The Voyage of Swell
By the time Capt. Clark made it back to shore, her crew had disappeared without a trace.
The crew, in this case, was Amelia the Tropicat, Liz Clark’s sole companion on her sailboat, Swell. Though she’d spent most of her life afloat, and bore the name of an esteemed female explorer, Amelia had always been a bit suspicious of the ocean. “I was going surfing with a lady who lives on the island where I’m writing my book,” Liz remembers. “But we had to cross a lagoon to get to the smaller islet where the wave was. I only had my board, and Amelia hates swimming, so a local offered to take her on his canoe. It was slippery fiberglass, and she fell in twice on the way across. When we got there she was pretty upset, but I toweled her off and she seemed alright. So I set out some water and food for her as I usually do when I go surfing. When I came in, she was gone. I searched for hours, but she never reappeared. I finally gave up, but knowing she was on a contained islet with plenty of rats to eat, I felt OK about leaving her there.”
With Amelia gone, it was back to solitude. Being alone was nothing new, though—a decade of single-handed sailing had given Liz plenty of practice in the art of independence.
Liz was only 7, when she first started sailing dinghies in San Diego, California. Her love for the water deepened with time, eventually leading to surf contests and a collegiate national championship. After finishing her degree in Environmental Studies, she met a retired professor who was hoping someone would sail his boat around the world so he, at 80 years old, could live vicariously through the voyage. Liz was the perfect candidate, so they began outfitting his Cal-40 for transoceanic travel. Her dream was to sail to unspoiled islands—and to find remote places where she could paddle out into perfect, empty waves.
“I was full of bigger questions that needed answers,” she says, “and life at sea seemed more appealing. Our distance from the natural world, and our failure as a society to promote sustainable living, had left me frustrated. I clung to my dream as a way out. Although the uncertainties petrified me, the alternative of not going seemed even more unthinkable. So in 2005, I pointed Swell’s bow south.”
More than a decade later, Liz has found some of the answers she was looking for. Spending most of that time sailing through the South Pacific has shown her that the creativity it takes to conserve resources at sea offers an alternative to the thoughtless consumption that continues to deplete and impoverish our world. Life amidst low-lying atolls has also turned her into a passionate climate change activist.
“It hit home when I started loving these islands and meeting people who are already suffering the effects,” she says. “The people who are hit hardest may never have been in a car or consumed wastefully in their whole lives.”
Now, much of her passion for environmental advocacy is being focused into a book she’s writing about her experiences on Swell. “I’ve learned things that I feel are useful to share,” she says, “and after having taken on so many physical challenges over the course of this voyage, I felt ready for an intellectual one.”
As Liz started typing her stories, a friend helped her build a desk in the forest. Lashed together with purau bark, it offers a view of Swell and the reef while she keeps busy with her latest labor of love. It’s not an easy transition, but the tenacity acquired from solo sailing is helping her see the struggles and setbacks—like losing 40 pages in a rain-soaked laptop—as integral parts of an ever-evolving narrative.
“As I read through my diaries,” she says, “I’m pretty amazed to see how far I’ve come. All the difficulties were just chances for growth, and moments that felt like the end of the world are now part of the mandala of my story.”
A few months ago, that story took a happy twist with Amelia’s return. After 42 days, she reappeared on the islet, as fit as ever. “I think she just needed a break from boat life,” Liz laughs “but in the end, she seemed happy to come home.”
Look for Liz Clark’s book, Swell: Sailing the Pacific in Search of Surf and Self, to be published by Patagonia in April 2017.