She's in Tahiti now. Anchored just inside the reef, a short trip by dinghy to the lineup at Teahupoo. The water is so clear you can see the anchor chain snaking along the sand bottom, coral heads like bouquets blossoming across the lagoon. She has sailed 14,000 miles in the last three-and-a-half years—from Santa Barbara on down the West Coast of North and Central America, out to Cocos Island, then to the Galapagos, where she jumped off for the Marquesas and Tahiti. There was also the 1,500-mile jaunt she took, each way, to winter over at a sparsely populated atoll group halfway to Hawaii, where flawless peelers reel down the fringing reef. On a passage in the Tuamotus, clawing upwind 120 miles from one atoll to another, she pushed her vessel so hard that a tracking skeg just behind the keel worked loose, and her boat started taking on water. But more on that.
At 29, Liz Clark bubbles with youth. She is surfing, fishing, sailing, and free-diving most everyday, greeting everyone with a smile and girlish warmth. But having overcome calamities at sea that would make the saltiest old cur weep, she also carries a quiet strength. When she thinks about what it is she wants to do—whether maneuvering Swell, her 40-foot sloop, through a reef pass, or choosing the board to ride on a particular day—she seems to still herself and listen to an inner voice that one imagines she's gotten to know in long stretches of solitude. Her environment energizes her, and when she talks about certain passages she's made, or waves she's ridden, the words come fast, piling up and raining down like a tropical thundershower.
Last June, on a ragged 6-foot day at Teahupoo with only a few soldiers taking it on, Swell slips out the Havae Pass. To watch Liz sail the boat, or pilot the dinghy, or tend to any of the tasks involved in life on board, is to see a woman completely in tune with her surroundings. Under power, she controls the throttle on Swell with the ball of her foot and gives the wheel the slightest turn to make the bends in the channel. Once outside, she points out the lines to haul in, the sails go up, and she scrambles about lightly, adjusting the preventer to keep the boom in place, then kills the motor and the rolling glide begins. It feels like magic somehow that this long hull, full of books and gear and provisions, should be so lively on the water.
To watch Liz sail the boat, or pilot the dinghy, or tend to any of the tasks involved in life on board, is to see a woman completely in tune with her surroundings.
Her quiver of 10 boards, consisting primarily of three-fin blades, plus a quad or two, a fish, and a longboard, are stowed in heavy duty board bags lashed to the port rail on deck, with a few of her favorites slung overhead in the forward berth where she sleeps. After so many seasons living aboard, Clark has rigged up a lot of custom touches that make Swell feel like a home as much as a functioning sailboat. "I'm always refining my systems," she says, referring to ways she's learned to make life aboard more functional, such as stacking unused buckets off the stern rail, or keeping tools handy in the sheaths on deck. Family photographs, surf photos, affirmations, and quotes line the boat's cabin: "The four Toltec agreements—1) Be impeccable with your word 2) Don't take anything personally 3) Don't make assumptions 4) Always do your best;" a list from a friend's 'zine with the title, "How to live a simple life—Stop buying so many things, Don't eat so much, Read tons of books, Do jobs that you love…"; and a quote from the Persian mystic, Rumi: "Past and future veil God from our sight; burn them both up with fire." These sayings, scrawled on bits of paper and drawn in permanent ink on the counter tops, are like mantras, and in her generous company they seem to have formed a foundation for her thoughts.
With a heavy Penn reel mounted just to the side for trolling while under way, Liz puts a lure out when she sees blue and yellow flashes of tuna streaking through the faces of the swells. Terns and boobies fly overhead, dipping down for baitfish, and inshore, beyond the distant surf on the reef and the low, flat lagoon, the sharp ridges of Tahiti rise verdant out of the vast blue. French Polynesia is so spectacular, so singular in its beauty that it feels like another world entirely. And when you remember that Liz Clark sailed here from the land of traffic jams and strip malls, in this vessel that resembles a surfer girl's dorm room, the effect is disorienting.
Clearly, she's a more than capable sailor, but she is so slight and small and bursting with happiness that it's hard to fathom the immensity of her undertaking. Soon enough however, one realizes that her joy comes from a place of strength and inner-peace gained from long days and nights on the ocean, and from learning to accept the conditions at hand. She is physically strong too, taut muscles flowing under lightly browned skin. When she dives, she stays under just long enough to make a person snorkeling with her get concerned, then comes to the surface holding up another blue-lipped oyster for dinner and smiling broadly beneath her mask. At anchor, she swims to the bottom daily to clear the chain from coral heads, then sets to tasks on deck or below with a mechanic's ingenuity and a set of tools for any job—from cutting chain to sewing sails, to replacing a fuel line or filling dings. Whether she continues on for a circumnavigation of the world, or chooses to remain in the Pacific, crisscrossing island chains, she is on the ultimate surf trip. Her very lightness of being, one comes to see, is what makes this endeavor possible. Liz Clark is like a leaf on the sea—never fighting, forever flowing.
Men can be a problem. Not just the ones that periodically fall for her, but the ones that, usually a little older, tend to smother with advice and opinions. It was worse, apparently, back on the Mainland in the years leading up to her departure—a potent blend of egos and desire pitting a group of harbor regulars against each other for whose ideas Miss Liz Clark would ultimately accept.