​Sarah Kessans (right) and rowing partner Emily Kohl had hoped to row across the Atlantic Ocean in record time in 2005.

Adrift at sea

By Tom Campbell | Published Monday, March 21, 2016
alumni profile

As night fell over the Atlantic Ocean, Sarah Kessans, BS ’05, and Emily Kohl bobbed in the water like a pair of corks, clinging tightly to each other and the surfboard-sized backbone of their inverted 24-foot rowboat American Fire. Kessans wrapped herself in a sleeping bag to ward off the chilling 20-knot winds and tried not to think about what could be lurking in the black ocean surrounding them.

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It had been hours since she ignited their distress signal. A rogue wave had plowed into them with the force of a train T-boning a car, capsizing their vessel and ending their dream of finishing the 2005 Woodvale Challenge, a grueling 2,900-mile rowing race from the Canary Islands to Antigua. Now adrift 1,400 miles east of Puerto Rico, she and Kohl began to wonder if anyone had heard their signal at all.

For the previous four years, Kessans, 22, and Kohl, 23, had been teammates on the Purdue University rowing team. Kohl, a history major, had graduated a year before Kessans. They wanted to test themselves in a race measured in thousands of miles, not thousands of meters. They wanted to power a rowboat across the Atlantic, to throw down against the greatest undefeated heavyweight champion of all time: Mother Nature.

Kessans and Kohl were sisters in every way but in the DNA. They both dreamed of adventure-filled lives well beyond the red bricks of Purdue.

Each was consumed by a desire to do something no pair of American women had ever done. In the cauldron of the Woodvale Challenge, an event that makes other extreme sports seem as mundane as a game of Bridge, Kessans and Kohl not only wanted to be the youngest women to complete the race, but they also wanted to set a record by doing it in 60 days.

But 46 days in, Tropical Storm Zeta started flexing her muscles in the Atlantic, pushing cyclonic storms down on the regatta with such a force that 19 of the boats capsized.

The radio had blared plenty of threatening information about the storm system, so the two women prepared themselves for the squall.

They hunkered down in the tiny cabin of the American Fire, a space barely big enough to hold one person and her thoughts. Squeezing in shoulder to shoulder, they munched on sunflower seeds while they waited out the storm. The boat rolled over 30-foot waves as if on endless rollercoaster.

Everything is upside down

When the air in the cabin got musty, they each opened a vent, allowing fresh air to rush in. Without warning, a wave flipped the American Fire. Water poured into the cabin through the vents as though gushing through a pair of fire hoses.

Everything was in disarray. Equipment, food and clothing started to float as the water rose inside the inverted cabin.

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Now Kessans does most of her exploring in the greenhouse and in the lab as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Photos provided

Kohl shoved a pair of shorts into one of the open vents. Whenever Kessans reached down to plug the other vent, electricity from the VHF radio shocked her.

The boat was designed to right itself whenever it capsized. But with a cabin filled with water, the American Fire stayed upside down, with Kessans and Kohl inside, standing on the ceiling.

Kohl found the digital camera and stuck it in her pocket. Kessans grabbed the handheld radio
and Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon.

They searched for the waterproof bag that contained their passports and credit cards, but it
was gone.

They had never practiced for this calamity, but they were prepared.

Kessans and Kohl waited for the cabin to fill so water pressure would equalize. They took a last deep breath of air, opened the tiny cabin hatch and broke to the water’s surface, only to be smashed with facefuls of waves.

Their life raft was gone, drifting in the current and the wind with debris the storm had knocked loose. The ordeal had lasted less than three minutes, but it was enough time for them to realize they were in an extreme emergency situation.

Kessans dived back under the boat and retrieved the life jackets. They put them on and clipped into each other. If they were going to go down, it would be together.

The U.S. Coast Guard called their families as soon as it got the distress signal from the radio beacon Kessans and Kohl had activated. A plane was dispatched from Miami to search for the women.

But darkness forced the Coast Guard to abandon the search. It would try again at first light. Back in Indiana, Tim and Nancy Kessans kept the faith. They knew their daughter’s spirit could not be vanquished, that somehow, out on the ocean, their little girl would be all right. But secretly, Emily Kessans grieved, thinking her sister was dead.

By daybreak, the storm tired of throwing wave after wave at the women, who were dangling from the sides of the American Fire like a pair of saddlebags on a pony.

