Former professional ocean racer Lia Ditton has 17 years of sailing experience and 150,000 nautical miles under her belt, but in 2000, on four days’ notice and with no specific training, she completed a different type of ocean crossing: rowing across the Atlantic. Fast-forward to today and Lia is gearing up for her attempt next year to become the first person to successfully row 5,500 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean, land to land, without being towed.
As part of her training last year, the 38-year-old rowed 350 miles in 12.5 days off the California coast, during which time she encountered the most harrowing conditions of her 17 years at sea. Her experience is the subject of a film, Perseverance, by Find it Film, which is being screened at this month’s Four Seasons Film Festival in London. I grabbed a Skype chat with Lia to talk about all this and more.
‘Perseverance – California Coast Row’ is being screened at London’s Four Seasons Film Festival as part of a triple bill on Wednesday 20 March. Lia will be attending the event and holding a post-screening Q&A. Tickets here.
Let’s rewind – what led you to row the Atlantic in 2000?
I was a professional sailor and I got a phone call from this Danish Olympic rower out of the blue [about rowing the Atlantic]. I didn’t know that people rowed oceans; I had no idea. So I started to look into it, I bought all eight books there were at the time and I was just fascinated by the fact that the people rowing these oceans had no experience of the ocean at all. Several months later, when I finally met the Danish girl, I realised the partnership was never going to succeed – she was in Denmark for one, and I was in the UK. But I came back having met her thinking: ‘What has this woman done? I now want to row an ocean!’
I got on with being a professional sailor again, until later that same year somebody fell out with their rowing partner four days before the start of the Atlantic race. A friend of mine contacted me and said, ‘If you want to row, all you have to do is turn up on Sunday!’ And I was like, ‘Oh right, let’s do it!
So you rowed the Atlantic Ocean on four days’ notice and no rowing training?
Correct. It was a terrible mistake, actually. Because even though I was the fittest I’d ever been in my life, there’s rowing fit and there’s every other kind of fit. All the little muscles in my arm involved in rowing weren’t trained. I’d been doing sailing and rock climbing; you’re pulling the same muscles, but in different directions, and I paid dearly for that. I got severe tendentious. And I was a little bit too thin. In fact, my biggest recommendation to other rowers is if you do no training, fatten up, because you’ll lose that fat and then you’ll get pressure sores on your bum. It’s not fun.
On the whole, how was your Atlantic rowing experience?
In truth, some part of my rowing partner didn’t want to do it – it was just too big an undertaking, and that was really the root cause of the argument with his partner. So he struggled the whole way across and really the whole row became about coping with him – or him coping. And us together working on him coping, and that’s a different row! By the end of the first month, I said ‘Look, you get off, I get off, what’s it to be? This cannot continue.’
He flicked a switch mentally, and decided to continue, but because he’d been severely seasick for ten days, he was then rowing on a very depleted body. It was hard for him and obviously it was indirectly hard for me. And then later on in the row, I had my own problems with tendonitis which he sort of relished because it brought me down to the same level. So it was a row that was not about rowing an ocean, it was a row about two people being trapped in a boat!
How did your tendonitis effect the row?
It was wickedly, wickedly painful. If I touched my fingers, an electric pain would shoot up my arm. And really the only thing to do was to stop rowing, but not once did my partner really offer me that opportunity. I just rowed through the pain. I had after-effects for about a year. I even went to a hand specialist but I ended up having to rehab my fingers, the muscles in my hands. It wasn’t clever really, doing the row last-minute like that.
What lessons from your Atlantic row will you carry over into your Pacific row?
Definitely putting on as much weight as possible, preferably muscle. And also training those muscles that I hadn’t trained before – training as a rower as opposed to cross training in all sorts of other sports. And just really putting more time into the training – so far I’m in my third year of that, so I’m taking it to the extreme [laughs].
© Jenn Heflin
Mentally, how do you cope with row-sleep-row or do you enjoy it?
I don’t find it monotonous – this will be my fourteenth ocean crossing; I’m very comfortable in the ocean, you could leave me out there! And I don’t think of it as row-sleep-row, I think of each day as a gift where I wake-up and have the best front row seat in the greatest cinema in the world. I never tire of the sunrises, the sunsets, the wildlife interaction. I relish it. This is the environment that I love.
I think the monotony comes when you have no wind at all and it’s just a blank canvas. I find storms kind of exciting, they don’t come from nowhere; there’s always a lot of anticipation and a lot of energy. The atmosphere is charged and sometimes, stunningly, awe-droppingly, beautiful – in the middle of the storm, when the eye goes over you or the waves are so loud they roar.
