Lia Ditton is a British professional sailor and ocean-rower based in California. Lia rowed the Atlantic with four days’ notice using danger money she had earned evading pirates off the coast of Somalia to deliver a boat from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi.
00:57 How did Lia get into rowing?
03:00 Now I want to row an ocean
03:45 Delivering a boat for danger money
07:13 "Whoa, that is the greatest game of Snakes and Ladders you will ever play."
10:37 How you handle a boat when you're not rowing
14:29 Rowing the Atlantic single-handed as a performance artwork
17:45 60 cases of Mumm Champagne
18:27 The face off with MI6
21:01 Follow Lia
Perhaps inspired by holidays on her family's 19-footer, Lia Ditton is a professional sailor and ocean rower.
In Lia’s first solo crossing of the Atlantic, she was the youngest competitor and only woman to finish the single-handed transatlantic race, OSTAR in 2005.
Lia’s experience of racing across the Atlantic alone that year, formed the basis of her 2006 art installation ‘Absolute Solitude: One Woman, One Boat’.
In 2015 Lia was the boat captain of the world’s largest solar-powered boat and first solar electric vehicle to circumnavigate the globe, PlanetSolar.
Three months before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Lia will depart from Choshi, Japan on a mission to row 5,500 nautical miles solo across the North Pacific Ocean to the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco.
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Speaker 1: The World Nomads podcast bonus episode. Hear amazing nomads sharing their knowledge, stories, and experience of world travel.
Kim: Hey, Kim and Phil with you delivering another Amazing Nomads episode in which we meet Lia Ditton. Now, she's a licensed captain who's sailed the equivalent of eight laps of the globe, spent 73 days in a row, naked, rowing, and eaten over two years' worth of freeze-dried food.
Phil: In 2015, Lia was boat captain of the world's largest solar-powered boat and first solar electric vehicle to circumnavigate the globe, and it's called PlanetSolar. But this chat is more about Lia's rowing.
Kim: Yeah, and narrowly avoiding pirates off the coast of Somalia, and a run-in with the men in black outside MI6, the UK's foreign intelligence agency, if you're not across that, and they are on the banks of the Thames, and so much more. She's such a great chat. But let's find out first how she got into rowing.
Lia Ditton: Well, as I was thinking this morning, I was like, "How did I get into this?" Because I rowed it, the Atlantic, nine years ago with a policemen, and I did it with no rowing experience, and everyone was really shocked about that. But to me it wasn't like I just picked up some oars and thought, "I'll row." Because if you've ever grown up with parents who like boats, you, in fact, learn to row really young. Because you want to get away from your parents at every opportunity. And so my parents had a 19-footer, which I'd just like to point out is two feet smaller than my ocean rowboat. And we as a family of four piled onto that 19-footer for six weeks every summer holiday.
Phil: Oh, my word.
Kim: That sounds just luxury.
Lia Ditton: I learned to row the dinghy, which was 12 feet, which is quite hilarious in respect to the 19-foot boat, and row away from my parents before I could swim.
Kim: Well, so that's how you got into it. And boy, haven't you done some stuff since in your 38 years? I want to know from you first, how come you spent 73 days of those 38 years in a row, naked?
Lia Ditton: It's a good accomplishment in life, I think. That was rowing the Atlantic with the policeman. He was also naked.
Phil: It sounds like the start of a joke.
Lia Ditton: Yeah. Not a good one.
Kim: So. Tell. Fess up. How were you naked in a boat with a policeman?
Lia Ditton: Well, that was rowing the Atlantic. He had entered this race from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, and at the last minute, he and his rowing partner fell out. In the year running up to that, I had been invited to row with the Danish Olympic rower. Then I met her, and that really was the end of that story. I went to Copenhagen, and I thought, "This will just never work. She's ... " For all sorts of reasons. I came back from that weekend, I thought, "What has this woman done? Now I want to row an ocean." I was living in the UK behind an IKEA, which you probably have in Australia, as well.
Phil: Yes, we do. Yep.
