Catching Up with Captain Ahab’s Daughter

An Interview with Sailing Surfer Liz Clark

Clark gears up for another day at sea aboard <em>Swell</em> with her ritual cup of coffee.
Courtesy Photo

Nearly three years ago today, I set off with captain, surfer, explorer, and writer Liz Clark on the first six months of her surf-sail global circumnavigation. I knew it would be an experience I’d always remember, but I never imagined how much I’d learn from this dynamic dynamo of a person. Liz knows how to turn heads wherever she and her faithful Cal 40 sailboat named Swell go, and, more importantly, how to win over hearts. At every new anchorage we called home, I saw her pour out love to the locals and respect to their land and receive both back tenfold.

When Liz recently returned to Santa Barbara for the holidays-three years into her trip-to visit friends and family, I was excited to meet up with her and get caught up on all the latest Swell news. I couldn’t wait to hear how she was feeling about the voyage as well as get the scoop on her future plans.

It always feels good to shake midday tropical heat with a freeing plunge into the Pacific.
Courtesy Photo

Where is your boat now? Tahiti, in a boatyard, where I am re-sealing the hull and getting it water-tight again.

You are now how far into the trip? 15,000 miles. I would probably be a quarter done with my trip, but I haven’t followed a straight course. I’ve gone up and back and down.

How much longer do you anticipate sailing? I don’t have a plan, but if I had to say, and if I go all the way around the world, it would be about eight to 10 years.

Have there been any moments when you just wanted to give it all up and head back to a “normal” life on land? I almost had one on the way back from Kiribati to French Polynesia. I got in a really bad lighting storm while I was underway-this was a 15-day passage alone. There were four days of really strong winds and high seas. I got really exhausted. The wind was pushing me downwind of my destination to get back to French Polynesia. Everything was wet, I was eating oatmeal for every meal, my headstay almost broke, my sail ripped, and everything was in disarray. But once I got to port, the feeling only lasted for a day. My friend got me a hotel for two days at the fanciest resort in Bora Bora, and I felt refreshed and ready to keep going.

Time to stretch the legs and hit terra firma for a land excursion. Sailing to undiscovered places gives ample opportunity to explore little-known natural beauty on land as well as at sea.
Courtesy Photo

What has been the least expected part of the trip? The people I’ve met : I never expected to be so amazing. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve met the warmest, most welcoming, generous, and helpful people. If I ever have a problem, there is always someone there who happens to be there open and ready to help. Also, I didn’t expect to enjoy being by myself as much as I do.

You have to have seen some pretty crazy sights since you’ve left. What are the strangest cultural differences you have encountered? They eat yellow dog in Polynesia, like the fur is yellow. It’s only sometimes. It has to be a certain weather condition and, like, when the wind comes from a certain direction, you eat yellow dog. In Kiribati, they have these dances, and while you are dancing, someone sprays you with perfume. It’s like the worst smelling, cheapest perfume, and sometimes they throw talcum powder on you, too. And being a foreigner, you get asked to dance to every song, so I was always covered in this stuff.

Have there been hair-raising moments? I had a bad one in Panama. My GPS got fried by lightning, which is never good.

I know you were warned about the dangers, especially being a woman. How many of those have actually happened? I haven’t had one thing stolen off my boat in three years and there’s probably been fewer than five times on the whole trip that I’ve been afraid of a person. I’ve definitely done my best to stay out of dangerous situations, but I also think that when you surround yourself with positive energy and meet the good people in a place, you surround yourself with people looking out for you. You attract what you put out. Having a blind faith in the goodness of humanity allows life to dump you into the right peoples’ hands a lot of time. I’ve noticed that.

I know your dream as a little girl was to be bobbing around the turquoise waters of the Tuamotos and surfing the world-class waves there. Now that you have experienced that, what part of the trip are you most excited for that still lies ahead? Southeast Asia and Indonesia.

One of Clark's many new friends. Young girls seem especially drawn to the female sailor/surfer, who shatters stereotypes and acts as a role model of independence and strength.
Courtesy Photo

Many people are eager to read a book about your experiences. Are you working on one as you go? I’m eventually gonna work on one, but not sure when.

What do you miss most when you are on the ocean? I miss fresh vegetables and fruit and salads, which are hard to get in the Pacific. I also miss Mexican food, and definitely washing machines. That actually has been a big realization for me-that women around the world still really keep households together and have to work so freaking hard. Being in Kiribati has really made me feel so lucky to have the opportunities that I have.

What advice do you have for people wanting to tackle a lifelong dream that seems a bit daunting and out of reach? Just take it little-step-by-little-step, and keep focused on that goal and make that goal your only destination. Keep getting yourself closer and closer to it in any way you can.

Liz Clark's Cal 40, affectionately known as <em>Swell</em>, is spreading its wings as the duo continues their global journey.
Courtesy Photo

What is the biggest change you have seen in yourself during the voyage? The way that I value simplicity. In the beginning, I thought I needed all this stuff to go out there and do it, but I’ve proven to myself that I can do it with so little and can enjoy the experience more with less, because I’m not worried about fixing things that break and if this is working or that is working. Now I focus on trying to be in the moment and taking time to enjoy every day and worry less about what I think I need or don’t have.

Also, I’ve learned traveling alone puts you in a position to be able to say yes to any opportunity that you want, which, otherwise, you might have to say no to, because your schedule is revolving around another person. I would encourage people to try traveling alone because there is so much freedom in being able to do whatever you want. It starts out scary, but once you realize how open the world is, you find that the rewards of going out of your comfort zone and being alone come back to you tenfold.


Liz Clark is now back in Tahiti, nestled in the belly of Swell, and preparing to hit the open waters of the South Pacific. Follow her adventures at


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