Once you become the first person to circumnavigate the globe alone under your own power — 41,196 miles of rowing solo across the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans, then pedaling a bicycle across and scaling mountains over the continents in between — what do you do for an encore?
Maybe you do it again, taking a different route to summit the highest peaks you missed the first time, while visiting or building classrooms along the way, sharing what you’ve seen and learned about the world, the environment, and yourself.
The 62-year-old Gig Harbor resident Erden Eruç (AIR-den AIR-rooch), already the holder of 16 Guinness world records, was on his way to doing just that when he launched his rowboat from Crescent City, California, on June 22, 2021. After 239 days and over 7,800 miles alone across the Pacific for the second time, he became the first person to row from North America to Asia when he landed in the Philippines on March 24, 2022, securing two more world records. From there he planned to row across the South China Sea, then pedal his way from Vietnam to Portugal, where he would rejoin his rowboat and continue west.
There was just one problem. Actually, there were many, he said, but the biggest one was China, which refused to issue him a visa because of the pandemic.
Eruç appealed to the Chinese embassy in Manila, saying he could apply again if necessary in person at the Hanoi embassy after making the crossing and meeting whatever quarantine requirements were required. “No exceptions!” was the answer.
“Myanmar (also) turned down our visa request on account of security concerns,” Eruç said. He had tried, thinking he could reroute across India and Asia Minor.
After a year of waiting for the right weather and grappling with multiple bureaucracies and dwindling funds, Eruç faced what might be the most difficult challenge for an athlete and adventurer of his caliber: He decided to stop.
“At some point, he’s going to make the right decision because he always has,” said Nancy Board, his wife of 20 years. “And sure enough he called one day and said, ‘I’m done.’ He had done the internal work to shut it down, and he’s never brought it up since and has no regrets.”
“One has to be detached from it all,” Eruç said. “I only control what is within my reach, within my power. I cannot make people love me; I cannot make people support me. I just try to do what I can.”
But perhaps he could still accomplish some part of what he had set out to do, at least for himself.
Eruç and his wife were in Europe on business in June, including visiting Turkey, his homeland, for the presidential election. They decided to attend the awards ceremony for the Golden Globe sailing race in Les Sables-d’Olonne, France. In April, South African sailor Kirsten Neuschäfer had become the first woman to win the eight-month, 30,000-mile, single-handed, nonstop voyage around the world, and she was being honored there.
Sixteen sailors started the 2022 race. They could not stop or receive any assistance except in a disqualifying emergency (like sinking, which one did, and Neuschäfer rescued that sailor). The boats are restricted to the technology of the time of the first Golden Globe in 1968, which means no GPS, no water-maker, no digital devices of any kind. Any recorded music on board can only be on cassettes. Three sailors finished the race, which has a 1968-sized purse of £5,000.
“I saw all these racing vessels next to each other, lined up, stern-tied, like they were ready to go,” Eruç said. “I met all the participants, I met the organizer, I saw the enthusiasm, the comradery, it felt like a tribe. I looked at that and said, ‘I want to be in this, I want to be here, I want to breathe this air.’ ”
“What I hear him saying is he can be solo but also part of a community,” Nancy Board said. “His tribe when he’s been on the rowboat has been me and his first friends and our supporters, but this is a community of people who understand him because they’ve been out on that ocean, they’re driven in the same way.”
They met Simon Curwen, the sailor who finished one day ahead of Neuschäfer but was ineligible to win because he was forced to stop in Chile for 10 days to repair his windvane after a knockdown.
Eruç bought his boat. He intends to enter the next Golden Globe race that starts Sept. 6, 2026. “It’s a Biscay 36 built in 1976,” he said. “I didn’t want to spend time searching for a boat out of the approved dozen models,” echoing the style of vessels in the original race.
In addition to being an accomplished mountaineer and the most experienced solo ocean rower on the planet, with records for the greatest distance rowed (26,705 miles) and most days at sea for an ocean rower (1,084 solo, 1,167 total), Eruç is also a sailing instructor and delivery captain, with both a U.S. Coast Guard Master Captain’s license and a Royal Yachting Association offshore license.
