Dawn Landes
1,278,923 views • 9:26

In June of 1998, Tori Murden McClure left Nags Head, North Carolina for France.

That's her boat, the American Pearl. It's 23 feet long and just six feet across at its widest point. The deck was the size of a cargo bed of a Ford F-150 pickup truck. Tori and her friends built it by hand, and it weighed about 1,800 pounds. Her plan was to row it alone across the Atlantic Ocean — no motor, no sail — something no woman and no American had ever done before. This would be her route: over 3,600 miles across the open North Atlantic Ocean.

Professionally, Tori worked as a project administrator for the city of Louisville, Kentucky, her hometown, but her real passion was exploring. This was not her first big expedition. Several years earlier, she'd become the first woman to ski to the South Pole. She was an accomplished rower in college, even competed for a spot on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, but this, this was different.

(Video) (Music) Tori Murden McClure: Hi. It's Sunday, July 5. Sector time 9 a.m. So that's Kentucky time now.

Dawn Landes: Tori made these videos as she rowed. This is her 21st day at sea. At this point, she'd covered over 1,000 miles, had had no radio contact in more than two weeks following a storm that disabled all her long-range communications systems just five days in. Most days looked like this. At this point, she'd rowed over 200,000 strokes, fighting the current and the wind. Some days, she traveled as little as 15 feet. Yeah. And as frustrating as those days were, other days were like this.

(Video) TMM: And I want to show you my little friends.

DL: She saw fish, dolphins, whales, sharks, and even some sea turtles. After two weeks with no human contact, Tori was able to contact a local cargo ship via VHF radio.

(Video) TMM: Do you guys have a weather report, over?

Man: Heading up to a low ahead of you but it's heading, and you're obviously going northeast and there's a high behind us. That'd be coming east-northeast also.

TMM: Good.

DL: She's pretty happy to talk to another human at this point.

(Video) TMM: So weather report says nothing dramatic is going to happen soon.

DL: What the weather report didn't tell her was that she was rowing right into the path of Hurricane Danielle in the worst hurricane season on record in the North Atlantic.

(Video) TMM: Just sprained my ankle. There's a very strong wind from the east now. It's blowing about. It's blowing! After 12 days of storm I get to row for four hours without a flagging wind. I'm not very happy right now. As happy as I was this morning, I am unhappy now, so ...

DL: After nearly three months at sea, she'd covered over 3,000 miles. She was two thirds of the way there, but in the storm, the waves were the size of a seven-story building. Her boat kept capsizing. Some of them were pitchpole capsizes, flipping her end over end, and rowing became impossible.

(Video) TMM: It's 6:30 a.m. I'm in something big, bad and ugly. Two capsizes. Last capsize, I took the rib off the top of my ceiling with my back. I've had about six capsizes now. The last one was a pitchpole. I have the Argus beacon with me. I would set off the distress signal, but quite frankly, I don't think they'd ever be able to find this little boat. It's so far underwater right now, the only part that's showing pretty much is the cabin. It's about 10 a.m. I've lost track of the number of capsizes. I seem to capsize about every 15 minutes. I think I may have broken my left arm. The waves are tearing the boat to shreds. I keep praying because I'm not sure I'm going to make it through this. DL: Tori set off her distress beacon and was rescued by a passing container ship. They found her abandoned boat two months later adrift near France. I read about it in the newspaper.

In 1998, I was a high school student living in Louisville, Kentucky. Now, I live in New York City. I'm a songwriter. And her bravery stuck with me, and I'm adapting her story into a musical called "Row." When Tori returned home, she was feeling disheartened, she was broke. She was having a hard time making the transition back into civilization.

In this scene, she sits at home. The phone is ringing, her friends are calling, but she doesn't know how to talk to them. She sings this song. It's called "Dear Heart."

(Guitar)

When I was dreaming,

I took my body

to beautiful places

I'd never been.

I saw Gibraltar,

and stars of Kentucky

burned in the moonlight,

making me smile.

And when I awoke here,

the sky was so cloudy.

I walked to a party

where people I know

try hard to know me

and ask where I've been,

but I can't explain

what I've seen to them.

Ah, listen, dear heart.

Just pay attention,

go right from the start.

Ah, listen, dear heart.

You can fall off the map,

but don't fall apart.

Ooh ooh ooh,

ah ah ah ah ah.

Ah ah,

ah ah ah.

When I was out there,

the ocean would hold me,

rock me and throw me,

light as a child.

But now I'm so heavy,

nothing consoles me.

My mind floats like driftwood,

wayward and wild.

Ah, listen, dear heart.

Just pay attention,

go right from the start.

Ah, listen, dear heart.

You can fall off the map,

but don't fall apart.

Ooh.

Eventually, Tori starts to get her feet under her. She starts hanging out with her friends again. She meets a guy and falls in love for the first time. She gets a new job working for another Louisville native, Muhammad Ali. One day, at lunch with her new boss, Tori shares the news that two other women are setting out to row across the mid-Atlantic, to do something that she almost died trying to do.

His response was classic Ali: "You don't want to go through life as the woman who almost rowed across the ocean."

He was right. Tori rebuilt the American Pearl, and in December of 1999, she did it.

(Applause) (Guitar)

Thank you.

(Applause)