Sailing: Schoolchildren help prepare for long battle against solitude

Part 1: Emma Richards, on board Pindar, begins her account of her attempt to win the single-handed round-the-world yacht race, Around Alone

Emma Richards, on board Pindar, begins her account of her attempt to win the single-handed round-the-world yacht race, Around Alone

9 September, Newport Rhode Island, 18.30

After more than four weeks and 5,500 miles of solo sailing across the Atlantic, I arrived here eight days ago. I had to sail to the States to qualify because all skippers have to sail at least 2,000 miles on their own in the boats they'll compete in. It was a close shave. I got in four hours ahead of deadline. Any later and I would have had a time penalty against me for the first leg. The journey wasn't bad, but longer than expected. I went a long way south to get decent winds but ended up in a large high-pressure zone with almost none. At least I got to know the boat inside out, including going up the mast to sort out a problem with the halyards. I also allayed one of my biggest fears – solitude. My only previous experience of sailing solo was the Ostar Trans-Atlantic in 1999. I won my class but on the dock at the end I vowed never to sail solo again. I was only 24 at the time and found the loneliness almost soul-destroying. About 14 days into this qualifier I was again having problems coping on my own, with no one to talk to. Or even look at. But I think I've broken the pain barrier.

10 September, Newport Rhode Island, 22.14

We took the boat out for the last major sail test before the prologue to New York starts on Thursday. We've installed a brand new rig and various new sails including a new mainsail. We've also fitted state-of-the-art Harken winches which will make life easier when it comes to hoisting the sail on my own. The original winches were made for Josh Hall, the boat's previous owner, who's got a bit more brawn than me. I'm really lucky to have Josh heading my shore team. He knows the boat inside out and is a great sailor who's been in this race three times before. Conditions for the sail test were perfect and new sails made such a difference – so light. A slight worry is we're still sorting out the satellite communication systems, essential for the race organisers to track exactly where you are. I also need it to send e-mails, footage, photos and, indeed, this diary. Our specialist technician won't be with me during the race (unfortunately) so I need to know exactly how everything works. In single-handed sailing you need to be a bit of an IT geek as well as know how to tack.

11 September, Newport Rhode Island, 21.40

It's been a strange kind of day for obvious reasons. The usual hustle and bustle of Newport shipyard had a really sombre atmosphere. Everyone was still as busy as ever, just a bit quieter. At least it was until a group of 30 schoolchildren turned up for a tour of my boat. As part of my entry in the race, I'm supporting the HSBC Global Education Challenge. Hundreds of schools around the world are following the race and the kids get to meet the skippers in different ports. They asked loads of questions, the most common being "Will you be scared?" (Answer: "I hope not"). One kid asked me if I'd ever met the Queen and they were shocked when I said yes. I actually did when I sailed with Tracey Edwards in 1998. We were ashore at the time, Her Majesty wasn't crewing. Another child also asked for my autograph, which the shore crew found hilarious. Anyway, it was a really uplifting thing to do on a potentially very sad day. This evening I had a low-key family dinner with my mum and dad. Mum's been quiet today, a bit subdued. She's concerned about me sailing round the world alone, but I think she's even more worried about dad. He's one of the six guests allowed on board for the prologue. I assured her I'd look after him.

13 September, 40 miles from New York, 08.35

If you're reading this, it means we've sorted out the satellite communication systems. I set off on the prologue at 4pm yesterday in great conditions although the wind was a bit light. Mind you, when you compare it to the winds that we'd had the previous day (it was blowing 40 knots thanks to a tropical storm moving up the east coast), we were all quite relieved. Well, the guests were. We're 40 miles from New York Harbour, where the real action starts on Sunday. After all the talk and preparation, I can't wait.

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