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Liz Clark: Surfer, Sailor, Explorer

Liz Clark, 32, longtime sailor and surfer, spent the last six years fulfilling her lifelong dream of sailing around the world, or just about. While Clark didn’t make it all the way around, she navigated most of the South Pacific Ocean solo on board her Cal 40 Swell.

Liz Clark, 32, longtime sailor and surfer, spent the last six years fulfilling her lifelong dream of sailing around the world, or just about. While Clark didn’t make it all the way around, she navigated most of the South Pacific Ocean solo on board her Cal 40 Swell. Clark is sponsored by outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, but she sails for personal growth, exploration and to work on local environmental projects. When she wasn’t sailing Swell across dangerous passages or inside flat lagoons, she anchored in numerous places where she met the locals, tended to her boat and surfed.

Throughout her lengthy voyage to isolated locales, Clark managed to escape serious injury. Back in San Diego to visit her family this past October, she wasn’t so lucky.

Clark’s ankle had been bothering her, so she decided to take it easy and only go out for a quick body surfing trip. Out on the water, she unexpectedly hit a sandbar, flew from her board, and landed on her neck. Clark managed to pull herself out of the water and call a friend for help. Once at the hospital she learned she had broken her neck and barely escaped paralysis. She broke the third cervical vertebrae, or the C3, which corresponds directly to a nerve that controls the upper body muscles. Injuries to the C3 can leave people paralyzed if they reach the spinal cord. Fortunately, Clark’s injury did not reach her spinal cord and she will recover with a neck brace and plenty of rest.

When I call Clark for a follow-up interview days after her accident, I am startled to hear her answer the phone.

“Good morning! How are you?” she says with the same enthusiasm and bubbly voice she spoke with weeks prior to her accident. I can only imagine her upper body locked nearly rigid, a phone perched above her neck brace. Even for a seasoned explorer, her positive spirits are impressive.

Clark sounds matter-of-fact discussing the injury. “It’s one of those things you can’t really fight, you just have to surrender,” says Clark. She expresses no self-pity. “I’m just so grateful that I’m going to recover.”

Russ Clark—Liz’s father, sailing teacher and biggest fan—discusses her injury with disbelief.

“Here is a woman that’s traveled all over the world, surfed some of the most dangerous breaks in the world, “ Russ says. “How ironic is that.”

Clark is fortunate the accident occurred when and where it did. If Clark had broken her neck on her recent sailing trip through Cuba, she would have been in serious trouble as she recalls the area was desolate with hardly any plane or boat traffic. Similarly, medical care in the many isolated French Polynesian atolls she cruised through would have been equally difficult to come by.

Clark has embraced her lifestyle of transient adventure, and she plans to continue on the path, but she’s fully aware of the dangers that come with being away from medical help. “There is that heaviness, that gravity that you have to think about, even when you’re doing everyday stuff,” Clark says.

It began with a dream

Clark’s dream of sailing around the world was born when she was nine years old. Clark, her parents and her siblings took a six-month sailing trip from their home in San Diego to Mexico, a 5,000-mile voyage.

“My family has always had a sailboat and all my childhood memories of vacations are times we spent on the boat going out to Catalina and the Channel Islands,” Clark says.

Russ says the family started sailing when Clark was four and by the time they were sailing to Mexico, she could plot her own course and read the radar.

“She was always so eager to learn, so when we would do a transit at night I would do a four-hour watch with her,” Russ says of their trip to Mexico.

Early on, Clark also found inspiration in literature.

“I read Dove and Tania Aebi’s Maiden Voyage and those were two young people who had sailed around the world,” Clark says. “They set the boundary, they gave me the idea that ‘Oh I can do that too.’”

After returning from her family trip to Mexico, Clark used any class project she could to share her dream with classmates. She drew maps of the world with lots of little arrows illustrating her plan.

“It was really her whole life, saying ‘That’s my dream!’” Russ says. “And I would always hug her and encourage her, and I’d say to myself it’s unlikely, but it’s a great dream. ”

The chariot Swell

Before Clark got started making her cruising dream a reality, she considered becoming a professional surfer. Clark won the national collegiate surfing championship as a student at the University of California Santa Barbara in 2002. She graduated with a BA in Environmental Studies that same year, and faced a tough decision of what to do next. Instead of becoming a professional surfer, with the help of her father and a former professor, Clark purchased a boat. It was a Cal 40 and she named her Swell.

For three years, Clark worked mostly by herself to refit Swell’s rigging in such a way that she could manage the large load on her own while at sea. She speaks passionately as she describes her home and mode of transportation. She calls Swell “ the chariot to my dreams.’’

“I’ve tricked out every little corner of her for my lifestyle,” Clark says. “When you depend on something like a boat for survival, it almost takes on a certain personality, like a friend.”

In order to manage such a large boat, Clark says she has to be very conservative with the sail so she doesn’t get too easily overpowered.

