Tori Murden McClure

A Pearl in the Storm

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A Pearl in the Storm Summary

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Tori Murden McClure’s A Pearl in the Storm is her debut memoir about her experience in 1999 rowing a boat across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands to Guadalupe, an 81-day, 3,300-mile long trip. She holds a number of honors, including being the first American and first woman to row alone across the Atlantic. She is also an avid mountaineer and part of a group of people who were the first Americans to travel to the South Pole via land. Her memoir recounts her intense journey, her childhood, and her time on land between the two attempts, and it grapples with failure, human emotion, pride, perseverance, and self-acceptance.

The name of the memoir comes from the name of her boat the American Pearl – but a physical pearl becomes a central metaphor of the memoir. She embraces her Masai friend’s tradition of wearing beads to represent his friendships. She does something similar, except with pearls. She then takes up the growth of a grain of sand into a pearl as a metaphor for the way dreams can grow into reality.

McClure originally attempts the journey in June 1998 and fails. Using a twenty-three-foot long boat made of plywood, with no motor or sail, she sets out on her journey. She quickly loses communication to the mainland and is thus unable to be warned about dangerous weather ahead. She is met with one of the worst hurricane seasons of all time and is almost killed in Hurricane Danielle, badly bruised and bloodied. She pushes herself, not sending an emergency beacon immediately, instead, facing danger rather than failure. Eventually, she sets off the beacon and is rescued. This failure wounds her pride, and part of the memoir is her grappling with this defeat before her second, successful attempt.

Before her second attempt, back living in Kentucky at age thirty-five, she falls in love and battles with depression. She describes this as her first serious relationship and even more emotionally challenging than her first rowing attempt. As a self-perceived loner, letting someone else into her life is a drastic change. Coming to terms with this aspect of her personality and giving in to love ultimately contributes to the support she needs to try again. Working with Muhammad Ali, he reinvigorates her desire to succeed and restores her pride when he tells her there’s no glory in almost rowing across the Atlantic, that not trying is the true failure. The combination of her relationship and support from others pushes her to try again.

Throughout the memoir, in addition to recounting her first and second journey, she talks about her personal life and childhood. Her relationship with her brother Lamar, who is intellectually disabled, greatly shapes her decision to attempt to cross the Atlantic. When they were children, their family would move every couple of years. In one incident, she describes defending her brother on the playground after he is assaulted with a rock; this sets the stage for a greater discussion about justice. She attempts to take on battles too great, which leaves her feeling helpless. To combat this feeling, she would take on challenges that were primarily physical. She comes to the conclusion that no matter what she accomplishes, humanity and relationships are most important, and helplessness is a part of that.

Another personal element in the memoir is her relationship to sports as a woman. As an adolescent, she possesses great athletic ability but is excluded from many teams and events because she is a girl. This translates to the expectations set during her first and second attempts. Many question her ability to cross the Atlantic because she is a woman, especially for the second attempt, as she has failed once. Even more so, she is often questioned why even do it in the first place, and McClure wonders if people would be so questioning if it were a man making the attempt.

As she prepares for the second attempt, she is faced with a number of challenges, both externally and internally. First is gaining the courage and overcoming her wounded pride. She is also racing against time, as two other women are gearing up to attempt the crossing. While being “first” is just a title, this is part of her self-set challenge. Lastly, she overcomes the challenge of public doubt, which primarily comes from the double standard of her being a woman.

Describing the voyage, the memoir becomes adventurous and suspenseful. It is a physical challenge that, at times, requires even stronger mental fortitude, dealing with isolation and finding courage. On her trip, she brings pieces of art, including music, books, and, strangely, portraits of presidents for inspiration. To pass the time, McClure listens to a lecture on Aristotle, leading to a rumination on the relationship between knowledge and courage, which she connects to her task at hand.

She is successful and extremely proud of her accomplishment. Her inspiration to write the memoir comes more from what she learned on her journey rather than the success itself. Her life becomes more meaningful through these lessons, and she finds greater power in relationships and humanity in general. She finds what will be fulfilling in her life besides extreme physical goals that push human ability. Through this challenge, she learns that life is not about being superhuman but rather is about accepting who you are. Tori is now the President of Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.