Capt. Liz Clark Comes Ashore on LBI for ‘Swell’ Book Tour

May 09, 2018
Photo by: Juliet Kaszas-Hoch

“It all starts with a dream, right?” Capt. Liz Clark’s rhetorical question stood as a signpost for the spirit of her talk last Friday night at Farias Surf and Sport in Ship Bottom, just one of three stops she made in the Northeast to promote her book Swell: A Sailing Surfer’s Voyage of Awakening. The intrepid southern California native has passed 12 years and 20,000 miles in the Pacific Ocean on the 40-foot sailboat Swell, and over the last three years penned her memoir, detailing adventure, fear, humility, the kindness of strangers, the exuberance of surfing remote waves, “the surprises and the failures” of sailing solo.

Clark grew up in San Diego. When she was 9 years old, the family sailed to and around Mexico for nine months. “It blew my mind open,” she recalled. She knew then she wanted to sail, to see the world and – after seeing all the trash in ports – to protect it.

Later, when her family moved closer to the beach, Clark learned to surf and “fell head over heels” for it, further solidifying (liquefying?) for her the ocean’s draw.

At UC Santa Barbara, Clark majored in environmental studies, chasing down her intent to help the Earth. Six months after graduating, though, she was living with her brother, uncertain what to do, and depressed. “I just didn’t want to take the normal route,” she explained.

One auspicious day in the Santa Barbara harbor she ran into an older professor, the now late Barry Schulyer, who was looking for someone to take his sailboat around the world so he could vicariously live out his dream. Clark signed on.

She subsequently apprenticed for a mechanic, an electrician, a sailmaker and a rigger to learn some of the skills necessary to captain a vessel. Meanwhile Swell, built in 1966, needed a lot of work – three years’ worth, in the end.

In 2005 Clark set sail. Parts of her journey seem truly plucked from a fantasy: reeling waves far away from crowds, beautiful unfamiliar cultures, her feline first mate Amelia the Tropicat (who died, sadly, at the start of this year).

But, as Clark was quick to mention, she also contended with bad weather, roiling storm waves, seasickness, discomfort and fatigue. “Sailing a boat alone is really tiring,” she remarked. And “the algae never stops growing.”

“I was being challenged in every way possible,” from fixing always-breaking things to contending with her vulnerability as a woman. Through this, though, she said, “I was opening my heart to something bigger and greater than me.”

After initially sailing with friends for a year and a half, Clark wanted to travel alone from Central America to the South Pacific. Her parents, though, didn’t agree. Her father, an avid sailor, wasn’t able to make the trip, so her mother, less so a sailor, joined her for the 22-day passage.

Clark recounted an email from her dad during that voyage, which alerted his wife and daughter to an unusually large storm off Panama headed directly their way. “It shouldn’t be more than 35 knots and 25 feet,” he wrote.

“Mom was such a champion out there,” said Clark. “She stepped so far out of her comfort zone to be out there with me.” And Clark used the time to learn about her mother; “It was just so cool to get to know her story.”

After they’d made it safely to the South Pacific, Clark wanted to slow down, sail solo, and look inward, to self-discover.

“I found that slowing down had a lot of other benefits,” she noted. She bettered her surfing, fished, sharpened knives and, as she lived so close to nature, became more and more conscientious about the trash she produced. Compounding this was the garbage she saw floating in ports, the dying coral reefs, and the people she met who lived so simply but would be “the first, and most, affected by sea level rise and climate change.”

Clark seriously questioned what she could do as one individual. She began to research what she buys, to use less, to eat a plant-based diet, with some fish – anything to decrease her impact.

She mentioned an easy environmental initiative – a plastic swear jar – that she encourages others to try. The idea is the same as the standard swear jar, but people contribute not when they swear, but when they use a single-use plastic item.

As she also pointed out, money from the beer and “Swell”-emblazoned reusable cups attendees could purchase at that night’s event benefited a nonprofit, started by Clark’s friends, called Changing Tides Foundation. “We’re trying to connect travelers with nonprofits that are on the ground around the world,” she explained.

The more Clark traveled, the more she saw that everything separate in the world is also interconnected. She sank into communion with strangers, savored high fives in a populated lineup, cherished “earning Amelia’s trust,” and felt bad for barnacles scraped from Swell’s rudder.

“I lived up to a lot of big goals for myself that I had as a kid,” said Clark – traveling, sailing, surfing – “but it’s really those bonds and connections along that way that make my life meaningful.”

“Liz has excelled as a surfer, sailor, and explorer, but these descriptions do not in any way truly impart the spirit, courage and humility of her life,” renowned surfer Wayne Lynch remarked. “She is one of those rare people who has chosen to journey far from the comfort and security of the shore, to risk all and follow her heart’s calling.”

“She’s doing amazing things,” echoed shop owner Brian Farias.

Clark wrote her book, she said to the audience that evening, to fulfill a dream, just as when she left shore more than a decade ago. But, she added, “it’s not just about my dream. It’s about all of your dreams.” She hopes, by sharing her “inner and outer voyage,” to not only in some way make the world better – to spread the word about how beautiful the earth is and why we need to work harder to preserve it – but to also inspire others to get vulnerable, be brave, show compassion and “to choose love over fear.

“If you love something enough, and want something enough, anything is possible” – even training a cat to sail with you.

During her time at sea, as Clark remarked, “I’ve fallen in and out of love with myself,” with others, and with the ocean. She questioned herself as a woman, and as a human being. But she endured because, of course, she could. “Maybe that’s what carried me through: Not believing that I have any limitations.”

Juliet Kaszas-Hoch

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