Women’s team in Tampa is first North American crew to win World’s Toughest Row

Chantale Bégin and her team were rowing in the dark, hoping this would be the day they finally reached land. After rowing for 12 hours a day and being at sea for over a month, they wanted nothing more than to be in the safe embrace of their families.

Then they saw something in the distance — the cloud banks were so low they couldn’t quite make it out. Lights. They were finally at the English Harbour in Antigua, and to their surprise, they were the first women there.

“From that moment on, it’s just the most intense experience,” Bégin recalled.

Salty Science, a rowing team led by Bégin, a marine biology professor at the University of South Florida, won first place in the women’s class of the World’s Toughest Row, an annual 3,000-mile endurance race across the Atlantic Ocean. They are the first North American team to win the category.

It took 38 days, 18 hours and 56 minutes for the four women to complete the race. They started at Spain’s Canary Islands on Dec. 13, 2023, and ended at the English Harbour on Jan. 20, placing seventh out of 38 crews from around the world.

The idea to create Salty Science was born in 2020 when Lauren Shea, a master’s student at the University of British Columbia, saw the race and thought it was something she’d like to try out.

Shea reached out to her colleagues from USF with the idea to create a team of four women scientists all connected by their passion for marine conservation and education.

The team includes Bégin, 44, Shea, 27, Noelle Helder, 28, and Isabelle Côté, 60, Bégin’s doctoral adviser at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

“We jumped into it pretty quickly,” Shea said. “But when we signed up, we didn’t really have a great idea of what we were jumping into. None of us knew how to row at the time.”

It took nearly three years for the women to train for the race, according to Bégin. They had to learn how to live on the boat, which fit three rowers at a time and only had a small cabin for team members to rest. A bucket served as their bathroom.

They also had to learn how to navigate water and train their bodies for rowing 12 hours a day.

Each week, the team would complete 10 to 14 hours of intense workouts with a physical trainer. Training was difficult, as all the women lived in different cities: Bégin in Palm Harbor, Shea and Côté in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Helder in Fairbanks, Alaska.

They met for a week in August 2022 and January 2023, and again for two months in the summer to train together on the boat, but otherwise they trained alone.

Once they made it out to sea, conditions were rough.

In the first 10 days, Bégin and her team encountered large, unexpected waves that broke some of their equipment.

One of the waves broke an oar in two. Luckily, the team had extras.

“It’s about being really well prepared and talking beforehand about all the potential scenarios that can happen,” Bégin said.

The next day, the machine they used to purify water stopped working and began to flood their boat and their cabin. The saltwater ruined the machine’s electrical pump and connections, but thankfully the team brought a replacement.

The team also had to track their position in the Atlantic Ocean using a chart plotter, as their autopilot kept failing to navigate properly.

The boat also nearly tipped at one point, so the team had to deploy a device to slow them down while they were in heavy seas.

Whether it be boat malfunctions, sickness, pain or exhaustion, Bégin said they had to deal with their issues as a team.

“It’s a big mindset thing. You go into the race as a team and realize we’re going to be out there for a long time; therefore, we need to tackle each day as best as we can,” Bégin said.

The women survived on dehydrated meals, fruit snacks, chips and crackers. They had enough food for 55 days, said Helder, who calculated that each team member needed to consume 4,000 calories a day.

The women rowed two at a time in two-to-three-hour shifts. They never slept more than 2½ hours at a time, Shea said. All of the rowing caused each team member to lose between 14 and 18 pounds.

Bégin said Salty Science set a few goals. They wanted to get across the finish line safely, maintain their relationships with each other and grow as a team.

While the team agreed it felt great to win, “winning wasn’t our main goal when we went into this,” Bégin said.

Salty Science raised $252,000 out of their $500,000 goal to support charities focused on marine conservation and training the next generation of scientists. They are still accepting donations for their cause.

After five weeks of keeping each other up at night, indulging in multipart podcasts and listening to Taylor Swift to keep themselves awake, Bégin says she’s proud of what her team accomplished.

“We got off the boat with very wobbly legs,” she said with a laugh.