Liz Clark is one of the great explorers of our time. In 2006, Clark set sail from Santa Barbara, California in search of surf and self. She has been sailing and surfing the oceans non-stop for more than a decade now, having logged over 20,000 nautical miles and countless adventures as captain of her 40-foot sailboat, Swell.
She kept the world updated of her pursuits and findings on her blog and Instagram, but for the past couple of years Clark was anchored just off Society Island in the South Pacific writing a book about her adventures and the planet. Over the years, she had mixed her pursuit for surf and escape with that of her marine biology background by advocating for the oceans.
“Swell” is a beautiful ode to her time on the open sea, the people she met, the cultures she embedded herself within, the surf she scored, being vegan, living sustainably, the companionship of her late cat Amelia, the health of the planet and so much more. Simply put, it is the collection of more than a decade of sailing around the world by oneself.
We caught up with Clark to discuss her exploits, but also to get some of her ocean-tested pointers and advice for traveling around the world solo. Be sure to check out “Swell” and get yourself to one of the events if Clark happens to be stopping in your area.
On Striking a Balance Between Chores and Having Fun
“I’m not always excellent at it to be honest. There is so much to do maintenance wise. When I set out, I worried about everything looking good and being shiny.
“What I learned pretty quickly was that if I wanted to be able to have time to meet people and explore when I was in each port, you’ve got to let go of how things look and focus more on function. That’s one way I’ve been able to find more balance, just concentrating on what’s important.
“What’s more important is having fun and getting exercise and getting out and keeping your own body maintenance, too.”
On Solo Travel vs. Having a Crew
“It’s a give and take. When you have a crew coming in on certain dates, I had friends who have to fly in and fly out on certain dates, you are less flexible in terms of where you can be on a certain day.
“That did get me into trouble at certain times, like having to go out in bad weather because you’re meeting this person on this certain day. That became the beauty of me going by myself.
“When I finally felt confident enough to go on my own, being alone gave me the liberty that if the waves were good just stay and surf. I could really live much more according to the wind and weather and swell. For something like this based around what nature is doing, it made it a lot easier.
“Also, being alone there is a lot of manual work so it’s difficult in terms of labor, but you have more time because you don’t have a schedule.”
On Fighting Off Loneliness
“It’s become my connection with myself and my own spirituality that has developed being out in nature away from people. I’ve developed a real connection to nature and something greater than us.
“Nature itself being in these wild places fueled me quite a bit. On the really hard times out there I do think of the people I love. That’s only in really straining times.
“The cool thing about being alone and being lonely is that you really have time to get to know yourself and your loneliness. You have to really try to turn it into something positive. For me being able to have the time to understand your loneliness or yourself, it’s a luxury in today’s world.
“Those times I sailed alone were some of the most intimate with getting to know myself and my limits, and also getting to know my relationship with the universe.”
On Typical Meals on Swell
“I eat a lot of root vegetables like coddle on the island where I was writing. We had local sweet potatoes, local spinach, cabbage, salads. I like to make a big curry dish sometimes.
“The best food that I love the most is the local Tahitian food. It’s really delicious, cooking bananas. They have this coconut yogurt that’s just delicious.”
On Being Vegan in Places Where Meat is at the Center of the Culture
“I’ve been vegan since 2012, and there are places in the South Pacific where being vegan isn’t practical. I’ll eat fish in those places and try to be very sustainable in what I collect. In those moments, my friend Emmy calls it being an apprecitarian — you’re just really grateful for whatever you’re eating, no matter what it is.
“Luckily in those cultures, fish and wild goat or things like that, at least those animals are living a life of freedom.”
“A general rule of traveling is you have to be respectful of what cultural things are going on. Of course you have to draw your line somewhere, but you’ve got to eat, too.
“I didn’t starve myself when I was left with no other options. Really where I was the last few years writing the book, I had a ton of options for a plant-based diet, so it wasn’t too hard.”
On Protecting Herself From Being in the Sun All Day
“I tend to cover up as much as possible. I wear a hat or a long sleeve shirt if I’m sailing. And if I’m surfing I use a sunscreen Avasol. It’s non-nano particle zinc and all natural ingredients. For me, I find it works really great. It doesn’t hurt the reef or my body.”
On Tiny Living in Tight Quarters
“You have to put things away every time you use them. And you have to be really picky about what you choose to bring into your space. You need to really think it through if it’s a need or a want. I like to filter things through that. And sometimes wants can come in, but they’re justified.
“Living in the space I’ve lived in for so long, putting things up that make you feel good when you’re inside. Whatever you put on your walls. I have a lot of quotes, a lot of colorful art, for me that sets the mood of a place.
“Surround yourself in items that are going to make you feel good. Being in a really small space like that can be frustrating. It’s a challenge. Making it feel like it’s your zone has helped me get through the times where I’d rather live in a house.”
On Lessening Her Impact on the Environment
“I live off solar and wind power. I recently got a one-man canoe so I don’t have to use my gas-powered dinghy as much. Trying to limit the amount of plastic I buy, in terms of packaging for food is something I try to do.
“Buy in bulk or buy whole foods that don’t come in plastic packaging. Eating a plant-based diet really outweighs those small things you can do, that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve done.
“I have a battery that I store down below and my solar panel is really cool. My solar panel and my wind generator are integrated into one whole unit. The solar panel comes up the side and it’s able to rotate so I can tilt it towards the sun at any time of the day. The wind generator sits on the top, it changes itself automatically to the direction of the wind.
“When you have the two going you have enough power my little refrigerator, charge my computer, my LED lights in the cabin and my water pump.”
On the Overall Health of the Oceans and Planet
“I set out thinking I was going to be able to sail away from some of the problems I grew up around on the coast of California and find these remote places that were untouched and pristine. What really kind of kicked me into the next level of activism was seeing the damage that has happened to the coral reefs over the last 10 years.
“And then over-fishing was a huge reason I stopped eating fish. I really like eating fish to be honest, but I noticeably saw fewer and fewer fish in the region I was in for a while. It just didn’t feel right to me to keep pressure on those communities when the local people need to live off those fish.
“And plastic, there wasn’t a single place on my whole entire trip that you would go and not find plastic on the beaches, especially on the windward side of the islands. You’re getting plastic from Chile, you’re getting plastic from Panama, all the winds are just pushing plastic from the Americas straight across the ocean to the islands.
“It shows me that the problems aren’t localized anymore. It’s something we all have to think about to come up with solutions together.
“And then climate change. I’d see people on atoll islands and they’re living these simple lives and they have no idea that climate change is on the horizon or even happening. It came with a pretty heavy guilt, having come from these places where we’re having all this impact and then these people who are taking me in like family even though I’m stranger, offering me whatever I need, their islands are at risk of being lost.
“All of that made it really clear I wasn’t out there just sailing around for my own fun anymore, I had been doing it for a bigger purpose and to help people understand that we have a big job to do to get us back on course.”
On Things to Keep in Mind When Traveling Solo
“Be flexible. Stay positive. Look for opportunities in adversity.”
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