Here’s a dispatch from sailor-turned-ocean-rower Lia Ditton‘s human-powered trek from Washington state. She rowed more than 700 nautical miles in 24 days, down the Oregon and California coasts to the Bay Area.
“What the hell are you thinking? You’re a brave soul!” a fisherman shouts as I row out the channel and head for the infamous Columbia River bar. I fight to get my oars in and out of the water as the GPS tracks 8.75 knots over the ground. Birds swoop around me in the pre-dawn. Next stop, San Francisco!
On night number one in the open ocean, I glimpse a shark in my headlamp. My imagination is playing tricks I assume, but the shark — or sharks — returns in the morning. By the afternoon, there are three 10-ft sharks circling my boat! How do I feel about this? I decide the best way to cope is to talk to them. “I am sorry about the toothpaste juice,” I say before I spit over the side. “It’s Tom’s from Maine. Ingredients are organic. Maybe you’ve been to Maine?”
My foot catches the handle of my oar and I jump out of my skin. I am about to try and sleep with a shark under my bed. Have you ever tried to sleep with an actual shark under your bed? I start writing a future children’s book. ‘The Shark Under My Bed.’ It goes, “Child: There’s a shark under my bed. Adult: what is the shark doing under your bed? Child: He’s eating fish. Adult: What kind of fish? Child: Tuna fish.” I fall asleep.
For three days I row south and lose ground to the north when I rest. I am caught in a counterclockwise current. The question is how to escape. How far south or west or east do I need to row? A professor from Oregon State University rightly advises me to row northwest, against the prevailing wind.
Once free of the eddy, I am under siege from squalls. The sky is littered with grey pouches with streaks running to the horizon. In between are rainbows and great white sharks leaping, prey dangling from their jaws. The scene is surreal, like the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. And this was ‘just’ supposed to be a training row!
At the Oregon-California border, I get run over by a storm. For five hours I am on sea anchor wedged inside my cabin, listening to what sounds like the boat being gradually ripped apart. When the wind eases I pop out on deck to find a US aircraft carrier standing by at a respectful distance. I imagine the conversation onboard: “A person has emerged on deck. It’s a woman!” Quickly, they are gone.
Days of huge swells roll under my boat before the wind clocks to the NW and I can make progress south again. ‘This could be heaven or this could be hell.’ I play the song Hotel California by the Eagles.
I begin covering 60 miles per day — in a 21-ft rowboat! — the wind ratcheting up into the high thirties. The North Pacific high is pressed against the coast, and a week of gale force winds stretches ahead of me. On deck I struggle with feelings of fear. I remind myself that I am in the best possible craft for the conditions. “Do your flotsam thing, babe!” I pat my boat before going to sleep. It’s a tribute to the design and build that, when left to drift, my boat tracks beautifully down monstrous waves.
The next day and the next day, waves crash against my boat and fizzle into spume. Epic. Beautiful. Frightening as hell. The waves are loud; the spray fierce . . . and all the while, there is a mounting problem. My US visa will soon expire! To reach land, I have to cross the continental shelf. Cross the shelf in breaking seas in 40 knots of wind? You’d have to be out of your mind. What kind of horror show was that going to be? Mexico starts to look like an appealing option . . . only another 700 miles of rowing south!
Every day I row east perpendicular to the waves. The exposure is exhausting and a foul wave could break an oar, or worse, an arm. Sometimes I blast music. “We wake up. We row. This is just a normal day.” I coach myself out of the rising sense of panic, as the wave tops become transparent, wine-bottle green.
As I near the Bay Area, I head for the shelf. An 80-ft wave roars away from me. I row amongst 60-ft waves. The sun begins to set, and in order to stay off Cordell Bank (150 feet compared to the 10,000 feet of the continental shelf) I calculate I need to row non-stop through the night. I close my eyes and try to row blind between breaking waves. Impossible, foolish even to try, especially skirting the shipping lanes.
The setting sun kisses the horizon. Have I left it too late to clear the west side of Cordell Bank? I head back out to sea as fast as I can. I row for my life, I row with everything I can give and then when the night is pitch black and I can row no more, I sink to my knees and pray.
I skirt the bank. Miraculously, the wind switches off and I wake up shivering and sore. I remember being knocked down, the boat side-slammed by a white wall of water. Exhausted, I tell my shore team that I can’t make San Francisco. I can’t do it. Let’s aim for Monterey. Four hours of sleep later I change my mind.
“What is wrong with you Lia?” I ask myself. “Why don’t you ever quit?” For the next two days, I row 25-30-mile days, rowing for 12 hours non-stop. The human body is amazing.
Then there it is: the south tower, the support arms stretching across the middle and the Golden Gate Bridge towering before me. I expect to cry. Instead I am overjoyed. I soak in the familiar sound of the horn off Point Diablo, the rumble of traffic over the bridge, and as I turn the corner into the Bay, I can hardly believe myself what I have just endured.