Erden Eruc in his 24-foot rowboat that took him across the globe (Courtesy of Erden Eruc)
Traveling around the world is the stuff of myth and legend. Aeneas. Odysseus. Marco Polo. Phineas Fogg. Now that the age of exploration (and conquest) is over, few of us take the concerted time and effort to circumnavigate the globe. Erden Eruc is among the few.
In December 2007, Seattle-based software engineer Eruc was smack in the middle of the impossibly possible: circumnavigating the globe from Northern California to the eastern seaboard of Australia on a 24-foot plywood rowboat. More than 140 days into the journey, Eruc was barely halfway across the 10,000 mile distance; his world was defined by the daily struggle against saltwater, sores, the elements, and himself.
At the mercy of the seas—without engine or sails—Eruc wouldn’t even know if (and when) he had been rowing in circles. But, this boating excursion was only one part of a much larger project: to become the first human to circumnavigate the planet by a combination of boat, bike, and his own feet, journey of more than 40,000 miles. Putting his marriage to Nancy Board on hold (for five years!) and financially spent, Eruc braved the elements on his own. To hear more about Eruc’s and Board’s collective journey, check out Back in America’s 2020 interview with the couple.
In 1967, more than 250,000 Britons cheered on Francis Chichester as he triumphantly sailed into Plymouth Bay, marking the end of his nautical circumnavigation. For his efforts, he appeared across the international press, was awarded knighthood, and appeared on postage stamps. Unlike similar groundbreaking voyages of legend, Eruc conducts his missions to little fanfare.
Erden Eruc in the flesh (Courtesy of Erden Eruc)
Now, over a year into a deadly global pandemic as millions worldwide shelter in place, Eruc is preparing for his next record-shattering mission. “The best way for me to cope with the pandemic has been to entertain a new expedition,” he wrote in an email to Back in America. “This focused me on the future, motivating me to reach out to others, reconnecting and reinforcing relationships.”
While the pandemic has largely isolated millions of Americans, it has also prompted a spot of time for self-reflection. Such a “pause” in the ordinary functioning of society, in the words of Aldous Huxley, “shows that the world one habitually lives in is merely a creation of this conventional, closely conditioned being which one is, and that there are quite other kinds of worlds outside.”
For Eruc, the pandemic has served as one such pivot point, allowing him to reorient the motions of his everyday life towards an overarching goal. “The pandemic reinforced my observation that it is easy for me to get trapped in my own thoughts and meander, losing time” he writes. Structured otherwise, that lost time could be put towards new personal goals, new expeditions, and, above all else, new modes of being.
Part of Eruc’s vision for his journeys has been to recapture his inner child, and reconnect with the imaginative wonder that suffuses children’s imaginations. In his own words, Eruc has “learned to forgive [him]self and have empathy for the child inside,” a speculative spirit that rhymes with the eighteenth-century invention of modern childhood. In his Intimations Ode, Wordsworth laments that, “[t]here was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight, / To me did seem / Apparelled in celestial light, / The glory and freshness of a dream.” While Eruc is not living out childhood fantasies through his travels, their massive scope and vision does strike a Wordsworthian chord.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the steady rise in American vaccination levels, Eruc is busy planning his next expedition across the Pacific Ocean. The looming threat of social collapse and disease brought on by the pandemic has both inspired and slowed Eruc down. “[He] had hesitated using lack of funding as an excuse and each time [he] waffled, that set back [his] progress by a few weeks,” he writes.
“The time to talk was over.”
According to his latest (unfinalized) plans, Eruc intends to launch from the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco on next month’s Earth Day and head for mainland China. The pandemic has given Eruc ample time to prepare and train for his upcoming 11 month voyage: “I am certain that I will be mentally and physically ready on April 22 to take on that physical challenge,” he writes. Along the way, he will further his educational mission to combat growing ocean plastification as an ambassador for the Ocean Recovery Alliance.
With the world seemingly spinning out of control—in America alone, we have seen an increase in mass shootings and violence against Asian Americans—what can be controlled is yourself. Not in a self-interested or self-aggrandizing way, but one that recognizes the eternal existence of the universe in the self. Eruc “find[s] joy in physical movement which is the immediate manifestation of nature within me. Sleep, food, and exercise all impact my health, leading to changes I can monitor,” he writes. Despite nearing 60, Eruc remains in high spirits and health, a living testament to longevity and sustainability.
At the same time, Eruc’s life has been a testament to utter fragility. At any moment during his trip, he could capsize and drown. Danger is never far afoot, and Eruc’s mountaineering partner Göran Kropp fell to his death while the two were hiking in Washington. With such existential threats on the horizon, as the end of the world seems to draw even nearer, Eruc turns towards his own human abilities. In his words, “[t]he economic conditions which gave rise to authoritarian regimes in Europe in the 1930’s including widespread poverty and great economic inequality also exist in the USA.” Rather than exceptional, Eruc sees this economic and political history as part of a larger cycle. While we are all familiar with the collapse of European autocracy (and the more recent rise of neo-fascism), America’s future remains uncertain and in flux.
Put otherwise: “We are at a crossroads. We must hold dear the same fragile democracy that we have, for these are difficult times,” Eruc writes. But, the specific forms of life that might save democracy are, as always, elusive.
In the meantime, Eruc will take to the seas, pushing his body to its limits and pursuing the actionable goals that he can towards making our planetary ecosystem habitable for as long as humanly possible.
To hear more about Eruc’s amazing journey, check out Back in America’s podcast with him and his wife on YouTube, Stitcher, PodBean, or wherever you get your podcasts.