Seattle rower completes human-powered circumnavigation

Eruc in the Mozambique Channel while rowing from Mahajanga, Madagascar to Angoche in Mozambique.

Erden Eruç’s list of accomplishments could make a superhero feel inadequate.

In late July, the 51-year-old Seattle man completed a five-year world circumnavigation under his own power, cycling and rowing his way around the globe. He is, he says, the first Seattle resident to have rowed an ocean solo and the first person in history to have completed a self-propelled solo circumnavigation (British man Jason Lewis completed a human-powered circumnavigation in 2007 but crossed oceans with team members).

The Ocean Rowing Society in England has declared Eruç the first person to have rowed three oceans and the most experienced rower alive. He has spent 876 days rowing the world’s oceans and holds a Guinness World Record for having the longest stretch of time at sea — 312 days — for a solo ocean rower.

If that wasn’t enough, he’s also climbed three of the world’s highest peaks, including Alaska’s Mt. Denali, Mt. Kosciuszko in southeast Australia, and Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Along the way, he did some good. Around-n-Over, the nonprofit organization Eruç formed in 2003 to use his journey as a way to inspire and help children, has provided funding to build classrooms at a school in Tanzania, contributed to rebuilding schools in Sri Lanka following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and helped fund libraries in rural schools in Turkey.

The last leg of Eruç’s journey started in March 2011 and took him from Madagascar to Bodega Bay, Calif., where he first embarked in July 2007. By the time he was done, he’d traveled more than 41,000 miles (close to 36,000 nautical miles) under his own steam.

But Eruç is not quite ready to retire his 24-foot boat.

“I miss it,” he said. “There’s a simplicity to life on the ocean that always brings back how little I need to exist.”

A dream takes shape

Life in a cubicle never suited Eruç. Born in Cyprus, he grew up in Turkey and spent an active childhood skiing and climbing mountains. In 1997, Eruç was working for a software development company in Maryland and feeling restless. He was constantly looking out the window, thinking about the outdoor adventures he had to cram in on weekends and vacations.

A dream of circumnavigating the globe under his own power soon took shape. Then in 2001, something pivotal happened: Eruç, by then living in Seattle, met Swedish adventurer Göran Kropp. The Swede was the first from his country to summit K2 and had cycled from Stockholm to Nepal for a solo climb of Mt. Everest. Kropp understood Eruç’s dream and encouraged him. The two quickly became friends.

Eruc approaching Guiria, Venezuela, in the spring of 2012.

In September 2002, Eruç and Kropp embarked on their first climb together, in eastern Washington. Tragically, Kropp fell to his death during the climb. After that, Eruç committed to his dream. On the way home from Kropp’s funeral, Eruç decided to alter his planned route and climb summits on six different continents as a tribute to his friend.

Eruç’s future wife, Nancy Board, who he married in 2003, had met Kropp and supported Eruç’s plans.

“I said, ‘I have to do this now,'” he recalled. “She said, ‘You must.'”

The pair downsized their life, selling a condo in Washington, D.C. and another one in Seattle to finance Eruç’s trip. He cashed in his 401K and they sold their second car and moved into a rental unit for a time.

An engineer who approaches challenges methodically, Eruç prepared for his journey the same way. He read navigation books and consulted with ocean rowers. He had almost no experience or interest in boating when he bought his rowboat, Calderdale, a 550-pound kit boat built in 2001 for an Atlantic regatta.

Eruç secured a main sponsor, Aktas Group, a Turkish company that makes air suspension systems. He set off on his Six Summits Project in February 2003, bicycled roundtrip to Alaska to climb Mt. McKinley, towing his climbing gear like Kropp had to Everest. In 2006, he tested his ocean rowing skills on a 96-day crossing of the Atlantic Ocean from the Canary Islands to Guadeloupe.

In May 2007,  Eruç pedaled his bike from Seattle to Bodega Bay to start his circumnavigation. He launched on the Pacific in July of that year, arriving back in Bodega Bay on July 21, 2012, five years and 11 days later.

