Water is the liquid of life. It sustains us. It invigorates us. It heals us. The vitality of water comes not only through our need to imbibe, but also through our connection to and immersion in such a superlative substance.
This, in essence, is the driving force of Seastr, a Seattle, Washington-based nonprofit striving to strengthen the relationship humans have with their environment through the water and, in doing so, support and empower those who are underrepresented to be changemakers.
Seastr founder Erica Lichty realized her own healing journey through water. With trauma in her past, at 40 years old, she found herself having suicidal thoughts and decided to check into the Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit at the UW Medical Center. There, a social worker said something that truly resonated: “She said, ‘You know, if you took your life, that would be your legacy for your child,’” Lichty remembers.
In that moment and in the weeks that followed, she decided to create the legacy she wants to leave, on her own terms.
“I just started to be super honest with myself and the people around me, and using my voice and not qualifying my voice,” Lichty says. “Just being strong and [thinking] ‘What have I got to lose?’ So, the first thing I did— it was totally serendipitous—but I joined a women’s mountain biking group. It was just so cool. I’d never had female-centric spaces like that before. It turned out I was a decent mountain biker, so that empowered me. I felt so good. I had the strength ... I’m like ‘OK, there is healing in nature.’”
She also started surfing more again, recognizing the water was a special place for her. It always had been. Lichty’s dad was a Puget Sound Pilot and her parents lived aboard a sailboat in Trinidad before she was born. Growing up, they were always on the water, sailing the San Juan Islands or at the beach. Lichty attended the California Maritime Academy, as her father had, but found the experience of being a woman in the maritime industry intolerable. Back in the water, she found a different perspective, and more connection.
“I just started listening to a lot more women out there and the problems [they were working through]. Everything from ‘I don’t ever want to get married,’ ‘I don’t want kids, is that wrong?’ Women are out there tackling these things in the water, just meeting themselves out there,” Lichty says.
With big questions like these looming large in her own mind, Lichty decided to put on a women’s surf clinic in Westport, Washington. She reached out to the locals she knew, secured a property that had a shaping shed on it, invited a woman to lead yoga, others to talk about big wave surfing and board shaping, lit up a big bonfire each night, and threw a weekend-long celebration of women and water. While surfing was a thread for the event, the experience was rooted in connecting with each other through the water. This was what Lichty found meaning in.
“I knew that it wasn’t a model that I wanted to continue with—I don’t want to run surf camps, I don’t want inventory, I don’t want to rent equipment,” Lichty says. “It was a bigger thing. I was even thinking about getting my councilor’s certificate. I wanted to do work.”
It was about this time that she was introduced to downwind paddling, a style of stand-up pad-dleboarding that surfs open-water wind swell. With a heavy tailwind and quality waves, you can cruise for miles at 8-10 knots plus. In 2020, while still new to the sport, she got an invitation from a friend to compete in the grueling Seventy48, a race from Tacoma to Port Townsend—70 miles—with a 48-hour time limit. The only rule: paddling only—no motors, no sails, no support.
“We finished and it was a crazy thing—it was a small craft advisory,” Lichty says. “I’ve always been competitive, and I couldn’t believe what I had in the tank at the end and like what came over me, you know? I was really proud of myself. And then I was like, ‘OK what next?’”
A full-length documentary, titled “Stand Up,” featured the two women and their conquest. Pushing herself to the limit physically and emo- tionally led to a breakthrough that fueled her confidence. That first year, she simply wanted to finish. Check. The second, she wanted to race, and posted a respectable time of 17 hours, 41 minutes. When asked what she learned about herself on this journey, Lichty doesn’t hesitate to dive deep.
“I’m dynamic and always growing,” she says. “I think that a lot of people do get stuck. If you’re not pushing yourself and evolving, you’re just limiting yourself. You’ve got to keep asking the tough questions.”
She’s since finished the Seventy48 three times and remains the only woman to do so. The second and third races became as much about proving to herself what she’s capable of as it was a way to promote Seastr. While the nonprofit was still getting off the ground, Lichty worked full- time at the Maritime High School in Seattle but felt she couldn’t put her all into her dream. So, in 2021, she quit her job and went all in.
“It’s not a movement, it’s a paradigm shift,” Lichty says of her intentions with Seastr. “Movements come, they go, you see them in the rearview mirror. This is going to be some big change, and we’re going to do it.”
At this year’s Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend, Washington, a handful of inclusive organizations, Seastr included, came together under the Future of Maritime tent to challenge the status quo of the maritime industry. Along with the Maritime High School, Sea Potential, Maritime Inclusion Partners, and numerous others, Lichty was out to show that there’s space for everyone in sports that are all-too-often exclusive clubs, we just need to adapt.
“Together we can get this stuff done,” she says. “We’re all trying to help each other. There are tools I have that they don’t have [and vice-versa]. So, it’s through this grassroots work that we’re going to make change.”
A mainstay of Seastr’s mission is to expand the confines of what is considered surfing, paddling, or any other rigid definition of sport. Limiting what’s considered “valid” only limits what’s possible—and it often limits who is welcome or accepted. Instead of focusing on the sport, Seastr is all about the experience.
“You can offer surf lessons, or [whatever] lessons ... but the way that is structured does not speak to all humans,” Lichty says. “So just to offer [an activity] as a human experience will attract more people, open up more doors for people, and then there’s more opportunity ... The idea of having adaptable programs, where it’s like ‘Hey, we’re going to go out and play in the water today. This a surf experience, but you might be a knee surfer, you might surf in your own special way because you’ve had a hip replacement...’ And just telling them right off the bat that that’s cool. There is no one way to do these things, and that’s OK.”
In 2023, Seastr’s third year in operation, the organization put on a women’s retreat on the Olympic Peninsula, hosted a BIPOC surf camp, and led a sailing event for Muslim women at Shilshole Marina in Seattle. While these experiences can be a doorway to a new world, they can also be a pathway to a new career. Lichty wants to provide the tools and resources for people to help create and contribute to a more inclusive maritime industry.
Procuring and outfitting Valkyrie, a 30-foot race boat, was another huge milestone in 2023. Lichty assembled a team for the 2023 Race2AK, a no-motor race from Port Townsend to Ketchikan, Alaska through the Inside Passage, although they ended up withdrawing at the last minute due to safety concerns and the responsibility of having two minors on board. It was a difficult decision for Lichty and her captain Molly Howe, but they’re gung-ho for 2024.
Lichty was also asked to create a paddle program at Kenmore, Washington’s Tl' awh-ah-dees Park for 2024, one of the many things she has in the works. While Seastr’s paddle, sail, and surf clinics are its primary programs, it also hosts tide and chart reading workshops, adventure outings, supports those navigating the maritime industry, and creates opportunities for special events that support underrepresented people and communities. To fulfill this mission, and create meaningful change, there’s nothing more important than being open, accepting, and willing to listen.
“I think just listening is the biggest tool,” Lichty says of what’s at the heart of Seastr’s presence. “People aren’t looking for the answer, they just want to be heard. For me, surfing, paddling, being on the water and having that engagement on the water, it’s a state of mind. And if you can’t learn something out there and take it with you, from all these experiences, then what’s the point?”