Erden Eruç: ExWeb’s Newest Ambassador

Erden Eruç. Photo:Ryan Heffernon

In July 2007, Erden Eruç set out from California’s Bodega Bay to row the Pacific Ocean in a 7.1m plywood rowboat. Five years, 11 days, 12 hours and 22 minutes later, he returned to Bodega Bay to become the first person in history to circumnavigate the world solo by human power.

Eruç rowed across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans and cycled across three continents: Australia, Africa and North America. En route, he also climbed Mount Kosciuszko (Australia) and Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa) and trekked the challenging Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. In all, he traveled 66,299km under his own steam.

Eruç‘s circumnavigation route. Photo: Turkish News

Eruç holds numerous Guinness World Records, including:

  • First solo circumnavigation of the world by human power
  • First to row the three oceans: Atlantic, Pacific and Indian
  • First to row across an ocean from southern hemisphere to northern
  • Greatest total distance rowed solo on the oceans (over 43,000km)
  • Longest distance rowed across the Atlantic Ocean
  • Highest total days for a solo ocean rower: 844

His achievements have been recognized through many awards, including:

  • 2013 Citation of Merit – The Explorers Club
  • 2013 Adventurers of the Year – Outside Magazine
  • Best of ExplorersWeb 2012 – ExplorersWeb
  • 2012 Sports Career Achievement Grand Award – Turkish National Olympic Committee

Eruç had thought about doing the expedition for five years, but was spurred into action after the death of his friend Göran Kropp, while the pair were rock climbing together near Vantage, Washington in 2002. It took another five years of planning and learning the necessary skills before Eruç began his epic journey.

Erden Eruç in his rowboat. Photo: kickasstrips.com

Erden Eruç has come on board as ExplorersWeb’s latest Ambassador. This week, we caught up with him to discuss his achievements and discover what makes him tick. His answers were thoughtful and disarmingly honest.

EW:How did your human-powered solo circumnavigation come about?

EE: In 1997, I got the idea by looking at map in our software development lab. At first, I was considering just Washington DC to Turkey. [Eruc is Turkish.] Then, of course, I began to wonder: Why stop at Turkey? I should return to where I started.

EW: Can you talk about setting goals?

EE: A big goal becomes a compass and a rudder in my life that keeps me on course. It motivates me to take big leaps and also the many boring steps to get there. Without that goal, I feel lost and I meander a lot in my life. There is certainly a price to be paid [for this focus] but I enjoy that. I think I‘d rather be on a journey than lost in the city.

EW: Can you elaborate?

EE: Nature is a good teacher. If I’m not well-prepared, she exposes my weaknesses. If I prepare well, she says, “green light.”

In the city, I feel like I’m exposed to the will of others and it feels uncomfortably chaotic. With nature, I have a partner, not an adversary.

Erden Eruç: Success is not accidental. Photo: LinkedIn.com

EW: Your wife has obviously sacrificed to enable you to follow your dreams.

EE: I owe a lot to Nancy. She was the foundation against which I thrust forward. Without the homing beacon that she provided, I would not have returned home.

When Göran died, she felt the impact just as hard as I did. After the accident I said, “I have to do this now.” She replied, “You must, and you will.”

Although there were no doubts in our minds, we had our ups and downs during the journey because I had to pursue this thing single-mindedly to get it done. There was no other way. I felt, we felt, the stress in the relationship. Clearly, I was making choices to be out there rather than home. She did protest toward the end: “You’re not only an adventurer, you’re also a husband.”

Finally, we agreed I would finish as quickly as possible to return home. It was not easy, but we managed to work through it.

Nancy Board and Erden Eruç at the 2013 Explorers Club Annual Dinner. Photo: kickstarter.com

EW:You climb mountains, you ride bikes and you row oceans. Which do you prefer?

EE: I enjoy ocean rowing because it is a solo effort. It is me and nature together. It takes a lot of forethought to design an ocean route and to stay on it.

With mountains, I enjoy the sweat and the risk analysis that one has to do in avalanche terrain.

I don’t particularly enjoy bicycling, although I enjoy the aerobic challenge. I don’t like the presence of vehicles on the roads where I pedal. People often ask me, “What’s the most dangerous thing I did during the circumnavigation?” They want to hear about the sharks that showed up or whales that bumped my rowboat. I tell them that the most dangerous thing I did was to bicycle with 60mph missiles whizzing past me every minute on a highway. Each of those drivers could potentially be texting, distracted.