“I have to be really vigilant whether a gust of wind’s coming or not and as soon as I feel it coming get up and get the sails reefed,” Clark says.

Swell performs best when she is going off the wind at about 12 to 15 knots, ideally in a flat lagoon of Tahiti. As Clark says, “she is just a dream to sail in light winds.”

Oh, the places she’ll go

Clark departed on her journey out of San Diego in 2006 at age 26. When Russ remembers the day she set sail, his voice becomes soft and scratchy. 

“When we [Russ and Clark’s mother] followed her out to sea that day she left San Diego, obviously there were tears,” Russ says. “I was pretty emotional.”

Growing up, Clark imagined her voyage would follow a set itinerary, and last two to three years at the most. But after her departure Clark allowed her intuition to guide her and she’s happy she did so. Clark recounts over 13 places she weighed anchor throughout her six-year adventure, including Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, the Galapagos, Ecuador, the Cocos Islands, the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti and the Republic of Cuba.

“It has allowed me to discover places and things that I wouldn’t have if I were really set on time and destination,” Clark says.

With such a spontaneous travel outlook, it’s not surprising when Clark says it’s difficult to typify her days at sea. But I get a sense of her discipline and serenity when she says on days at anchor she usually wakes up around 0630 to do a ten-minute meditation. Then she makes herself a cup of tea and goes surfing, if there are waves, or does a yoga routine in the cockpit before the sun gets too strong.

Once the burning afternoon sun reaches its peak, Clark finds shelter in the galley where she cleans and writes blog entries or emails. Clark keeps in touch with loved ones every couple of days through email and by satellite phone if necessary.

“I think my least favorite aspect of my lifestyle is being away from a lot of the people that I love for long periods of time,” Clark says.

She tries to cook herself at least one good meal a day using just the simple tools in her galley—her little propane stove and refrigerator—and as much fresh and local food as possible. She says, “I try to eat really healthy and eat as little from a can as I can.”

After time in the galley, Clark usually sets out to surf once more or complete some work outside before evening falls.

“Then, maybe I’ll do some dancing under the moon,” Clark chuckles.

In the manner, the years passed and together Clark and Swell sailed flat lagoons in perfect conditions and weathered difficult passages in dangerous conditions.

“There’s definitely been more than one time I’ve been frightened,” Clark admits.

One of those times came when she was off the coast of Central America and a lightning bolt struck the water and fried Clark’s GPS and radar. Clark says all of her most frightening moments have involved lightning.

“Lightning is something so beyond human power, you realize how small and insignificant you are when you’re near it,” Clark says.

With her unwavering positive perspective, Clark views her scariest moments as important learning experiences: “We have to be open to the adversity we face in ourselves so we can learn from it.”

Goodness of Humanity

When Clark leaves Swell on anchor and heads ashore, she likes to interact with the locals, so she tries to learn some of the basics of the native language in each place she visits. After she sets sail, she stays in touch with many of them and often sends letters and items they don’t have access to.

Language barriers don’t stop Clark from making friends. One of her favorite encounters was with a man who spoke only French at a time when she was just beginning to learn basic French vocabulary.

Clark was surfing on a little island in the Tuamotu Atolls when she met a friendly French grandfather who would wave hello and try to ask how she was each morning. Once the waves died down and she couldn’t surf as often, Clark spent time exploring the island, and again came across the grandfather.

“I saw him up on a ladder,” Clark recalls. “He was painting his house and I decided to help him.”

For an entire week, Clark would walk over to her new friend’s house and help him paint. Each day he would repay her by feeding her the local cuisine, which Clark would willingly devour.

“He would get fish out of the fish traps and cut them up and we would have raw fish with coconut milk,” Clark says nostalgically. “It was delicious.”

While Clark loves the feelings of freedom and self-sufficiency that come with her lifestyle, she says one of her other favorite aspects is the people, like her French friend, she happens to meet.

“The general goodness I’ve felt from humanity everywhere is definitely a favorite part of my life.”

On the Horizon

The next stop on Clark’s cruising voyage: New Zealand.

“There are some really neat islands in between French Polynesia and New Zealand that I want to see, so I’ll probably leave early in the season and take my time getting down there,” Clark says.

Because of her recent neck injury, Clark doesn’t know if it will be possible to set sail for New Zealand in 2013, but when she does, she’ll stay for at least six months and then maybe head over to Southeast Asia.

“There’s still so much more!” she exclaims. “I’ve only gone a quarter of the way around the world.”

Until she sets sail, Clark will use her recovery time to continue work on her book, a memoir of her life and cruising voyage that she began writing six years ago.

“It will mostly be focused on the sailing trip and how it came together,” Clark says. “But I’d also like to include some of my past—at least some of how I got to be the way that I was—in terms of thinking that I could go and do this thing.”

She hopes to finish the book and have it published in the next couple years.

“My vision for the book is that it be inspiration for people to pursue their own life goals and to pursue betterment of themselves,” Clark says. “Who knows? There could be a trilogy.” 



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