Gig Harbor resident Erden Eruç (“AIR-den AIR-rooch”), 61, was on the Pacific Ocean somewhere between Hawaii and Taiwan the night of Dec. 3, 2021, when a rogue wave capsized his sea-going rowboat.
“I was tied to the mattress on purpose to make sure I kept the center of mass low,” he said. “The worst thing that could happen would be that I am thrown onto the ceiling of the upturned vessel; that shifting of ballast means the boat would never right itself.”
The self-bailing boat rolled about 150 degrees before resurfacing with damage to it port side and the loss of two of four oars. Eruç spent the next two days riding out a storm in the tiny, watertight cabin, about the size of a single bunk with a few inches of headroom. “The tropical heat and humidity made my time in the cabin miserable,” he said, soaking him in his own sweat.
That was six months into his nine-month crossing, when Eruç became the first person to row from North America to Asia on what is just the first leg of his SECOND solo human-powered circumnavigation.
Eruç launched from Crescent City, Calif., June 22, 2021, bound for Hong Kong. After diverting to Oahu for repairs and then Guam due to weather, he made landfall at Legazpi City on the island of Luzon in the Philippines March 24, 2022, where he was forced to temporarily suspend his expedition to wait out typhoon season. He had rowed approximately 7,800 miles over 239 days, or about 33 miles a day.
His original plan after reaching Hong Kong was to bicycle to Tibet and climb Mount Everest, then continue by bike across Central Asia to the Caucasus Mountain range that stretches from the Black to the Caspian Seas between Russia and Georgia, where he would summit Mount Elbrus, the tallest (18,510 feet) in Europe, before continuing to Portugal and the Americas for more of the same.
The journey is a continuation of Eruç’s FIRST solo human-powered circumnavigation, which he completed in 2012 after five years and 41,196 miles by rowboat, sea kayak, foot, and bicycle. En route, he climbed three of the world’s six highest peaks on three different continents, setting 18 world records along the way.
This time he wants to climb the remaining three peaks on three more continents after reaching them under his own power. He will be livestreaming or visiting classrooms and civic clubs along the way to discuss plastic pollution in the oceans and sustainable environmental practices through his work with the nonprofit Ocean Recovery Alliance and his own nonprofit, Around-n-Over.
“After I left California, I could see plastic pollution on the water — a Styrofoam cup here, a plastic bit there, a fender that got loose — maybe once a week,” Eruç said. “And then as I got further across, closer to the Philippines, past Guam, I started seeing it every day, then every hour as the concentration of the plastic pollution started increasing. All of these windward facing islands (in the Philippines) have their beaches covered with debris that comes across the ocean from afar.”
“He was home for about nine months and then left for the Philippines right after Christmas,” said his wife, Nancy Board. “Now he’s got a whole new group of people in this town (Legazpi) that he showed up in. There’s always somebody, no matter how remote of a place we need help in; somebody shows up.
“In this world where there is so much pain and suffering, so much going on, these are the kind of stories nobody knows about and really should be told,” she said.
Eruç planned to resume his journey on a borrowed bicycle January 18 from the waterfront in Legazpi, on the east coast of Luzon, to pedal 604 miles to Currimao on the northwest coast. There he plans to take his rowboat west across the South China Sea to Danang, Vietnam, in mid-February. The direct route to Danang is about 710 nautical miles, but that would take Eruç straight through the disputed Paracel Islands, where China has a robust military presence.
“It’s a huge risk,” Board said. “China has not been cooperating at all and he’s going to get into some treacherous waters, busy shipping lanes. He’ll make a decision about a route once he gets there and just do his level best to get across and hopefully not be harassed.” Given Eruç’s ability, together with fair winds and currents, the crossing to Danang should take three weeks, she said. From there, he plans to bicycle to Portugal.
If Eruç does not go through China, since he has been unable to get a visa from China, he can take an alternative route biking from Vietnam through Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, with a possible side trip to Nepal to climb Everest, then on to Pakistan, Iran, and perhaps Azerbaijan to Georgia, if the reach of war in Ukraine allows him to climb Elbrus.
“Those mountains have been his goal all along but now he’s on a path of being as realistic as he can be,” Board said. “If he were to have enough funding, if somebody was going to sponsor him to climb, that’s different [but] it’s looking like he’ll have to bypass Everest and just keep heading west by bicycle.”
“He may have to bypass Elbrus as well. It’s certainly well within his abilities, but with the political strife going on there he’s probably going to just keep bicycling as best he can,” she said.
Either way, he will continue west to Turkey, his homeland, and then across Europe to Portugal where he will again rejoin his rowboat and head west across the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil. From there he plans to bicycle to Argentina to climb Aconcagua, the tallest (22,837 feet) mountain in South America, then pedal back to Colombia and kayak north along the coast of Central America, before returning by bicycle to his starting point in Crescent City.
Eruç was born on Cyprus in 1961 and grew up in Turkey. His father introduced him to mountaineering when he was 11. He earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1986 at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, then went to Ohio State University where he received 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.”
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 Göran’s 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, tried to find sponsors, then biked from Seattle to Alaska to summit Mount McKinley and back in 2003. He bought a used ocean-going rowboat and took it alone from the Canary Islands to Guadeloupe in 2006.
He launched his first circumnavigation from Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, July 10, 2007. He rowed to Australia, where he biked to and summitted Mount Kosciusko; then biked to the West Coast and rowed across the Indian Ocean to Tanzania where he summitted Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet) with his wife and 79-year-old father. He biked across Africa to Namibia, then rowed to Brazil, and finally north across the Gulf of Mexico to Louisiana, where he pedaled back to Bodega Bay.
Eruc is now the foremost ocean rower in the world. He was the first to complete a solo circumnavigation by human power and the first to row the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. That’s a total of 1,168 days and a solo distance of 26,700 nautical miles. He has spent 312 consecutive days alone at sea to date.
Eruç rows alone and without any support vessels, though he gets detailed weather and current models from his land crew. His ocean rowboat is 24 feet long and weighs about 2,000 pounds empty with a typical speed of just 2 knots, averaging 30 miles in 24 hours. Underway he eats freeze-dried food, nuts, chocolate protein bars, and the occasional fish that jumps on board.
“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.
“Nobody really knows what it’s going to be, but I take it one journey at a time,” Board said. “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.’ ”
“When I talk to children, my message is to acknowledge our dreams,” Eruç said. “Remember that saying, ‘Beware of people who dream during the day’ from Lawrence of Arabia? 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 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 people 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.”
To follow or support his progress, go to Erden Eruç’s Facebook page or www.erdeneruc.com.