They told each other jokes and sang songs to keep their spirits high. But separately, each wondered if they would ever make it out of the ocean alive. They’d heard over the radio the Irish crew of the Digicel had been rescued after eight hours.

But for the American Fire crew, the eight-, 10- and 12-hour marks came and went with no sign of a rescue ship or plane.

The women began to think they would not be rescued. The songs they sang reflected their dwindling hopes.pullquote

While they waited, Kessans and Kohl pulled the barnacles off the hull of the American Fire and flicked them back into the ocean.

“No more free ride for you,” Kessans said.

Lights on the horizon

The lights Kessans spotted were too bright and too low on the horizon to be stars. She nudged Kohl, and they both shot upright to get a better look.

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The Stavros S Niarcos sailing ship and red rescue boat closes in on the American Fire. Sarah Kessans and Emily Kohl spent 14 harrowing hours in the Atlantic Ocean waiting for a rescue they thought might never come.

At last, after 14 hours adrift, there was hope.

They watched the approaching lights, then laid back down on the inverted hull to escape the cold night air. When they sat upright again, the lights were gone, disappearing on the endless black horizon. It was a smashing blow to the pair of indomitable spirits.

The sea was quiet. In solemn reflection, each woman was coming to grips with what now must surely be their unspeakable fate. 

Another 30 minutes passed. Kohl saw the blinking lights from a U.S. Coast Guard search-and-rescue plane approaching from the opposite direction. But they had been duped by the disappearing ship. Kessans and Kohl refused to get their hopes too high again.
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The giant C-130 cargo plane circled overhead and arced a smoky, orange flare into the sky. They had been seen. They would be saved. Kessans and Kohl raised their hands in celebration, emitting childish screams only each other could hear. Relief turned to giddiness, then into outright euphoria. After 14 hours adrift, suddenly the waves weren’t as cold and the salt didn’t sting as bad.

The plane radioed their location to the ship Kessans had spotted earlier.

Emily Kohl (top left) and Sarah Kessans (top right) get the bird’s-eye view of the Bridgetown, Barbados, harbor as their rescue ship, the Stavros S Niarcos, approaches the dock.

The Stavros S Niarcos, a tall-masted sailing ship, swept toward the stranded rowers.

Silhouetted against the blue dawn sky, its two giant masts and 18 sails made Kessans and Kohl wonder aloud.

“Is that some kind of pirate ship?”

Media darlings

Once on board, Kessans and Kohl spoke with their families back in the States, reassuring them they were warm, safe and dry.

Once frantic family members were calmed, they dealt with the onslaught of media calls.

They were interviewed on NPR. WGN called.
So did The Today Show, Good Morning America and CBS This Morning. Inside Edition wanted them, too. For two days, Kessans and Kohl did little besides answer phone calls.

They handled so many calls that the captain of the Stavros S Niarcos imposed his own media quarantine on the pair just so they could get some rest.

They spent another 11 days on the ship. The women took advantage of the free time and learned how to sail a tall ship. They even climbed to the top of the 135-foot mast to help set the mainsail.

Then the reality of their failed mission hit. They had left their dream floating upside down somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. They had no jobs, and the race left them $50,000 in debt.

“I wouldn’t say I was clinically depressed, but it was definitely a time for reflection,” Kessans said. “Prior to capsizing, I had everything planned out in my life. Go race, get a world record, go to grad school, get married and have a family. I was going to be a success.”

Who dared doubt her?

She had graduated with honors from Eastern High School in Pekin, Indiana. A science fair project had earned her a trip to Israel her senior year. She excelled academically and athletically at Purdue, earning a degree in plant biology.

Kessans had worked in the lab with Purdue professors Ron Coolbaugh and Nick Carpita doing plant-based research and had spent a year studying abroad in Ireland.

“I love biology,” Kessans said. “And I’ve always enjoyed working with plants. They fascinate me.”

She thought back to a meeting with Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug at the 2003 Purdue Agricultural Alumni Association Fish Fry. As a sophomore, Kessans had snuck in with a group of graduate students hand-picked to meet with Borlaug. He encouraged her to go out and make a difference on the world stage.

It was a career-defining moment for Kessans.

“Meeting Norman Borlaug and seeing the opportunities to solve the world’s problems using plant biology absolutely fascinated me,” she said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my career.

