I knew every inch of the boat, which Id built with the help of friends in the bay of an old warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky. Wed conjured the vessel out of twenty-three sheets of marine plywood following a British design by Philip Morrison. The rowing deck was twelve inches above the surface of the water, and the tops of the gunwales, or sides of the boat, were two and a half feet above the waterline. If the boat hadnt been small enough to ride up and down on ocean swells like a cork, any wave bigger than two and a half feet would have washed over the sides. Water that washed in over the gunwales ran out through four scuppers, or drain holes, at the level of the rowing deck. The boat was designed like an old egg crate. Nine mahogany ribs ran from side to side. Eight of the ribs were divided by bow-to-stern stringers, one on each side of the centerline. These ribs and stringers separated the inner hull into a checkerboard of watertight compartments. We glued the sections with epoxy, reinforced the seams with fiberglass, and filled the voids with urethane foam. On the salary of a city employee, I couldnt afford to build a lighter, sleeker craft out of carbon fiber or Kevlar.
Of the eleven compartments under the rowing deck, seven stored food, two housed my sea anchors, and two larger compartments in the center of the boat next to the keel held my ballast tanks. For ballast, I would use seawater. Each of the two ballast tanks held just over twenty-five gallons. In rough weather, I would fill the tanks, placing four hundred pounds of water weight next to the keel at the bottom of the boat. This weight would lower the vertical center of gravity, making it more difficult for the boat to flip upside down. If the boat did flip, this ballast would help it to self-right. No one had ever rowed across the North Atlantic without capsizing.
The American Pearl was laden with gear and food for a hundred days. My sponsor, Sector Sport Watches, had chartered the motor launch Sinbad for members of the press, and they had hired a fishing vessel named Handful to tow the American Pearl to the center span under the Bonner Bridge, which connects Hatteras Island with the mainland. About a dozen friends had traveled from my hometown of Louisville, Kentuckyhome of all great ocean rowersto see me off. A few of them were with me aboard the Handful, but most were relegated to watching from the press boat.
I wished that Gérard could have been there. Gérard dAboville was the only person in my circle of friends who could truly appreciate the labyrinth I was about to enter. This world-renowned Frenchman had not only rowed solo across the North Atlantic but also rowed alone west to east across the Pacific. Gérard had traveled to North Carolina to assist me with final preparations.
Standing next to my six-foot frame, Gérard had seemed almost diminutive. He was no burly Hercules, but rather a small man with refined features. His manner was easy and unassuming, but at the same time entirely elegant. To apply a phrase I learned at Smith College, I lusted after his mind. Gérard had definite opinions about the technical elements of my journey. When he saw the American Pearl for the first time, Gérard had exclaimed, "It is a barge!"
As Gérard and I discussed knots, hardware, the rudder, and cables, he made suggestions to improve the margins of my safety. He was very concerned about the strength of my parachute-shaped sea anchors, and he spent the better part of two days making improvements to them. When the wind was against me, I would deploy the sea anchors at the back of the boat, and like the parachutes that slow race cars or the space shuttle, the sea anchors would slow the drift of the American Pearl.
The anchors would help to keep the boat perpendicular to the oncoming waves, making the boat less likely to capsize. I had three different sizes to use in varying conditions. In adverse winds, but relatively calm seas, I would deploy my biggest sea anchor. This anchor would firmly hold the boat. In rough water, the boat must be able to move with the waves or the sea anchor will either tear apart or break the fitting to which it is attached. So, my storm anchor was my smallest of the three. When conditions made it difficult to decide between the largest parachute or the smallest, I went with the one that was medium size. After all his work, Gérard wasnt satisfied. Doubt tinged his voice when he told me, "I hope they will do the job." We discussed the dangers of capsizing. Gérard explained, "You think you will become used to it, but you never do. When the boat is upside down, every time is as frightening as the first time." He told me that hed been on deck during one of his capsizes on the Pacific. Hed lost his temper and gone outside during a storm. With classic understatement he said, "This is not good," but the pain of the memory was written on his face. I waited, hoping that Gérard would tell me more, but he stopped himself. It was as if he didnt want to encumber my experience with too much foreshadowing. I told myself, Ill not be going on deck during any storms, but when Gérard suggested I lengthen my safety tether so I could get out from under the boat in a capsize, I doubled its length.
Excerpted from A Pearl in the Storm by Tori Murden McClure. Copyright © 2009 by Tori Murden McClure. Excerpted by permission of Collins, a division of HarperCollins, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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