Lia Ditton | Combining Art & Athleticism to Conquer the Pacific
Modern art was Lia Ditton’s first love. It is through her love for art that she discovered a passion for sailing and now rowing.
A passion for sailing
At Chelsea College of Art, Lia spent 6 months in India studying stone carving. After falling ill, she went to Thailand to recover, and it was in Thailand Lia discovered sailing.
“I sailed back from Thailand to Turkey
via the Red Sea. This was 2001 and the voyage
changed the course of my life.”
“I stumbled on a yacht race and volunteered. After the regatta, there were boats looking for crew to head back to Europe, Australia and New Zealand. I was 21 and felt it was an adventure my 21-year old self couldn’t, or shouldn’t, turn down. I sailed back from Thailand to Turkey via the Red Sea. This was 2001 and the voyage changed the course of my life.”
Everyone Lia met on other boats said “You need to go to the Caribbean and experience trade wind sailing”. After returning to the UK, that is exactly what Lia did.
“From St. Maarten I hitch-hiked on boats up to North America and discovered there was a marine industry and that with the skills I had now acquired, people would pay me money to go sailing! That spawned a new career.”
Lia has now racked up over 150,000 miles of experience – the equivalent of eight laps of the globe – at sea. She is the youngest competitor, and only woman to complete the OSTAR 2005 single-handed transatlantic race. In 2006 Lia also became the 8th woman in 28 years of the race’s history, to complete the Route du Rhum, arguably France’s most prestigious single-handed transatlantic race.
Through her endeavours on the water, Lia combines art and athleticism with equal passion.
Combining art and athleticism
After her first solo race across the Atlantic, Lia brought her boat into London and reenacted her crossing as a performance art work. She spent the same amount of time living on her boat outside the Tate Britain Gallery as it took her to sail across the Atlantic to America.
“I needed a special
dispensation from MI6 to go within
their 30m exclusion zone!”
“We brought the boat up the Thames, hauled her out next to the MI6 building, rotated her to 85 degrees to the vertical and trucked the boat over Vauxhall Bridge in the middle of the night with a police escort and installed it next to the Tate Britain Gallery!”
Lia admits that it was harder to get the boat into London than it was to race the boat to America. “It was an intense nine months of strategic planning. I needed permission from 15 different government bodies and a special dispensation from MI6 to go within their 30m exclusion zone!”
Writing and creativity
Another way Lia brings art to her sport is through writing. Lia has written 2 books. The first entitled 50 Water Adventures To Do Before You Die, was commissioned by Bloomsbury to inspire others and is available in English and German.
Lia is also committed to taking her followers on the journey with her, during the challenge itself.
Every day of her first solo Atlantic crossing, Lia wrote ‘Articles of Reflection.’ Lia was at university at the time and this was the college’s requirement if she wanted permission to do the race. “Please don’t write about the sailing!’ her tutor said. ‘As we don’t understand sailing!”
“I ended up writing about what I felt, the human emotions of hunger, tiredness and loneliness. Everybody can relate to that. My readership snowballed, my blogs reposted in magazines. That spawned a new career as a writer!”
“Writing at sea shifts my mindset.
A lot of what happens at sea is absurd.”
In the Route du Rhum, Lia’s second solo race, Lia wrote the diary of her experience on the inside skin of the boat itself. Her plan was to cut the boat in half afterwards and exhibit the boat as two half-hulls, with the diary for all to read*. (*One of her investors decided to buy the boat and so the boat was never cut in half.)
“I often think of myself as a missionary, my goal to take everyone with me as I am going to a place in the middle of the ocean that most people will never see. Rowing the Atlantic in 2010, I spent my hours at the oars thinking ‘what am I going to write? How will I translate this experience for other people?’”
“We need to make the distinction here
between being lonely and being alone.”
This summer, over 25,000 people followed Lia’s tracker as she rowed down the coast of California in July. “This was a training row! There was no PR or marketing around the row at all!”
“Writing at sea shifts my mindset. A lot of what happens at sea is absurd. Writing about it makes me laugh, makes other people laugh and enables me to step outside of myself and see my situation from another perspective, namely, I have chosen to be there!”
“I think people are quite open to being transported somewhere and, if you do a good job, they’ll come with you and tell their friends.”
Alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean, Lia doesn’t get lonely.
“We need to make the distinction here between being lonely and being alone. The loneliest experience I have ever had was sitting outside the Tate Britain, because at rush hour people would stream past me and not make eye contact. I found that far more lonely than being in the middle of the Atlantic battling a storm.”
