Catching The Wave Of A Lifetime

By Liz Clark

An intrepid young California surfer sets out on an inspirational voyage of discovery. Here are snapshot memories of her 10-year adventure and excerpts from her new memoir, Swell.

Liz Clark at the helm with Amelia the TropicatLiz has logged more than 20,000 nautical miles in the past decade, some with her intrepid crew, Amelia the Tropicat. (Photo: Jody MacDonald)

From the time Liz Clark was 9, she dreamed of being captain of her own boat. At 21, as she finished college with a degree in environmental studies, lightning struck. Her college professor, 80-year-old Dr. Barry Schuyler, decided to help turn her dream into reality. He became the mentor to a protégé who would carry on his environmental work and found a way to vicariously live his own unrealized cruising dream through another. He proposed that Liz take his 1966 Cal-40 on an ambitious voyage. She was to do all the work to refit the boat and get it ready, then be on her own financially once the voyage began.

By trying and failing and trying again, Liz learned about boat systems, repairs, refitting, and navigation. Finally, she and Swell set sail south from Santa Barbara, California, down the coast of Mexico and Central America, in search of surf, self, and the wonder that lies beyond an unbroken horizon. Next, she headed across the South Pacific to explore the islands, and surf the waves of French Polynesia and Kiribati. Today, she's been sailing and surfing the world for more than 10 years and has logged more than 20,000 nautical miles, mostly solo.

At the whim of the weather, and of relationships sweet and sour, Liz captures her voyage, the marvels of nature, and the colorful cultures around her in compelling detail in her new memoir, Swell, just published by Patagonia. This month, we excerpt passages from her book, snapshots of her life in the Pacific Islands.

— The Editors

Off Across The Pacific

I'm ready for big skies, open horizons, and wild islands after all those months in the boatyard. It's time to put some miles under the hull. My dad's reassurance helps me feel more confident about setting out. I'm feeling strong and proud.

Swell is ready: dinghy on deck, gear stashed and stowed. My new leafy companions — basil, aloe, mint, lemongrass, oregano plants — are wedged around the cabin. The night is calm, and the constellations explode across the sky. Swell gently strains against the dock as I top off the water tanks. I prepare as if each knot and gear placement is part of a sacred routine. One lazy decision can mean losing everything.

Swell skirts a reef in the PacificSwell skirts a reef in the Pacific, an endeavor best kept to daylight visibility. (Photo: Jody MacDonald)

I pull away, and motor most of the night. The moonlight and slack winds ease me gently back into the rhythm of an overnight passage. The next morning, the sea is a regal sheet of blue silk billowing out in all directions. The calm weather has eased my pre-passage nerves. By midday a puff of east wind ripples the surface, so I put up all the sails and fall into a slow, steady reach. With the engine off, the sounds of the sea come alive. The high and low notes of waves lapping against the hull, the whispering wind, the stretching of the sails and lines, the churning of the wake, and the cry of a passing seabird harmonize into an ocean symphony.

Solo And Free In Tahiti

The wind in my hair feels like freedom. Between sail adjustments, I sing and dance topless in the sunshine and start to wonder if it's normal to be this happy all by myself. I hadn't always been so excited to be alone. I used to be terrified of it. Before my voyage, I'd panic at the thought of spending a Saturday night by myself. I had friends and overlapping schedules — always making more plans than I could keep. I was avoiding being alone, maybe so I wouldn't have to face the parts of myself I didn't like?

Liz plots her course with dividers and parallel rulesLiz plots her course with dividers and parallel rules. She taught herself traditional navigation as a backup to electronics. (Photo: Shannon Switzer)

Luckily most things are scarier when you're thinking about them than when you're doing them. Now that I've had some extended stretches of solitude aboard Swell, it's a relief to know that I actually enjoy my own company. Since my choices affect only me, I've learned more about what I like, what I want, how I thrive. I don't have to explain myself.

