It might seem like an overwhelming challenge for two coaches to craft a successful rowing team at a university built on desert land with no river in sight.

But Arizona State coach Emily Kohl and her assistant, Sarah Kessans, who brought their women's crew to the Dad Vail Regatta for the first time yesterday, say it can be done.

And who's to disagree with two women who spent 16 harrowing hours in the middle of the Atlantic after their 24-foot ocean rowing boat capsized, battered by massive waves stirred by a succession of nasty storms, and lived to talk about it?

Such was the frightening predicament in which the two former Purdue crew mates found themselves in December 2005, at the Woodvale Events Atlantic Rowing Race, which began off La Gomera in the Canary Islands and ended 2,900 nautical miles away in Antigua, West Indies.

About halfway through the race, turbulence flipped their boat.

"During the night, you couldn't see the waves coming at you," said Kessans, who two years ago won her second Dad Vail gold medal as a senior at Purdue. "We were tethered to each other, and we had no life raft. It was rough, but we kept our spirits up, and our attitude was that we would eventually be rescued."

They radioed the Coast Guard, which in turn requested that the nearest craft to their boat go to their rescue. Closest to them was a British tall ship that happened to be about 100 miles south.

"It took about 16 hours for them to reach us," Kessans said.

Kohl and Kessans were the only Americans - and the youngest American women to row an ocean - in the race, which consisted of 41 vessels and bills itself as the toughest rowing event in the world. They were hoping to break the women's record of 50 days.

But after their ordeal, there's no way they'll ever do something that crazy again, right?

"We'll probably do the one on the Indian Ocean in 2009," Kohl said without flinching. "Hey, we've got to finish what we started."

Added Kessans, "Nothing compares to being out there - the freedom of the ocean, the beauty of the sunset. It's just absolute freedom. Even with the storms and the hardships, it's definitely worth the experience."

More people have stood atop Mount Everest than have rowed an ocean. With that in mind, the challenge that faces Kohl and Kessans at Arizona State doesn't faze them. This is their first year running the Sun Devils' fledgling crew, the vast majority of whom are Arizona natives who sat wide-eyed on the banks of the Schuylkill yesterday, marveling at the sight of the country's largest collegiate regatta.

"We don't have moving water where we practice," said junior Brigitta Vincent, born and raised in Phoenix. "It's pretty much a giant bathtub, and we don't have the scenery you have here because, well, we're rowing in the desert. And sometimes it's so hot we have to dip our shirts in the water. So this is a little harder for us only because we're not used to it."

Vincent was describing Tempe Town Lake, a man-made body of water on which the Sun Devils train that stretches about two miles long. It may not be ideal for training to compete in regattas. "There's no current, no side winds," Kohl said. "The varsity practices at 5 in the morning, when it's not as hot."

The lake is the least of Kohl's concerns. Her crew needs boats, oars and trailers. Kohl, also a gold medalist at the Dad Vail, used her connections to borrow the three boats they have entered in the Dad Vail, one from Drexel and two from Villanova.

"I know [Drexel head coach] Joe Palmer from when he coached at Purdue and called him for help, and I sent out e-mails to a lot of schools, and Villanova lent us two boats," she said.

Kohl said the program was financed overwhelmingly by fund-raising events and dues from the rowers. She said the university offered little financial help. "They bought us two oars," she said.

Each of the 30 women rowers who made the long trip forked out $500 to cover costs, Kohl said, but she believes their experience at the Dad Vail is necessary because she wants them exposed to the tradition and competitiveness of East Coast rowing.

"The girls wanted the experience and were willing to pay for it," Kohl said. "It's East Coast rowing, and it's a different experience. They're almost all novices. Only two had ever rowed in high school. But I wanted them to know what it feels like to be in the Dad Vail so when we come back next year we'll be stronger."

ASU's inexperience showed yesterday. The Sun Devils finished last in the women's varsity eight heat, fifth in the JV heavyweight eight, and fifth in the frosh/novice heavyweight eight. But it was a start.

Men's Varsity Heavyweight Eight

(Two to semifinals, last place eliminated, others to repechage)

Heat 1: 1, Temple, 6:05.94. 2, Lehigh, 6:14.26, 3, Mercyhurst, 6:19.87. 4, Michigan St., 6:25.06. 5, Florida, 6:32.26. 6, Connecticut, 6:38.49.

Heat 2: 1, Marietta, 6:06.61. 2, St. Joseph's, 6:09.78. 3, Rhode Island, 6:17.22. 4, Minnesota, 6:19.40. 5, George Mason, 6:21.77. 6, Maryland, 6:23.22.

Heat 3: 1, Purdue, 6:02.38. 2, Rochester Tech, 6:09.7. 3, St. Thomas, 6:11.74. 4, Dayton, 6:13.49. 5, Johns Hopkins, 6:31.87.

Heat 4: 1, Florida Tech, 6:02.95. 2, Delaware, 6:09.98. 3, Santa Barbara, 6:15.4. 4, Ohio State, 6:15.73. 5, Penn State, 6:42.44.

Heat 5: 1, Army, 6:03.93. 2, Jacksonville, 6:07.35. 3, Loyola, 6:15.56. 4, La Salle, 6:22.9. 5, Santa Clara, 6:32.48.

Heat 6: 1 , Grand Valley, 6:08.28. 2, San Diego, 6:10.86. 3, Rochester, 6:20.62. 4, Drexel, 6:25.34. 5, Ohio, 6:49.86

For complete results, go to www.dadvail.org

See a slide show from the Dad Vail Regatta at http://go.philly.com/photos.

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Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo

at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.