Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

'Feels amazing': All-women team of scientists dominate in world rowing challenge

The all-women crew rowed 5,000 kilometres for 38 days straight across the Atlantic Ocean in the World's Toughest Row.

Four female scientists overcame weather and mental challenges to finish a daunting race across the Atlantic Ocean in just 38 days all in the name of ocean conservation. 

The race is hailed as the World’s Toughest Row. Teams had to row 5,000 kilometres without stopping and without support — from San Sebastian de La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua. 

The women expected to finish the voyage in 40 to 55 days but greatly surpassed their prediction. Every night, two people rowed while the other two slept on a two-hour rotation. 

On Saturday, Canada’s team — called Salty Science — crossed the finish line and won the women's class of the competition.

“It feels amazing… it's still kinda sinking in,” says Isabelle Côté. “It was such a surprise, really, to win because that wasn’t really the goal to begin with.” 

The Canadian group is made up of all women scientists from B.C. and Alaska. Lauren Shea, a master’s student at the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, came up with the idea and convinced her teammates to do the race.

Chantale Bégin was the third crewmate, now a professor at the University of South Florida. Noelle Helder with the University of Alaska Fairbanks rounded out the team.  

Côté is a professor of marine biology at Simon Fraser University and hopes people understand their passion for the ocean. 

“We are willing to do something extraordinarily difficult to convince people that the oceans are worth working for,” says Côté.

For her, the race was about overcoming obstacles at any age. 

"I partly want to be a role model for older women and demonstrate that life doesn't end at 60,” she says. “You can do these wacky crazy things well beyond that."

Big waves, big fish and a big mental toll 

Sleeping on a moving row boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean wasn’t the only challenge the women faced. 

"I think that a really big part of the challenge comes from the scale of the crossing. It's just a very, very long time [to row],” says Shea from a beach in Antigua.

When she spoke to Glacier Media this week, she explained how some rowers in the race are still out competing and working to finish. 

“You are constantly responding to the weather, you're experiencing the fatigue, you're experiencing the new aches and pains that you wake up with every day and to experience all that and still be able to function and support your teammates through that, it’s really challenging,” she says.

While on the boat, they celebrated Christmas, New Year’s Eve and two birthdays. They had to overcome massive waves, wildlife encounters and equipment failures.

“We had a school of tuna that basically escorted us across the entire Atlantic,” says Côté. “We had some shark swim up next to the bow and we had a shark feeding under our boat that accidentally ran into the rudder a couple of times."

The four women leaned on each other, something they say was their biggest strength in the race. 

“I think that as a team we rallied together and managed to overcome those together,” says Shea. “I wouldn’t give up any of the challenges that we experienced.”

Côté has blistered and heavily calloused hands from the row. 

“For me, it was really a mental challenge, sort of a wrap my brain around the timescale,” she says. 

Some days, they could only cover one nautical mile every hour for 24 hours due to currents. 

“You're working so hard and because the water just feels like cement … it's hard. And it's like day after day after day,” says Côté.

The goal

Being a group of marine biologists, their 'why' for setting out on the water is multi-fold.

“We are hoping to inspire other people in marine science, other women who work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), but we are also really excited to go on this adventure all together,” Shea told Glacier Media in an interview before the race.

They were able to raise $252,000 in donations.

Three organizations will benefit from the fundraiser: Bamfield Marine Science Centre on Vancouver Island; GreenWave in the U.S.; and Shellback Expeditions in the Eastern Caribbean. 

“We're raising money for three different marine conservation organizations that are tackling different issues in ocean conservation, but also have a really big education component of their program,” explains Shea. 

The finish

Late Saturday night, the women were nearing the home stretch of the race and edging closer to Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua. 

“All of a sudden, there's boats and there's sirens and there's lights,” says Côté.

The women could hear people cheering others yelling directions on what to do next.

“It was just completely overwhelming and such a surprise,” she says. 

Salty Science members are now taking some time to relax and embrace being done the very physical task. 

“We have just been totally overwhelmed by the love and support that's been outpouring and seeing all of our friends and family here,” she says. 

Once on solid ground, some members found it challenging to walk. 

“It was more than a balance thing,” says Côté. “We got so used to just swaying with the waves that our brains are still swaying when the land is not moving.”

The entire time Côté was on the boat she could only think of one thing she wanted to do when they finished the voyage. 

"I really, really wanted to eat a banana, which I didn't get to do until about 24 hours later.” 

After this race, Côté is going to stick to coastal waters instead of the open ocean. Shea says next time she’s in the water she’ll use something that has some sails instead of oars. 

“Are we in line to sign up for another one? No, I don't think so. But it was yeah, it was a really awesome crossing,” says Shea.