EW:  How do you deal with being at sea for months with just your own company?

EE:  You have to be comfortable in your own skin, certainly. You are always dealing with the past and planning the future. Sometimes being present in the moment is difficult, but it comes and goes in waves, as creatures appear or the seas pick up.

I turned everything into motivational tools. If I had a chocolate bar that I liked I said, “Well, row 2 hours and you’ll have it.” If I wanted music, I said, “You’ll have it in the afternoon, after you row.”

The child in me wanted everything immediately. The adult in me tamed the child. It was this constant back-and-forth, delaying gratification.

When I wanted to get to a destination across the ocean, I didn’t focus on the distance remaining or the distance traveled. Instead I set a daily goal, say 30 miles. If I did that, I found that I could cope easier.

EW: Along the way, you climbed a few mountains and trekked the Kokoda Track in New Guinea as well.  How tough was that?

EE:  When people ask me where I would like to go back to, I always remember Papua New Guinea. It was lush green and threatening in an interesting sort of way and challenging in other ways.

Kokoda Track had a rich history from World War II. During my trek, I was reading about the story of the Battle of the Coral Sea. Being Turkish, I knew the history of the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. Those battles were important to the ANZACS [Australian and New Zealand armies] and to the Turks.  Now I was learning about the 1942 Australian battle against the Japanese. I got to know the Australians better in the process.

The track was tough, with mosquitoes, slugs, leeches and constant rain. Crossing rivers up to my neck and worrying about the next rain and trench foot made for an interesting logistical challenge.

I felt that I had no excuse to quit. In the war, people carried weapons, supplies and the wounded, first one way then the other. They were doing so much more, under more dire conditions, that I had no right to complain. I just sucked it up and carried on, and it was one of the meaningful stretches of my journey.

Eruç on the Kokoda Track, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Erden Eruç

EW: Can you tell us about your Six Summits Project?

EE:  I came up with the idea after the accident to Göran. He was known for his solo bike ride from Stockholm to Nepal in 1996, to climb Mount Everest, towing his climbing gear behind his bicycle.

He came to Seattle to do a presentation in 2001, and that’s how we met. He died in 2002. On the plane returning home from his funeral in Stockholm, I drew the world map on a piece of paper and marked the highest summit on each continent except Antarctica. I said, “I’m going to reach each of the highest summits on these continents by human power, in honour of Göran.”  That’s how the Six Summits Project began.

The first one was Mount McKinley in Alaska. I stood on the summit in May 2003, just a few months after his funeral. The next was Mt. Kosciuszko in Australia. I wanted to do Carstensz Pyramid, but the logistics were so difficult that I had to give up on that idea and opted for Kosciuszko instead. I walked up it with Nancy in 2010.

Then I rowed across the Indian Ocean to Africa and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with my father, who was 79 at the time. He had taken me up my first mountain when I was 11. It was inspiring to be with him on his last serious climb.

Eruç and his father on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Photo: Erden Eruç

I had to bypass Everest and Elbrus to make the journey more affordable. By the time I got to Australia in 2010, the world had been in a financial crisis for two years. Sponsorships were just not happening and we were really bleeding money. I went straight to Africa across the Indian Ocean.  During my prolonged absence, Nancy and I hit a low point in our relationship. We agreed that I would bypass Aconcagua as well and head straight for the finish. Of the Six Summits, Aconcagua, Elbrus and Everest remain.

EW: After finishing this five-year journey, how did you adjust to a normal life afterward?

EE: It was very difficult. The journey had become this all-consuming focus in my life. In removing that, I felt lost. In the city, I felt detached. I had become one with the journey and without the journey I was in trouble.

When I tried to get our story in the media, I felt awkward. During the expedition, when I arrived at a town or village with my loaded bicycle or with my rowboat, I was able to tell my story organically as it happened.

When I came back to the city, I was left with this marketing effort, waving my hand and saying, “Hey, you people, look at what I’ve done,” and, “Would you like to hear about it?”

That felt wrong. Self-promotion was against my nature, and I couldn’t connect as easily. I spiraled down, and I wanted to get back out there and get away from it all. It was an escape, but I had spent all our resources. Then a feeling of entrapment grew on me. The depression got even worse and I became suicidal. It was a very dark episode which lasted a good year and a half. I eventually worked my way out of that and here I am smiling again.

EW: When can we expect to see your film, Castaway With Purpose?