Are there challenges that come with spending so much time on your boat?The harder things are the detachment and reattachment to land. In training to row the Pacific, some things which are quite ordinary and okay normally have become problems for me, like sound. The more time I spend training on my boat, the more time I’m using my ears to perceive data. By June last year, I was able to hear a commercial ship, like a tanker, some 15-20 miles away, through the water, and even tell you which direction it was coming from. So now, I cannot sleep with the fridge on in the house at all – I’m even thinking about buying some white noise headphones to go to the supermarket because it’s a cacophony of noise. So that’s an interesting problem I wouldn’t necessarily have seen coming. My ears are one of my best safety mechanisms.
Why have you decided to row the Pacific?
I haven’t crossed the Pacific much, I’ve probably done 2-3 crossings [sailing]. Every year after I rowed the Atlantic someone was setting off from Japan attempting to row to San Francisco and failing. So I became interested as to why they were not succeeding and started to follow these attempts and look into why – were they leaving from the right place? Were they leaving at the right time? How much preparation did they put in? The more time you start digging into that, the more you start thinking that maybe if you did all those things differently, you might succeed. I wanted to use one of my endeavours to go out and do something greater than myself.
What does that involve?
We’ve commissioned a huge science education programme for 4-11-year-olds which is following the key stages in the UK and is designed to be either one solid science week or one session per week. So I’ve become really passionate about that and I’m about to sign a partnership with an education resource company who will translate it into 26 languages. And that just makes my heart sing.
I’ve been invited to do a programme in Japan – their Minister for Education told me that children there don’t have much connection to the ocean, so they don’t look after it. Little kids are the change-makers of the future, so if I can bring my story of interacting with dolphins or rays or whatever to life, they can connect with something that’s on their doorstep.
Going back to your row, how challenging is the Pacific weather?
Statistically, I could go through up to two typhoons. That’s part of the reason I’m building a new boat; I don’t think mine’s good enough for that extreme weather. We’re seeing more and more typhoons [which can capsize rowing boats]; during previous attempts, that was a lot rarer. With carbon so readily available it doesn’t make sense to notrow a boat that’s basically bullet-proof.
You also want the lightest boat because if you drop a heavy weight from a height, it’s got a greater chance of breaking. My new boat will be half the weight of my existing boat
You’re training out of California where you’ve moved your boat – was this a strategic decision?
Both French guys [who attempted to row the Pacific] were towed at the end. The first guy was towed 20 miles out – for very good reasons – and the second guy drew a line from where he finished and called it done at 50 miles out because the coastline slopes away. Arguably, both men did not row an entire ocean, but what that told me that was the last 20-50 miles of the crossing are perhaps the harder miles, which is partly why I shipped my boat out to California to train what I consider to be the harder part of the entire crossing, which is the arrival.
How much food will you be taking on your Pacific row?
The trip could take 4-6 months and I’m taking five months of food, which might make some people nervous [laughs] but at some point you have to draw the line. If you take six months of food, you’re rowing a heavier boat which is slower to move and takes more calories to do so. So by drawing the line at 5 months, I’ll be getting up that little bit earlier, I’ll be rowing that little bit harder, I’ll be monitoring my food very carefully. There’ll be no days where I’m going, ‘Oh, I won’t row so hard today’ – imminent starvation is one of the most powerful motivators!
You cannot eat as many calories as you’re burning – that’s the reality. So I’m planning to take 6,500 calories a day. That breaks down into some powdered meals, I’ll take a couple of freeze-dried meals but I’ll try to avoid them because they contain a lot of carbs (Lia trains fat-adapted). I’ve converted my body to run on oil and cheese – I’ll take parmesan, a lot of nuts, dried meat, and the weight of a six-year-old child in chocolate. The freeze-dried foods I will be taking are basically a vehicle for oil.
Do you listen to podcasts, music or audio books during your rows?
A lot of audio books – I listen to a book a day when I’m training. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, is fabulous when you’re in heavy weather, rowing these giant watery mountains. And comedies are great – Trevor Noah’s biography is a real chuckle. But the trick with audio books is finding a voice you can listen to for hours. Hillary Clinton’s book is around 12 hours and she was actually good boat company.
Tell us about your harrowing experience during your 362 mile training row – the subject of your film, Perseverance, by Find it Film?
I rounded Conception point which sticks out off the coast of California and is very notorious and very rough. So I rounded that point quite happily and later that evening the wind just switched off and I was like, ‘Uh-oh’. Nothing was forecast so I was furiously texting my friend on land going ‘What’s going on?’ Within half an hour, the wind shifted from 25-30 knots in one direction with big following seas to 90-degrees coming straight off the land. The problem with that was that I was 2.5 miles upwind of an oil rig and I didn’t want to end up on that oil rig.
That was the beginning of one of the most harrowing nights of my life in all my 17 years on the sea. I put out a sea anchor to control my drift, but the sea anchor hooked into a current which dragged me out to sea. As I got further out, I lost protection of land and just got run-over by waves. These patterns of waves are known as growlers, and you can hear them coming; they roar like an oncoming train and just smacked into my boat like a car crash, breaking over the entire boat.
