Liz Clark spends a lot of time alone, and not because she’s an introvert. It’s simply a side effect of having spent almost a decade captaining her 40-foot sailboat, Swell, to some of the most far-flung places on Earth.
“Spending a lot of time alone has helped me learn myself and love myself and has opened a relationship of trust in the Universe, God, the Greatness … whatever you want to call it,” the 34-year-old Patagonia ambassador says. “All my needs will be met one way or another.”
And Clark has had her faith tested more than once since she set sail from Santa Barbara, California, in late 2005.
There was the time a raging storm slammed into Swell while Clark was alone in the middle of her 1,3000-mile passage from Kiribati to Bora Bora. After a few days of no sleep, weary from battling the 40-knot winds and electrical damage caused by lightening, she was forced to spend almost a year and a half fixing her boat in a boatyard where she didn’t speak the native language and had no money to pay someone else for repairs. Still, Clark considers any residual trauma from the incident a learning experience.
“Learning to deal with discomfort, fear, and uncertainty of being at sea and traveling alone has toughened me and helped me feel confident that I can get through whatever difficult situation arises.”
The ocean is an unforgiving place to call home, yet Clark and her first mate, a cat named Amelia, have done just that for the nine years since they set sail on a search for some of the most remote surf breaks on the planet, a journey amassing more than 25,000 nautical miles stretching from California to the Galapagos Islands to French Polynesia and pretty much everywhere in between.
“As a child, I did a season sailing in Mexico with my family and ever since then, it was my dream to sail around the world,” she explains. “When the opportunity to captain Swell arose, I was also feeling as if I didn’t like the direction our society was heading. So for me there was no alternative to trying to live out my sailing dream and create a lifestyle around what I value most: surfing, nature, freedom, adventure, courage, culture, writing, travel.”
For Clark, there’s been no defining moment for her on a voyage that’s consumed a third of her life. For the rest of the world, well, there are plenty. One of them is her first open ocean crossing of 3,300 miles in 2007, and another is her first solo ocean crossing to and from the Line Islands from French Polynesia. Another is that she’s been discovering some of the best surfing in the world for the better part of a decade.
“I love surfing different waves—it’s sort of like what wine tasting must be for wine lovers,” she laughs. “I love surfing without a crowd. It’s not easy to progress as a surfer if you have to battle a hundred other greedy guys. I like to surf alone or with good vibes from people in the lineup. As soon as there are too many stressed out, wave-hungry people at a break, it takes away from the pure beauty and joy of surfing.”
Surfing pristine breaks with nary another human in sight is a dream realized by only a handful of explorers, part of the reason she’s been recognized as one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year, a prestigious accolade that puts her in some seriously impressive company. She’s joined by surfers, paragliders, activists, filmmakers, and even blind kayakers who “redefine the possibilities of the human existence.” How’s that for a defining moment?
“To me, it means a great deal to be recognized among such amazing humans,” she says. “It means that the environmental, inspirational, and spiritual messages that I’m trying to spread are ripping out farther and father. That means my hard heart work is effecting change.”
It’s not just the surf that motivates Clark to set sail—she uses her blog, SwellVoyage.com, to educate people on environmental and spiritual issues she gets to experience first hand during her travels.
“I encourage people to use their individual power to protect our environment and work toward world peace through the pursuit of their individual peace and happiness,” she says. “It’s through personal ‘daily activism’ we band together to create a huge force for positive change.”
Voting for the prestigious award takes place next month, but Clark doesn’t seem concerned—there are bigger fish to fry. There’s talk of setting sail for Micronesia, Fiji, New Zealand, circumnavigating the globe, or finally publishing a book about her adventures. But for now, it’s just Clark, Amelia, and a whole lot of water.