September 26, 2002 11:00 pm
David Clark brought this display that chronicles his sailing journey to La Grande last week.  (The Observer/Phil Bullock).
David Clark brought this display that chronicles his sailing journey to La Grande last week. (The Observer/Phil Bullock).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

ount Everest was 10,000 miles away, but David Clark was just a step from a top-of-the-world feeling.

Clark, a La Grande High School graduate, was walking off his sailboat in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Dec. 7, 2001. He had just completed a two-year, single-man, round-the-world trip in his sailboat. At 77, Clark was believed to have become the oldest sailor to circle the world alone.

On the dock were his wife, Lynda Summers-Clark, whom he hadn't seen for two years, many well-wishers and enough members of the media to fill a fleet of sailboats.

Fifteen minutes of fame awaited Clark.

Fifteen minutes that would stretch well past an hour. Clark gave countless interviews and was featured live on CNN for 38 minutes.

"The reception was so tremendous that I was ready to turn around and get in the boat again (so he could earn a second reception). It was a very emotional thing. The attention was incredible,'' the 1942 LHS graduate said.

Clark, who lives in Citrus Heights, Calif., discussed his incredible journey last week while in La Grande to speak at a class reunion and a meeting of the Knife and Fork Club.

"I wanted to prove a point,'' Clark told his classmates. "We may look dead but we are not.''

Clark credits the determination he needed to complete the journey to his upbringing in the Grande Ronde Valley.

"I was self-sufficient growing up here. We had strength, independence and a lot of tenacity,'' Clark said.

He said that people growing up in the 1920s and '30s gained a special sense of values.

"Our word was sacred. When we said that we were going to do something we did it,'' Clark said. "We had it ingrained as part of our psyche.''

He said this attitude is why he did not give up in the face of sometimes incalculable hardships.

One of his worst occurred when his boat took on water about 150 miles from Cape Town, South Africa. A ship came to his rescue. Unfortunately, Clark's dog, Mickey, a West Highland terrier, was lost when he slipped out of his harness while being pulled to safety.

"It was terrible. I can't talk about it too long or I will get emotional,'' Clark said.

Clark lost his boat, the Mollie Milar, in the incident, but not his will. He had already sailed 29,000 miles and now was just 7,000 miles short of finishing. In Cape Town he raised about $13,000 in about a month and purchased a new boat that he named Mickey.

Cape Town was one of many towns where Clark stopped. He was warmly received everywhere.

"People all around the world are magnificent. The experience was wonderful, but it was the people who really made it great,'' he said.

Clark modestly attributes his warm receptions to the fact he was an outsider.

"If you are a prophet from over the hill, you are treated much better than someone wiser next door,'' the sailor said.

While at sea, Clark would often go long stretches without seeing anyone. For example, between Panama and Fiji Clark spent 63 days out of sight of land and saw no ships.

In spite of such stretches, loneliness was only a periodic companion.

"Loneliness wasn't much of a problem because there is so much to keep you busy,'' he said.

Clark was accompanied several times by dolphins following his sailboat. The dolphins often appeared while Clark, a musician, played his clarinet. The dolphins followed regardless of how well Clark performed in his aquatic concert hall.

"If I was off-key, it didn't matter. They were not judgmental and were uncritical of my playing,'' Clark said.

Clark played during the fair weather portions of the trip, which were as glorious as the inclement days were frightening.

"It all hangs on one word, weather. When it is good, it is fabulous. ... When it is bad, it can make Dante's Inferno look like a walk in the park,'' Clark said.

Clark's preparation for his trip was hardly textbook perfect. The boat he started with was in relatively poor condition and did not have the sophisticated equipment many believed he needed. However, he does not regret doing what he did.

"If I had waited until I had enough money and the right boat, I would still be be sitting on the dock,'' Clark said.

He believes that people need to take chances in life and follow their dreams.

"Don't let fear rule our lives,'' he advised.

At each stop Clark had authorities sign affidavits authenticating that they saw him come and go alone, proving he had completed the trip by himself.

Clark valued the affidavits more than almost anything else. He was relieved that when his boat went down in South Africa, the only thing he saved was his pile of affidavits.

Clark kept in touch with his family via ham radio. He contacted radio operators who were able to patch him into phone lines and call family members.

"You can call anywhere in the world with a ham radio,'' he said.

Clark, 78, might pass for someone 10 years his junior. He enjoys joking about his age.

"I'm a poster boy for AARP,'' said Clark, a World War II veteran who went on to work as a teacher, park ranger and insurance salesmen.

Clark is trying to get a book published about his voyage but has encountered frustrating obstacles.

"I'm afraid that by the time it is published, it will be by the late David Clark,'' he said.

The book will likely convey Clark's uncommon adventuresome spirit.

"I am not as afraid of dying as I am of not living,'' he said.