Ellen Falterman, sometimes referred to as Ellen Magellan, started rowing around the world the other day. She launched near her childhood home, under the Moss Hill Bridge in East Texas, over the Trinity River, which empties – slowly, at this time of year – into an arm of the Galveston Bay. She plans to follow the Gulf coastline to Key West, in which case she will have to consult with authorities about the legality of a crossing to Havana. Cuba’s landmass, she explained recently, would provide a useful “windshield” from the eastern Caribbean winds as it departs through the Panama Canal en route to the South Pacific. The United States currently prohibits private American vessels from entering Cuban waters. She hopes her trip will not only see good luck for hurricanes, but also a change in policy from the Biden administration. Failing that, she will adopt plan B and head for Portugal. In any case, she does not intend to complete the world tour – a first, exclusively in a rowboat – before 2029.
Falterman is twenty-seven, and already something of an eminence in adventurer circles. She’s been busing near the Amazon, hitchhiking in Scotland and riding a tandem bike from England to Greece. She got her pilot’s license before she graduated from high school. In 2017, she kayaked the full length of the Missouri River, becoming, at twenty-two, the youngest person ever to do so alone. A few years later, she retrofitted an old aluminum canoe with oars and a rowing sled and started cruising down the Mississippi, rear-facing. This summer, she drove her van to a campground in South Dakota to witness what organizers called the largest gathering of paddlers in human history. “My people,” she called them. There were nearly a hundred of them, representing twenty states, and many of them regarded Falterman — who wears his dark hair in dreads and exudes restless energy — with loose jaws. “Rock star,” one said as Falterman leapt out of his truck and tied a hammock between one of his side mirrors and a tree. Eager to point out her commonality with paddlers, Falterman reminded them that journeys from source to sea inevitably end in salt water. Haven’t they all wondered sometimes, What if I carry on? She joined another dignitary known as Tow Head Steve in an a cappella rendition of “Northwest Passage,” the folk song by Stan Rogers, and invited everyone to a farewell pork roast in Texas, to meet Evelyn Mae, her floating home for the next half decade.
An ocean-going shallop has nothing to do with a scull or a canoe. It’s capable of righting itself in the event of a capsize, for one thing, and looks like a space shuttle’s life raft, with forward and aft cabins, for sleeping and for storing desalination equipment, and even two USB ports. . Falterman bought hers “used,” as she puts it, from a company in England. (She named it after her maternal grandmother, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer while Falterman was on the Mississippi.) Its previous owners, after a few hundred miles, apparently thought better of their attempt to cross the Atlantic. Could she end up doing the same? At his parents’ home in Texas, shortly before he left, Falterman answered a phone call from an admirer stranded in New York, unable to make the pork roast. “It’s easy to overthink an expedition like this,” she said, emerging from under a tin roof, seeking a better welcome. “I don’t work with Guinness. I am free to do whatever I want. She added: “Human-powered circumnavigations were carried out. Basically, people row across an ocean, then when they get to a landmass, they get on their bikes and have their boat shipped across. So it’s boat, bike, boat, bike, etc., which seemed like a logistical nightmare to me.
Falterman’s father, a former Air Force pilot, approached her as she spoke. “Go away,” she said, then quickly reconsidered, shouting, “I love you!” She admitted that as the launch approached, she became “numbed” by so many competing emotions. She had timed it to coincide with the anniversary of her brother Patrick’s death in a plane crash in 2016. Patrick was her mentor in the art of vagrancy. “He hitchhiked for six years in South America,” she said. “My parents lived with it and emotionally dealt with it for years and years, so it’s not like I was the first loose spark plug.
She continued, “My mom said, ‘Why can’t you just row across an ocean? Why do you have to row through each one? I’m like, ‘Mom, if it’s worth overdoing, it’s worth overdoing.’ “She’s done the math – if she’s successful, and also lucky enough to reach an average lifespan, this mission will have encompassed just under ten percent of her time on earth. No rush.” have times where I want to hike that mountain in Tahiti for three weeks,” she said. “Damn yeah!” ♦