Under patches of gray clouds, a 28-foot rowboat bobs up and down in the gulf. White froth bubbles below as wind nudges the boat side to side. Four neon-green oars dip in and out of the water, the poles moving back and forth, back and forth, taking on a meditative rhythm.
Four rowers appear to be in animated conversation. Occasionally, someone throws their head back in laughter. But they never lose focus or rhythm, and their boat soars across the water.
Across their boat reads: “Rowing Across an Ocean, for the Oceans.” This is Salty Science, a team of four female marine scientists preparing to embark on a 3,000-mile journey across the Atlantic in a span of 30 to 55 days. For the summer, the Gulf of Mexico will be their home, providing ample space to practice continuous, unassisted rowing.
Salty Science hopes to raise $500,000 for their Atlantic crossing. Funds left over after financing the expedition will go to global ocean conservation groups, including the Bamfield Marine Sciences Center, GreenWave and Shellback Expeditions, the crew members said. The group seeks to pave the way for the next generation of conservation scientists through their journey.
“This is everything a proper adventure is. It’s physical, mental, emotional, technical — and there’s a real chance of failure if you don’t get it right,” said Ian Couch, head safety officer for the World’s Toughest Row Atlantic Challenge. “It’s more demanding than an Everest or a South Pole in many ways.”
The annual race starts in early December in the Canary Islands, off the coast of North Africa, and finishes in Antigua. Crews range from one person to five rowers. Each team undergoes a lengthy training process, maintaining a detailed log to ensure they’ll be prepared once they take to the ocean. Their equipment and boat must be up to a certain standard in order to participate, Couch said.
Fans can track the boats on the World’s Toughest Row website as they trek across the Atlantic.
“The fitness is only a very small part of it,” he said. “It’s more about them being able to function in the harshest environments.”
Salty Science’s story begins in 2020. Lauren Shea, 27, was working on a sailboat in Antigua. She’d just finished sailing on the ocean for a year and had anchored at the Caribbean island during Christmastime. On her 25th birthday, for the second year in a row, she watched the World’s Toughest Row boats reach the shore. This time, she said, she turned to the people on the sailboat with her and told them she was going to do the race. And she would do it with an all-woman team.
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“And I think I know a few people that I would ask and wouldn’t immediately tell me no,” Shea said.
That same day, Shea texted Noelle Helder, 28, and Chantale Bégin, 44, to gauge their interest. Bégin had been Shea’s professor in a field course eight years ago through the University of South Florida. Helder was in the class, too, and the three instantly clicked. Bégin had brought her new baby, exposing the budding scientists to the joyful coexistence of motherhood and career.
Helder and Bégin were in. Now what?
“How do you raise this kind of money? How do you get one of those weird boats?” Shea said.
The team decided they wanted to bring on a fourth person. Bégin asked Isabelle Côté, 60, who had been Bégin’s adviser as she got her doctorate in coral reef ecology and conservation. The two hadn’t communicated in five years. Like the others, Côté, a professor of marine ecology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, didn’t hesitate.
Bégin credits the team’s initial enthusiasm to a lack of knowledge about what it takes to get to the starting line.
“I think if we had done too much research ahead of time, we would’ve been like, ‘Yikes,’” she said, likening preparation for the Atlantic Challenge to holding down a second job for the past three years.
From building a website to securing a boat to registering for the race, Salty Science’s to-do list loomed over them. Also on the list: coming up with a name.
“Shoot, we’re already behind. The race is three years away,” Bégin said.
Worse still, when the team attempted to register, there were no spots left in the 2022 Atlantic Challenge.
The rowers worried. Would a delay mean losing their momentum and wasting Côté's perfectly timed sabbatical?
“That might just kill this team,” Bégin said.
But the crew pushed on, building a network of sponsorships to fund their training and the 2023 registration fee. Côté planned for a second sabbatical.
After tracking down a boat from a former British team, the crew welcomed Emma, their trusty engineless rowboat, to the crew. Emma has already completed three Atlantic crossings, making the boat Salty Science’s most experienced member.
With many of the logistical details hammered out, the crew began putting their physical and mental fortitude to the test, all while attending to partners, children and their full-time jobs.
To compete, crews must fulfill a minimum of 120 hours in the boat — 72 of these hours must be consecutive, and 48 must be in the dark. Once these hours have been logged, the teams travel to the Canaries for their final two weeks of training.
The rigorous training metrics required by World’s Toughest Row organizers increase the likelihood of teams making it the full 3,000 miles, according to Couch, who said the success rate of getting people across the ocean is about 98%, compared to 60% to 70% outside the race.
During their two-month summer training camp in Tampa Bay, the Salty Science crew begins their days in the gym. Afterward, they hit the water, logging as many hours as they can before retreating to the house that serves as their shared living space. While on the water, the team practices safety drills, such as what to do if the boat tips over.
When their training camp concludes in mid-August, they’ll each return to their respective homes — Shea and Côté to Vancouver, Helder to Fairbanks, and Bégin staying in Palm Harbor — until they reunite in the Canaries right before go time.
On the Atlantic, the crew will take on a two-hours-on, two-hours-off schedule. This means two people take a break while the others keep rowing. On break, crew members will tend to chores, such as cleaning the boat, taking care of personal hygiene or sleeping in the small pods at the stern and bow of the boat. They said they’ll be lucky if they get 1½ hours of sleep at a time.
Salty Science might see swells as large as 20 to 30 feet — waves “likely large enough to capsize their boat,” according to their website. They’ll desalinate their water using a special electric machine. They’ll maintain an individual calorie consumption of roughly 4,000 per day, fueled by dehydrated meals provided by a sponsor. A loyal black bucket will be there for all their excretory needs, which they’ll empty and clean throughout.
Solar panels will power the batteries for the boat’s lights, as well as their water-maker, navigation equipment and some of their safety devices. It’s their job to ensure all of this works while they keep rowing on.
“It’s unrelenting. You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to stop today to have a rest.’ ‘Cause the sea will carry on doing its own thing,” Couch said. “You realize how small and insignificant we are as humans in this tiny little boat on an ocean.”
As the team preps, they’ll continue to rely on one another. On the boat, they’re almost constantly chatting, whether tallying the seemingly endless things to be done or creating their Christmas Day playlist. Côté has already ruled out “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey.
Most of all, they’ll push on, rowing back and forth, back and forth, until they hit the shores of Antigua.