Lia Ditton: rowing the Pacific single-handedly and writing to inspire and bring joy

Lia Ditton is the only interesting person I’ve ever met on a plane who I didn’t already know. She took the seat next to mine on a flight from Mallorca to the UK. It turned out that we both practiced yoga and wrote. We also had friends in common.

Actually, ‘interesting’ doesn’t do Lia justice. She’s an extraordinary person.

This is how she describes herself: ‘I am a professional sailor, writer and adventurer. Now 36, I have sailed the equivalent of 8 laps of the planet and am the 53rd woman to row the Atlantic. A licensed captain, I have spent 73 days in a row naked, eaten 2 years’ worth of astronaut food, gone a month without a shower and sailed a boat over 40mph.’

In June of this year, I began working with Susy Marriott of the Professional Writing Academy to develop my online Introduction to Yoga for Writers course. Something made me ask Susy if she knew Lia.

It turned out that Susy taught Lia on her MA in writing, and advised her on her first book 50 Water Adventures To Do Before You Die, published by Bloomsbury. Lia told me, ‘I wrote the book to inspire others on the premise that if you were to row – for example – only once in your life, where would be the ultimate place to do it and how would you go about having the experience.’

The answer is Venice. To help preserve the historic tradition of the city, Viva Voga Veneta offer a 2-hour lesson to teach you to row your own gondola.

Susy says, ‘Lia was an amazing student, who worked really hard, applied the lessons we taught and negotiated herself a great publishing deal. She’s an inspiring example for everyone studying writing. I’m waiting for her memoir!’

Now Lia is training to be the first woman to row solo across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to the USA. She’ll leave from Choshi, a peninsula 130km east of Tokyo, and arrive in San Francisco. It’s a journey of around 5,500 nautical miles which Lia expects will take between 4 to 6 months to complete.

I can’t begin to imagine what rowing single-handedly across the Pacific will be like for Lia. Nor can I understand why she wants to do it. But I was compelled to try and find out.

For the past few months Lia has been training in San Francisco. She found time in her regime to answer my questions.

Why are you rowing single-handedly across the Pacific, Lia? (Is there a 'why?', I wonder.)

I’ve boiled my answer down to five reasons.

I love being out in the ocean. I think of my time at sea as communing with my inner mermaid.

As a licensed captain, the challenge of rowing from Japan to San Francisco tickles my brain. The navigation is really interesting. In a nutshell, the North Pacific Ocean is divided into an east and west basin by a mountain range called the Emperor Seamount, which continues up from Hawaii but underwater. Off the backside of this mountain range is a swirling mass of counter currents. How you plot a path through these currents could mean the difference between a 4 and 6-month crossing. There may be weeks at this stage, where I row forwards but actually track backwards.

I don’t actively seek solitude, but I am fascinated by it. Being alone is like holding up a mirror and staring into your own eyes. Discovery is inevitable.

There are very few world firsts remaining. To be the first woman to row across the North Pacific Ocean would be unbelievably special, but it’s not my primary motivator.

The row is a tool to reach others. I often give keynote talks and after these talks, it’s always women who ask ‘How do I get your courage to do the things I want to do?’ The row is a means of inspiring millions of men and women, to pursue their own big dream. I think this is my real mission in life. The true ‘why’ if you like.

What part does yoga play in your life?

I discovered Pilates in 2009 and practised everyday for 4 years. It was only a matter of time before yoga drew me in and what better place to learn than Palma de Mallorca in Spain! Most of my personal practice was on the roof terrace in the early morning sun. Lush.

Yoga breathing has become a powerful addition to my life. Outside of yoga practice, I’ve used pranayama to calm my mind and body and switch off so I can sleep. It’s also helped me divert my mind in moments of physical pain.

I can't imagine what the physical aspect of your adventure ahead will be like. Will you use yoga to help and, if so, how?

Every morning I do a series of stretches a friend of mine calls ‘yoga in motion’ and my personal trainer calls ‘the inch-worm’.

I walk my hands out in front of my body; duck down into chaturanga, upward-facing dog, downward-facing dog, walk the feet forward and repeat across the room. It’s the only successful way I’ve found to stretch out my hamstrings before lifting weights. A couple of times per week, I’ll go to a yoga class – I’m trying hot yoga for the first time tomorrow and before bed I’ll do a series of poses, which are mostly seated. I would like to come up with a routine I can do on my ocean rowing boat. This may take some practice!

Do you plan to keep a journal?

Sharing the experience through writing everyday is as important to me as succeeding in the row. Writing is part of my daily routine. It brings me joy to know that others can follow what I’ll be experiencing and that my experience on the ocean may positively influence other people’s lives.

When I rowed across the Atlantic in 2010, I didn’t know if I could manage to maintain a blog. The reality was that I had a lot of time to think – 12 hours per day on the oars! The content became well-formed and just spilt onto the page, 93 pages by the end. ‘A day at sea without writing is a day lost,’ I said to myself. If I didn’t write, each day risked blurring into the next.

From Lia's 2010 blog:

'The silver-penny moon was still up and glowing progressively more golden. Sitting regally on a cloud, only a single star henchman remained by his side. On the opposite side of the horizon, the sun was rising, swathed in a scarlet veil with all her glory reflecting on the ambient clouds. I watched the moon and then the sun, in their game of Russian roulette, as the moon slowly conceded and the sun edged up.

About a quarter of the way up the sky, there seemed to be a standoff, neither the moon nor the sun moved as they stared each other in the face. Minutes later the moon was gone and the sun rose triumphantly building in intensity.'

I seem to remember your first single-handed sailing trip was an art project (and also that you were forbidden to mention you were at sea or something similar) so is this adventure giving you a reason to write a book? Would you undertake it if you didn't want to write about it?

Well remembered! My first single-handed crossing of the Atlantic was while I was at art school. The crossing was actually a race and my university said I could go, but on one condition.

They wanted me to write ‘articles of reflection.’ My professor didn’t understand sailing, so he asked me not to mention the sailing. I laughed at the time, but he was clever. Sailing is a niche sport, but adventure isn’t. What I ended up writing about were my emotions and the beauty of my environment and everyone can relate to that. My ‘articles of reflection’ were quickly picked up by magazines, published all over the place and so began my career as a writer.

In 2015 I wrote a substantial part of a memoir under the working title ‘Naked Ocean.’ I feel this upcoming experience will be important, not only in my life, but in providing the conclusion to that book.

How is the training going?

The physical training – 5 to 6 hours of weight lifting alone per week - has been a gruelling experience, which has made me uncharacteristically introverted. About a month ago, the preparation – physical, financial and logistical – just became overwhelming. I finally made the decision to postpone my departure to 2018. Now I’m enjoying the journey again and gearing up for my first rough weather training week – a 150-mile row back from outside the Golden Gate Bridge in January.

Thanks Lia. I’ll leave you to it. Good luck.

I’d imagine that Lia would raise an eyebrow at me calling her ‘extraordinary’. Wanting to become the first woman to row single-handedly across the Pacific probably seems completely logical to her. So perhaps it’s the similarities between Lia and the rest of us that are most interesting, especially if we write.

I’m sure Lia would agree with me that the hardest thing in life is finding what we want to do with our lives and work. But there’s nothing stopping us. And, whatever we decide, writing is always an adventure in itself.

And I'm thrilled that Lia has decided to join me on my Introduction to Yoga for Writers course. Welcome aboard, Lia.

 Photo by Jenn Heflin

 Follow Lia's progress and support her as she trains for her wave-breaking journey here