Professor of integrative biology Chantale Bégin is preparing for what is called “the toughest argument in the world”. The Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge is an annual race to row 3,000 miles from the Canary Islands in Spain to English Harbor in Antigua and Barbuda. Bégin’s team, Salty Science, includes Lauren Shea and Noelle Helder, two of his former USF students, and Isabelle Côté, his PhD supervisor at Simon Fraser University. Salty Science dedicates its run to marine conservation to support the training of the next generation of diverse scientists who will develop creative solutions to global ocean challenges.
Salty Science entered the challenge with no rowing experience, but the multi-generational team of marine scientists share a love for the water and pushing its limits. The team has an endless sense of adventure and is made up of certified divers, licensed captains, triathlon runners and endurance runners.
“I’m thrilled to combine my passion for marine conservation with solid Type II fun rowing across the Atlantic,” said Helder, a 2017 USF graduate. dream scientist, working on this mission with women who have inspired me throughout my career.
The team has decided to commit more than two years to careful planning, training and fundraising before racing in December 2023. During the first year and a half of preparation, the team has worked on its physical condition while learning to row. Since Salty Science is spread across Florida, Alaska, Norway, and Canada, the team primarily meets and trains virtually. Additionally, this year they hired a Vermont-based personal trainer to lead them through strength training and targeted rowing drills. “As we had never rowed before, we had to learn how to row properly and correct our basic stroke to avoid injury and to be as efficient as possible,” Bégin said.
Salty Science purchased a used rowing boat with a track record of three successful trips across the Atlantic. The boat will weigh around 5,000 pounds when loaded with gear and supplies for their six to eight week trip. When the team finally got together for training in August, Bégin recalls seeing how the individual training paid off, and the team had several great rowing outings on their boat in the Gulf of Mexico. To compete, race organizer Atlantic Campaigns requires each team to log a total of 120 hours of ocean rowing, including 72 hours in open water and 24 hours spent at night. The team must also prove they can operate the watermaker and autopilot and perform emergency drills.
Another part of team preparation is assigning each member a specific role. Two will be the medical experts who will receive extensive medical training and build the boat’s custom medical kit. The designated nutritionist will prepare, in an organized manner, dehydrated meals with enough calories for eight weeks for each member. The electronics engineer will study all the technical manuals for the equipment on board. During the race, two members will row at a time in two-hour increments followed by two hours without rowing, 24 hours a day. When not rowing, teammates can rest in sleeper cabins or tend to chores assigned to them, ranging from checking the batteries to cleaning the solar panels of salt or the boat hull of barnacles to preparing water or rehydrating meals.
According to Atlantic Campaigns, up to 30 teams are selected to compete each year and each can consist of one to five crew members. During the rigorous race, rowers will experience waves up to 20 feet high and they will battle sleep deprivation, salt sores and physical extremes. Most teams capsize at least once during their course. By the end of the race, each team will have rowed over 1.5 million strokes and each rower will have burned over 5,000 calories per day and lost approximately 18 pounds.
The fastest line across the Atlantic was in 2017 by Britain’s The Four Oarsmen, who finished in 29 days, 14 hours and 34 minutes. The record for the fastest women’s four-team is held by a Chinese team, Kung Fu Cha Cha, who completed the 2017 challenge in 34 days, 13 hours and 13 minutes. Fans can follow the race’s progress online from a live map, then watch each team’s finish live on Atlantic Campaigns’ social channels.
Bégin admits it will be difficult to be away for months from his two young children with limited communication, but the biggest challenge will be what the team cannot easily prepare for, such as equipment failures or injuries. “That’s why we spend so much time getting the boat ready, training and getting as strong as possible because it’s something we can control,” Bégin said.
Follow Salty Science on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to follow the team’s progress as the challenge approaches.
Learn more about integrative biology programs at USF and how to support College of Marine Science research initiatives.