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Fall 2006 - Rescued rowers

Destination Purdue > Fall 2006 - Rescued rowers

Rescued rowers eager to return to Atlantic race

By Melissa Watler

While students at Purdue University, Emily Kohl and Sarah Kessans fell in love with rowing and dreamed of the ultimate rowing challenge: racing a rowboat across the Atlantic Ocean. Last year, they entered the Atlantic Rowing Race aboard the wooden rowboat American Fire. But after more than a month at sea, the boat flipped over and the pair clung to the top of it for 16 hours until they were rescued.

Kohl and Kessans

Photo provided by Emily Kohl and Sarah Kessans

Emily Kohl (left) and Sarah Kessans pose aboard the tall ship, Stavros S Niarchos, shortly after being rescued in the mid-Atlantic after the rowboat they were racing in flipped over.

Kessans, a 2005 Purdue Agriculture graduate with a degree in plant biology, and Kohl, a 2004 Purdue graduate with a history degree, were the only American team in the race. The 2,900-mile event began in late November in the Canary Islands. The finish line was Antigua in the Caribbean. Before the race, Kohl and Kessans predicted it would take them 50 days to complete their journey. The wave that flipped their boat struck at 4:30 p.m. on January 15, the 46th day of their journey.

"We had been inside the cabin for a while due to the weather, and were getting low on oxygen. As soon as we opened up the door to let in air, a wave crashed down and water came pouring in. I just knew we had to get out," Kohl said. While they waited for help to come, they talked about what the date was and soon found out how short a distance they had left remaining until the end of the race.

"After we found out, we just busted out the song 'Ironic,'" said Kessans, referring to the 1995 Alanis Morissette song.

Although they didn't complete the race, they said they were thankful for the experience. While they rowed, they saw whales and other breathtaking sights. "One night, I counted 23 shooting stars in a matter of two hours. It was amazing," said Kohl.

Kohl and Kessans were Purdue Crew team members for three years. Although they both played basketball and softball in high school, they joined the team with no previous rowing experience. Soon, they found themselves in love with rowing. "It's an absolutely amazing sport. It's both competitive and mentally challenging," said Kessans.

But preparing for the grueling Atlantic Rowing Race was a whole new challenge. "We trained for 6-12 horus every day for five days every week. The extra two days were spent doing promotional activities," said Kohl. The rowers worked hard and practiced harder. After two and a half years or practice, they started the race.

Kohl and Kessans said they are definitely planning to race again despite their previous setback. "We're more determined than ever," Kessans said. "We have to bring it home for America," said Kohl. Today, you can find the rowing partners speaking to different groups about their experiences and dedication to the sport. They are also writing a book about their experiences. Oddly enough, their rowboat didn't sink.

"The American Fire was recently discovered off the coast of Guadeloupe and towed by a local fisherman to the island of Désirade, which is just a few miles south of Antigua (she knew where she was going!)," their Web log reported in April. They also wrote that the boat appeared to be in great condition.

While not all new Purdue students will have the adventures Kohl and Kessans have had, they encourage Purdue students to try new things. "Take everything you can," said Kohl. "Never give up," Kessans added.