On the morning of April 22, 2021, Earth Day, Erden Eruç of Wauna, 59, plans to row a boat through San Francisco’s Golden Gate all the way to Hong Kong alone. It will be the first nonstop mainland-to-mainland crossing by rowboat, a journey of at least 7,800 nautical miles. He expects to take 10 months.
But he’ll just be getting started.
From Hong Kong, Eruç will bicycle to Tibet, where he will summit Mount Everest. He will then bike across the deserts and mountains of Xinjiang Province of northwest China to Kyrgyzstan and around the Caspian Sea through Kazakhstan to Georgia to climb Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Russia and Europe. From there he will pedal on to Turkey, his homeland, and across Europe to the southwest corner of Portugal.
“There I will relaunch my rowboat for Brazil or the Guianas,” Eruç said. “Approaching Brazil will be challenging with the currents, so the Guianas may be an easier landing. Then I need to work my way south to Aconcagua,” the tallest mountain outside Asia. “So, I have it planned that far. First I have to get across the Pacific.”
He is not as casual as he might sound. It’s just that he’s done this kind of thing before.
Eruç completed the first solo human-powered circumnavigation in 2012 after five years and 41,196 miles by rowboat, sea kayak, foot and bicycle, climbing three of the six highest peaks on different continents along the way and setting 13 world records (he now has 16).
He wants to complete his goal of climbing the six highest summits on six continents, excluding Antarctica, the same way.
Eruç was born on Cyprus in 1961 and grew up in Turkey. His father introduced him to mountaineering when he was 11. He received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1986 at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, then went to Ohio State University where he got a second master’s in engineering mechanics.
In 1997, he was working in a software development lab in Washington, D.C., while earning an MBA at George Mason University. There was an unusual map on the lab wall with the Pacific Ocean in the center and landmasses circling around it. One day, Eruç found himself tracing a line with his finger from D.C. to Turkey, wondering if someone could make it all that way under their own power.
It became a quiet obsession.
“One of the books I read was by Göran Kropp, ‘Ultimate High.’ He bicycled from Sweden to Nepal in 1996 and climbed Everest.” Kropp summited without Sherpas or oxygen just days after a storm killed eight climbers on the mountain, the deadliest climbing season in its history.
Eruç had moved to Seattle by 1999 and joined the Cascade Section of the American Alpine Club, where he met Kropp at a presentation the following year.
“I got to spend some time with him before the audience arrived and shared my ideas with him. He asked tough questions: ‘When are you starting? Do you have sponsors?’ I didn’t have answers.”
By then the dot-com bubble was bursting. “I was laid off with two master’s degrees in engineering and an MBA, and was trying to figure out what the next step would be,” Eruç said.
Then 9/11 happened and hiring freezes spread across the IT sector.
“Things fell apart for reasons outside of my control, and I felt lost,” Eruç said. “So I thought maybe I should become a mountain guide.” He took the wilderness first responder course as a first step. One week later, in September 2002, he met up with Kropp for their first climb together. It was at Frenchman’s Coulee near Vantage, and Kropp died in an accident. “He fell and there was nothing I could do about it,” Eruç said.
That was the turning point.
“I first thought of this idea to go around the Northern Hemisphere in ’97,” he said. “It evolved into a circumnavigation, where I would come back to where I started, and as of September 2002 five years had passed and I hadn’t started. On the plane back from his funeral I drew the world map on a napkin, the proverbial napkin, marked the highest summit on each continent and traced a line between and said ‘I’m going to climb each one of these in Göran’s memory.’ ”
But first he talked it over with his then fiancé, Nancy Board, an avid outdoorswoman and mental health professional. “I sat across the table from her and said I have to do this, and she said ‘You will, you must,’ and we never looked back.”
Eruç cashed out his 401K, struggled to find sponsors, and did some training. He biked from Seattle to Alaska to summit Mount McKinley and back in 2003, then bought a used ocean-going rowboat and took it alone from the Canary Islands to Guadeloupe in 2006. He also founded a nonprofit called Around-n-Over to attract sponsors to assist the communities he visited around the world, where he spoke about human-powered exploration at schools, clubs and civic events.