Lia Ditton: And I thought, "I'll build one." My parents thought, "This gets worse. She not only wants to row an ocean, she wants to build the boat herself." But that was a rocky road. I was offered sponsorship and then they disappeared, and by the end of that summer I thought, "Well, this is clearly not meant to be. I'll go back to doing what I do, which is, I captain boats, and I won't row the Atlantic." But then the job that I accepted was to deliver a boat from Cape Town in South Africa up to Abu Dhabi past the Somalian pirate zone for danger money.
Lia Ditton: I don't know what's more dangerous, really, rowing an ocean in a very small boat or rowing past a bunch of pirates with guns off Somalia. Something I would definitely not do again.
Lia Ditton: Anyway, I get to Abu Dhabi, and there's an email in my inbox that says, "Would you like to row the Atlantic on Saturday?" The problem with this email was, it was Thursday, and I wasn't sure I could even get to the Canary Islands from Abu Dhabi in time. The owner of the boat that had paid me the danger money, he said, "Well, you've got pockets full of money. Clearly you should go off and do something unproductive with it. Why don't you go and do this row?"
Lia Ditton: I flew to the Canaries. I arrived on the Sunday, but fortunately, the race had been delayed a week. I meet this guy for the first time and realize we have one thing in common only, and that is the desire to row the Atlantic. And the question that hangs over my head is, is that enough? We set off, and that row became not about rowing the ocean, but about two people trying to become a team that were probably never destined to be one.
Kim: So, you took your clothes off?
Phil: Yeah, because that's fair.
Lia Ditton: Well that, you know, it's very hot and rowing causes all sorts of chafe, because it's a repetitive motion with seams and clothing. Then there's the matter of having to wash the clothes, and being naked was just easier. I got the best tan I'll ever get in my life. I was even tanned between my toes.
Kim: So, you made that? You did that?
Lia Ditton: We did that, and I think it's partly his fault I'm rowing another ocean. If that had been the best experience ever, you'd just go, "Oh, thanks very much. That's done now."
Kim: But it wasn't the best experience ever?
Lia Ditton: No, we never spoke again.
Lia Ditton: I think, actually, me and his wife and I should probably have rowed in the first place.
Phil: [inaudible 00:05:39]. Did you-
Lia Ditton: After I rowed the Atlantic, I met a guy who'd rowed the Pacific, and I was like ... And he said it'd taken 189 days, and I was like, "Oh my goodness." Because we just spent 74 in a boat, and that was woof, a lifetime, and particularly with a guy that I only spoke 15 words a day with.
Lia Ditton: I started to become curious about this crossing of the Pacific. As I got more into it, I learned that one person went out almost every year, tried to row from Japan to San Francisco, and failed. To date, to this day, there have been 19 attempts to row the Pacific, the North Pacific, from Japan to San Francisco. And only two of those made it. The others didn't die, by the way. They just recovered or rescued. And those two were both French, but they were both towed the last 20 and 50 miles, respectively. So in essence, no one has rowed land to land across the North Pacific. It isn't just like the Atlantic where if you set off from the Canaries, eventually you would get to the Caribbean, even if you didn't row. The currents and the winds, everything is pointing roughly in that right direction.
Lia Ditton: Whereas, the Pacific is not that case at all. Because there are currents and underwater mountain ranges. Having been a captain for now 17 years, I was fascinated by the navigation alone of this particular body of water. I looked at it, and I looked at the tracks that people had failed, and I thought, "Whoa, that is the greatest game of Snakes and Ladders you will ever play." You get on a current and you think "Woo, next stop San Francisco." Then it sends you back around in a circle like you hit a snake. I'm not sure at what point I thought it would be a good idea to have a go myself. But I think if you look into something enough, you start to think, "Could I do that?"
Phil: Do those currents take you a long way north?
Lia Ditton: Well, that current stream, it's called the Kuroshio Current, or the Black Current is its nickname, and it heads eventually to Hawaii. But it goes around in these glorious eddies, and circles, and swirls. And yeah, it's kind of an animal. And [crosstalk 00:07:48]-
Kim: You haven't done this yet, though, have you? That's next year, 2020.
