You know that fantasy you’ve had about learning to sail, hopping a boat in the Caribbean, and galavanting around the seven seas, living a blissful life guided by the stars and pushed by the wind, Captain Ron style? But you’ve got, like, real world commitments, and then there’s the whole not-knowing-how-to-sail thing, not to mention the debilitating fear of the unknown.
Well, Liz Clark is actually living your dream. Has been for a decade.
In 2005, she set out on a borrowed 40-foot sailboat called Swell for an around-the-world voyage by herself, surfboards in tow. Clark was the 2001 NSSA College Women’s Surf Champ, so when she finds a pristine, barreling reef pass, she knows what to do with it, as you may remember from her envy-inducing segment from the 2009 movie Dear and Yonder.
Clark's since made solo crossings of numerous stretches of the Pacific. She’s been buffeted by storms you couldn't imagine. She’s run out of food. She’s been forced into strange foreign ports because she was taking on water. She catches her own fish. She does most of her own wrenching on the boat. She’s surfed plenty of completely empty tropical reef passes all by herself, or in the company of only a few fellow travelers. If there’s a more dedicated surf tripper out there, well, they’d probably get along great with Clark, actually. They should probably meet.
It’s been awhile since we spoke with Captain Clark, so we checked in with the sailor, surfer, environmentalist, and writer, about life on the waves.
Are you still living the life of a sailor out in the middle of the Pacific somewhere? Or have you converted to landlubber status?
Yep, I'm still out here! I'm living on Swell full-time right now. I've been living on the boat for the last two years straight, actually, working on a book I'm writing. But I am preparing for a trip back to California (by airplane) to finish up the details of my book, and to hug my family and friends.
Let's say I, or perhaps a far more courageous, adventurous soul, wanted to follow in your footsteps and sail around the world, chasing perfect surf. How'd you get your start?
I spent a lot of time on my parent's sailboats during my childhood, so I already had a good basic sailing education. I also raced small sailboats as a kid. When the chance to voyage aboard Swell became a reality, [A professor of Clark's at UC Santa Barbara gave her use of Swell] I spent two years following around a marine mechanic, rigger, electrician, and a sailmaker to learn the basics. I read voraciously about open-ocean sailing, and worked on overhauling all of Swell's major systems. I studied ocean currents and weather and swell seasons in the places I wanted to go to. And then I just went for it. I figured out the rest along the way.
Most of us chained to the land are probably the most envious of your solo surf discoveries. Do you know how often you've been the first to surf a wave when you show up to a reef out in the middle of nowhere?
I'm not sure how often that happens, actually. It's really hard to say if other surfers have passed before me. Plus, I like to ensure that others who go to my favorite spots will have the same awesome [uncrowded] surfing experiences I've had, so I keep spots to myself.
What's the best part of being alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean? The worst?
The worst for me is seasickness, but there have definitely been scary moments, too. Like nearly being struck by lightning multiple times, ripping my headsail halfway across the Pacific, and surfing alone at super sharky reef passes. The best moments are nature’s beautiful surprises, the good people that always seem to appear to help me when I'm in need, and surfing beautiful waves with just a couple friends.