Explorers Connect

Conquering the Pacific Ocean: The Final Exam

Wild Night Out
Credit: Alex Sher

Credit: Alex Sher

by Lia Ditton

Three months before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, I will depart from Choshi, Japan on a mission to row solo and unsupported across the Pacific Ocean, to the west coast of the USA. 

Nineteen attempts have been made to row this 5,500-mile distance. Two were successful. Both men, both towed to land the last 20 and 50 miles respectively.

One person was lost at sea.

If I succeed, I will be the first woman ever to row the North Pacific and the first person to row land-to-land.

I acknowledge that I am afraid. 

But it is not the sharks and the waves the size of buildings that I am afraid of. Being a licensed sea captain has taught me what to expect from these more obvious fears.  What I am afraid of is the pain. The physical pain that could result in the destruction of my own body. My previous experience rowing the Atlantic has given me a glimpse of the agony which is in store for me. But rowing the pacific will be a whole new challenge. In preparation, I have had to do everything I can to prepare for my biggest challenge yet. 

. . .

Back in the spring of 2016 I bought a boat. It was a survivor, a boat that washed up in Ireland after spending three months alone at sea after its owner stepped safely onto a passing ship. The boat needed much repair, but I was fortunate to secure a sponsor who paid for the repairs.

I shipped the boat to San Francisco. A perfect training ground, I thought, as the bay of San Francisco is like an ocean in a bowl. 

For the first year I trained in silence as I was afraid I wasn’t tough enough or that I couldn’t build this toughness in training. I had to coach myself whilst giving life-or-death effort at the oars to keep my boat off the rocks in sudden and extreme winds. 

A few weeks later, I started to push myself even further. I rowed 15 hours to Bolinas and back and then another week, down to Half Moon Bay, cutting through Mavericks reef in the dark. These were powerful confidence building experiences.

Then my title sponsor and I parted ways. 

I struggled to find US companies willing to be bedmates with a UK company most had never heard of. The end of the sponsorship was amicable, but by removing the sponsor’s logos I felt embarrassed and ashamed. “Oh no! Did you lose your sponsor?” passers-by would ask. I threw a cover over my boat and dragged her into a forgotten corner of the boatyard. 

“What are you doing? It’s over Lia” the itty bitty shitty committee said in my head, but every day, I drove to the boat yard and worked long hours on my boat. 

I wrote a blog titled ‘Dear World’ which finally chronicled what had happened. I thanked the people who had believed in me. ‘We all need Believers’ I wrote. In the days that followed, my blog was shared hundreds and hundreds of times and messages poured in from people wanting to be Believers. 

As each ‘Believer’ signed up to offer monthly support, something magical happened. It was as if each person was stepping into an imaginary room saying “I believe in you. I’m with you. Keep going!” And so the continuation of the project was crowdfunded – albeit barely – by a group of special people, I call Believers.

I relaunched my boat and set my sights on the first big rowing challenge in preparation for the big Pacific crossing - rounding the Farallons – a chain of islands 26 miles west of San Francisco. On record, no one had rowed to or from the Farallons since 1892 and the era of the lighthouse keeper. 

In April 2018, I decided to go for it and rowed out under the Golden Gate Bridge. Forty-eight hours later, I was 2.5 miles off the southeast Farallon Island when the wind picked up. I had to give up, but I knew I’d be back.

On the morning of attempt two, the marine layer crept in unforecast. I stood at the kitchen window staring at the sky and made a decision to keep going with my second attempt. San Francisco’s major newspaper had booked a photographer and I would go through with the attempt knowing I may not be successful. I reset my expectations as I rowed out under the Golden Gate Bridge knowing I would at least learn something from it. I couldn’t have predicted what that would be.

Sure enough, some eight hours later I returned from yet another failed attempt. It was the second time I failed to round the Farallons and I was front and back story of the San Francisco newspaper. 

Waiting for me at the dock after my second failed attempt was a mother and two young girls. ‘Not today,’ I thought. ‘Please no.’ They had read the news and been following my tracker. The mother gave one of the girls a nudge and she stepped towards me before I had even had a chance to tie up my boat. 

The little girl looked up at me standing infront of my stripey coloured boat, as if I were magical, as if I were a Disney princess. She handed me a note on pink paper. I unfolded the paper and my eyes glistened with tears. ‘I admire you for trying,’ read the note. ‘You will do it next time.’ 

Defeat continued to weigh heavily on me as I prepped for my next big training row in preparation for the Pacific crossing. I decided to change things up and try something different: row 350 miles down the coast from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. 

I calculated that if I timed my exit through the Golden Gate Bridge for 2:30AM I could catch the 4.5 knot peak of the outgoing tide. The question was, would this be enough to punch into 18 knots of wind? 