‘A half-million-dollar project’

Eruç rowed an average of 30 miles a day on his journey, traveling at about 1.5 knots. He battled a low-pressure system off the Canary Islands that bashed his boat around for three days, and fought crosswise winds and currents while rowing from Madagascar to Mozambique. In port, finding food he could take with him was a challenge. He sometimes resorted to crackers and canned meat, and for longer passages relied on freeze-dried food.

In port, finding food he could take with him was a challenge; he lost sleep over the logistics of receiving supplies and equipment. He sometimes resorted to crackers and canned meat, and for longer passages relied on freeze-dried food.

Eruc preparing to moor his boat in Guiria.

Completing the last leg of the trip was difficult, Eruç said. He was gone for 16 months, straining his marriage. Funds were dwindling, and the journey didn’t get the media coverage and sponsorship Eruç had hoped for. He postponed climbing the three remaining summits he planned to scale, including Mt. Everest, Russia’s Mt. Elbrus and Aconcagua, in Argentina.

The circumnavigation cost him about $216,000, Eruç said, with a comparable amount spent by sponsors.

“A half-million-dollar project is what this turned out to be,” he said.

There were times he was tempted to give up, Eruç said, but the costs of shipping and storing his boat were more expensive than continuing on. So he kept moving, rowing mile by mile toward the finish line.

“There were many reasons why I could stop, and the lack of support was one of them,” he said. “One starts to question, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But it was my dream. I’m not going to give up my dream because these additional things are not blossoming as I had hoped.

“In the end, I said, ‘I’m doing this for myself. I started this. I have to finish what I started.'”

Eruç is now preparing to move to Sydney, Australia, where his wife has started a new position with J.P. Morgan. He is thinking through the future of Around-n-Over and considering writing a book about his circumnavigation.

Heading out on the ocean again is a possibility, he said, but that won’t be for a while.

“I have ideas. I have dreams. Those never end,” he said. “But I have to stay put and help my wife for a while. It’s payback time for me.”

Editor’s note: this story has been changed from its original version.

6 Responses to Seattle rower completes human-powered circumnavigation

  1. Joachim Zuther January 17, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    After reading the Outside article I searched for more stories on this epic achievement. I am in awe of Eruc’s passion and strength. Two years ago I rode across the US on an unsupported solo bycicle trip – almost 4000 miles. This is nothing compared to what Eruc did. I wish him all the best and I hope he will write a book on his journey, the first true circumnavigation of the planet on human power.

  2. Bryan McCourt August 29, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    Not to take anything away from an amazing achievement, butI have always wondered why these human powered craft don’t have the option of pedal powered prop drive. Seems to me that to use pedals as backup or even in conjunction with the rowing would offer a bit of respite to the endeavor and its still human power.

    • Erden Eruc August 29, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

      I purchased my rowboat in 2004 from a listing on the Ocean Rowing Society website. She was used in 2001 and 2004 Atlantic Rowing Race regattas, hence her vessel designation: ARR-Class. She was built specifically for rowing…

      I did not have access to a boat designer or a boat builder while I was planning my journey. It was not possible to excite enough support early on to recruit such talent. I would have liked to have the option of rowing or pedaling, which would have allowed a choice in propulsion out there. Injuries or mechanical failures were always a possibility.

      Lack of support was a seemingly valid excuse to delay my departure, until I lost Göran Kropp while rock climbing together in September 2002. Then I decided that life was short, I committed to the journey, made the financial choices and purchased this tried and true ocean worthy vessel. She has seen me through 876 days worth of ocean rowing, and had already logged about another 240 days before my purchase.

      There is more information on my rowboat HERE.

      A pedal driven boat was what the British circumnavigator Jason Lewis had used on his human powered journey, more on that HERE.

  3. Al Felker August 29, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    Yes. An amazing feat.

  4. Mark T Clevenger August 29, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    Congratulations. I stand in awe of your talent, enterprise, and just sheer guts. As a person who will never match you, I not only admire you but am inspired your feat. Mark Clevenger

  5. Courtney Kirchoff August 29, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    Dear me, this guy is awesome! Proof that if you want to do something, you can! We’re only limited by our imaginations.

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