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Captain of Her Sail

Reflecting with Emma Richards, who just wanted some solitude, so she set out on a 33,576 mile, 132-day journey called Around Alone race.

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NEWPORT, Rhode Island — Looking as though she’s come in from an afternoon’s jaunt across the bay, Emma Richards glides across the finish line after just having sailed 33,576 miles in 132 days — alone. With Castle Hill rising in the distance on a perfect Newport Sunday afternoon, she lights a flare and begins to celebrate after completing the Around Alone Race, a solo circumnavigation of the globe. At the dock her smile is radiant and nonchalant. Perfectly tanned and wearing a blue jacket over turquoise foul-weather gear, she crouches at the edge of her 60-foot yacht, Pindar, answering questions and shyly waving at the crowd.

At age 28, Richards has completed what most people will never do, nor, for that matter, would want to do. She’s the first British woman and youngest person ever to complete this famously challenging race. For months, she lived in Pindar’s cramped space, racing in the most extreme and grueling conditions imaginable, without a shower and with only a bucket serving as a toilet. Richards sailed through fierce storms and even more calms. She fought mile for mile against the elite men’s solo sailing world, drawing wide praise and earning the awe of her male competitors. In short, Richards has, with her unnerving smile and gentle manner, stunned everyone.

“I just want to have a few pints with friends now and sleep in a dry bed that doesn’t move around too much,” Richards says with a smile.

On Sept. 15, she set out, sailing from New York to Plymouth, England, becoming the first woman to sail singlehandedly west to east across the Atlantic. From Plymouth she raced down the coast of Africa to Cape Town, at one point encountering what she feared might be pirates. “It was me on my boat all alone with no wind going absolutely nowhere,” she says. “I had a boat less than a mile from me and it was pitch black. I’d like to assume it was just a bunch of drunk fishermen singing, but when you’re on your own you get too much time to think.”

In the Indian Ocean en route to New Zealand, after a sharp gust of wind, she watched her mainsail rip in half. Taking needle in hand, she climbed her boom and began the arduous task of sewing the heavy Kevlar sail back together. It took Richards 36 hours to repair the disaster while her boat crashed “violently like a bucking bronco with attitude.” After placing 1,500 stitches — and at one point sewing her hand to the sail in sub-zero temperatures — she limped into New Zealand, determined to finish the race.
By far the biggest challenge in this racing classic is the stretch of Southern Ocean between New Zealand and South America, culminating in Cape Horn, location of the most treacherous and storm-ridden seas in the world and widely considered the Mount Everest of sailing. Richards passed the Horn at the end of February in the middle of a squall, sailing her fastest recorded speed at 32 knots. From then on it should have been easy, and after a brief respite in Brazil, she sailed north to Newport. But only 200 miles from Newport, she was caught in “a perfect storm,” and the worst of the entire trip. “I sat up all night watching the boat crash off the top of the waves and just praying that the mast would hold itself up,” she remembers. The morning dawned clear and after nearly nine months away, and 120 packages of Birds Eye Potato Waffles, Richards was finally able to relax at the dock, swigging on a magnum of Mumm Champagne.

What’s next? Not solo racing, it would seem. “The race as a whole I did enjoy, and I got to meet lots of great people and lots of great skippers,” she says. “But after you’ve spent 132 days and however many minutes on the sea, it’s just too long.” In the end, it wasn’t the storms, but the solitude that proved too much to handle. Richards’ satellite phone bill was “enormous,” and she is looking forward to sailing with people again. After a party last Sunday night with her family and friends, Richards flew home, safe and dry, and contemplated the ocean from first class, 32,000 feet in the air.