EE: Joseph Anaya, a director friend of ours, is still assembling a first cut with a team of interns. Once the narrative is settled, interviews done, gaps covered by stock footage or by re-shooting, we will still need to complete the sound and colour correction.

It is taking a lot longer than I anticipated. The work is being done by volunteers who are already working 50 to 60-hour weeks at their day jobs. Funding will be necessary for the post production. We’re making progress, but still don’t have a set date in mind.

EW:How did your non-profit organization, Around-n-Over, come about?

EE: Before I started the journey, I decided that it was not going to be just about me. I needed a bigger motive in order to stay motivated.

We decided our mission should be educational and we should share the lessons learned, especially with children. We should help developing communities create educational facilities or activities to improve their society.

I made a point of stopping in schools along the way and in all countries that I visited, including Papua New Guinea and those in Africa. Sometimes I needed the help of translators. I always felt energized when I stood in front of children and saw their enthusiasm and excitement.

EW:Is there an end goal or is it just an ongoing thing?

EE: It is an ongoing thing. It provides a framework for us and brings structure to our efforts. All the expeditions, fundraising and educational activities funnel through this non-profit. It gives me a way to contain all these activities in an organized fashion. Any additional journeys will be done under its banner.

EW:What are its key messages?

EE: I had envisioned that it could support more than one adventurer or explorer. But everyone has their own website and own name to promote so that didn’t quite work out. Unfortunately, it became synonymous with me.

When I stand in front of children, I talk about things like peer pressure, both positive and negative, and the value of dreams and goal setting. I dwell on the idea that dreams don’t become reality unless we break them down into bite-sized chunks. I try to show them that I’m not Superman, but that I was able to get this done by preparing well and not quitting.

I try to encourage them to become the best version of themselves. They don’t have to do physical expeditions like me, but if they’re going to read that big book, they will have to keep turning those pages and finish those chapters to get to the end of it.

Erden Eruç during a school visit in Eskisehir, Turkey. Photo kickstarter.com

EW:What do you consider your greatest achievement?

EE:  I think completing the circumnavigation was a great achievement not because of the gargantuan task it was but because it was such a huge logistical challenge. So many legs needed to be stitched back-to-back without fail in order to keep going. It became almost impossible to fathom that I could actually finish it. In the end, I was able to complete each phase and start a new one and bring it to the other side of the ocean, often by routes that hadn’t been done before. Each leg became a journey in its own right.

One of the more meaningful journeys that I did after the circumnavigation was in the summer of 2016. I rowed from California to Hawaii with Louis Bird, the son of Peter Bird, who had died while trying to row from Vladivostok in Russia across the Pacific to California in 1996. Louis Bird was a toddler when his father was lost.

Peter was a pioneer of ocean rowing and used to live along the Russian River, north of San Francisco. When I started rowing in 2007, the friends of Peter Bird adopted me. Kenneth Crutchlow, the President of the Ocean Rowing Society, came all the way from London to send me off. I put the logo of Peter Bird on my rowboat and launched with it. My rowboat still has that logo after all those crossings.

Louis wanted to enter the Great Pacific Race, which involved rowing from Monterey to Waikiki. His partner became ill, so he asked me whether I would go with him. I agreed. I felt that I had to give him space to grieve and to commune with his father, and to help him understand the appeal of the ocean. That, to me, was sacred. I felt like I succeeded when we got to the other side, and his mother didn’t get that dreaded second phone call.

I was able to send him home with a Guinness World Record to boot. We set the new record for that route in the Classic Pairs class of rowboat. The previous record was 75 days and we brought it down to 54.

Louis Bird and Erden Eruç, Great Pacific Race, 2016. Photo: Rod Mayer

EW:  What’s next?

EE: For me, I would love to get back out there and complete my Six Summits Project. There are routes in ocean rowing that haven’t been done yet.  But until sponsorship issues are sorted though, I can’t budge.

EW:You’re coming on board as an ambassador for ExplorersWeb. What does that mean to you?

EE:  It’s a privilege and a responsibility. ExplorersWeb was with me through all of my ocean crossings and during my circumnavigation. It was a resource where I could go back and review the expeditions of others, as well as to convey my experiences to others. It represents a community to me. If I can pay back by serving that community in any way, I will feel proud and satisfied.

About the Author

Peter Winsor

Peter is a journalist, travel writer and photographer based on the Gold Coast, Australia.

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