Lia Ditton: Yes. It's next March.
Kim: So, you're doing all the prep for that?
Lia Ditton: Correct. I've been training full-time for three years.
Kim: I struggle to do yoga once a week.
Lia Ditton: If I was going to do this, I should do it like an Olympic campaign, and I should move out to California to train the last part that those two men could not succeed in doing, which is the last 20 to 50 miles. I moved out here three years ago, and I didn't expect it to take this long in training. But no one ever went on an expedition. I'm sure Shackleton would have agreed with me and said, "No one ever regrets going, 'Oh my God, I wish we didn't have that extra time, said no one, ever.'" Even though it's been a couple of years, it's just getting better and better. Finally, I've got to a point where I'm like, "Okay, I'm ready. Just bring it on."
Phil: What is it about that last 20 or 50 miles? Some ferocious currents off the California coast or something?
Lia Ditton: The Pacific Ocean is deep, and then, boom, there's the continental shelf off the west coast of the U.S. It's that depth change, that huge uprising, that causes big waves and swell. Then you've got phenomena like the San Francisco Bay area where it's, basically, a bathtub emptying every six hours in a huge way, like 15 to 20 mile reach going out. That happens in multiple places along this coastline. Then there are canyons that sort of split underwater and go off into deep sort of channels. There's all sorts of really interesting stuff going on underwater.
Lia Ditton: In fact, one of the things I take away as a sailor having come into kind of a professional rower is this, what you can learn by looking at what's on the seabed as a sailor that's become really interesting. Because, in a little rowboat you feel it all. If there's a seamount, like a little underwater mountain, you feel that. There's a current action or the water pulls you in a certain way. Yeah. I've kind of learned about the ocean, which was an environment I really love, in a completely different way.
Kim: You're doing this on your own. That's just such a huge thing to do or undertake.
Lia Ditton: Yeah. It has its pros and cons. Definitely, plus points are, it's like driving in a car by yourself. You go, "Well, I put my music stereo there, and I put ... " You can stop when you want, and you can eat what you want and when you want. You can just sort of be messy if you want to be messy. You can be tidy if you want to be tidy. You make all your own decisions. That's the huge plus point.
Lia Ditton: The downside is there's no one else to row the boat for you. And then the big question of what do you do when you're sleeping, that you don't have if you have other people on the boat who can row while you sleep. And so that's the whole thing I've had to learn, which is, how do you handle the boat when you're not rowing? And the options are, you need to let the boat drift if drifting is safe to do so and it will also drift in a favorable direction. Or you put out something called a sea anchor, which is a giant parachute, and, hopefully, that will minimize the drift that you would, the ground that you would lose, if you were not rowing. Yeah, those are the two things that you have to learn as a solo person.
Lia Ditton: Also, the strange thing is that you don't realize this, but you get a lot of information about yourself talking to somebody else. Say you are sitting opposite me, and we were having this conversation. I would be learning little packets of information about how I might look or how I might be in terms of my tired level. You don't get that when you're by yourself. Sometimes you think, "Hey, I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine." And then you pick up the phone and you realize that you're exhausted, or you're really emotional, and you're like, "Whoa." And so, you have to be very more self-aware. How tired am I physically in my body and in my mind? I give myself kind of rankings. I go, "Body, hmm, 65% tired. But, mind, oh, 80%. I feel really sharp." And often, they're not the same.
Kim: What's the most important, mind or body?
Lia Ditton: In a way, mind, because that's how you make good decisions. But equally, if it's safe to just row and row and row, I've had days where I don't even listen to music or anything. I just row like a robot. Because, my mind is really tired, but my body is relatively fresh.
Phil: How many hours a day would you row, and obviously, it varies?
