Author and adventurer Tori Murden McClure holds a scale model of American Pearl, the specially designed rowboat in which she crossed the Atlantic.
PANAMA CITY - Tori Murden McClure enters the Bay High School media center dressed in a black suit with a red scarf. She's tall, 6-foot-something. Her short dark hair is frosted with gray, and her posture is perfect. She reaches back, under the tail of her suit coat, and brings her book out from where she had been carrying it in her waistband.
“A Pearl in the Storm” is her account of rowing solo across the Atlantic — her preparation, the life that led up to it, the first failed attempt (a hurricane got in the way) and her eventual success (despite a second hurricane). She tells of encounters with a whale and a shark, she tells of despair after being battered by the first hurricane, which flipped the boat several times and dislocated her shoulder. But mostly:
“There's lots of rowing that happens in this book," she says. She riffles through the pages. “Rowing, rowing, rowing. More rowing.” She thumbs further. “Rowing, rowing, rowing.”
The students laugh. About 60 of them from three classrooms sprawl about the space in varying stages of attentiveness. One kid works on a Rubik's Cube. One desperately inserts herself into the discussion at every opportunity. But all are listening. McClure is difficult to ignore, full of verve and intensity.
A student asks McClure why she wanted to row solo across the Atlantic, and she says, “That's why I had to write a 300-page book. To answer that question.” But she considers it further and adds, “I did it to find my heart.”
McClure, now 45, was 36 in 1999 when she rowed the Atlantic. Before that, she was the first American to ski to the geographic South Pole (she was one of two women to make the trip, and they touched the pole marker simultaneously, sharing the honor of being the first women to make the journey overland).
The Atlantic journey took 81 days and covered 2,962 miles, from the Canary Islands to Guadeloupe. She survived on granola, energy bars, Triscuits and M&Ms.
“If the crunch of Triscuits is what is fascinating to you, you are truly sensory deprived,” she says to the students.
McClure says one of the revelations of the journey was that she finally realized everything she did in life was about establishing control over her portion of the universe. She thought if she was smart enough or strong enough, she could protect those who mattered to her. In the process, however, she never made the time to find love.
It took eight years to write the book, as “I kept writing a really bad book,” she explains. In various incarnations, it was about how great she was to accomplish all the things she has done, or it was a gut wrenching story of her sense of loneliness at sea and sense of failure. Both were true, she says, but the neither was the full story.
“Truth is easy,” she says. “Authenticity is somewhere in the middle.”
A student asks what is next for her, and McClure says she has applied for the president’s job at Spaulding University, where she is vice president for external relations, enrollment management and student affairs. She adds that her experience has been that the world opens doors at the right time, and “What I’m supposed to do next always becomes apparent.”
Such as writing “A Pearl in the Storm.” One reason she kept rewriting was to make the book appropriate for all ages. It was important to her that it could be placed in school libraries. She wanted teenagers to know that everyone faces uncertainty and that they should not give up, no matter how bad things may seem sometimes.
“We all have moments of doubt,” she says. “Don’t listen to people who tell you, ‘These are the best years of your life.’ Being a teenager is hard. These are not the best years of your life. It gets better.”