When Tori Murden shoved off from the Canary Island of Tenerife in early September, she had one simple—albeit ambitious—goal: to become the first woman, and the first American, to row solo and unsupported across the Atlantic Ocean. Murden, in her 23-foot boat, American Pearl, was looking at roughly three months and 3,000 miles on the open seas with only her arms and legs for power.
This was not the first time that Murden, 36, a development director for the planned Muhammad Ali educational center in Louisville, had tried an Atlantic crossing. In June 1998 Murden departed from Nags Head, N.C., with hopes of reaching Brest, France, in American Pearl, which is built of plywood reinforced with fiberglass and covered with Kevlar. From the start her journey was rough. After two weeks at sea she capsized and damaged the boat's satellite communication system. That meant no contact with the outside world for 78 days.
After 85 days at sea Murden was hit by the tail end of Hurricane Danielle in the North Atlantic, 950 miles from her destination. She hunkered down in her dark, coffin-sized cabin while 50-foot waves threatened to make flotsam out of American Pearl. In the early hours of Sept. 4, after having capsized five times, she crawled out of her cabin to retrieve the emergency-position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) from the bow. Once on deck she saw the ferocious storm and realized that a call for help would require some other soul to risk his life trying to save hers. "I went through six more capsizes that day with the beacon in my hand without pushing the button," says Murden, who points out that American Pearl automatically rights itself and also has a self-bailer.
Remarkably, she survived the storm, though she suffered a dislocated shoulder and a concussion that forced her to abandon her effort. She activated the distress beacon and was picked up by a nearby container ship. Her injuries healed and within a few months her desire to make the crossing only became stronger. A year after her near-death experience with Danielle, Murden flew from Louisville to Los Gigantes, Tenerife, where on Sept. 13 she launched her second transatlantic attempt, bound for Guadeloupe, reversing her direction and choosing a route that was shorter, warmer and less stormy.
Two months into her east-to-west odyssey Murden was on target to break the world record—73? days—for a solo crossing of the Atlantic in a rowboat, set by Sidney Genders of Great Britain in 1970. That's when things started going wrong. The wind shifted, and Murden found herself rowing against heavy seas. Sleeping was difficult, and conditions worsened. On Nov. 15 Murden suffered through an interminable night. "It was about 110 degrees inside the cabin and very damp," she wrote. "I feel as if I have been body-slammed by the governor of Minnesota, several hundred times." Later that day Murden spoke to Diane Stege, a member of the support team in Louisville that was monitoring her progress. Stege explained the cause of the foul weather: Hurricane Lenny.
In the days that followed, Murden waited and wondered if Lenny would come her way. On Nov. 20 she learned that Lenny, which had been downgraded to a tropical storm, was heading straight for her. Murden battened down the hatches in a torrential downpour. By nightfall she had crawled into her cabin and changed into dry clothing. Within minutes her boat capsized and then righted itself.
Inside the cabin she worked to keep the boat upright. "It was a really loud storm," says Murden, who set out sea anchors to keep the boat from drifting too far. "Every time my anchor lines tightened up, it sounded like a gunshot or a cannon going off." She calmed herself by singing hymns at the top of her lungs. By dawn the worst was over.
Eager by then to finish, Murden rowed through most nights. Early last Friday morning she came into Bas-du-Fort on the southeast coast of Guadeloupe. She had been alone on the ocean for 82 days and 2,961 miles. Within hours of her arrival Murden was being interviewed by CNN: "There are times that are incredibly sublime, and you feel like you're at once that puny speck of nothing and part of a grand universe. There are other times when it's frightening and just lonely. And so along the roller coaster there are grand moments and sad moments, but I wouldn't trade them for anything."
Her next goal? "A shower, and a nap."