Swell: A Conversation with Liz Clark

Chris Schluep on June 11, 2018

swellcover.jpgIf you were to make a list of, say, five wild dreams that you would like to accomplish in your lifetime, there's a good chance one of those dreams would be to sail around the world. I have no data to support this opinion, but I'll bet it's true for most people. I would also bet that very few people would think big enough to sail around the world, and then use that platform to surf all the best beaches (again, no data).

But that's exactly what Liz Clark did, and she wrote about it in her book Swell. Here's a one minute video:

A while back when she was in Seattle, I had the chance to talk to Liz about her book and her trip. Here's some of our conversation:

As a kid, you're life was about being on the water. What was that like?

All of our weekends and family vacations were always on our family sailboat. My dad just loved being out on the water, so we would always get out there. And when I was nine years old, my parents took us out of school—I have a brother and sister as well—and we sailed down the coast of Mexico for about six months as a family. That was a longer trip, and that’s really where the seed was planted for my dream of sailing around the world.

And it’s while you were sailing that you started thinking more about the environment, right?

Yes. We’d pull into ports and you would see pollution and trash. And then we’d be out on these more pristine coastlines, and there would be these beautiful beaches. Even as a nine-year-old, I started seeing the contrast between places where human impact was having negative effects and these beautiful, pristine places. So I became an environmentalist, even at that young age.

You wanted to take a big trip, but you didn’t have the boat. Then you met Barry (who had a boat). How did that come to be?

I truly think that part of it has something to do with having focused so much on this dream as a kid. I had a map up on my wall with arrows of where I was going to sail. I had a little piggy bank that said “sailing fund,” and I was constantly thinking about this journey when I was a kid. I still just hung onto that dream out of college, and I ended up running into Barry, who was almost 80 years old at the time. We had a lot in common—he was one of the founders of the environmental studies program at UC Santa Barbara, where I studied. He was a sailor, and we’d actually taken a sailing trip together the year before. So when I ran into him, he had come up with this idea of wanting to give his boat to someone who wanted to do a long distance sailing trip. So I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I had this big dream; and he was really excited to be able to live vicariously through this trip that I was going to take. So we dove into three years of overhauling the boat.

swell2.jpgWas it only supposed to take a year at first?

Yes, we actually planned for a year at the beginning. And his deal was during that year I would follow around a rigger, an electrician, and a mechanic, and I would apprentice with these guys who were overhauling the boat to try to learn what I would need once I got offshore, to have some of the skills I would need out there. But yeah, we’d just open up one project and there’d be five more underneath and it just became this endless thing. You’d cross one item off the list, and add bunch more at the bottom, and see how one year turned into two and then to three—and it just became a lot bigger project than either of us appreciated.

You wrote that fear of failure really drove you, is that right?

In the beginning I was so scared of whether I could be a captain, you know? We’d poured tons of money and tons of time into this boat. I had all these eyes on me. I wasn’t even sure if I was physically or mentally capable of meeting the challenge of captaining this sailboat on my own. So yeah, I was petrified of losing it all in that first year, after we’d worked so hard to get to that point.

And what changed? How did you feel yourself changing as a person?

I think once I proved to myself that I could handle all the equipment, and that I could anchor safely and get from A to B. There was just so much to learn at the beginning. It was all focused on physically proving I could do this from one destination to the next—but then as I got more comfortable, and everything became more routine, I was able to turn inward and make it all about a personal journey as well. And the book really highlights that inner journey, too.

Would you summarize the book or the trip as being about realizing your dreams? Is that how you looked at it?

I definitely hope that people see that, by following your dreams, you push yourself farther than you normally would. Because it’s something that you’re really passionate about. I broke through so many of these barriers and these perceived limitations that I had, and I did it because I really wanted this dream. But I also think that following this dream opened me up to a personal relationship with spirituality, and a relationship with the unknown, that has provided so much value to my life. And I think every person has a different journey to that same place—to that personal trust and faith—that I don’t think I really understood from a church or any other religious element that I was exposed to in my life before the trip. So I hope that people see that by following your own passions and your own desires, whatever it is you’re really wanting in life, that you will be supported, and you’ll find this relationship, and it will be yours.

swell1.jpgYou also surf. You call it your numero uno. What is it about surfing?

I think for me, I already had this love for the ocean growing up on boats. I’m kind of an athlete in general. I was a gymnast as a child and always had an aptitude and love for sports, and when I could combine that love for the ocean with my athletic desires… surfing is just this beautiful, dynamic mix of the two, because you’re constantly being challenged. Every wave is different. Every day is different. You have to learn about the tides and the winds, and there’s so much that goes into it. And for me that became being closer to the environment around me--and when you take that onto a sailboat, it’s even next level, because you have to have a safe place to anchor your boat, and you have to learn about the coastline that you’re on, and all of those things, because I love the earth and the ocean, it was just another way to engage with them I guess.

What are some of your greatest memories from the trip?

One of my greatest memories was a time when I’d been stuck in Panama City for almost two months. I was overhauling SWELL for the trip across the Pacific. It was just a really depressing time. You couldn’t even swim in the water around there because it was so polluted, and I had this long list of things I had to do on SWELL. And I finally got back out on the water and sailed to this first destination that we’d chosen—a girlfriend was with me at the time—and we pulled up to this beautiful island. We had no idea what we were in for, and we showed up and found these incredible waves—a right and a left—where we could anchor right off the spot. And we ended up anchored there surfing for a couple weeks straight. So all the rewards of this really tough time, where I felt like I was never going to get to surf again, and I was wondering why am I doing this?... it was just such a contrast—it was the low low, and then the super high high on the other end—and I found over time that that’s how a lot of of the trip was.

For more pictures, stories, and notes on Liz Clark's amazing voyage, check out this website.

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