I went under the Golden Gate Bridge sideways, an experience that was both terrifying and thrilling. That began a 12.5-day experience for which I had packed 10 days of food.

I managed to round the first big checkpoint – Point Conception, safely. In celebration, I rewarded myself with a 750- calorie bag of Salt & Vinegar Kettle Chips. But the day was far from over. Around 8PM, hot katabatic winds began roaring off the mountain side. I deployed my sea anchor to avoid drifting onto a nearby oil rig, but the parachute hooked into a westbound current that began to drag my boat back. Soon I lost the shelter of land as waves as loud as an oncoming train smashed into the stern of my boat engulfing the entire deck. 

The sun rose an hour and a half later. 

With only meal replacement shake and nut butter left to eat, I rowed non-stop for land 30 miles away. I was exhausted, but I made it. 

Credit: Charles Hambleton

Credit: Charles Hambleton

. . .

After my successful row from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, I was back in the Bay Area and a sequence of weather events lined up perfectly for Farallon Record attempt number three. 

On my third attempt, everything was going smoothly, until I began to get closer to the southeast Farallon Island and a blanket of fog stole my visibility. All I could hear was the sound of the water crashing against rock and sea lions screaming to defend their territory. 

Five hours later, the wind picked up. I threw out the sea anchor and watched as day faded into night and the uninhabited islands I could now see, began to disappear into the dark. I had to spend the night with the Farallons, otherwise known as “the devil’s teeth”.  

When I finally succeeded, I rowed around an island I couldn’t see and a marker buoy that was no longer there – a literal reminder that it’s not about the view from the summit, but the struggle of the climb to the top. For the best part of a year, the Farallon Islands became a siren song – a self-imposed assault course of failure, humiliation, mental and physical suffering. At long last, I had conquered the Farallon Islands. 

. . .

Shortly after my Farallon victory, I moved base to Los Angeles. That’s when something else began to happen in my life. A familiar bile began to rise to my throat. A demon I thought I had buried years ago.

Way back in 2011, I had started to receive death threats, emails, then phone calls with no one at the other end. By late 2011, the harassment was six fold in volume. I had a stalker. 

By early 2012 I was a barely-functioning human being. When I finally unmasked the stalker, the revelation crashed my world and worse. The stalker was someone I knew. I decided to not only move house, but move country. It weighed heavily on me and my body was physically deteriorating as a result.

By late 2014, I was living alone, in a windmill with 4ft thick walls in the middle of a Spanish Island. A year later I decided try and move on, to bury what had happened and put all of my focus on rowing.

A few years later, the #MeToo movement arrived as I watched and admired those bold, brave women, speak out about what had happened to them. I never thought I would be one of them. I thought I would always live with a monster under my bed, but I decided I had to come forward and speak out. 

Finally, In January 2019, I stood up on stage and for the first time spoke publicly about being stalked, about my theory of how extreme physical exercise counteracts extreme emotional pain and about how being stalked is part of my life.

In the days that followed my talk, I was in emotional freefall. Exactly a week later I wrote an article for a sailing magazine about what had happened to me (the man and his various personalities, is a sailing photographer). The sailing magazine wouldn’t publish his name so I took it upon myself to do so on my blog. I wrote him an open letter.

As soon as I published the letter, I decided to leave the metaphorical storm and return to the ocean. Back to my ultimate goal of crossing the Pacific. I was ready for my next training row – a 75-mile row around the island west of Los Angeles, the island of Catalina. 

For two days I was cut off from the world. It was the best thing that could have happened, except there was a big storm was coming. This time, a real one.

On the north east side of the island, I picked up phone service and learned the storm was barrelling in fast. I had to make a choice: row through the night for land or stay out for the storm. I decided to do the latter.

Grey clouds socked in all around me, the waves built and I lay in my jostling cabin, listening to the rain. I watched the light on the ceiling grow darker and juggled the bucket every now and then to pee. 

At dawn I returned to the oars and rowed through the last of the rain. As I got closer to land, I made the mistake of reading the sailing magazine’s forum thread, discussing my stalking revelation. There were many in the forum defending him and what hurt the most was one comment that was made. That the stalking, at its peak, was years ago. The fact is if you cut people, they scar. PTSD does not just go away. 

For years I told myself that I couldn’t row the Pacific until I had a new boat that could withstand a typhoon. But was my delay really about the boat? 

In part, I think it was. In part, I think it wasn’t. I wasn’t sure whether I was strong enough after everything that had happened through my rowing and my personal life. But I know, that going through what I went through, has built me up and made me stronger.

I weighed up the advantage of rowing the boat I have, in which I have now rowed 2,067 miles and experienced two storms, versus a new, potentially lighter faster boat in which I have zero experience. I made the decision to row the boat I have across the Pacific next year, because it’s the boat that got me this far. It’s endured and so have I.