This went on until 4am and I hadn’t slept for two days. I’m in another world of exhaustion and sleep deprivation – I look ahead [hallucinating] and there’s a tiny little hand the size of a child’s trying to push out of the hatch. And I was hearing people’s voices. Anyway, I took about 3 or 4 blows from those waves and if it wasn’t for my bilge pump, I’m pretty sure my boat would have rolled.
I got out of there and I was drifting in the shipping lanes utterly, utterly spent and then the next day, after an hour of sleep, I rowed 30 miles because I had to – I had no food left.
Were you scared or do you fall back on your ocean experience?
You’re grumbling in your mind, but in those moments I fall back on all my experience. I know what has to be done and I do it. I never hesitate. From racing boats I know that if you think you should, you do it immediately. Otherwise it’s too late, it’s harder or more dangerous. Looking back at that experience, I did everything I needed to do when I needed to do it. But it didn’t make it easy. I got soaked, I got smashed to my knees. Definitely one of the most dangerous moments of my entire life.
It’s not terrifying if you understand what’s happening. What I struggled with was being desperately tired and having no more energy to persuade myself to do these things. The lack of sleep was a bigger problem. I was in a new place of utter exhaustion that I’d never been.
Is this something you could experience in the pacific?
Potentially. The good thing about training is that you’re pushing the bar of tolerance up. If you take the time to train you’re just pushing that bar higher, so hopefully I won’t experience something like that in the Pacific, but if I do, the distance from where I am now to that will be less.
It’s a valuable experience. One of the things I have to remind myself of is that training, if it’s going to be truly effective, is not a string of successes, it’s a string of failures and that’s how you learn. That’s very hard to deal with when they are micro-failures; with all the negative feelings, humiliation, embarrassment, that comes with it.
Is your training time rowing on the water structured?
At this point I’m mostly focused on ‘What am I going out to train?’ I’m no longer just going out for a row on the boat. I did a 100 miler around Catalina, an island 30 miles west of LA, in bad weather. The boat was being bulldozed by waves. It was eye-opening because the wind and waves were fine, but being trapped in the cabin for 18 hours [unable to leave] was a new thing with all sorts of new challenges, like what am I going to do about food and water and using the bucket? It was a very, very good lesson because basically I didn’t drink enough water and I didn’t eat enough food, so when I got up after those 18 hours, I was weak. It wasn’t so much the storm, it was personal management during the storm.
What kind of strength training are you doing to prepare your body?
I do a couple of sessions a week with weights and other sessions with the Concept2 bike erg which trains the muscles which are opposite to rowing, which is important for balance in the body. I do hot yoga once a week. And I swim – with the purpose of breathing, so not for cardio. I have one of those full face masks and breathe through my nose – one of those diaphragm breathing exercises.
And then I try and row my boat a minimum of 8 hours, so in the next few days I’m going to row to Malibu and back – 18 miles each way, a 36 mile row. But the purpose of going out at the moment is to learn to fish for survival, for food. I’ve never really killed a fish – I’ve gutted them and I’ve cooked them – I’ve never really wanted to either. So fishing for survival is going to be interesting.
Mentally are you doing anything to prepare?
I’ve been working with a sports psychologist, but I do other things like go to the float tank, the sensory deprivation tank of the 70s. It’s a big Epsom bath with so much salt in it that you can’t sink, like the Dead Sea. It’s basically a magnesium bath. That alone is fantastic recovery. It’s an hour and half in your own head in the darkness in a space that’s not dissimilar to my own boat’s cabin. I’ve been doing some meditation and mindfulness, but I try and do my ‘not thinking’ via other things.
What do you believe are the biggest challenges of rowing the Pacific?
There are whole sets of challenges. The warm Kuroshio Current is your first challenge – it runs past Japan at 4.5 knots, so it’s like the Gulf Stream that goes past the east coast of America. I think of it as a frenemy – it’s a free ride but it’s also your worst nightmare in any kind of weather, and creates huge swirls, so you have to get out of it and as far away from it as you can as fast as you can. Up until recently, data on where those swirls or eddies are wasn’t available, so some of the previous rowers would actually be tracking backwards for up to two weeks.
That’s the first major challenge, the second is crossing the east basin to the west coast of America before winter kicks in, because come September the weather patterns scramble and there is no consistency on the west coast. And then along comes the storms up from Hawaii which will smack you north, so the longer time passes, the less chance of you getting to San Francisco and the greater the chance of you going towards Seattle and Alaska
When next year are you planning to set off?
I set off in April 2020, just before the Olympics. I call it the alternative Olympics because I’ll still be going on after the Olympics has finished!
For information on the Four Seasons Film Festival visit www.fourseasonsfilmfestival.com.