Story of an Obsession: Why Lia Ditton Will Row the Pacific

Oceans
Lia Ditton in her element. Photo: standard.co.uk

After more than three years of full-time training and preparation, Lia Ditton will set out in March to row solo and unsupported 8,800km across the Pacific Ocean.

The 39-year-old ex-Londoner plans to row from Choshi, Japan to San Francisco, where she now lives. She is hoping to be the first person, male or female, to row the entire west-east route.

There have been 19 recorded attempts to complete the crossing. Pioneering ocean rower Peter Bird perished in 1996 during his west-east attempt, after successfully rowing across in the opposite direction, from the U.S. to Australia, in 1983.

French rower Gerard d’Aboville did a west-east Pacific crossing, likewise alone and unsupported, in 1991. Ironically, he became stranded on a sandbar at the mouth of the Columbia River during a storm and had to be towed the final kilometres to Oregon. A 2005 attempt by Emmanuel Coindre also ended in a last-minute tow to shore. So although the Ocean Rowing Society recognizes both west-east crossings, the awkward finales give their accomplishments a small asterisk.

Gerard d”Aboville in 1991. Photo: sea-to-summit.net

A licensed sea captain, Ditton gained a tolerance for the ocean from an early age. She spent eight childhood summers sailing with her family on their six-metre boat, from England through the canals of France and into the Mediterranean down to Sicily. “Even medium-sized waves are big in a small boat,” she said. At 14, she vowed never to sail again.

Ditton’s passion for the ocean was rekindled in her twenties. While travelling Asia, she stumbled on a yacht race in Thailand called the Phuket Kings Cup. “They needed volunteers, so I volunteered,” she said. “After the race, I ended up sailing partway home from Thailand to Turkey.”

Thus began a number of years as a professional yacht racer. She also dabbled a little in modeling. Ditton became unemployed when the global financial crisis hit in 2008. “After two months, I received a call from a colleague who owned a boat yard in Denmark. He said he had a weird ocean rowboat in his yard, and the owner was looking for a partner to row the Atlantic, would I be interested?”

Ditton had previously crossed the Atlantic eight times in yachts, so she wasn’t fazed by the distance. However, she didn’t know rowing. “My partner was an Olympic hopeful and I had a few lessons with her, but we didn’t really gel. From then on, I knew I wanted to row an ocean, just not with her.”

With her interest sparked, Ditton continued to train on a rowing machine but found it too boring. She took a job in Spain and began rock climbing to build her upper body strength.

In training. Photo: oprah.com

In 2010, while in Abu Dhabi, she received an email inviting her to row the Atlantic as part of a two-person crew. Just one hitch: She had three days to get to the starting line in the Canary Islands. Without any preparation, she got there and hopped on the boat with a complete stranger with whom, by her own admission, she had nothing in common, and away they went.

Her partner was seasick for the first 10 days. “He was in his pain cave the whole time,” Ditton recalled. “He was scared and wildly out of his comfort zone. However, we were driven strongly to finish the race. He just wanted to get it over with, and I wanted to do well.”

Ditton knew within hours of finishing the race she would row an ocean again. “All these other crews came in smiling and laughing like they’d had the time of their lives,” she said. “Our experience was totally different. I was the captain of a boat that I didn’t want to captain.”

Ditton and partner complete their Atlantic crossing. Photo: Lia Ditton

For years after that, she kept hearing about someone trying to row the North Pacific from west to east and failing. “I became fascinated. What was it about that particular body of water that kept defeating people?”

She believes a lot has to do with the Kuroshio current. “It doesn’t flow like a stream, it goes around in circles or eddies,” Ditton said. “In good weather, it’s a free ride, but in bad weather, these eddies become a cauldron.”

The currents of the North Pacific Ocean. Photo: researchgate.net

According to Ditton, all the previous failed attempts left either too late in the season, from the wrong place, were poorly funded or quit because it was too much for them. “No one has really succeeded land to land, let alone a woman,” she said.

Driven to become the first, Ditton relocated to San Francisco and has been training for three years. She has rowed 4,700km and gained 16 kilos of muscle in the process. Maintaining her weight is a critical issue, and she has worked on this during recent training runs.

“Last month, I rowed from Portland to San Francisco and only lost one pound,” she said. “That was a huge success for me. If you can hold your weight, you are maintaining your potential to create power. When you see rowers who complete ocean crossings, many of them are emaciated.”