“I have enough experience to get myself into trouble in this case,” he said. “The reason I want to commit this early is so I can spend a year on the 2,000-mile solo sail requirement for entering the race, and spend a second year improving whatever needs to be done on the boat.”
He and Board are planning to sell their Gig Harbor home and move to Europe to save money and help fund the race preparation, as well as to seek paying endorsements.
“I am looking for sponsors, but I don’t want to count on sponsorships,” Eruç said. “I want to work with the Seattle Sailing Club to create a passage-making class. I can take the boat from France down to the Azores, then to Guadalupe, to the mainland, up the East Coast, over to Iceland, Ireland, and back to France, in a multi-leg journey with two takers per leg all through it at whatever the price for the class, and that is some way of bringing in cash before the race.”
Board is an experienced climber in her own right. She travels all over the world for her job assisting corporations with employee mental health, runs her own nonprofit (Global Women 4 Wellbeing), and can work from anywhere. But uprooting to live in a foreign country to support a sailboat race she won’t be going on would be a big ask for anyone, wouldn’t it?
She flips the question around. “Take the opposite approach. You know that other people are out there doing it, but you decided it’s too risky or you can’t afford it, or whatever; that’s all good to take into consideration. But think about five years down the road, obsessing about what you didn’t attempt to do. If Erden dies at sea, well, that’s always been a possibility. But if he doesn’t do it I wouldn’t want to live with him because he’d be miserable and obsessed in a different way.
“From a pragmatic standpoint, I think he’s the most qualified person in the world to do this kind of race,” she said. “I don’t look at it as crazy; I know the risks and the dangers are there. But danger, that’s a relative term.”
“She understands that I belong to the tribe of restless souls,” Eruç said.
“One of the main lessons I share in my presentations is that when I launched my circumnavigation in 2007 I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to complete it,” he said. “I had to become the person who could establish historic firsts and break world records. I became that person by labor, by determination and stubbornness, dealing with disappointments, all of it. It took me five years to become that person.
“It’s not any different with this Golden Globe race. Am I ready for it? Not today. There are skills I have to gain and practice until they become second nature. I have to become that person, again.
“There is no fear because there is preparation. That gives me power even when things are happening that are more powerful than me on the water. It is a sense of control without being in charge, dealing with something bigger than me but being part of it and being in my element, that is what is fulfilling to me.”
When Eruç rowed away from Crescent City late in the day June 21, 2021, to cross the Pacific alone for the second time, Board climbed to a high point above the harbor and sat down on a rock.
“I just wanted to watch him until I could no longer see that yellow boat. It was sad to some extent, but it was bigger than an emotion. He was this tiny little yellow spot out there and it gave me an awareness and a sense of how small he was — and would become — on this enormous body of water. There was a sense of how small I was too, of what’s bigger than all of us, and that provided a bit of peace.
“I just decided it’s a day at a time for me too. So when I went through hardships, I had to find where my support was, and then I’d say, ‘I got through that,’ and took on other kinds of challenges. It wasn’t a physical, grinding, technical challenge in the way Erden was going through, but it would be maybe an equally emotionally challenging situation. I think I grew in many ways the same way he did. And that we all do.
“We’re just as ordinary as everybody else,” she said. “Erden is doing something out of the ordinary, but anybody could do it if they really set their mind to it. I learned that from him. But I know many people in my life who have not said ‘yes,’ they’ve said ‘no,’ out of fear, or whatever limitations they put on themselves. But it doesn’t mean they couldn’t have done it, it’s just that they stopped themselves. So we’re just ordinary folks who say ‘yes’ more. Maybe.”
On July 14, Eruç had his rowboat loaded into a container for transport from the Philippines. Now he just has to figure out where it’s going.
“There’s an American woman who wants to row across the Pacific, Katie Spotz,” he said. “She’s already rowed across the Atlantic (and is the youngest person to do so). Right now she is on a journey from Guyana to the U.S. by kayak. I need to write to her.
“I spent 1,084 days on that boat alone. That boat has history in it. It has history left in it.”
For more information on Eruç’s expeditions, see www.erdeneruc.com.
Reprinted with permission from Key Peninsula News, August 2023.