Sailing: Richards relishing chance to cast off once more

First woman to complete Around Alone is relieved to be embarking on latest adventure with boyfriend for company
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The Independent Online

A year ago today, Emma Richards entered the record books for completing the fastest ever west-east Atlantic crossing by a solo yachtswoman. The 28-year-old's feat was achieved on the first leg of the Around Alone round-the-world, single-handed race - the longest in world sport - and set the tone for the journey ahead.

Little did she know what lay in store in the coming seven months as she risked life and battered limbs on the 29,000-mile voyage, which she chronicled in a weekly diary for The Independent. She endured two "perfect storms", a pirate scare, a bruising climb up her 80ft mast in a gale, torn sails and the hostility of the Southern Ocean. She fought a daily battle with the solitude she detests, maintaining that her reason for entering the Around Alone - aside from the personal challenge - was that it was the next logical step in her ocean-racing career.

The gamble paid off. Richards completed the race, intact, the first woman and youngest person ever to do so. More importantly, her success gave her the platform for her next major venture. Which is why yesterday she was to be found in the sedate surroundings of Scarborough harbour (sedate except for 500 well-wishers, that is), launching her new boat, the 60ft monohull, Pindar, named after the printing company which sponsors her and is based in the town.

In the Around Alone, Richards skippered another Pindar, a four-year-old craft leased for the duration. The new boat is 18 months old and was formerly owned by Graham Dalton, who sailed it in the Around Alone before it was dismasted in a storm on the fourth leg. It has been bought outright and customised for Richards, whose next race will be the prestigious Transat Jacques Vabre from Le Havre to Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, starting on 1 November.

"After the Around Alone I'd planned to take some time off before my next project," Richards said yesterday. "I'd been working almost non-stop for four years and a couple of months unwinding looked quite attractive. But doing press and TV and other commitments took about a month after the race. Then we had to get the [new] boat back from Argentina, where it had been since dismasting.

"Since the beginning of June we've been in Cherbourg doing the refit. We need to repair the mast, there was work to do on the rudders, the keel, the engine, the hydraulics. Nearly everything we touched fell apart. But what we've got now is a fantastic boat and because it's Pindar's and doesn't have to be returned to any other owner, there's no limit to what we can do to it as long as we stay within the race rules."

The TJV, a double-handed race split into two classes (monohull and multihull), has attracted a world-class entry list that is certain to provide high-calibre racing. In the multihull class, Ellen MacArthur and the Frenchman Alain Gautier will be aiming to better their second-place finish last time. In the monohull class, where Richards will sail with Mike Sanderson, a New Zealander, there will be a strong British challenge from the pairing of Mike Golding and Brian Thompson among others. The international cast will also see Richards again facing Bernard Stamm of Switzerland, who won the Around Alone and will sail with France's Christophe Lebas in the TJV.

An element of added spice for Richards is that Sanderson, her co-skipper (she does not believe in pulling rank, although technically she is the skipper) is also her boyfriend. They have known each other for years but only became romantically involved recently.

Richards is keen to stress that Sanderson is joining her for the TJV purely on merit. A veteran of two Whitbread races and two America's Cups, he has also held a trans-Atlantic speed record and is currently in America waiting for a weather window to attempt another.

"If I was going out with David Beckham, I wouldn't be going sailing with him just because of it," Richards says. "Mike's a better sailor than I probably ever will be. He's been professional since he left school. He's done more racing than me. I'm four years younger, went to university and didn't start professional racing until six or seven years ago, whereas he's already been in the industry for 16 years. There's no question he's on board for any reason other than ability. You improve in sailing by working with the best and Mike's certainly one of the best."

Any notion that weeks at sea in a confined space in arduous conditions might put their relationship under strain are dismissed. "I can't wait," Richards laughs. "I get to spend two-and-a-half weeks with him, racing, doing something I love doing. It's like a dream come true. I've always thought this would be the race to do with a person you want to spend time with, and we're going to do it."

So if the weather is clement, there might be a chance for the odd candlelit dinner, then? Richards laughs. "Hardly. We're in this race looking for a podium finish. We want to win. We'll be focussed on that. Mike's got boats on the brain."

This year's TJV will be Richards' third. Past experience has shown how tough it can be. In 1999, the fleet was hit by Hurricane Irene, which claimed the life of the Frenchman Paul Vatine. The memory of seeing footage filmed from the container ship that rescued Vatine's race partner, Jean Maurel, from their upturned boat, clearly still affects Richards.

"We were in the same storm," she said. "November is a tough time of year. Whenever I start a race in November, which seems like every year, we've always had bad weather."

The attraction of sailing double-handed is therefore not only about getting more sleep ("I should get a couple of two-hour sleeps a day as opposed to some broken 20-minute naps if I was single-handed") but about the security - mental and otherwise - of sailing with someone else. "I don't want to do that much time alone again [as in the Around Alone]. I've done my time," Richards says.

"Some single-handed sailors love it and can't wait to get back to it, and I can understand what they see in it. But I'm not a great philosopher, I'm not a great romantic who can spend hours thinking what's in the sea to counter the loneliness."

Sitting around contemplating her navel is not something Richards would have any time for these days, even if she were so inclined. She is due in Scotland today to do a spot of television presenting, then heads back south for more work on Pindar in the build-up to the TJV. She is also working to put together a syndicate with her sponsors and Sanderson to enter the Volvo Ocean race of 2005.

Major funding is being sought so the project could get off the ground in the new year. And Richards has also just signed a deal with Pan MacMillan to write about the story of her Around Alone and other sailing adventures. Her book, not started yet, is due out in a year. A lot can happen in a year.