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The ‘indestructible’ ancient mariner

Solo sailor David Clark has circumnavigated twice, survived two sinkings, and at 81 is still sailing

Solo sailor David Clark has circumnavigated twice, survived two sinkings, and at 81 is still sailing

Editor’s note: After publishing the October 2005 feature on older sailors — 101-year-old William Allan Wood, 89-year-old Harry Heckel Jr., and 71-year-old Minoru Saito — we decided to catch up with David B. Clark, who several years ago sailed around the world at age 77, a record at the time.

Solo sailor David B. Clark will turn 82 this May, and though he has slowed some he still sails and lives aboard his 34-foot sloop Mickey and wows audiences with the big band sounds of his signature red clarinet.

“USA Today said I was indestructible,” says Clark, who at 77 became the world’s oldest solo circumnavigator (a distinction now held by 89-year-old Harry Heckel Jr.). “I guess they got it right.”

Clark has sailed around the world alone twice, the first time when he was 67, then a decade later — each time working along the way as a professional musician. Twice Clark’s boats have sunk in around-the-world attempts. His 31-foot Pacific Seacraft, Sea Me Now, was holed in a dismasting and sank in the Indian Ocean in 1995, and he was rescued by a freighter. Then in 2001 his 41-foot steel-hulled Mollie Milar developed a leak and sank off Cape Town, South Africa. Again, a freighter crew saved him. That time, though, sympathetic supporters back home and in Cape Town raised enough money for him to buy Mickey, finish the voyage around the world, and claim the title of oldest circumnavigator.

Soundings found the ancient mariner at the A Bon Fouca Marina in Slidell, La., where he had been living aboard Mickey and playing his clarinet nightly at local restaurants. He since has moved to Bacliff, Texas, where he is performing at restaurants in Seabrook and Kemah. Clark admits that he was never much of a sailor, but he is an accomplished reedsman, playing both the clarinet and tenor saxophone. Sailing was always about giving him the freedom to visit new places and make a living along the way playing music.

That’s still what it’s about. “I’m having fun,” he says. “I still feel pretty good, though I’m slowing down a little bit.”

He’s pretty sure his days of solo ocean voyaging are over, though he sailed the Gulf of Mexico alone from Tampa to Pensacola, Fla., last spring to settle in Slidell. “My strength, my endurance are nowhere near what they were, but my balance is perfectly all right,” he says. “If I wanted to cruise, I’d have to pick up a couple of babes, take them with me, and have them do the work.”

Clark knows his muscles are giving out because he used to be able to bound out of the forward hatch. Now his arms are weaker, and he struggles to pull himself up. And when he sails overnight he always reefs the sails, because if a storm surprises him he’s not sure he could muster the muscle to shorten sail in a blow.

If there’s one thing he has learned as a cruiser, liveaboard sailor and itinerant musician it is to stay out of debt and not become overly fond of owning a lot of “stuff.” Both are encumbrances.

Clark still jealously guards his freedom to weigh anchor and move on. “Other than your health, I don’t know of anything more important than that — your freedom to go where you want,” he says.

He had been living and working in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but sky-high slip fees there drove him off. On Bayou Bonfouca, a liveaboard slip costs just $175 a month, very affordable for an octogenarian who gets by on a monthly Social Security check and modest income from music gigs.

If there was a downside to living in Slidell, it was that lately it has become a magnet for hurricanes. Mickey was at its slip and Clark back home in Citrus Heights, Calif., visiting his wife, Lynda, when Hurricane Katrina ripped into Louisiana last August. Mickey was tied off to a big tree, which evidently shielded it from the wind. Clark returned after the storm, and though the town was devastated his boat had survived unscathed. “It must be my guardian angels,” he says.

In Texas now and living in an apartment, Clark planned to move Mickey to the LoneStarState in March and start living aboard again. If wanderlust sets in — and Clark expects it will — he says he may put his boat in storage, drive down to Mexico or Costa Rica, and pick up some work there. Or he might visit Miami and work as a street musician this summer on Miami Beach’s famous Lincoln Road. When he tires of traveling, he’ll come back to Bacliff.

Clark says he’s comfortable with the place he’s at right now in life. He’s working hard on his music (he plays lead clarinet live with background tapes of big-band orchestras), he has moved out of hurricane alley, and he expects to be living on his boat again. Yet, if his slip fees go up too much or he gets itchy feet, he’s out of there.

“I just have to get on the boat, turn the engine on, and go someplace else — and I would.” That’s David Clark, ancient mariner.