Four women marine scientists win "World’s Toughest Row” race across the Atlantic

A multigenerational team of four marine scientists successfully completed a grueling 4,800 km rowing race across the Atlantic Ocean called the “World’s Toughest Row”, coming in first place while raising awareness and $250,000+ for ocean conservation. The race, which began in San Sebastian de La Gomera, Spain and ended in Nelson’s Dockyard, Antigua, took the crew 38 days to complete.

Lauren Shea, Isabelle Côté, Chantale Bégin and Noelle Helder, known as the "Salty Science" crew, embarked on the challenging journey to draw attention to critical issues plaguing our oceans, including plastic pollution and biodiversity loss. The four scientists all work in different areas of marine conservation: coral reef ecology, fisheries management, marine policy, geospatial science and kelp forest ecology. Yet, they united over their dedication to studying and protecting the ocean.

Lauren Shea, a master’s student at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, was inspired by her experiences living and working full-time aboard sailing boats. In the winters of 2020 and 2021, she was based in Antigua where the race finishes each year.

“After seeing the race finish for the second time in 2021, I decided that it was something that I wanted to do alongside some of my closest friends who were also marine scientists,” said Shea.

The team faced challenges along the way, including rough seas with waves over eight meters tall, strong upwind conditions, equipment breakage and physical and mental exhaustion.

“Sometimes it felt like you were in a washing machine because the waves were coming from so many directions,” said Shea. “The weather can change so quickly and it reminds you constantly how small you are.”

The team needed a training regimen to prepare themselves both physically and mentally for the challenge.

Concept 2, a company that makes indoor rowing machines, sponsored their physical fitness regimen. The sponsorship included an 18-month training program designed by the team’s physical trainer, rowing specialist and coach, Cady Hart-Petterssen. The program combined crossfit style workouts, long rows on the ergometer, yoga, pilates and more, totaling up to 10 – 20 hours per week.

To mentally prepare, the team worked with Terri Schneider, a sports psychologist, who helped them develop mental resilience strategies and facilitated conversations to build team dynamics.

“We never slept for more than 2.5 hours at a time for those 38 days … but we worked very hard as a team to look out for and support each other whenever someone was struggling,” Shea said. “We went into the race knowing that we were only as strong as the four pillars (each of us) holding our team up, and we maintained that mentality for the entirety of the race.”

The team quickly adapted to the atypical weather in the Atlantic Ocean with smart navigation decisions and fixed the broken equipment with the spare tools they prepared for the trip, allowing for a smoother journey for their second half of the crossing.

The marine scientists rowed around the clock for 38 days.
The marine scientists rowed around the clock for 38 days. Courtesy World's Toughest Row

The trip taught Shea a lot about resilience and the power of collective action in the face of ecological collapse.

“Mindset is so important. If we look at the huge challenge ahead, it's easy to get discouraged. But, if we look at it in smaller chunks, it becomes easier to tackle challenges and a little bit less daunting,” she said. “It’s also amazing to be surrounded by a supportive team.”

The journey also highlighted the sheer magnitude and awe-inspiring biodiversity of the ocean.

“[We] had a large pod of dolphins visit us and even got to jump in the water and swim with them for a while,” Shea said. “We also had large schools of tuna swimming alongside us for a majority of the crossing. I think they especially loved all of the flying fish that we would have to throw back in the water after the flying fish accidentally crash landed on our boat in the middle of the night.”

The Salty Science’s victory has brought much-needed attention to the urgent need for ocean conservation.

“Even in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, we were still seeing garbage float by, so many ghost nets and floating buoys,” said Shea.

Through this campaign, the team raised over $250,000. The money will be donated to three organizations: Greenwave, Shellback Expeditions and Bamfield Marine Science Center. The funds will go towards creating educational opportunities for underrepresented groups in marine science by removing the financial barriers to training and courses that these organizations offer.

As the Salty Science crew celebrates their victory, they hope that their efforts will inspire others to take action for our oceans.

“We should all care about our oceans. They produce the oxygen we breathe, they moderate the climate, they provide us with food,” said Shea.

“What happens to the ocean is what happens to us. If we take care of it, we take care of ourselves along with all of the other species we share this amazing planet with.”