Liz Clark heads back to SwellLiz Clark and "crew" head back to Swell at the end of the day. (Photo: Jody MacDonald)

Tests Big And Small, From The Back Of The Beyond

I try to raise the anchor, but my chain sticks on something below. Desperately I try to motor in different directions to free the chain. When that doesn't work, I dig out my mask and snorkel and drive the boat forward as the wind and waves push Swell hard against the chain. I need slack to untangle it. When Swell is as far to windward as possible, I dash to the bow and dive in, pulling myself 30 feet down the chain as fast as possible, before the boat blows back. To my dismay, I find the chain wound around a large coral head. I unravel one wrap before the slack tightens, then shoot for the surface, haul myself up over Swell's rail, and hop behind the helm to motor forward again. On my second attempt, I remove one more wrap, haul myself aboard and drive Swell forward a third time.

Liz pulls herself down the chain to check the anchorLiz pulls herself down the chain to check the anchor. (Photo: Jianca Lazarus)

My nervousness about the upwind passage is making everything more difficult. I cough out a few sobs while shifting into forward again, then sprint to the bow for another descent. I swim down, fight the chain out of the few snags and twists, slicing my hands on the sharp coral, but one final link has entered a slit in the coral hardly big enough for it to pass through.

My lungs scream for air. But something comes into view from behind. A silhouetted pack of reef sharks swims over, paying me no mind. Once they pass, I lunge for the surface, sucking air heavily and seeing stars. When I've caught my breath, I pull myself aboard, and lie flat on the deck to rest.

Harnessed in Liz drives Swell hard upwindHarnessed in and with all gear secured on deck, she drives Swell hard upwind. (Photo: Shannon Switzer)

Irritated and prideful, I hype myself up for one last go, repeatedly breathe deeply to saturate my lungs, motor Swell forward a fourth time, shift into neutral, and leap over the side in one motion, kicking straight for the bottom. I grab the chain and work it back and forth with all my strength. The slack steadily disappears, and Pop! The stuck link bursts out of the small opening. I kick to the surface once more, haul the anchor into its cradle, and lash it to the nearby cleat. Hell of a start, I say to myself.

Breaking Taboos With Locals In Kiribati

One beautiful morning, I find myself in an easily sinkable aluminum boat, with an outboard motor that looks like it's past its prime, headed offshore with three local guys who've reluctantly agreed to take me along fishing. It's obvious that one of them, Teaboka, isn't thrilled about adding me to their Saturday expedition, and I'm not so sure either.

"Kiribati people believe women bring very bad luck on the sea," he says, while I wonder if it's because women aboard might cause competition and thus, complication.

Children in KiribatiPhoto: Liz Clark Collection

They rig their tackle. First they cut meat from the wahoo into small pieces — if the one knife aboard is being used, the others simply bite chunks right off the fish — and pile them in the center of one of the round leaves. Next they skewer a piece of fish with a large hook and put it inside the same leaf, then fold the leaf up around all of it. Next, they select a stone, and wrap the monofilament from the hook around the folded leaf and stone. With a hoot for luck, the compact package is dropped over the rail. As it sinks to around 300 feet, the fisherman gives a swift jerk on the line to open the leaf package, sending the stone to the sea floor and scattering the extra bits of bait to serve as chum.

Teaboka hooks the first tuna. The men work together in smooth unison pulling it to the surface, heaving it aboard, and killing the fish with three swift blows of a hand-carved club.

While the knife is free, I slice some bait and try my hand at crafting one of the rock-and-leaf rigs. I drop my creation over the side with my best version of the fish yelp. Not a minute goes by before it feels like I've snagged a sinking car. The monofilament wheels off the hand line.

Once the beast tires a bit, I begin hauling it up from the deep. After 10 minutes my arms burn. I pass it off to Beeto. By the time the fish breaches the surface, all four of us have taken turns heaving the line. When the big mama, as they call it, comes over the rail, she's only slightly smaller than I am.

Soon all three lines are back at 300 feet. An hour passes with little action. Teuta hooks something, but it gets off. I catnap on the bow until Beeto nudges me gently. "Leeess, Leeess. You try again," he says. I lug myself vertical and take hold of his line. Before I've fully regained alertness, there's dead weight on the end of it, and another wild belaying of the monofilament. Another big mama comes over the rail.

Liz with a mahi catchIf you can't fish while cruising remote places, you can eat a lot of beans and rice. Liz, here with a mahi, got good at fishing. (Photo: Liz Clark Collection)

When the men seem pleased with our catch, we head back. On the way, Teuta lops off the head of one of the great fish, reaches into its body, pulls out the round red heart, and passes it to me with an air of honor. I've heard the fishermen's legend about eating the heart of the tuna, and after such a day of bonding, I can't let them down. I take the still warm heart in my hand and sink my teeth into it. The mildly nauseating moment is well worth the grand smiles of my proud new fishing buddies.

