Rowing the Wild Atlantic

Written for NUVO, Indianapolis’ alt weekly.

Purdue grads complete boat competition on second try

Editors note: The last time NUVO brought you news of Sarah Kessans and Emily Kohl, they were in Florida, training for a race where they would be rowing a boat across the Atlantic Ocean. You read that correctly, rowing. What follows is the tale of two adventures, one ending on shaky ground and the other in triumph.

A rough day

The year was 2005, the location somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Sarah Kessans, 22, and Emily Kohl, 23, both graduates of Purdue University, were huddled in the small cabin of their 24-foot ocean rowing boat. The anchor was dropped as the women attempted to ride out a squall that had come upon them 18 hours before.

Kessans and Kohl were competing in the Woodvale Challenge, an annual rowing competition. Woodvale Events, the race coordinator, handles 24/7 boat tracking via GPS during the event as well as insurance and coordination with rescue services.

No one told the sea, though, that it was only a sporting event, and the team was left to fend against natural elements that modern technology had never definitively overcome.

As they were about to make another call to their distant support ship, a rogue wave, likely close to 20 feet high, slammed into the vessel’s port side, sending the craft tumbling keel side up.

Earlier, the women had removed solar fan vents from the cabin’s walls to let more air into their oxygen-starved cabin. Now that the cabin was underwater, those vents were serving as sieves. The sea poured in.

The women grabbed the few things they could: their Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), a jacket and a digital camera. They emerged from the vessel’s interior in time to see their life raft floating away in the distance.

The following hours were spent on the keel of their overturned boat, trying to stay warm as they were visited by 20-knot winds and wave after chilling wave, 10 to 20 feet in height.

After 16 hours in the grueling weather, the women were plucked out of the ocean by a British Tall Ship, a vessel that, to the weary women, resembled a spooky manifestation from Pirates of the Caribbean.

See the rescue yourself online at

Kessans and Kohl spent the next 11 days aboard that ship, involving themselves in activities that made the abrupt departure from their own plans seem less wrenching. They set to learning the workings of the massive vessel, climbing 300-foot masts to set the sails. They stopped and explored the beautiful island of Bequia, played beach volleyball on Mayreau, swam around the Tobago Keys and hiked the volcanoes of St. Lucia before arriving in Barbados with one less boat and many more stories.

Their boat turned up a few months later off the island of Desirade in the French West Indies, just 40 miles south of the island the girls were rowing for in the first place, Antigua. The hull still completely intact, they were able, with the help of Desirade’s chief of police, to put the boat on a container and send it back to the U.S.

Salvaging a boat

It wasn’t until 2007 that Emily Kohl made the drive to Florida to pick up her battered boat. After making the pickup, she spent the night at a friend’s house, leaving the boat parked out front.

The next morning she found an envelope affixed to the boat’s hull with blue painter’s tape. It was from a woman named Jan Kissel. She was the mother of Tara Remington, who had competed in the ’05 race along with Kessans and Kohl. Like that ill-fated pair, Remington also met some obstacles that prevented her completing the race; she and her rowing partner sustained hurricanes, a capsize, a head injury and, oh yes, a shark attack. Kohl had met Remington on the island of Antigua, the race’s finish line.

Kissel invited Kohl and another rower, Jo Davies, for dinner that night. Davies, a Brit who had badly injured her back during the ’05 race, had had to wait seven days on the boat with her team after her immobilizing injury before a successful rescue was managed. The women all had unfinished business with the Atlantic.

That evening, as the women sat around drinking rum at a restaurant called Trapas, they shared their oceanic war stories. Unfazed by their experience in 2005, they decided it would be a grand idea to do it over again in 2007 as a team of four. They just needed to find a boat, which seemed unlikely until the hard-luck ladies got help from an unexpected place.

In October, two months before the race was scheduled to start, Kessans got a call from Simon Chalk, the race organizer. He told her that there was a boat called Mount Spirit waiting in the U.K. The boat was still in pretty good shape after being raced across the North Atlantic in 2006. The team who had used it offered it up to be borrowed for free under the condition that whoever takes it support their selected charity. And, it could accommodate a team of four.

Until Kessans got that call from Chalk, she hadn’t thought seriously about that rum-soaked resolution made in Florida to hit the sea with three other women. She and Kohl talked it over and decided that this was too great a stroke of luck to pass up. Kessans arranged to take a short break from her Ph.D. studies and they got back in touch with Remington and Davies, who were eager to accept the belated invitation.

And so it was set. The team of four planned to depart on Dec. 3 from La Gomera, a small chunk of land that makes up part of the Canary Islands. They would then set a course for Antigua, 2,931 miles away, in a red boat with its name stuck to the side with white vinyl letters: Unfinished Business.

