A Surfer’s Reflections From on a Decade at Sea

Liz Clark and her trusty sidekick, Amelia, trying to collect water on a rainy morning in French Polynesia; Photograph by Jody MacDonald
Liz Clark and her trusty sidekick, Amelia, trying to collect water on a rainy morning in French Polynesia; Photograph by Jody MacDonald

For the last decade, Liz Clark’s home has been the ocean.

The exploratory surfer-sailor set out on Swell, her 40-foot sailboat, from the coast of Santa Barbara in October 2005 to seek out unknown surf breaks and live a life acutely attuned to weather and the vast blue ocean. Clark now spends most of her time in the waters of French Polynesia and has become a voice for the ocean and how to live a sustainable lifestyle. And while much of her global voyage has been solo, for the last two years Clark has shared her boat with a co-captain, her feisty, adventurous cat, Amelia.

For World Oceans Day, we asked Clark, a previous Adventurer of the Year, to share insights on our changing oceans, her experience swimming with a dolphin for hours, why she’s 99 percent vegan, and how she avoids a sunburn without polluting the ocean.

How have you seen the ocean change in your decade of living on the water?

The horizons are still straight and broad, and the open seas are still that magically bright blue, but I’ve seen a steady decline in fish populations, a rise in floating debris and pollution in bays and on beaches, and this past year I witnessed a frightening amount of coral bleaching on nearby reefs which seemed linked to the extraordinarily warm ocean temperatures. But with these negative changes, I’ve also seen a rising tide of awareness about these issues and more and more people willing to speak up for our oceans.

How have you seen wildlife change? What was your most magical wildlife interaction?

The visual decline that I noticed in fish populations where I was sailing is what finally led me to stop eating fish in areas where I felt that the fisheries need a break from fishing pressures.

I’ve had many magical wildlife moments, but there was a particular dolphin off a remote atoll who leapt out of the sea next to my cockpit and looked me squarely in the eyes as I was heading for sea one afternoon aboard Swell. I turned off the engine and tied a rope to the hull and jumped in with her. She seemed thrilled by my company and we spent the next few hours playing and swimming together near Swell. I’ll never forget how she asked me to join her in the sea with that hovering, horizontal leap and stare.

Since sailing is fundamentally based on weather, you’ve become your own weather forecaster. Have you see any notable changes in weather patterns over the last decade?

Weather patterns in the Pacific are seeing significant changes, which makes ocean voyaging even more challenging and unpredictable. The rain and wind and pressure patterns seem to adhere less and less to their normal patterns. This last year was especially hot and windless with the El Niño influence.

Liz Clark's 20-foot sailboat, Swell; Photograph by Jody MacDonald
Liz Clark’s 40-foot sailboat, Swell; Photograph by Jody MacDonald

Are you vegan? Or do you (and Amelia) both eat fish and seafood?

I have been eating 99 percent vegan for about three years, and I feel like it’s the single most important choice I’ve made for my health and the future of our planet. I don’t eat fish unless it is caught by myself or a good friend from an area where I feel like the fish populations are in an abundant state. And even then I try to eat fish that are low on the food chain. For the last two years I’ve eaten fish very rarely because I feel that the reefs in the area where I’ve been writing my book do not seem healthy enough to support more pressure from fishing. Amelia on the other hand, eats fish that she’s given or catches baitfish at night with a lamp off the side of a foam surfboard.

Do you ever think about moving back to dry land and living a “normal” life?

Since going vegan, I’ve developed a big desire to grow my own food, so I imagine that one day I would like to have a little land place where I could have that experience. But I don’t imagine that I will ever live a “normal” life!

How do you protect yourself from the sun day in and day out?

I try to cover up with shirts and hats as best [as] possible, especially since I’ve learned that the chemicals and nanoparticles in most sunscreens are terribly damaging to corals and phytoplankton, which are the base of ocean food chains! Not to mention they probably aren’t that good for us either. But for surfing and ocean activities and long days sailing on the water, I’ve discovered a sunscreen that checks all my boxes. It’s called Avasol. It’s made with non-nanoparticle zinc oxide combined with awesome organic and sustainable ingredients, comes in biodegradable and minimal plastic packaging options, and actually feels like it’s really good for my skin when I put it on. Chris at Avasol is a huge inspiration for me to keep evaluating how I can do better as an individual to educate myself on the impacts of the products I use on my body.

Liz Clark making her morning smoothie onboard Swell, French Polynesia; Photograph by Jody MacDonald
Liz Clark making her morning smoothie onboard Swell, French Polynesia; Photograph by Jody MacDonald

Do you think Swell will last your whole life? How is she doing?

With proper love and maintenance I think she definitely could! She’s doing great, hauled out in the boatyard in Tahiti while I’m touring the U.S. right now. She’s got a few minor blisters on the hull but thankfully nothing too severe going on at the moment!

Do you ever get lonely out there?

Sometimes, but I have Amelia and also an awesome man in my life! My times of great loneliness are really what have pushed me to connect with the ocean, other cultures, and the universe in ways beyond what I knew at the outset of this voyage. This feeling of deeper connection to everything else is the most comforting and awesome feeling I can imagine, so I’m grateful for the loneliness that helped me get to that place of understanding and knowing my oneness with everything else.

 

Comments

  1. Jim Scudder
    Phuket, Thailand
    June 9, 2016, 10:29 am

    Last I heard Swell was a Cal 40 and that is a tad bigger than a 20 foot sailboat.

  2. floyd longwell
    orlando fl
    June 9, 2016, 10:49 am

    You pulled me in here with the false claim that she has lived for 10 years and sailed to Polynesia on a 20-foot sailboat. That is at least 40 feet. Make the correction

  3. Wiz Garber
    Pacific NW
    June 9, 2016, 11:46 am

    That boat is obviously much larger than twenty feet. Twenty feet is small even for inland waters. You wouldn’t take a boat that small out ocean cruising.

  4. Auntie
    June 9, 2016, 12:34 pm

    Lizzy is a beacon of LIGHT and Love

  5. Auntie
    June 9, 2016, 12:38 pm

    The Swell is 40 feet!! ..not 20

  6. Rory
    Honolulu, HI
    June 9, 2016, 1:12 pm

    Great interview! Her boat, though, is a Cal 40, 40 ft. Not 20… 🙂

  7. Hudson
    California
    June 9, 2016, 1:32 pm

    Her boat is a Cal-40, not 20 foot…

  8. Dariusz
    Poland
    June 9, 2016, 3:30 pm

    I am glad that there are people trying to live in harmony with nature and deriving pleasure from it. I wish Liz Clark and her trusty sidekick, Amelia,more interesting adventures.

  9. Skeptic
    June 9, 2016, 9:21 pm

    So she has been sailing for 10 years and has notice the weather patterns changing on the Pacific? Wow. El Niño happens every 10 years, we’ve known for centuries that weather patterns are always in flux. I’m all about protecting the environment but hate that we’re so scared of weather patterns changing that we think every year is supposed to be constant.

  10. Dr Smith Joanson
    June 10, 2016, 3:51 am

    Animals (cats/dogs..etc) at the sea are really interesting!

  11. Jose
    Belgium
    June 10, 2016, 6:28 am

    I know : she washed her boat with the wrong soap at the wrong temp : it shrunk.

  12. Patrick
    L.A.
    June 11, 2016, 9:28 pm

    I wonder if she’s vegan?

  13. Kumaresan U D
    Bengaluru, INDIA
    June 16, 2016, 12:41 pm

    It is really wonderful to live with nature in a natural way which everyone won’t get, All the best to Liz Clark for her adventurous life and good luck…