Liz clark was a 25-year-old environmental studies major when her parents watched her sail out of California’s Santa Barbara Harbor on the 1966 Cal 40 sloop Swell. They had no idea where their blond surfing daughter was headed. That was early 2006, some 25,000 nautical miles and uncountable lessons ago. Today, Clark is just getting started. We caught up with her during a rare break from her boat in Hawaii.
Have there been times when you’ve felt like going home for good? In 2008, I had a rough 1,500-mile upwind French Polynesian passage that almost made me quit. I nearly ran out of food, almost lost the rig and got struck by lightning twice.
But you kept going. Yeah, and then I spent 11 months of the next year with Swell hauled out in a Costa Rican boatyard, trying to fix a leak. I didn’t speak the language and stayed on board the boat. There were no easy options for me to return to the United States. If there were, I might not have gone back out to sea.
And you’re glad to still be out there. I have faith that everything happens for a reason and [that I should] keep looking for new perspectives through the difficulties. Plus, [I know] that, as hard as it gets, there will be inversely awesome moments coming down the line.
Awesome moments like … ? I took a spontaneous swim with a mother humpback whale and her baby, who circled me to check me out at an arm’s length. I’ve had lots of shark encounters, seen a couple moonbows [nocturnal rainbows], and lightning at sea is always wild.
How would you describe being on your boat 10 years and counting? I love the freedom of it and living close to nature. I love surfing remote waves and learning from people of other cultures.
Have you had any company on your boat? I’ve had several pets on Swell, but most came aboard uninvited. I found a cat, Amelia or “Tropicat,” in a forest in the South Pacific. We were such kindred spirits that she’s been on board ever since — except for a 42-day stint when she went missing on another small island.
Gone for six weeks on a remote island? I was so upset I contacted a pet psychic, who told me the cat wanted to come back with me, but that she’d need more island visits. A week later, some people on the island contacted me and said Tropicat turned up at their home. I’ve been more conscious of her wishes, hence our almost daily trips ashore for tree climbing and hunting.
What dictates your next destination? Weather, surf, wind directions and the cyclone seasons.
What dictates leaving? Mostly the same factors, or sometimes the need to flee from a suitor.
Sounds like a story. The truth is that, being solo and female in remote places, I naturally seem to attract lonely men. At times it’s easier to just pull the anchor than to try to reason with them.
Come on, tell us a good one. OK, there was this Chinese man, about 80, who was living on a super-remote atoll. There was no good anchorage there, so I had to be tied to the town quay, where he fished. I thought he was just a nice old man that might have some interesting stories, so when he invited me over for lunch I went. After choking down a few bites of fish and rice, he brought out a cheap plastic necklace. The language barrier made things a bit fuzzy, but I soon realized he had romantic intentions and made for the door. He was pretty harmless, but I had to leave.
Is there an overriding lesson to carry away from your adventures? I’ve learned that having money isn’t the best measure of happiness or success. Happiness comes more from following our hearts. If you make choices out of love, there will always be a way.
And how do you see this story ending? I fall in love and sail off into the sunset, of course.