And then there were four

The sun was directly overhead in a warm, early December sky over La Gomera. Kessans and Kohl had been on the starting line before, but nothing could contain the excitement that comes with seeing 20 ocean rowing boats out in the bay. The women were brimming with adrenaline. Kessans sat in the boat, reflecting on how amazing it was that team, boat and sponsors had come together in only two months. Kessans’ thoughts were cut off abruptly as an air horn screamed, and the boats shot into the wide, consuming sea.

Kessans and Kohl could tell at the outset that this race would be a different experience. In ’05 they were a team of two, so while one person was always rowing, the other person was mostly sleeping, not leaving much overlap for things like conversation. But with four rowers, the women worked in teams, Kessans and Kohl always rowing together in two hour shifts while Remington and Davies ate or slept, and then switching.

“With four it’s just so much more dynamic,” Kessans said. “Being able to share duties such as cooking and plotting the charts and talking on the satellite phone and just having somebody with you, it’s just so much better.”

An obvious difference this sort of race holds from most others is its duration. Being on the boat for over 50 days, it became a home for the women; it was where their life took place. They did laundry in a bucket, washing as much of the skin-irritating salt out of the fabric as possible.

They had a water-making machine on board, a contraption that uses reverse osmosis to clear the salt out of the seawater to make it drinkable. They carried a spare 200 liters as their ballast, some of which they had to tap into when their solar panel went on the fritz and they weren’t able to power their machine.

They ate mostly freeze-dried food — mac and cheese, beef stroganoff, noodles and chicken, things that required only boiling water to be hydrated back into a somewhat edible form. They also brought plenty of junk food along: Doritos, Fritos, Snickers bars, Slim Jims, things to keep snacking on in between rowing duties. Even with all their eating, after 50 days of working out for 12 hours a day, the women came home 15 to 20 pounds lighter.

“I mean, you’re burning about 4,000 calories a day and really you can’t eat 4,000 calories a day,” Kessans said. “I mean you could, but we just really didn’t want to eat that much just because it’s a lot of food.”

Not to mention the inevitable bathroom breaks.

“‘Bucket and chuck it’ with baby wipes was pretty much the way to go,” Kessans said. One of the team members, she said, liked to go over the side, but balance issues kept the other three hovering over those buckets as long as they weren’t lost or broken.

To pass the time between disasters and fitful sleep, the team learned to appreciate the little details that nature threw their way. One day, the team was joined by a pod of dolphins that swam alongside their boat for over half an hour.

They looked forward most to the nights: Being over a thousand miles from the closest light source, the sky looked as if it had been ripped open, the rawness of millions upon millions of stars revealed.

They would spend their nights rowing together, listening to the music they piped in through two speakers on deck (everything from the ’80s to Death Cab to Dashboard Confessional, for those keeping track at home). Some nights they would put in the earphones from their iPods and listen to recorded books. And there were other nights when they would simply row in silence, hearing nothing but the sound of their oars dipping in and out of the dark sea.

One simple question

Of course, one question remains for these rowers single-mindedly driven to their cause, despite all the obstacles set in their path: Why?

Why put yourself through the physical exertion and exhaustion that this sort of journey requires?

Why lay yourself out there, vulnerable to the unpredictability of ever changing oceanic weather?

Why spend half your daytime hours lying awake in a boat’s small cabin that has turned into a virtual sauna awaiting your next turn at the oars?

“I think they’re nuts,” said Jere Jenkins, formerly the women’s varsity rowing coach at Purdue University. He coached Kessens and Kohl during their stint with the Purdue team. “I mean, three-fifths of our planet is covered with water. The oceans are an incredibly powerful entity and to go out there for 50 days, basically alone, I think, is just crazy.”

Jenkins said that he does understand the pull towards rowing, though: “The draw to rowing is that it is a sport where you push yourself mentally and physically to your absolute limit every day. It’s hard for people to understand when they see it on television because it all looks so smooth and graceful, but when you’re actually in the boat and rowing it’s an incredibly intense experience.”

Jenkins said that Kessens and Kohl were both very intense athletes, even in training. “They would put their rowing machines nose to nose and they would basically growl at each other,” he said.

“The difference between being on a bigger oceangoing boat and on an ocean rowboat where you sit 2 feet above the water, it’s like two different oceans,” Kessans said. “Being propelled by your own power makes it so that the sounds are different. You can hear the ocean, you can see the blind fish practically jump into your lap. You really feel a part of the ocean whereas on a larger ship you’re really just a passenger on it.”

