University of South Florida


(L-R) Chantale Bégin, Isabelle Côté, Lauren Shea and Noelle Helder [Photos and video courtesy of World's Toughest Row and Salty Science]

Despite turbulent seas and equipment challenges, USF team emerges victorious in race across the Atlantic

By Daphne Kotschessa Almodovar, University Communications and Marketing

Salty Science, the rowing team led by USF Professor Chantale Bégin, has won first place in the women’s class in the World’s Toughest Row-Atlantic – the first North American team to ever win in their category. Despite facing rough seas and broken equipment, the group completed the 3,000-mile race across the Atlantic Ocean in 38 days, 18 hours, and 56 minutes, placing seventh out of 38 crews from around the world.

Group collapses with excitement

“Winning was not the goal initially,” said Bégin, professor of integrative biology. “We set out to come across safely, have a good time doing it, and row as fast as we could.”

The team includes USF graduates Lauren Shea and Noelle Helder, along with Isabelle Côté, Bégin’s doctoral advisor at Simon Fraser University. After spending 2 ½ years in intense training, the team pushed off Dec. 13 from Spain’s Canary Islands and rowed to English Harbour in Antigua and Barbuda to raise funds for marine conservation organizations – the latest tally being more than $250,000.

As marine scientists with combined experience as certified scuba divers, licensed captains, athletes and even in technical logistics, the team was prepared for the many challenges that came with the voyage, including sleep exhaustion and steep waves that came crashing in from all directions, compromising key equipment. 

Rower shows broken equipment

Salty Science experienced compromised equipment

Rower in the rain

Rainy conditions added to the team's challenges

Fish in bucket

The team had to fend off flying fish

Rower holds up a snack

Team members lost between 14 and 18 pounds

“We each rowed 12 hours a day, in two- to three- hour shifts,” Shea said. “At times it was difficult to choose between eating or sleeping, and we never slept more than 2 1/2 hours at a time.”  

It was also quite difficult for the multigenerational team members to consume enough calories – each losing between 14 and 18 pounds. There weren’t enough hours in the day to row, sleep and complete other tasks, plus ingest the suggested 4,000 calories per person, per day to stay healthy throughout the race. The group quickly adapted to sea sickness, but then struggled with the constrained conditions. 

Salty Science in the Atlantic

“Most of us got various levels of inflammation on our bottoms, hands and feet due to the movement on the rowing seat, oar handles and foot plates, compounded by a lot of salt water, which is quite irritating,” Helder said. “Both of our cabins got quite wet, as we often had to enter them soaking wet from waves or rain. Our mattresses were quite wet at times.” 

The small space made it difficult to stretch out and get comfortable during their breaks from rowing. However, their personal discomfort was minor, compared to the barrage of issues that stormed the team from early in the race. 

“About five days in, one of those side waves pinned two of our oars under the boat, and the force was so strong that the metal plates holding our oar locks bent,” Bégin said. “The impact rendered the middle rowing station unusable. Luckily, we had three rowing stations, so at that point we went from using the stern and middle to using the stern and bow rowing stations.”

Salty Science racing

In another big wave, one oar broke in two. Salty Science carried four pairs of oars aboard their boat and was able to switch to a new pair without hesitation, but the challenges kept mounting. 

“The next day, our watermaker stopped working when a hose came loose and salt water started flooding that compartment. The saltwater ruined the electrical pump and the connections,” Bégin said. 

When the seas subsided, teammate Shea swapped the pump with a spare and rebuilt its electrical components. The team also had to keep a very close eye on their position and changes in latitude using a chartplotter, since the autopilot kept failing to navigate properly. This allowed them to continue the race without losing direction.

At one point, they nearly tipped, so they had to deploy a device designed to slow them down in heavy seas and mitigate risks. “It was a tough decision to slow down in the middle of a race at a time when we were the women’s leaders, but it was absolutely the right decision,” Bégin said. 

Along their epic journey Salty Science experienced wildlife up close.

“A large pod of dolphins came by one day and hung around for a long time,” Bégin said. “We were going quite slow that day and stayed long enough for some of us to jump in with them, attached to the boat, of course. We were never untethered from the boat. They also did some amazingly high jumps.”

  • Salty Science is the first North American team to win the women's class of the World's Toughest Race-Atlantic

  • They finished the race in 38 days, 18 hours, 56 minutes

  • The team came in seventh out of 38 crews

The group also spotted whales along the way. Schools of tuna followed the boat nightly – so many that they often clunked them accidentally in the head with their oars. On the second-to-last night, Bégin witnessed a large shark ramming their rudder repeatedly. It lost interest soon enough, and the adventures continued all the way to the finish line. 

The women plan to spend time catching up with their families in Antigua before returning to their lives and careers, which are mostly on land. Bégin will return to her post at USF on the Tampa campus in mid-February.

Salty Science holds a trophy

Kevin Watler, University Communications and Marketing, contributed to this article.

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