He launched his first circumnavigation from Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, July 10, 2007, and reached the waters of Papua New Guinea, 5,514 nautical miles as the crow flies but after rowing 9,684 miles total in 312 days before being stopped by typhoon season. He and his boat were picked up by fishermen, who returned him to the same spot months later when conditions permitted, and he continued to Australia.
“Nancy met me there,” he said, and they climbed Australia’s highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko — “just a hill,” he said, at 7,310 feet. Eruç then biked to Perth and met his rowboat for the next leg of the journey.
“I bypassed Everest and Elbrus for lack of funds,” he said. “The international financial crisis in 2008 did not help and we already had a six-figure budget, so I went straight across to Africa.”
Eruç thereby completed the first ever mainland-to-mainland solo row across the Indian Ocean, covering 5,086 nautical miles in 163 days, while becoming the first person to have rowed the three major oceans alone.
“In June of 2011, I was up Kilimanjaro, again with Nancy.” He was also joined by his 79-year-old father and a dozen friends, who came to help with the efforts of Around-n-Over to build a classroom for the children of Arusha, at the foot of the mountain.
Eruç bicycled across Africa to Namibia and launched again. He covered 5,400 nautical miles in 154 days to reach Guiria, Venezuela, the longest distance covered by human power on the Atlantic. He then rowed northwest to Cameron, Louisiana, completing the first non-stop row across the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico — 2,589 nautical miles in 67 days — making him the most experienced solo ocean rower alive.
He biked across the western U.S. to finish the circumnavigation at his starting point on Bodega Bay July 21, 2012, after taking breaks between each leg of the trip.
“Nobody really knows what it’s going to be, but I took it one journey at a time,” said his wife Nancy, who also serves on the board of Around-n-Over. “I kind of went through my own internal expedition to see how resilient I was. If he was up for this then I didn’t want to look back on my life one day and say, ‘Oh, I gave up too easily.’
“I think back now about this and, you know, we’ve made it through Covid in a year,” she said. “If you think about your coping mechanisms, it’s really about taking it a day at a time and making choices on a daily basis. ‘Today I’m going to do this, or this is what my life is now,’ and before I knew it a year had gone by.”
Eruç will set or break records crossing the Pacific this second time, some of which he already holds. The overall solo rowing record of 937 days was set by Peter Bird, who was lost at sea in 1996 trying to row from Vladivostok to California.
“Mine stands at 934 right now, so four days after I launch I’ll take that over also. I carry Peter’s logo on my rowboat.” Eruç’s last big row was from Monterey to Hawaii in summer 2016 to win the Great Pacific Race, which he did with Peter’s son, Louis, who was a toddler when his father died. “We set the record for that route too, 54 days,” Eruç said.
“When I do ocean crossings, I set daily goals: 30 miles downwind, 40, never 2,000 miles across the water. So when I get to that mile mark I have completed my task for the day. You do that every day, day after day, and you taste success. You are in this state of mind that allows you to press on because you are succeeding, you are making progress, you are in charge of your destiny as much as the oceans allow. So, carry on with gratitude. That’s really the mindset out there,” he said.
“Remember that saying, ‘Beware of people who dream during the day,’ from Lawrence of Arabia? When I talk to children, my message is to acknowledge our dreams. Often we become the worst enemy of our own dreams. We find excuses, we find ways that this will not be possible because, like our family, we know our own weaknesses and we fall victim to the same. But it is possible to grow, it is possible to change.
“When I had the idea of circumnavigation by human power it was such a big journey that I had to become the person who could establish world records and historic firsts. When I started, I had no such ambition. What, who, me? When we set ourselves such big goals, the steps that we take have to be commensurate. They have to be giant leaps and bounds. And each one of those steps becomes a journey in its own right.
“And as far as naysayers go, at each junction when I take the next step the naysayers don’t show up. The only ones who matter are those who are standing by me and supporting me, and new faces will appear because they coalesce around the dream. It’s not necessarily me, I am just the face, the engine, for the dream itself; what attracts them is the dream. As the dream moves, so do people.”
Follow Erden Eruç’s expedition at http://www.ErdenEruc.com
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