When Liz Clark was nine years old, she started a piggy bank with a sign taped to it that read, “sailing around the world fund.” From that day forward, she set in motion a plan to follow the route sailed by Robin Lee Graham, who circumnavigated the world at age 16 and wrote a memoir of his travels entitled, Dove.
Throughout college, Liz studied environmental policy and surfed on the University of California, Santa Barbara women’s team. Her skill as a surfer was noticed by sponsors and it was assumed that she would join the women’s pro tour, traveling the world to surf and compete on the global stage. But that wasn’t quite in the tea leaves for Liz.
After university, Liz lived on a sailboat that her father kept in Santa Barbara harbor. Living rent free, she saved for several years to eventually purchase her own ship, Swell. Then, with the help of several sailing friends, Liz completely overhauled the 1976 Cal 40 sloop that now serves as her home. At a scant 110 pounds, she redesigned the systems aboard Swell to be run by a woman of her size.
Now, she’s three years out to sea, currently somewhere near Tahiti in the South Pacific. Her surfing has improved to a level on par with some of the best in the world, and she’s now regularly riding one of the most dangerous waves in the world, Teahupoo – a deep water shelf in Tahiti that throws one of the heaviest walls of water on earth, so naturally Teahupoo surfers are in a very elite club.
Even on a slow boat, it doesn’t take three years to sail from San Diego to Tahiti. But Liz is in no hurry. She never understood the concept of sailing as fast as one can to circumnavigate. If she pulls up to a spot and the surf is on, she’ll hang for weeks or months, breathing the local culture, doing odd jobs, even learning to pearl dive.
I was lucky to have the chance to sail with Liz in Mexico a few years back. Though I’ve sailed my whole life, I hadn’t done any serious offshore sailing at that point and I was a bit nervous. I remember a story that demonstrates the beauty of Liz’s nature; everyone aboard was asleep and I was on watch at night, looking for ships that may cross our path. Captain Liz had instructed me to wake her up if I saw anything alarming. She was a little ill, so I wanted to make sure that she got rest. On the horizon, a light was emerging and it was becoming brighter and brighter. Soon, I was convinced that some massive freighter was heading for us and I yelled down for Liz to wake up. She sprung into action and the second she got on deck, a full moon broke the horizon. I felt like an idiot. But what did Liz say? “Ah Stiv, thanks for waking me up to watch the moonrise, it’s so beautiful.” Yeah Liz, the beauty in that moment wasn’t the moon. Thanks for letting me live a part of year dream.
You can keep up with Liz’s travels at her blog, The Voyage of Swell.
Image: Photos courtesy of Mackenzie Clark