times,” McClure said. “One capsize dislocated my shoulder, and the next one put it back into place. My boat went so far under the water that my ears popped.”

Because all of her long-range communications had been disabled five days into the trip, she couldn’t radio for help. She was rescued by a passing container ship.

Afterward, depressed by her unsuccessful attempt, she worked for a year for legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, whose advice convinced her to try again. “He told me, ‘You don’t want to go through life as the woman who almost rowed the ocean.’”

On her ocean-rowing trips, she “smelled whale breath,” saw sea-turtles “the size of coffee tables,” as well as sharks and dolphins, and delighted in natural beauty. “The stars were magnificent. I couldn’t see the Big Dipper because there were so many stars. And it looked like there were a thousand lightning bugs in the water.”

Both voyages are chronicled in McClure’s memoir, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean. “Three-fourths of the book is about my failed trip. Like most people, I learn more from my failures than my successes.”

McClure also made headlines in 1989 as the first woman to ski to the geographic South Pole. “I went 50 days without a shower and with two pairs of socks. After three days, everything smells like Doritos,” she said of that trip.

McClure urged young people to get out of their comfort zones and “become comfortable with adversity.” “How do we, as human beings, test our limits if we don’t do things we haven’t done before?” she asked.

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