Clouds grew out of nothing into giant thunderheads. The wind went from calm to 40 knots and slammed head on into the 40-foot sailboat. Liz Clark was alone in the middle of a 1,300-mile passage to Bora Bora from Kiribati, a mere speck of tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. She hadn’t slept in almost three days. She had run out of food. The storm threatened to snap her headstay and cause her mast to fall over, and she feared the lightning would blow a hole in her boat. It was a low point in the 34-year-old exploratory surfer’s nine-year quest for remote breaks.
“That was one of my most challenging times at sea,” says Clark. “It really showed me what I'm capable of after a few days of no sleep. It made me strong.”
It took Clark 15 days to sail to Bora Bora rather than the seven she had planned for. The lightning struck close enough to damage electrical equipment. The storm also caused a mysterious leak that forced her and her home and sailboat, Swell, out of the water and into a foreign boatyard where she didn’t speak the language and didn’t have much money to pay for repairs. Identifying and fixing the leak took 11 months over of course of a year and a half. Clark did most of the manual labor herself.
Since Clark set sail from Santa Barbara in October 2005, the ocean has proved a beautiful but rugged place to call home. In the 25,000 nautical miles she has traveled, the California native has had to weather over a dozen major storms in the open ocean on her own and has had to haul Swell out of the water for repairs on seven separate occasions.
Clark travels alone with a cat named Amelia (after Amelia Earhart) as first mate, using nautical charts; Google Earth; and wind, weather, and swell forecasts to hunt down remote surf breaks. In the spirit of preserving the joy of discovering a pristine wave for others, she refuses to release the exact locations of the swells.
So far, Clark has sailed down the coasts of Mexico and Central America, explored the western islands of Panama and the Galápagos, made several loops around the islands of French Polynesia, and spent time exploring the eastern islands of Kiribati. Eventually, she hopes to circumnavigate the Earth, a childhood dream, but she places more importance on exploration and surfing rather than on speed.
She’s now planted in French Polynesia while she works on a book about her travels, writes a blog to inspire others to find their own adventures and live with a gentler impact on the planet—and, of course, surfs.
“I feel so much gratitude for the life I've been able to live at 34 years. I have a lot of joy on a daily basis. I really want that for other people,” Clark explains. “I try to inspire people to make their own personal adventure. Our journeys are all so unique, and whether it's sailing on a boat or something really different, there's so many ways that we can find our truth and our niche.”
National Geographic Adventure: When did you start sailing?
Liz Clark: I think I was eight or nine when I first started sailing. It's funny, because, actually, I hated it. I was really small, and whenever the wind would get strong the boat would just tip over. I would always fake a stomachache or something when the wind would be strong.
NGA: What made you want to sail around the world?
LC: My parents always had a sailboat. We did an extended trip to Mexico when I was nine years old, and on that trip I really got into reading books about young circumnavigators who had done trips alone. A female did it at 16 years old, and she didn't even know anything about sailing before she left. I figured, Wow, if she can do it, then I can.
NGA: What made you decide to travel alone?
LC: I realized, about a year and a half into the trip, that I was going really fast, I had a lot of different guests, and I decided, Wow, I want to try to do this alone, and to slow down. For a long time, I was really afraid to be alone in general. I always had friends around, I didn't do a lot of things on my own, and it was something I knew I needed to try in order to really grow. So for the third and fourth year, I was sailing pretty much alone and really taking my time in places. When the wind was right, I would move, and when the swell was right, I would stay. It became more about listening to my intuition and what felt right versus trying to be on a schedule.
NGA: What’s different about surfing remote breaks rather than popular ones?
LC: Coming from southern California, you're usually with other surfers. Surfing alone is so different, especially in those really remote places where there's no hospital, no transportation, nothing. You have to be extra cautious. It gave me a whole different perspective on surfing and just appreciating the waves and the natural beauty around me versus thinking, Oh, I've got to do this big turn to show this other guy how good I am.
NGA: What does life on the boat look like day to day?
LC: A little bit of boat work, a little bit of surf, some yoga, and a lot of cooking, because there's not really any restaurants here, and especially [not] vegan ones.
NGA: What does boat maintenance involve?
LC: People, a lot of times, think that this lifestyle looks so dreamy and easy—I would like to emphasize how much time and work goes into keeping a boat afloat and prepared for sea. It takes up at least a third of my time keeping the algae off the bottom. It's like underwater lawn mowing. Once you finish on one end, you end up restarting on the other.
NGA: Where are you headed next?
LC: Maybe into the North Pacific toward the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, then down through Tonga and Fiji and New Zealand. I'll probably spend a season in New Zealand—for cyclone season. And then keep jumping west from there.
NGA: When do you think you'll make it around the world?
LC: That's really hard to say. If I get to another area I really want to take my time exploring, I'm not going to be in a hurry.