I wanted to do something in plant biology to help the world.

After failure at sea, what now?

“This was just how my life was going to go. But after the capsize, it was like, OK, that didn’t work out. What about the rest of my life? That’s not a guarantee, either.”

Kessans moved in with Kohl’s family in Chicago. The two women tried to fit the fractured puzzle pieces of their lives back into something meaningful.

“We weren’t very fun people to be around for a couple of months,” Kessans admitted. “We didn’t know how to come to grips with failure.”

Kohl relied on her friends. Kessans searched for the answers through solitude.

“I did a lot of running, finding solace in the simplicity of the natural world away from other people and the city,” she said.

What righted Kessans’ ship was a letter of admission to a graduate program at Arizona State University. She got in on the ground floor with Tsafrir Mor, working to create a plant-based, subunit vaccine against the HIV virus. Kessans helped conduct several immunization trials with mice.

But a dream postponed is not necessarily a dream denied. Kessans and Kohl had a score to settle at sea.

“We always knew we wanted to get back out there and finish the race,” Kessans said. The plan was to fix up American Fire for the 2009 race, but they got fast-tracked by a better offer.

“We got a call saying there was a boat available. All we had to do was show up and it was ours.”

“The scenery here is amazing,” says Kessans, who spends much of her free time exploring New Zealand, her new home.

She asked Mor for a couple of months off to go race again.

“I went on bended knee and asked him to give me a couple of months off,” Kessans said. “Fortunately, he was really understanding. He knew if he didn’t let me go I was going to be pretty miserable around the lab or I was going to go anyway.”

Following the 2005 race, Kessans and Kohl had befriended Jo Davies of Great Britain and Tara Remington of New Zealand. They, too, had failed to finish the race in separate boats and were equally anxious to get back out on the water. They even provided the perfect name for the four-person boat, Unfinished Business.

There were storms this time, too. But nothing like 2005. And when the storms would clear at night, their ocean path seemed to be illuminated by a billion stars. Surely, they thought, this must be the greatest place on Earth.

On Jan. 23, 2008, near English Harbor on the island of Antigua, flares hissed into the same night sky, heralding the arrival of Unfinished Business.

A catamaran full of family and friends that included a seasick Tim Kessans escorted the boat the final two miles of the race, shouting encouragement through a bullhorn.

Their crossing time of 51 days, 16 hours and 31 minutes exorcised the demons of the 2005 race and broke the previous women’s fours crossing record by a whopping 17 days.

They peeled off the first two white, plastic letters of the boat’s name, rechristening it as Finished Business.

Epilogue

After their triumph at sea in the 2007 Woodvale race, Kohl joined the Coast Guard, then became a forest ranger in California. Kessans returned to Arizona to resume working on the HIV vaccine, spending her free time exploring the waterways and mountains of the West.

She earned her PhD in molecular and cellular biology from Arizona State in 2011 and set her sights on New Zealand, where she planned to work for three years before returning to the states.

Kessans works in the University of Canterbury’s Department of Chemistry, developing “fungal factories” that produce high-value agricultural and medical compounds.

She is finishing a book chronicling their adventures. And if Blood, Sweat and the
Sea were to become a movie, Kessans would like Jennifer Lawrence to play her role.

mountain

Jumping for joy in the shadows near New Zealand’s Mt. Cook, Sarah Kessans knows that life is a celebration.

“I admire many of the strong, female roles she has played, and I would like to
think of myself as a strong, determined teammate who doesn’t give up in the face of adversity,” Kohl said.

Sweet home, New Zealand

Now, Kessans is not so sure when she will return to the U.S. She found a place in Christchurch near the water and the mountains, a place where she feels as comfortable as she did under the starry ocean sky, alone with her thoughts and her dreams.

Kessans became a permanent resident of New Zealand in January.

“New Zealand is my home now,” Kessans said. “I didn’t expect this is how it would all happen, but I just fit down here. Growing up in Salem, Indiana, I never could have imagined living somewhere like this. It’s a little crazy how everything turned out.”

Kessans is a mentor scientist for two programs – Scientists in the Classroom at Sinagua Middle School in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Adopt-a-Scientist at Lincoln High School in Christchurch.

And the spirit of the American Fire still burns deep within her. Kessans recently applied to become a member of NASA’s 2017 astronaut class.

Contact Kessans at Skessans@gmail.com