Rowing the Atlantic
In 2009, while working as a business development manager for a marine electronics company, Lia received a call from a Danish Olympic rower asking if she wanted to row the Atlantic. After meeting the rower, Lia concluded they were incompatible (pretty vital when you are rowing an ocean with that person).
“Back in the UK I thought ‘what has this woman done? Now I want to row an ocean!’ I ended up rowing with a Detective Inspector from the Northamptonshire Police Force who had fallen out with his rowing partner days before the start of the race.
“A friend sent me a message when I was in Abu Dhabi. I had just delivered a boat past Somalia for danger money, and clearly the money was burning a hole in my pocket! I jumped in at the last minute.
“The thing I feared [with rowing] was the very thing I ended up loving, which was the proximity to the water. The oars became extensions of my arms and, for the first time, I could feel the ocean.”
“The more you deal with naysayers
and rejection, the more you harden
In 2010 Lia became the 53rd woman to row the Atlantic and the 64th woman to row any ocean, rowing from the Canary Islands to Antigua in 74 days.
Her up-coming challenge is to row 5,500 nautical miles from Choshi, Japan, across the North Pacific Ocean to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. 18 attempts have been made to row this distance, both by men. If completed, Lia will become the first woman to do so.
“People tell me I am crazy all the time. In many ways it helps grow resilience. The more you deal with naysayers and rejection, the more you harden your armour for the thing you actually want to do.”
As in previous projects, there is an artistic side to Lia’s challenge. This time, she is planning on slicing her boat into 60 sections.
“I was always planning to slice the boat after the row, into three-inch longitudinal ring frames that would first be exhibited as art, a mobile hanging from the ceiling, like the bones of the blue whale in the New York Natural History Museum.
“I recently decided I would pre-sell the slices ($3,500 per slice, $5,000 for corporations) so people could literally buy a stake in the project. The boat will go on to have 60 new lives, as wall sculptures which tell the story of my row to generations to come which I love. The work will be called, ‘Slices of History’ and Lia is in talks with a major US gallery interested in hosting the exhibition.
Funding and trying to find good, consistent sponsors is a challenge.
“It is often as hard if not harder to fund and organise these projects than it is to undertake them. I tell people that the row is the final exam and that now is the real expedition.
“The other interesting challenge I face is that almost every time I reach the boardroom with a potential sponsoring company, I’m pitching to predominantly men.
“My row across the Pacific is about equality. It’s about being the first woman to accomplish a feat achieved by two men, potentially challenging their record time and being the first person outright to row land from land (both men were towed the last 20 and 50 miles respectively). I know men care about women’s progress but I don’t think it’s possible for men to care in the same way women care about women’s progress, that’s just a reality.
“Even in 2018, sponsorship is a difficult landscape to navigate. A business deal is a transaction, so is sponsorship, but with sponsorship I’m coming to you saying ‘I want you to fund my dream.’
“I feel I should write an op-ed about sex, power and sponsorship because it is quite an unusual paradigm in a business environment.”
While Lia has had some negative experience of sponsorships, she has also had plenty of positive ones.
“It needs to be ethical and environmentally
conscious, the pillars of my projects”
“After my first crossing of the Atlantic, my sponsor withdrew for financial reasons and, there I was, having entered a race with no boat. I decided to continue without a title sponsor. It became a huge and heartfelt community effort.
“The team by the end was really big. We had so much fun. It was our entry, not just mine. That was a real triumph over adversity.”
In sponsorship, Lia’s main criteria is that a brand’s values align with her own.
“It needs to be ethical and environmentally conscious, the pillars of my projects, and all the love and money in the world isn’t going to sway me on that.”
Lia also appreciates that it is up to the athlete to bring something unique to the brand involved.
“What I offer a sponsor is creativity and passion for what I’m doing. It’s through the way you approach [sponsorship] and the energy and passion you bring that inspires employees but also the target audience of that company.
“I have a lot of creative ideas. For example I have a picture postcard and I put all my sponsors on the postcard and hand out cards to over 100 people a week. That’s advertising money can’t buy. I am up to my 3rd design of postcard and people treasure these postcards as if they were a gift or might be worth something in the future!”
“I also write a lot of magazine articles. My masters degree was in professional writing and so when I get approached to be interviewed I often write the article myself. This gives me an opportunity to mention my sponsors in the best possible way.”