Southern California native Liz Clark lived on a sailboat for over a decade. She set off from the Santa Barbara harbor in 2005, and for the next 12 years traversed oceans on “Swell,” her 40-foot sailboat, looking for remote waves in Mexico, Central America, the Galapagos, French Polynesia and beyond.
On paper, Clark’s adventure seems like one of those badass trips you daydream of at your cubicle every Monday morning. But in her recently-released book, “Swell,” Clark paints a much more realistic picture of what a 12-year, transoceanic swell chase really looks like.
From the high points (scoring remote reef breaks with no one out) to the low (almost getting struck by lightning, having to repair a broken engine, getting a rare fungal infection, etc,), the experiences laid out in Clark’s autobiography are worth the read. We called up Captian Clark last week, while she was driving from one book tour stop to the next:
Besides wanting to share your experience of living on a sailboat for over a decade, what made you want to write this book?
I definitely wanted to inspire other people to go out and live their own journey, whatever it may be. I think my dream is pretty out there for some people, but I think this story just shows that when you really want to do what you truly love and desire, everything will work out in the end. That and wanting to share all the things I learned and the fun experiences I've had.
Did you always know you were going to going to sail around the world?
My parents always had a sailboat and we did all our family weekends and trips on the boat. Sailing was our way to get out in nature. When I was nine, they actually took my siblings and I out of school and we sailed to and around Mexico for about nine months in total. We spent that time exploring and fishing and meeting people and learning something different than what I knew living in North County San Diego. It totally got me out of my Southern California bubble, and even as a kid, it had a really deep impression on me.
Then I read a book by a woman named Tanya Ebby who sailed around the world when she was 19 and that opened my mind to the fact I could do that too. I hung onto that dream all through junior and high school. When I realized my sailing dream and my surfing passion could collide into this big adventure to go search for remote waves and get out there and see the world and discover the world through surfing, it reinvigorated my dream of sailing around the world.
How’d you develop the skills to sail and be completely self-sufficient?
I sailed a nine-foot sailing dingy growing up and that definitely helped me, but I would say a lot was trial and error and I had to figure out a lot when I left. When we [Liz and her old professor, who gave her the boat] were repairing the boat and getting it ready to sail, I didn't have a ton of time to practice before we left. It wasn’t like we were going out every afternoon and sailing or anything. I had to just get out there and figure it all out on that boat. It was once I got out into the trade winds that I really learned how to sail. It was a learning curve for sure, and I'm still learning. I'm not the best sailor.
Most people wouldn’t embark on such a grand adventure without feeling 100 percent sure they could do it. Where did that confidence come from?
The confidence came a lot from my dad. Even when I was in my teens and I was just talking about doing this trip, when we would go out and do family trips to Catalina, he would let me run the boat and handle everything. Then when I was in college, in my final semester at UCSB, he let me bring our family sailboat up to Santa Barbara so I could live on it in the harbor. He'd let me take my friends out to the Channel Islands or up to The Ranch on surf trips. Having my dad’s confidence in me made me believe in myself so much more than I think I would have if I didn't have that support. He never made me feel like because I was girl there was a gender discrepancy between what me and my brother could do.
In the first chapter of your book, you mention that, despite your confidence, there were still doubts and fears that crept into your thoughts. Did those ever go away?
I would say those fears of screwing up or hitting the reef or losing the boat–those fears never went away entirely for me. I think to some degree they actually kept me safe. It's very serious out there and you can lose everything in a heartbeat, so you don't want to get too comfortable or cocky—because every time I did the ocean would remind me that I had to be on my shit and to not take anything for granted.
At first glance, someone might think that you had a lot of time to just sit back and write and surf, but from reading the book it sounds like a lot of time was taken up by repairing and maintaining the boat, finding food and all that stuff.
Time felt scarce most of the time. There was always so much to do. During the first couple years, I made a practice of journaling—even if I just wrote one sentence about what happened that day. Especially when I was alone–it was almost like that was my way of telling someone what happened that day.
