Surfer and environmentalist Liz Clark has been sailing—mostly solo—from Santa Barbara to the South Pacific on her 40-foot sailboat, Swell, since 2006. In her wild, challenging and nomadic life filled with sea and surf, she has traveled 20,000 miles, living in harmony with nature and becoming an outspoken environmental activist. She is perhaps best known for her cat, Amelia the Tropicat, who was her first mate for five years. (Tropicat died in January of this year; in her memory, Clark has raised over $12,000 to bring a team of veterinarians to French Polynesia to do an island-wide spay and neuter program.)
Clark shares all the adventures and surprises of her voyage in her new memoir, Swell: A Sailing Surfer’s Voyage of Awakening. Authors often speak of the discipline required to write a book—but Clark takes it to a whole new level, proving that writing can be done anytime, anywhere.
I always hoped to write a book, but I never imagined that I would write that book while on my sailboat anchored at a small island in the South Pacific.
After nearly a decade of nomadic sea life—sailing from place to place in search of waves to surf, new inspiration, new friends and the next paycheck, I was presented with the opportunity to write my story. The timing felt right; it was time to drop anchor for a while.
My life suddenly shifted from an ever-changing canvas full of adventures, freedom, movement and fluidity to one gargantuan task of fitting the prior decade into a meaningful piece of literature. I was stuck searching for words instead of waves, and seeking a mental horizon clear enough to figure out where to begin. Procrastination set in. First I had to catch up on all the other things I had to do when I finally stopped moving—like software updates on my electronic devices, backing up photos, writing blog entries and replying to starred emails, along with scrubbing the hull, hauling water, cooking and surfing. I decided that the two-foot-by-three-foot nav station, which also functioned as my dinner table, counter space and computer desk, wasn’t going to cut it for book writing. So my next task was to create a groovy new place where I could really dig into this project.
I removed the wooden door to the head (ship-speak for bathroom) and cut it to fit perpendicularly across the bunk in the forward cabin. I found a three-legged chair at the dump and lashed on a fourth leg. The orange-backed, metal-legged, fourth-grade classroom chair fit into the tiny space, but with only about an inch clearance in any direction. I’d make it work. I stacked my journals and logbook and a few of my favorite reads next to a heart-shaped rock paperweight and a penholder, ran an extension cord and voila—I had a writing space.
But approach-avoidance continued, and a week went by before I actually tried to sit in the chair. In the meantime, I noticed that if I forgot to shut the hatch above when it rained, the desk got drenched. When I actually squeezed my sixth grader-sized body behind the desk into the fourth grader-sized chair, my legs jammed into the bulkhead of the bunk and my elbow hit my underwear drawer. The desk was wretchedly uncomfortable. As I tried various ways to make it work, the hatch above started leaking again when it rained. When it was nice out, the tropical mid-day sun came blazing down on my head. I soon retreated to the nav station.
On a good day, I spent three hours at the computer, answering emails and posting on Instagram before writing. Around 3 p.m. the local kids came by to jump off Swell, and then by 4:30 my cat master started stirring. If Tropicat wasn’t brought ashore daily, I was ambushed and shredded by dinnertime. So afternoons were for cat adventures. We hiked and went to parties, visited friends and did yoga on the beach. On one of our hikes we found an overgrown plateau in the forest with low sturdy branches, so I started bringing my hammock and computer to work in the shade of the forest. Depending on the life cycle of the mosquitoes and the chance of rain, it extended my workday, and Tropicat was pleased.
One morning, I accepted an invitation for a morning surf session on the other side of the island, which turned into Tropicat going AWOL on the small islet. It had been raining constantly and we hadn’t been able to get out much. So I spent the next 42 days not writing, but trying to find my beloved first mate.
Tropicat finally reappeared, and a new friend I’d made while searching for her offered to help build a table in the forest where I could write and Tropicat could run around and climb trees. We lashed together a wide, tall desk made from purou branches and stripped bark. He made a bench seat high enough for my legs to dangle so the ants wouldn’t crawl up my feet. It was shaded by an old mango tree and broad-leafed purou bush. This was a serious upgrade, and I finally got some momentum going on the book in my forest office.
Both Tropicat and I loved spending time in the forest, but some days were steamy hot, made worse because I wore full-length clothing to protect myself from the mosquitoes. When it rained, we ended up under the desk. One day, after a highly productive streak, it started pouring, and even with my yoga mat wrapped around my semi-waterproof bag, the computer’s hard drive got wet. I wasn’t doing regular backups and lost everything I’d written in the past month. Lucky for me, my boss at Patagonia chalked it up to “product testing” and paid to recover the lost work.
Seasons came and went; occasionally the table needed to be lashed together again. Although I was mostly just hurling events and feelings onto the screen, I made progress. The sweet guy who had helped find Tropicat had become my sweet companion, and by the time the original desk finally collapsed into a wad of rotting sticks, I’d made it through a first draft of what would soon be Swell.
Clark in her forest office, with Tropicat.