Lia Ditton: Yeah. I've got to a point where I have a sort of system, and so I row in three hour blocks, although I stop for snacks and drinks along the way or whatever. I will try and row between one or two of those blocks in the morning, one or two in the afternoon, and possibly one in the evening. A good day is 12 hours, and then a maximum day would be 16. But it does depend on the weather. When the wind is stronger and the waves are bigger, it's kind of the opposite to what you think. Most people think that flat water would be great for rowing, but when you have a heavy boat, that's actually the worst kind of rowing, because you have to-
Lia Ditton: ... move the water with your oar, and then kind of rip the oar through the surface. Whereas, when there's a bit of wind, the waves become light and fluffy. They get aerated, and the sensation of rowing is magical. It's like rowing through silk. And so, as the waves get bigger and the wind gets stronger, yes, the rowing gets physically easier, but now you're into, you're getting a lot of exposure, and so you get tired in a different way. But I've surfed my boat at 12.8 knots, that's my top speed, and that was thrilling. I mean surfing waves at three, four, five, six, seven knots is basically downhill skiing backwards in a boat.
Kim: Insane. Well, what are some of the more or other challenging ocean races that you've done?
Lia Ditton: My row across the Pacific will be my 14th crossing of any ocean. Before I sort of sidetracked into rowing. People go, "How did you get into rowing oceans?" And I go, "A lot of left turns in life." And usually leave them with that. But yeah, before that I did a couple of the single-handed races across the Atlantic, mostly in multihulls. I really like the flying machines. Back in 2002-3, as a woman you could get on those boats, because they weren't about being strong and bulky. They were about driving with skill. If you could pilot a boat and you were good at driving, then you could get on those boats. Yeah, just sort of found my niche in multihulls and loved it.
Lia Ditton: And then I was a student, actually, when I did my first solo crossing of the Atlantic. This is funny. I went to art school, or as my parents called it, "fine art anything" at that point. In my second year I said, "I want to sail across the Atlantic single-handed." And they looked at me blank, and I go "As a performance artwork." They looked at me politely, and I go "To explore the nature of absolute solitude, what it is like to be truly alone." And they're all nodding away.
Lia Ditton: As it got nearer to me actually doing it, I'd managed to find somebody to lend me a boat, and no one would give me any money. But I thought, "All right, no one will give me any money. I'd better shift tactic here to going, 'Here are all the costs, list on the left. And here are all the companies that provide said items that I need. If I call 10 of those companies that provide, I don't know, GPS, by the time I call the 10th company, I'm bound to have got my field pretty narrowed.'" That worked well, so I ended up eliminating all the costs of [inaudible 00:15:24] sponsors.
Lia Ditton: Before the race, the head of my department came up to me and goes, "You know, you don't actually have to sail across the Atlantic to pull this off." My turn to look blank at this point. And I go, "What?" And he goes, "Well, you could just fake it. You could just pretend to sail out, and then sail back in."
Lia Ditton: Anyway, I ended up doing this race, and right before it left on the Friday, the university say, "You've got to be there at university on the Friday, or you will fail this year." And I'm like, "What? What do I do? Oh, no." I'm miles away from London at that point. And so I got in touch with a local university down in Plymouth and I said, "Help. Can we do something like Skype?" Which, Skype didn't exist then. And so this professor of meteorology came down with an antiquated video camera and recorded me going, "I'm sorry I can't make my assessment this Friday. The reason is this, I've entered a race which crosses the Atlantic to America this weekend." And that was all great, except I asked my brother if he could compress the video, and he sent the video to my lecturers, and he renamed it, The Dog Ate My Homework.
Kim: I love it. But you did, was this the art installation that you did? Absolute Solitude: One Woman, One Boat.
Lia Ditton: In my second year, I race across and then I bring the boat back, because it's not mine. And then to finish my degree, I reenacted that experience outside the Tate Britain Gallery as a performance artwork. That was the One Woman, One Boat installation. That was the final thing of that. If you think it was hard to get a boat to America with, basically, no money and no experience, it was even harder to get a boat into central London past all the permission and the red tape that you can imagine. It was looking pretty desperate. I'd got a company to sponsor me a 40-foot shipping container, which got dumped very unceremoniously outside the Tate Britain, which they weren't too thrilled about. And that was going to be the viewing platform so that people could come onto the top of the shipping container and have a conversation with me at the highest of the boat.