You had friends who joined you for certain segments of your journey but were you ever lonely when you sailed solo for extended periods of time?
Definitely. Sometimes it was sparked by something physical that I had to do on my own that would've been so easy with four hands but it took me four times as long to do. Then sometimes being out in the ocean when I had rough weather—during those times I was just like, "Can I be anywhere other than here right now? Please teleport me!" [Laughs] I did end up sailing with a boyfriend for a significant time towards the end of the book. It made everything so much easier and safer.
When you were deciding where to visit were you basing your decisions on where the best surf will be?
Yeah, that was my guiding principle. All of the other cool stuff I saw along the way was the result of going to the place I thought I was going to be able to get waves.
I was interested in the part of your book when you were in Panama, when you were working on your broken engine and you mentioned that you hadn't been in the water for two months. I imagine times like that were frustrating when the goal of the trip was to score waves.
It was super frustrating. At that time I was still such a frothing surfer–I couldn't stand being out of the water. This trip taught me a lot of patience because there were definitely times when I didn't get to surf for two months. But in that specific case, when I sailed out of Panama, my friends and I scored for a month straight. Everywhere we went we got beautiful waves with just us or a few other people out. So there were a lot of high highs and low lows. It was not always easy and I had to work really hard to get to these places, but when I did, everything felt worth it. But yea, you'd probably surf a lot more in Southern California just driving to places in your car. [Laughs]
Were you nervous paddling out alone in certain places?
You think that's it's the ultimate dream to be completely alone at a perfect break on a perfect island, but you have to be so careful in remote places because if you get hurt, there’s no one to help you. So it definitely changed my view of looking at surfing. It was cool to be alone, but I couldn't push myself the same way I could if I were in a crowd or close to medical services. [But I could almost look at surfing in a different way because my ego was removed—no one was looking at me and it didn't matter and I could just look back and watch the wave break, and feel my board. It was a beautiful time of falling in love with almost the spiritual side of surfing.]
You were also pretty honest in some parts of the book—letting the reader know your fears and anxieties as a woman, dealing with bouts of depression and having an abortion. Were you nervous putting such personal things in your book?
Definitely, but I spent three years writing this book and if I'm not going to be honest and share what the true story was, then to me, it doesn't really hold a place in the world. I did it so it could help other people in those same situations who have fears or anxieties about following their dream. Of course putting the abortion in there was totally scary for me. It was one of my deepest, darkest secrets, but the political climate we are in and the way that everything is going in the world right now, other women need to hear that they're not alone. I think a lot of people idolized me and put me up on a pedestal throughout this trip, but I want to make sure people understand that I am just a normal person who had this big dream and went for it. I had a very human story and I'm not some superhero.
You’re pretty vocal about environmental issues on social. Did you come to any realizations about the health of our oceans on your trip that maybe us land-chained people don't see?
I thought I was going to be able to sail to all these remote places that would be unaffected by human impact. What I realized out there is there is really no sailing away from the environmental problems we are facing—especially when it comes to climate change. I saw plastic on almost every beach I sailed to (which is also a huge problem.) But the climate change issue really hit home because I spent a lot of time in tiny, atoll nations where the islands are only six feet above water and the coral is so dependant on the ocean staying at a cooler temperature and all of those places are at risk right now. There were several places where the coconut trees were dying because the water line is higher and there’s more salidity in the soil. I had a Namatou grandmother look at me and say, "When the coconut trees go, we have to go too." That makes me cry every time I think about it. Those people took me in like family and here they are with so little impact on the environment. Thinking about them losing their land is hard to swallow.
What are your plans now?
Well, I have this book tour going on. After all the book stuff settles, I don't really have a plan but I know that I'd like to keep sailing, but I'd also like to have a land base. After living on the boat for 12 years, I'm ready to have a washing machine and have a place to do yoga that doesn't move around [laughs.] The one thing I really know is I want to dedicate more time to activism and philanthropy and I feel like I'll be more productive if I have that base to go back and worth from and not always be so nomadic.