One night waves whipped the bow so violently that he woke up the next day unable to turn his head. He made a neck brace by hand-stitching old sponges inside a towel.
Who is the man at the oars, alone in the middle of the ocean? What is his purpose? Ten-foot swells roll beneath the little boat, ferrying it into the troughs, then lifting it, presenting the horizon in queasy undulations. He drives his feet against a brace plate, dunking the carbon-fiber blades, putting the full power of his Popeye forearms and blocky shoulders into his strokes. The oarlocks groan; the Calderdale slips a few more feet through black water.
The date was December 3, 2007. Erden Eruc, a 46-year-old Turkish-American software engineer from Seattle, had been on the Pacific for 147 days, struggling forward in a 24-foot plywood rowboat. For weeks there had been rain on and off; his world was sodden and gray. Salt sores—burning red boils raised by chafing and sea spray—covered his arms and thighs. He was roughly halfway between Northern California, where he’d started, and the eastern coast of Australia, his destination, a distance of more than 10,000 miles. He’d recently reached the equator, where crosscurrents, fierce winds, and powerful waves had forced him off course. A man in a rowboat generates only about half a unit of horsepower, so Eruc was often at the mercy of domineering seas. He checked his GPS coordinates and confirmed what he feared: for the past 16 days he’d been rowing in a vast circle, getting nowhere.
Only a few people have crossed the Pacific by rowboat, but for Eruc this was merely the start of a far more daunting objective. In July 2007, he had set out from Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, hoping to become the first person to circumnavigate the planet solo, entirely under his own power—no motors, no sails, no means of propulsion other than his strength. His plan was to travel across three oceans and six continents by boat, bike, and foot, more than 40,000 miles in all.
Historically, groundbreaking around-the-world voyages like this have attracted enthusiastic public attention. In 1967, a quarter-million cheering Brits greeted Francis Chichester when he sailed into Plymouth, England, at the end of his solo circumnavigation; he was later knighted and put on a postage stamp. But there was nothing like that for Eruc. Potential sponsors balked at signing on; the National Geographic Society told him in 2001 that it preferred short, focused projects. He was able to coax a Novara mountain bike from REI, where he worked part-time for a while after losing a corporate tech-consulting job in 2000. Though a few other companies chipped in—weatherproof panniers from Ortlieb, a boatload of wholesale dehydrated food from Mountain House—his journey was lonely and largely anonymous.
Eruc founded a non-profit, Around-n-Over, and assembled a support team, including his wife, Nancy Board, a human-resources executive from Chicago; Bill Hinsley, an environmental program manager in the Bay Area; and Graeme Welsh, a boisterous Australian hairdresser and part-time bartender whose duties weren’t exactly clear other than being the Life of the Party. Fundraising didn’t bring in enough, so Eruc tapped his own nest egg and borrowed. The circumnavigation, which played out between 2007 and 2012, put him more than $200,000 in debt.
In the summer of 2012, against all odds, Eruc was closing in on the finish line with a 2,389-mile bike trip from Louisiana to California. I’d been following his expedition from a distance for several years, checking out progress reports on his website. Eruc would go silent for weeks and months at a stretch, but I was riveted: 161 days spent rowing the Indian Ocean, three months on a bike in wildest Africa, almost a full year grinding across the Pacific. The risks were considerable—failure, madness, death—and the scale of the project completely preposterous.
As it happened, Eruc’s bike trip would take him through northern New Mexico, where I live, and he agreed to let me ride with him for a few days. Two weeks later, I met him in the town of Springer, crunching into the gravel lot of a low-budget hotel where Eruc and Board, who had driven down from Seattle, had stopped for the night.
Though I had a general idea of what Eruc looked like, he still surprised me in person. Now 51, he was stocky, almost portly, hardly the sinewy castaway I’d expected to see. His thighs looked like two huge hams wrapped in Spandex. He was friendly but formal, and he spoke in a slight accent, carefully, as if he was used to explaining things. An engineer to the core, he would respond with a dry “Correct” if you said something he agreed with.