To familiarize herself with the conditions along the coast that undid d’Aboville and Coindre, she rowed from Portland to San Francisco and San Francisco to Los Angeles.

En route from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Photo: sfgate.com

Ditton has studied under 12 different personal trainers to absorb as many different philosophies as possible on how to train for the challenge ahead. “To do lots of the same is not the way,” she said. “You want to work the opposing muscles for the thing you’re about to do, because they support the muscles you will use. When rowing an ocean, you need strength in the little muscles that maintain your stability.”

She has also worked with sports psychologist Michael Gervais of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and is currently consulting sports psychologists from the University of Southern California’s rowing program. This, and the strength she has built during physical training, has helped train her mentally.

Leaving no stone unturned, Ditton has rebuilt her boat twice, moving the centre of lateral resistance forward to improve stability. “These boats were designed to roll and self-right but not to pitch and roll end to end,” she said. “This can happen in a typhoon. By distributing the weight more evenly, a crash is less likely.” She has also added carbon fibre to the structure, bulletproofing it for any eventuality.

Ditton had her boat design mocked up in negative space to get a feel for the interior and deck ergonomics. Photo: Lia Ditton

She is equally obsessive with her other equipment. She will carry a solar-powered water maker and a backup manual unit. She will have one set of full-length oars and two spare sets of collapsible oars, although she claims never to have never broken an oar.

“I’ve played around a lot. I’m onto my third rudder, second footboard and multiple iterations of the seat. I’m fine-tuning what works for me in order to do a 12- to 16-hour row without discomfort.”

Solar panels on Ditton’s boat. Photo: rowliarow.com

Ditton plans to take rations for five months at sea. “It is an interesting problem,” she said. “The more food you take, the more weight you carry, the more energy you need.” She will supplement her food by fishing along the way.

Weather forecasting has attracted a lot of her attention. One or more analysts will monitor the weather on a much larger scale than she can on board. This is particularly important around the lip of the continental shelf, where storms pick up waves viciously, as she discovered on two occasions.

To minimize the risk of typhoons, she will leave in March. “I worked with Gerard (d’Aboville) for six months, and he was particularly insistent that I leave as early as I can.”

Ditton came up with an innovative solution to fund her trip. For the first year of training, she was sponsored, but then switched to the crowdfunding platform, Patreon. She has about 100 donors who give from $1 to $500 per month, but she still needs to raise $50,000 to $60,000. To make up the shortfall, she is selling pieces of her boat.

“When I finish, the boat will be sliced into 60 vertical pieces for sale at $3,500 a piece for individuals or $5,000 for corporations,” she said. “We suggest hanging it in a gallery or museum, and if you buy a slice, you receive a golden ticket to the slice party.” She has 20 slices left to sell, so buyers are not too late to get their own “slice of history”.

Ditton will fund her attempt by selling 60 vertical slices of her boat after its crossing. Photo. Lia Ditton

Having racked up 280,000km of experience — eight laps of the globe –- Ditton is uniquely qualified for this elusive challenge. Among her eclectic achievements:

  • The youngest competitor and only woman to complete the OSTAR 2005 single-handed transatlantic race
  • 2nd place in France’s prestigious single-handed Transatlantic race, Le Route du Rhum
  • Captained the boat that starred in the film Waterworld, with Kevin Costner
  • 3rd place in the 2007 Transpac Race from LA to Hawaii
  • Completed the Woodvale Challenge, tipped as The Toughest Rowing Race on Earth, 5,000km from the Canary Islands to Antigua. In doing so she became the 53rd woman to row the Atlantic Ocean and the 64th woman ever to row any ocean.
  • Captained the world’s largest solar-powered boat and the first solar electric vehicle to circumnavigate the globe, PlanetSolar, in 2015

Surprisingly, Ditton says her most satisfying achievement was paddling a surf kayak 56km from Majorca to Menorca, Spain to attend the Fiesta San Juan with friends. That, she says, “was the most riskiest, most dangerous and thrilling thing I have done. I took a dress, some flipflops, a bottle of water, my passport and credit card and took off.”

Clearly, whether she embarks on a fly-by-night junket or an impeccably planned, multi-year obsession, her sense of adventure, her love of the ocean and her determination are bottomless.

You can follow Lia Ditton’s progress on her website, rowliarow.com.

About the Author

Peter Winsor

Peter is a journalist, travel writer and photographer based on the Gold Coast, Australia.

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