Gérard was a member of the European Parliament, and duty called him home just before my departure. Saying goodbye had been difficult. We didnt exchange many words, but Gérards eyes were eloquent. I imagined he envied me a little, but there was something else, a sense of sorrow. The lessons of the ocean can be difficult.
I think Gérard understood that I was the kind of person who is inclined to go the hard way, and I think he recognized just how much it was going to hurt. As an athlete, I understood physical pain. Rowing twelve hours a day, day after day, for months would not be easy. What Gérard could not tell me was that crossing an ocean of solitude would tax more then muscle and joint.
Standing on the deck of the Handful and looking down on the American Pearl, I was proud of my little red, white, and blue rowboat. The American Pearl might have been a homemade barge, but she was my homemade barge. The tide chart indicated that the high tide would crest at 1:00 p.m. After we reached the bridge, the captain of the Handful explained that the tide at the bridge wouldnt turn for another hour. Not wishing to row a 2,800-pound boat against an incoming tide, I turned to my friend Molly Bingham and asked her to wake me up after the tide shifted. Then I stretched out on the deck of the Handful and took a nap. A little after 2:00 p.m., Molly woke me.
I rose and began the task of hugging friends goodbye. Noreen Powers and Scott Shoup had been invaluable captains in the team of people who helped me to build the American Pearl. Bob Hurley, the other chief builder, hadnt been able to make the trip from Kentucky to the coast. I asked Noreen and Scott to tell Bob goodbye for me. Noreen and another friend, Louise Graff, wished me well. Scott pulled the American Pearl alongside and held her steady. Then I climbed over the rail of the Handful and took my place aboard my little "barge." Scott tossed me the bowline and gave the American Pearl a gentle pat on her nose.
At precisely 2:18 p.m., I dropped my oar blades into the salt water and pulled three colossal strokes. The boat didnt move. I wondered if some joker had anchored the American Pearl to the bridge while Id been napping. The boat with the photographers snapping pictures and shooting video hovered less than twenty yards away. This is not good. I was already self-conscious. My sponsor had uniformed me in a blue polo shirt and lime green shorts. The ill-fitting shorts accentuated the extra fifteen pounds Id deliberately packed on before the trip. I felt ungainly.
Id better get this barge moving. The sliding seat allowed me to use my legs. These werent dainty limbs. Id been training for this trip for almost three years, logging endless hours rowing my single scull up and down the Ohio River. I could pull twice my body weight on the seated row. I did sit-ups holding a 45-pound plate, and I could legpress more than 650 pounds. Even the football players in the weight room had stopped trying to hassle me. I slid my seat as far forward as possible, placed my oars in the water, and shoved with all the force my legs could muster. The boat began to inch toward France. After a few more strokes, the boat picked up speed, but I wasnt exactly flying. At four-and-a-half miles per hour, I would cross the 3,600 miles of the Atlantic Ocean at a walking pace.
It took me a full twenty minutes to row the first mile to the sea buoy that marked the separation between Oregon Inlet and the Atlantic Ocean. Boats in the flotilla that accompanied me began to turn around long before I reached open ocean. As I was about to pass the sea buoy, the last two vessels navigated around me in slow circles. The friends aboard the press boat said their goodbyes, and they headed back toward the bridge.
The Handful was the last vessel to leave. The crew aboard the Handful had supervised my sea trials, and they were reluctant to bid me farewell. Finally, even the Handful showed me her stern. Because rowers row facing the direction of where they have been, rather than the direction they are going, I could watch Handful getting smaller and smaller as it motored toward safe harbor. I rowed for another half an hour before I stopped to change out of the blue polo shirt covered with Sector Sport Watches logos and into a white shirt that would reflect the heat of the June sun.
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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