The Final Exam

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Lia Ditton is no stranger to pushing herself to the limits. A licensed sea captain, Lia has succeeded in a number of incredible of feats of endurance, seeing her row across some of the most dangerous and remote stretches of water in the world. But now, she’s preparing for something even bigger. In 6 months, Lia will attempt to row across the Pacific Ocean, solo and unsupported. If successful she will be the first person to ever achieve it. We spoke to Lia to hear more about her story, The Final Exam, as she prepares for her biggest challenge yet.

I started ocean rowing when a Danish Olympian called Lisa Kronenberg was given my number by a mutual friend and gave me a call. “Me? Row an ocean? You haven’t even met me!” I still laugh at the memory of the call. I started reading books about people who rowed oceans – there were a total of 8 on the subject at the time. I became fascinated. Within months I had committed to the row the Atlantic.

It’s taken a while to get to the point where I could attempt the Pacific though. I initially decided I wanted to attempt it because I met a man who had just completed a row of the North Pacific with a rowing partner. His partner said the crossing couldn’t be done solo. Two French men had come close to rowing solo in 1991 and 2005, but both had been towed the last 20 and 50 miles respectively. So the thought that I could be there first was ignited in me.

Everything I have done up until this point has been, in essence, training for my Pacific attempt. To date, I have rowed 2,067 miles in training. By the time I ship my boat to Japan [where I set off for my crossing], I am hoping to have rowed the equivalent of half the Pacific (3,000 miles). Time on the water breeds experience and with experience, confidence develops. So I need as much as I can get.

The most important lesson I’ve learnt through all my training rows has been humility. Anything can and will happen and my job is to stay grounded and persevere through the storms and the calms. For example, I was determined to conquer the Farallon Islands and that was a big lesson in perseverance for me. I proved it was possible to reach the Farallon Islands, a chain of gnarly-looking volcanic islands situated 26 miles west of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, on my reconnaissance mission. The islands are a wildlife sanctuary prohibited to humans – a breeding ground for elephant seals in the spring and a shark feeding ground from May to October. A sequence of weather events need to line up favourably in order to reach the Farallon Islands in a rowboat: a strong outgoing tide and a weak incoming tide as well as either a break in the wind or an easterly/north-easterly breeze (which is rare). The islands are right on the lip of the continental shelf and subject to huge swells, which have killed many sailors in the past.

My first official attempt was foiled due to the marine layer, a wind-fog phenomena caused by a temperature differential between land and sea. The experience felt humiliating because of how much media coverage the attempt received (everyone loves a story of aiming big and coming up short). My second attempt ended with another battle with the wind fog, but it’s possible I might have been able to break through the marine layer if I had deployed my sea anchor when I went to sleep. I didn’t, so I’ll never know! My third attempt was in October after I had rowed 350 miles down the coast from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. I had that row in the bank, was willing to be patient for the right conditions and when the weather presented a perfect window, I dropped everything and went for it! I feel that rowing around the Farallon Islands was an accomplishment in its own right. The main take-away for me was to never give up. In the end I think my perseverance to succeed was more note-worthy than the feat itself.

My boat is a 21-foot ocean rowboat with a cabin at one end and a storage compartment at the other and I row on a sliding seat. I have a Katadyn desalination unit onboard, which enables me to convert seawater into drinkable water so I don’t have to contend with the weight of bringing drinking water on board. I use a GPS antenna to determine my position and an AIS (automatic identification system) to see other ships and for them to seem me. My YellowBrick tracker shows you where I am on my website and to communicate I use a Garmin InReach satellite device that enables me to send text messages using my iPhone. My boat is so important in my mission to cross the Pacific. I have faith that my boat is designed to withstand the conditions – even the inevitable storms! Storms are stressful because no storm is the same. It’s hard to sleep, but even harder to eat and use the toilet bucket!

Even though I’m confident in myself and in my boat, I will acknowledge that I’m afraid. I am not afraid of sharks or waves the size of buildings. Experience has taught me what to expect of these. I am afraid of pain, physical pain and my experience of rowing the Atlantic has taught me what to expect here too. I am afraid of the destruction of my own body. I’ve been through so many trials just to get to the point of departing though, that I have never been more determined to achieve something.

However, all this is part of the adventure. Preparing the boat, raising the money, recruiting volunteers and managing sponsors. The row is the pay off at the end! It’s important for me to remember to open my eyes and soak up the beauty of the ocean during my row. A positive attitude is the most critical thing for this expedition. It gets you through both the highs and the lows. I try and think of the bigger picture to get me through. My amazing family of Believers who I know will be there for me. That does more for my confidence than anything.

Lia will attempt to row solo across the Pacific Ocean, from Choshi, Japan, to the west coast of the USA in 6 month’s time. To read more about her story, The Final Exam, click here and to stay up to date with her attempt, click here.

Photos by Eddie Codel, Alex Sher and Lia Ditton