The following Saturday, I hear a knock on the hull in the early dawn hours.

"Haloooooo? Leeeeeesss?" I leap out of bed and come out of the cabin to see Teuta, Beeto, and Teaboka smiling and hanging onto Swell's rail from their rickety little boat.

"They want you to fish with us again," Teuta announces. "They think you very lucky."

Catching Waves In Kiribati

When the first south swells show up in mid-April, a beautiful wave breaks at the pass. From the cockpit I sit and watch it spin through, unridden. It's every surfer's dream to have a perfect wave all to him or herself on a tropical island. I wait for the slack tide then motor over with my board in the dinghy.

I dive down and rig a small mooring in the channel. The currents are strong, and the scene surreal as I paddle solo up the reef while flawless lines pour in. I drop in on a shoulder to warm up. It's nice not to be forced to sit deeper than my skills allow, or to have to wait my turn and end up with scrap waves. I hoot as I drop in a little deeper each time and carve down the line. I can mess around and throw up a radical turn without worrying about wasting the wave if I fall.

Liz Clark climbing mastPhoto: Liz Clark Collection

In the coming weeks I grow more and more enamored with the solo sessions. No other surfers are coming out. No one is watching. I take my time. I don't have to charge or shred. I just enjoy myself, changing up my stance, throwing my arms up to the sky, and turning around to watch the waves breaking.

I feel both gratitude and guilt, watching men sail back and forth in their canoes, fishing for dinner for their families. Play seems so luxurious in a land where people spend all day just trying to survive. As the sun sinks, the sea blushes pink. Flying fish soar through the lineup with tunas as big as golden retrievers bursting from the sea behind them in astounding, open-mouthed leaps. A tuna sandwich will never be the same.

Portraits In Boat Work

Cyclone season is over. It's time to prep Swell for the voyage back to French Polynesia. The longer I stay somewhere, the longer it takes to leave — more algae to scrub, more things to put away, more goodbyes.

Liz Clark doing an oil change on Swell

Liz Clark at the boatyard

Liz Clark making a rudder repair

Liz Clark repairing a sail

Liz Clark repair her boat engineEngine and bilge-pump repairs, rebuilding the sail furler, fixing a leaking rudder shaft — boats demand TLC, ingenuity, and lots of elbow grease. But the rewards of the untethered life, says Liz, are worth it. (Photos: Jack Butler (top); Liz Clark Collection)

When everything is stowed, I look over the engine. The alternator belt needs changing, as do the fuel filters. Transmission, coolant, and V-drive fluids need topping off. I solder an unruly starter wire. The next day I patch a few small rips in the mainsail and reverse the lines on the windvane so it has fresh friction points. The headstay seems oddly loose, so I tighten its fittings. I assess what's left of my food stores — rice, flour, a pumpkin, and some picked-through cans of food. My stores of propane and gasoline for the dinghy are nearly gone, too. Everything must be rationed.

The next morning, I must mow the underwater lawn. Donning mask and fins, and armed with a scraper, I leap over the rail to clean Swell's hull and anchor chain.

Ruminations On The Boating Life

I only own three pairs of shoes, all my clothing can fit in one duffle bag. But I feel rich. I've spent the most energetic years of my life testing my physical, mental, and emotional capacities in pursuit of a dream. I've proven, at least to myself, that with plenty of hard work, choosing love will never lead to lack.

Liz ClarkPhoto: Liz Clark Collection)

I'm not the best sailor or the best surfer, or the most credentialed at anything, but chasing my dream has taught me that happiness and self-love don't come from being the best. They come from pursuing our most brazen ideas and connecting to our own spirits, communities, and world. Being the best, or richest, or strongest, or sexiest — without feeling connected — doesn't sound heavenly at all. 

Liz has won sponsorships from Patagonia, Avasol suncare, and others, and is followed by 100,000 people on Instagram (@captainlizclark). Her writing has been featured in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, and Travel & Leisure.

— Published: June/July 2018


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