“At times you’re not in control and nature is in control,” Kohl said. “And that’s a big thing. If you’re in a boat with an engine or a motor you have some sort of control, but when you’re in an ocean rowing boat when the only thing you have to move with is oars, that’s something that’s really different.”

Holiday at sea

After 22 days at sea, Christmas rolled around, and the team celebrated the holiday with special treats from home. Davies’ mom had packed presents for all four women, including kazoos and Santa hats. They made themselves a Christmas tree by wrapping green tinsel around the boat’s three antennas.

“It wasn’t your average Christmas tree but it definitely got us in the holiday spirit,” Kessans said.

“She called us on Christmas Eve when the whole family was hanging out,” said Emily Kessans, 21, Sarah’s younger sister and a nursing student on the IUPUI campus here in Indy. She said that she thinks she might actually have talked more with her sister when she was at sea than when she’s on land, thanks likely in large part to the satellite phone sponsorship the team had. She said that Sarah was, understandably, always pretty tired when she called and was usually ready to eat or sleep.

Sarah Kessans’ early Christmas holidays were spent on the Northside of Indianapolis. In 1992, when she was 8, the family moved farther south in Indiana, onto a 160-acre farm.

“At first she was hesitant even to walk outside the house,” said Tim Kessans, Sarah’s father and a resident of Floyds Knobs, Ind. Over the phone, Tim Kessans sounded warm and proud. Through sheepish, reminiscent laughs, he said that it wasn’t long before Sarah was walking down to the river, building forts with her friends and eventually off the farm entirely.

“She was always climbing the tallest trees growing up, or swimming across the flooded Blue River near our home,” Emily Kessans said. “We spent a lot of time on the roof.”

In high school, Sarah Kessans became involved in a national science fair through her research in creating a natural herbicide. This project took her all over the country, let her meet President Bush, got her a summer in Israel and, in the words of her father, kept expanding her wings more and more.

Finished business

It took another month for the rowers to reach their destination. By the night of Jan. 22, Antigua, an island just a quarter the size of Marion County, sat just 20 miles away; as the sun dropped lower in the sky, the little island’s lights seemed to get brighter and brighter. When they were about 2 miles from shore the team was met by a flotilla of boats, one of which was a catamaran that had been rented by the crew’s family members.

“At the end we were absolutely hauling,” Kohl said. “We were going so fast with the adrenaline and wanting to get in. I think we did the last 2 miles in about a half hour.”

As the women neared shore they saw flares go off from the top of Fort Berkeley. The flares, which they later found out were being ignited by the men of team Pura Vida, the race’s overall winners, lit up the night sky like a homeward-beckoning beacon.

When the team finally made it to port, they stepped off the boat that had been their home for nearly two months and into the welcoming arms of a huge crowd. Their families hired a steel band to greet them, and the plinking of the metal drums penetrated the normally calm island night. They had spent the last 51 days, 16 hours and 31 minutes rowing from shore to shore.

“We had waited for that moment pretty much for four years, since we got the idea of rowing across the Atlantic,” Kessans said. “It was absolutely surreal and we were absolutely on top of the world.”

“It was definitely the finish that we longed for when we were out there,” Kohl added.

The previous record for a women’s team of four in this race was 67 days, set during the 2005 race. By finishing this race in 51 days, the women blasted the old record out of the water, so to speak. And in a frenzy of excited celebration, the letters “U” and “N” were peeled off the side of their boat, christening her anew as Finished Business.

The end of a journey is always a time for looking back. But it’s also a time when you can’t help but look forward. What comes next for Kessans and Kohl? Will there be more ocean rowing in their futures? As of now, one is saying probably and the other, probably not.

“I may end up doing the ’09 Indian Ocean race,” Kohl said. “It would be kind of a big historical moment for us, having an American women’s four go across and with the experience that we now have with these two races we could hopefully go in and win the race. So that’s a maybe.”

Kessans has different thoughts. “As far as I’m concerned, I mean, I may eat my words later, but I’m sort of ready to get onto new adventures, everything from climbing to hiking to adventure racing. I love the experience [of ocean rowing] and would recommend it to anyone. It really is a life-changing event. But for right now I’m definitely done rowing oceans for a bit,” she said.

Rowing for a Cause

The rowing team didn’t make their journey for glory alone. They were also raising money for the Meningitis Trust U.K. and the Meningitis Trust New Zealand.

The team’s association with the charities came with the boat; the meningitis charities were affiliated with the team that had used the boat in 2006, and that team loaned their boat to the women’s team on the condition that they keep those charities on board for the 2008 race.

While they may have inherited a cause, the team has devoted itself to trusts, and hopes to raise $20,000 in total. Currently they’re only about a quarter of the way there, and can use additional donations at