Lia Ditton: And then the next sponsor to jump on board was Champagne Mumm, who dropped off about 60 cases of champagne into the shipping container. And I thought, "Well, this isn't all bad. I'm a student. I might be homeless by the end of the month, but I have a shipping container to live in and 60 cases of champagne. What's the worst that can happen?" I put up a sign saying, "Well, the boat's gone sailing. What do you expect me to do?"
Kim: Did you get a distinction for your work in the end?
Lia Ditton: I did end up pulling it off.
Kim: Yeah, good girl.
Lia Ditton: I had to get permission from MI6, the special secret service, because, unfortunately, the Tate Britain is opposite of the MI6, and they have an exclusion zone, and I needed to bring my boat into their exclusion zone. I thought, "Oh God, how on earth do I get in touch with MI6?" Because every time I tried to knock on the door, there were policemen who turned me away with guns going, "Shoo, shoo." It's not like the secret service have a website, either. You can't just go to contact page and contact secret service. So, [crosstalk 00:18:43]-
Phil: Well, how did you do it, then? Did you have to go through your local MP or something?
Lia Ditton: Well, I decided, being only 20 ... What was I? 24? ... not to worry about it. Which is very naive. Well, I was there one day about a week before I was actually planning to do this, and me and my friend were there with a tape measure, because we-
Phil: Well, that's not suspicious.
Lia Ditton: We're there with a tape measure, and we were measuring the slipway that was used by London Duck Tours, and they are one of those amphibious duck companies that go down a ramp and along the river. And so they come hurtling down this this slipway, and I'm like, "Oh my goodness, if they can use the slipway, maybe I can, too." Anyway, I'm there with a tape measure, and I notice that the cameras swivel in my direction. And then this door opens, I didn't even know was there, pops open and about five men in dark glasses and dark suits pop out like the men in black. And I go, "Oh my God, I've been trying to get hold of you for weeks. Is one of you the estate manager?" And that's how I got my special dispensation.
Kim: Oh, you are so cheeky. Not only a sailor and an artist, but also an author. And is it correct that you've written a book, 50 Water Adventures To Do Before You Die?
Lia Ditton: I have, yeah. I wrote a book to inspire others to get out on the water, under the water, in the water. The premise of the book was, if you were going to, I don't know, kiteboard only once in your life, where would be the ultimate place to do it, and how would you go about it? And so it was a really fun book to write. I interviewed people, and I said, "Okay, I'm going down the rapids with whitewater rafting. I've got the paddle in my hand. Tell me, what do I see, what do I feel, what's the smell?" And quite a few of the people said, "Are you sure you haven't done this yourself?" And I'd go, "Well, hang on. You, you told [inaudible 00:20:32] that." It was a really, it was a good book to write. But the sequel, which I would have loved to write, did not go ahead, which was 50 Water Adventures Not To Do Or You Will Die. Which I think it would have been a much bigger seller, myself.
Kim: Would the publishing company not take that on?
Lia Ditton: The editor had moved onto the Lonely Planet, and so that was the end of that.
Kim: I love how your brain thinks.
Phil: Hey, if anybody wants to follow you and your adventure, where can they go?
Lia Ditton: Yeah. It's @rowliarow. Lia spelled L-I-A. And that's the same on Facebook, website, Twitter, Instagram. @rowliarow. And that started because someone said, "Row, Lia. Row." And I was like, "Oh my God, that's brilliant. It's like, "Run Forrest, run."
Phil: Row, Lia. Row.
Lia Ditton: Row, Lia. Row.
Phil: Look, we'll make it easy for you and put all those links in the show notes. Next week we're exploring Namibia, and we'll hear about a black rhino tracking expedition, and efforts to save the endangered species.
Kim: You can find the latest World Nomads podcast episode through all the popular podcast apps, or go to WorldNomads.com/podcasts. We'll see you next episode.
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