Surfer and solo sailor Liz Clark has been seeking out warm tradewinds, beautiful anchorages and perfect waves around the Pacific on her Cal 40, Swell, since 2006. It hasn’t all been tropical sunsets and clean wave breaks, though, as is evident in this excerpt from her new memoir, Swell: A Sailing Surfer’s Voyage of Awakening
I download the weather files, and to my horror, I see a massive low-pressure system building to the south of me. It looks like it will blow hard from the direction I’m trying to go over the next few days.
The skies remain eerily clear until dusk. The winds then falter, and a thick forest of towering thunderheads sprout up all around us. With no moon, I can only make out varying shades of blackness. I don my headband to keep the hair out of my eyes and prepare for what appears to be a jungle of thunderstorms.
I skirt just ahead of the first squall, then sit back under the starboard side of the dodger for a moment.
“Wait, what’s that?” I say aloud.
The blackness is deepening off our port quarter. A mutant thunderhead erupts skyward—bloating and mushrooming and coming right toward us. I alter course to starboard and run up on deck to take more sail down. All at once the air becomes oddly still and hot. There is little chance of escape, but I turn on the engine and push the throttle forward, revving into high rpms in the hope of outrunning it. A bolt of lightning angrily stabs into the sea behind us, momentarily illuminating the face of the massive cloud beast.
I’m short of breath and wide-eyed as it barrels toward us. There’s nothing more I can do. The sails flog and Swell bobs in the slack air. I clutch the mainsheet nervously. I want to close my eyes and disappear. I want to be anywhere but here. I mumble unintelligible prayers, suddenly pious and sorry for every bad thing I’ve ever done. But this only causes more dread as it brings to mind the preacher from Moby Dick as he recounted the Biblical story of Jonah: “Black sky and raging sea…Terrors upon terrors run shouting through his soul…Woe to him who seeks to pour oil on the waters when God has brewed them into a gale!”
In another instant, the monster blindsides us with the swiftest, fiercest paw of wind I have ever felt. The boom smacks tight against its tackle, and Swell is instantly pushed onto her starboard side. I frantically release the mainsheet, but soon the gust releases us. A terrifying bolt of lightning shreds through the darkness much too close, accompanied by a booming, almighty crack of thunder. My nerves snap.
“Da-a-a-a-a-addy!” I cry out desperately into the night. He can’t hear me. No one hears me. I am horribly and painfully alone.
“Crack!” The next bolt rips right over us, and again the deafening sound of the sky tearing open.
This is it, I think. We’re going to be struck. My body trembles with fright and adrenaline as I brace for the hit. I taste blood. I sit up and try to gather myself. I must have bitten my tongue when the first violent gust hit us.
Rain begins to fall. It’s more like a sky of water. It drowns out the sound of the rumbling engine. I remain perched on the wooden seat in the companionway, doing my best not to touch anything metal. The seconds seem like hours as I wonder about my fate, until finally, the bolts of lightning move westward, raging on across the sea.
I hang my head and cry, burying my face in my clammy hands. I cry for my fear, my powerlessness, my aloneness, and the fact that the night has only just begun. Dear God, if you can hear me, please transport me under the crisp, dry covers of a big queen-sized bed in a quiet room overlooking a flowery meadow. A drop of water lands on the back of my neck and creeps down my spine, reminding me how far I am from that vision.
I squint out over the bow, tears still flowing down my cheeks. A small patch of stars ahead hints of hope, but lightning flashes a few miles off and dread returns in my chest.
The thunderheads keep me busy all night, but I manage to avoid being struck. At 0530 the eastern horizon is a chalky gray. I’m still perched on the companionway seat, exhaustion weighing on me between lingering pulses of adrenaline. Like fleeing vampires, the squalls vanish with the arrival of daylight. I retire from battle into my sea berth, desperate for rest.
Barely half an hour passes before strengthening winds yank me from my prone position to reduce sail again. I try to rest through the day, but the worsening conditions keep me busy. By evening the seas have doubled; we’re in an all-out gale. There’s no way to maintain our course as the wind has swung farther south. I try three reefs in the main plus the storm jib, hoping to point higher into the wind, but Swell’s collisions with the steep seas feel awfully violent.
Thankfully, my autopilot, Monita, is able to maintain course, but I still don’t get any sleep that night—bracing, heaving and wincing. Waves swat us here and there. Swell shudders and flexes. By 0400 it’s too much. I crawl out on deck in the deafening wind and douse the main entirely. However, without the drive a bit of main provides, we’re blown farther and farther west. Each mile lost to leeward will have to be sailed double, back to windward, later.
Heave-to, I think, and I remember my Santa Barbara rigger, Marty, walking me through the procedure. Turn the wheel to windward, making the bow come across the wind as if you’re going to tack, but instead of releasing the sheet, backwind the jib and leave it where it is. Then turn the wheel hard back over to leeward. The back-winded jib pushes the bow one way, as the rudder steers the other. I give it a try. To my disbelief, our hectic advance turns into a calm and steady lifting and falling over the chaotic seas. Swell’s western drift decreases enormously. I collapse into my berth at dawn and manage to sleep for a few precious hours, while Swell takes care of us both.
Liz Clark fell in love with surfing while earning her BA in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Barbara. After graduation, she began sailing through Central America and then on into the South Pacific. Catch up on her latest adventures at swellvoyage.com. Swell: A Sailing Surfer’s Voyage of Awakening is available through amazon.com