Ditton strikes blow for equal adventure
If you want living proof that we will all survive these dreary times, look no further than Lia Ditton’s extraordinary ocean story. On June 17, she set off from San Francisco in the direction of Hawaii in her 21ft boat in an attempt to become the fastest woman to row the 2,700km distance. And London-born Ditton did not just do it, she smashed the women’s record, completing the perilous three-month unassisted sea voyage in just over 86 days and 10 hours – breaking Roz Savage’s 2008 mark of 100 days.
Within two weeks of starting her gargantuan expedition, the 40-year-old capsized when a wave the size of a building plunged her into the sea.
Launching herself on to the vessel, she desperately tried to roll it around, only to shred her fingers on the few barnacles that had sprung up on its undercarriage.
With her boat suddenly filling with water, she had less than a minute to salvage her mission.
“What I did was timed with the next gust of wind or next wave, I mean, who knows how I managed to turn it around? I don’t want to take too much credit for such a Herculean effort which might have just been a wave well-timed with my action,” Ditton said modestly, speaking to The Daily Telegraph days after arriving in Hawaii.
Capsize number two was even more terrifying than the first. Ditton, who was rowing up to 10 hours every day, was taking her routine afternoon nap when she woke to find herself thrown into the sea again. This time, the boat self-righted.
But after the psychological scarring of the first capsize – not to mention the tragic news that her fellow ocean rower Angela Madsen, 60, had died attempting the same route after 57 days – Ditton never allowed herself the luxury to think she could complete the crossing. After nearly drowning in her sleep, she was scared to drop off again.
After quite literally rowing her way out of two near-death experiences, blogging about them – and her expedition as a whole – provided a cathartic release.
“I knew I’d see things most people are never going to see,” said Ditton, who lived off macadamia nuts, three meal replacement shakes a day and baby food. “I felt like I was the test pilot and it was my responsibility to take as many people with me.”
This was not limited to chronicling idyllic ocean views, but navigating the logistics of womanhood in the middle of the North Pacific. She stuck Velcro on the back of flawed sanitary towels which she shoved inside her underwear only for them to miserably leak anyway. She washed them and hung them out to dry in the salty ocean air. Tampons were not an option because the string caused considerable chafing.
Her greatest humiliation was not the invasive process of sticking a “massage wand” up her vagina to stimulate her sedentary pelvic floor muscles (Ditton insists this was a “game changer” in preventing constipation and haemorrhoids) – but running out of soap – which meant lathering herself with washing-up liquid in her bucket bath. “It felt like an indignity against being a woman,” Ditton said.
Very rarely are we programmed to consider such ungentrified bodily tales from extreme adventures which, as Ditton maintains, are typically suited to men: she searched high and low for a suitable toilet for her trip and had to resort to male haemorrhage wipes which had an “aggressive” amount of witch hazel.
“Most of the urine collection devices are a joke – they’re all vertical, which is fine if you’re standing up, but women don’t want something vertical, you want something horizontal,” said Ditton, who had her own vision of celebrating the end of her 86-day voyage. “I wanted to come in a bikini top and lift my arms up and show off my fantastic black furry armpits,” she said, “but I knew that would become the story. All of the media would have focused on my hairy armpits, and that would have been sad.”
Male adventurers are often revered for their scragginess, but for women, will the Robinson Crusoe-esque trope always remain problematic? Perhaps, but Ditton, who triumphantly rowed into Hawaiian waters with leg hair as long as a man’s, is refreshingly different at least.
‘If I had finished in a bikini, the media would have made my black furry armpits the story, which is a bit sad’
Record breaker: Lia Ditton celebrates just before reaching the Waikiki Yacht Club, after rowing solo from the US mainland to Hawaii