The clarity that comes from staring up at the inky, star-studded sky at midnight while rowing across the Atlantic Ocean is something Lauren Shea will never forget.
A halcyon moment during a gruelling trek at sea, where waves were as high as a battleship is long.
The 28-year-old graduate student at UBC was one of four women who completed the World’s Toughest Row, a non-stop 5,000-kilometre rowing race to Antigua from the Canary Islands, in their eight-metre rowboat called Emma.
The Salty Science Crew, which includes two B.C. members, made landfall last Saturday night after rowing for 38 days and 18 hours — much faster than the six to eight weeks they anticipated the journey would take.
It was a rush to reach land, said Shea in an interview this week from Antigua where they are recovering. As they climbed ashore their legs wobbled from not being accustomed to solid ground. They were swarmed by family members and friends, who squeezed them hard with shrieks of joy.
Adding to the exuberance was the thrill of realizing they had just won first place in the women’s division.
Speaking to Shea it’s clear that sublime memories, such as swimming with dolphins or the ethereal nighttime show of shimmering flying fish, outshone the scary moments like rowing against enormous waves or equipment failure. In the end, the arduous 18 months of training, the aching limbs, the seasickness, the bum rashes from constant rowing — all of it was worth it for the experience of a lifetime.
“It’s pretty wild to jump in the water and know there are thousands of metres below you,” she said. “Another time a minke whale came right up to us…it was so close we could have scratched its belly.”
They had schools of tuna that seemed to follow them the entire way, sharks, and even spotted a dreaded blue marlin.
“We were most worried about the blue marlin because a few boats in the past have been struck by blue marlin with the long swords on their face.”
Yet the biggest challenge wasn’t worrying about the marine life. It was battling waves.
“At one point we moved into a really tough upwind slog, the wind was coming against us, which those boats are not designed for. So that was really hard. Every single stroke felt like deadlifting 200 pounds. It was extremely hard on our bodies and very exhausting. And we had about a week of that before the weather kind of calmed down again.”
And with the calm came a pod of dolphins that leapt five metres into the air.
“Eventually we ended up getting in the water with them and got to swim with them and listen to them talk to each other in the water. It was amazing. I think that’s every marine biologist’s dream, really.”
Shea also celebrated one of her more memorable birthdays during the trip.
“One of my teammates somehow made an instant cheesecake and we drank a mini bottle of champagne,” she said. “It was just an awesome day.”
They didn’t expect to win. They were in it to raise money for ocean conservation and so far they’ve raised more than $250,000 for three organizations — and wanted to savour each moment on the trip, spending time swimming in the ocean.
But in the last few days, the wind was in their favour and they picked up speed, and came in first out of 13 other entries in the women’s division.
Shea will soon return home to Vancouver and resume her studies at UBC. But for now it’s all about recovery.
“I have strong muscles in very specific places and kind of lost everything else,” said Shea. “It’s been very hard to bend, to even touch my toes surprisingly. So walking and running have been a challenge. Swimming has been OK. But it’s getting easier every day.”
The team included: Shea, a master’s student at the University of B.C.’s institute for the oceans and fisheries; Isabelle Côté, a professor of marine biology at Simon Fraser University; Chantale Bégin, a professor at the University of South Florida; and Noelle Helder from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Anyone who wants to read about their extraordinary journey or donate to their fundraiser can do so by visiting their website saltyscience.org or their Instagram account @saltysciencerowing.
To read an interview with Shea before they left on their journey visit vancouversun.com.
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