Every decision I make this week, this month, this year, may affect my chance of survival in 2020. Everything I endure makes me stronger for what lies ahead. 

‘This is the real expedition,’ I say. ‘The row is the final exam.’

Credit: Jeff Singer

Credit: Jeff Singer

Q&A with Lia Dutton

How did you get into ocean rowing? How did it all start for you?

A Danish Olympian was given my number by a mutual friend. ‘Me? Row an ocean? You haven’t even met me!’ I still laugh at the memory of my phone call with Lisa Kroneberg. 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 row the Atlantic.  

Rowing round the Farallon Islands was something that you were determined to do. Why is rowing round the Farallon Islands so challenging?

The Farallon Islands are a chain of gnarly-looking volcanic islands situated 26 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. 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 and 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. 

Conquering the row around these islands was a huge milestone in your rowing career. Can you talk us through the three attempts you made? What was going through your mind after you failed the first attempt? What motivated you to continue for another two?

I proved it was possible to reach the Farallon Islands in my boat, when I turned back 2.5 miles shy of the Southeast Farallon Island on my reconnaissance mission. 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! 

How much did achieving your row around the Farallon Islands impact your confidence in your attempt to row the Pacific?

I feel that rowing around the Farallon Islands was an accomplishment in its own right. The main take-away for me, was never give up. In the end I think my perseverance to succeed was more note-worthy than the feat itself.

You spoke a lot about your mentality during your rows. How do you keep yourself motivated when you’re struggling?

I try and think of the bigger picture – the education programme for 4-11 year old children who are following along as well as my amazing family of Believers who contribute monthly on my crowdfunding platform Patreon.com/rowliarow. My Believers are terrific at offering encouragement.  

Can you talk about your boat? How does it work/ where do you sleep/ what does it look like? What technology is there on board?

My boat is a 21-foot ocean rowboat with a cabin at one end and a storage compartment at the other. I row on a sliding seat. I have a Katadyn desalination unit onboard, which enables me to convert seawater into drinkable water, a GPS antenna to determine my position and 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.

What is it like on your boat, during a storm? Do you feel safe? What goes through your mind?

Storms don’t usually appear out of nowhere. The sky changes, the waves build. You know something is coming. Hopefully this gives you enough time to get ready – tidy up, tie down any lose items, make food, wash. As the storm arrives, the important thing is to monitor how the boat is riding the waves and make frequent equipment checks. I have faith that my boat is designed to withstand the conditions, but storms are still stressful because no storm is the same. It’s hard to sleep, but even harder to eat and use the toilet bucket!

What is your training regime like?

I try and do as much of my training in my boat as possible. Nothing beats doing the thing you’re training for! Off the boat, I swim once a week with a full-face mask so I breathe through my nose and train my diaphragm. I do Bikram (hot) yoga for a serious stretch and a minimum of 2 strength and conditioning workouts in the gym.

You mentioned your diet is completely different whilst you’re preparing for a row, to what it’s like normally. Can you talk us through that

I expect to lose up to 23KG while rowing the Pacific and so have been trying to gain as much weight as possible, preferably muscle. I have succeeded in packing on 13.6KG! To achieve this I cover everything I eat in oil and lean towards calorie-rich foods like Parmesan cheese and dark chocolate. 

What initially made you want to attempt a solo crossing of the Pacific?

I met a man who had just completed a row of the North Pacific with a rowing partner. His rowing partner said the crossing couldn’t be done solo. Two French men had come close rowing solo in 1991 and 2005, but both had been towed the last 20 and 50 miles respectively to land. 

You said that everything you’ve done up until this point has been, in essence, training for your attempt to row the Pacific. How do you feel your rowing experience up until this point has prepared you for the Pacific crossing?

To date, I have rowed 2,067 miles in training. By the time I ship my boat to Japan, 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. 

What would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned, that you’ll take with you into your attempt to cross the Pacific?

I have been through so many trials just to get to the point of departing on my trans-Pacific record attempt. Above all else, I have learned humility. Anything can and will happen and my job is to stay grounded and persevere through the storms and the calms.

What are you most worried about?

Not being able to give the row a go – through lack of finance, bureaucracy getting my boat to the start line or an issue I can’t even imagine right now.

What advice would you give someone who was just getting into ocean rowing?

All of it 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 – be sure to open your eyes and soak up the beauty of the ocean. You don’t know when you’ll be out there again.

What advice would you give someone, attempting an expedition like the ones you do?

A positive attitude is the most critical thing you need if you end up in a liferaft. The same goes for getting through the highs and lows of preparing and fundraising for an expedition!

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