McClure describes life surfing the dragon's tail
By Rita Papazian
Posted: 05/22/2009

Tori Murden McClure stood tall behind the podium in the Rotary Room of the Fairfield Public Library Monday evening. It's not just because the author of A Pearl in the Storm: How I found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean, is more than 6 feet tall. It's not that she has B.A. from Smith College, a master's in divinity from Harvard, a J.D. from from the University of Louisville, and a M.F.A. in writing from Spalding University.

It's not only the fact that she rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, but that she rowed across the Atlantic twice. The feat makes her the first woman to row alone across the ocean. Oh, she is also one of the first six Americans to travel over land to the geographic South Pole. And for good measure, she has climbed on several continents and was the first woman to climb Lewis Nunatuck in Antarctica.


That is not a question McClure enjoys being asked. In her book, which is a memoir, the author weaves two narratives. First, she offers a detailed description of her two rows; one is a west-to-east route from North Carolina to France, in which she fell short 900 miles before having to be rescued; and the second is the successful attempt rowing west-to-east from Africa to the Caribbean.

In her book she writes, "With the question of 'why' comes a subtle accusation that one is doing something wrong. 'Why' is not a simple question, and I couldn't produce a simple answer, only simple evasions."
Kevin Silk, who was among more than 60 people who came to hear McClure's talk asked "why" she would go back into the boat -- which was 23 feet long and 6 feet wide -- to row across again. Privately, Silk, who owns a 28-foot powerboat, noted that what McClure did, "was such a dangerous thing, it fascinated me why someone would take such a risk [a second time]."

McClure did address the question of "why." Her second narrative is a chronological summary of her growing up the middle of three children. One of her two brothers, Lamar, was "developmentally disabled." She explained that growing up with Lamar, she had felt guilty that she had not been able to protect him. In her book, she writes a vivid detail of an attack on her brother by a group of boys and how it affected her.

"From that day forward, every fight, every insult, every injury added fuel to the rage I could not navigate."

Her feelings of having failed to protect her brother transferred to setting goals and challenges for herself. In doing so, she admitted she was also shutting out love. She would rather face all the intellectual and physical changes that she had set up for herself, not only in the educational degrees she earned but also in her ability to face the elements, including the worst hurricane season on the Atlantic during her first attempt to cross the ocean in 1998, when she rowed 3,000 miles in 85 days. Her second trip a year later was accomplished in 81 days and 3,333 miles.

Incidentally, she decided the second crossing because Muhammad Ali, for whom she had worked in Louisville, said to here, "Why would you want to be the first woman to have almost rowed across the Atlantic Ocean?"

McClure begins her book with the statement: "In the end I know I rowed across the Atlantic to find my heart, but in the beginning, I wasn't aware that it was missing." She had asked her uncle if she should write the book as a comedy, a history, a tragedy or a romance? When, he answered, "romance," she doubted he was right.

"Romance was out of my depth."

Little did she realize how wrong she would become in her thinking for between the first and second rows, she met her future husband, 20 years her senior, and during her second row even proposed to him while still working to complete her mission. They have been married nearly 10 years now.

During a brief interview prior to her talk, the author elaborated further about challenging herself and reasons for writing the book. She wrote mainly so that high school students would read the book and realize that life shouldn't be about doing things to win. "It's about who you are. What makes you tick? Be honest to who you are."

McClure shares her honest thoughts and motivations about who she really is. Her memoir is told in a very methodical and detailed manner wrapped with humor and self-deprecation when she finds herself battered by Mother Nature, although thankfully still tethered to her "American Pearl," a plywood boat with no motor or sail. She describes naming the boat this way:

"In ancient China, dragons were considered creatures of great power and positive force. In works of art these dragons were often depicted holding a pearl. The pearl was a symbol of internal change. I am in the 'American Pearl,' on the ocean, surfing the dragon's tail."

As one would imagine in reading a book by someone who has earned degrees in religion, law and writing and who challenged herself not only mentally, but physically, that she would tell her personal story with a great deal of wisdom from others she has met on her journey of life thus far.

Here are sample writings from her book:

"I had tried to convince myself that losing communications was a good thing because it forced me to live within myself. It is a tenet of monastic traditions that it is only when a life cannot spread out that it is able to rise to greater heights. I valued solitude."

At Smith College, she would ask the college President Jill Ker Conway; "Why would a woman like you, who wasn't raised in any particular religious tradition choose to become a Catholic?

Conway replied: "Power is never given. Power must be taken."

"These words passed through me like a bolt of lightning. I'd never hear anything so audacious in all my life. I was awestruck. The friend seated next to me waited a moment before whispering in my ear, 'Have you any more questions?'"

While doing her field work as a hospital chaplain, she met Joseph Curran, a Jesuit priest battling cancer. He told her, "You can't travel the road to wisdom in a featherbed."

In her book she devotes pages to her thesis for her master's in divinity degree, which in essence explains her reasons for facing all the challenges she had set for herself:

"I wanted to show that human beings are worth more than what they own or what they earn. We must not take jobs we don't enjoy, buy things we don't need, worry about impressing people we don't like. Intellectual gluttony is a virtue; material gluttony is not. We must make shared experience more than watching television together; we can no longer afford to draw imaginary lines on the earth and say, 'Over there lesser people live.' We can no longer leave those people behind."

Billie Jean Sullivan, executive director of the Fairfield Arts Council, said that the author's talk "struck a chord about how powerful women put their passion into motion."

Bill Lerchen, whose wife Meg is the children's librarian at the Fairfield Library, said "It's a remarkable story" especially in the way she shared her deeply felt reasons for taking the trips. "It was powerful to hear," he said.

Local resident Jennifer Gillis attended the talk with her 10-year-old daughter Eleanor, a fifth grader at Riverfield School. Gillis was a member of the Class of '85 at Smith College with McClure.

Did she know the author at Smith?

"Everyone did. She was very outgoing, very friendly and a superb athlete," recalled Gillis, who had read the book. "Her descriptions are so vivid and detailed."

Gillis said she liked the way the author balanced her extraordinary family story -- with family and friends -- with her challenges. "What's so curious about her is while she was so consumed with the monumental tasks that she accomplished, she realized that it was nice to have someone to share it with."

When asked what she did after graduating from Smith, Gillis said she traveled around the world and took up residency in Hong Kong as a "journalist and night club DJ."

McClure spoke at the library at the invitation of Assistant Director Karen Ronald who had received an advanced copy of the book from the publisher, Collins, an imprint Harper/Collins Publishers. Collins, unfortunately is no longer publishing; therefore, Ronald invited everyone who has read the book to spread the word of the book which was recently released.

"It's a wonderful story," said Ronald, who loves adventure stories.