Ten years ago, Emily Richmond graduated from college and bought herself a boat. Not a standard graduation gift to yourself. But then nothing about Richmond, 32, an intrepid American solo sailor has been standard. She has sailed past pirates, been adopted by a Papua New Guinean tribe and journeyed across more than 30,000 nautical miles of ocean, alone.
Richmond grew up reading National Geographic magazines, thick volumes that packed in their iconic yellow borders stories of marvellous places and people from remote parts. For a girl growing up in the U.S., it felt like a portal to another universe. College had been unsatisfying, and she itched for something more edifying. “I wanted to go see and learn stuff,” she says, on the phone from North Carolina, where she is now. “I had been to school and got my degrees but I felt like I didn’t know anything. I felt like a fraud… I felt like the university system was just a factory system to raise us all the same way.” That’s how the rickety little $1,000 boat came into the picture. “So I just wanted to strike off and go see other cultures, hopefully make friends along the way and learn a little something.” The first little something she had to learn though, was how to sail. And she learned that skill, at sea, on her maiden trip to Panama at 21. “It’s a really good way to learn,” she says, plaintively. “Because you have to learn.”
Richmond had been to Europe earlier, but it wasn’t drastically different from what she knew in the U.S. “I wanted my whole world turned upside down,” she says. “Which to me, is why you travel.” In January 2010, she left Los Angeles, California with a mandate to see the world. The romance of the sea was a very strong pull, but the first prosaic note struck when her engine sputtered and died early on. So she pretty much had to wing it on wind power and good fortune.
The open seas, the brigands that prowl them, the possibility of storms, none of this daunted her—then or now. “I have never really felt scared,” she says. “When you say you are going to sea, people talk about the dangers of the weather. But I can’t remember ever being scared of that. People are the more dangerous things, and most of them are not. You have to be open and vulnerable to making friends.”
During her years away she has had “amazing relationships” with the full spectrum of humanity: from avocado farmers and Vietnamese shipping captains to Indonesian immigration officials and tribes living on remote mountain tops. Her journeys have spanned the islands in the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and Central America, from Samoa and East Timor to the Pitcairn Islands and Costa Rica. People sail, ride and fly their way around the globe, chasing records and headlines. But Richmond had neither those ambitions nor a fully pre-determined plan. “It was not just to say ‘oh I’ve been around the world’,” she says. “For me a period of long distance sailing was essential because I actually wanted to go to these places that are so hard to get to, except by boat.”
There was no itinerary or bucket list. She’d drop anchor and stay for a while, sometimes months on end. “For me it was about the experience of being there,” she says. “Being among people who were so culturally different from the place I had come from.” But perpetually being on the road—or in her case, the high seas—means forming bonds, only to have them dissolve a few weeks or months later. “There is a constant regret that you have to leave people. I wish I could be in all those places at once,” she says, “or any place other than here.”
Here is now the east coast of the U.S. and Richmond sounds wistful, constrained by being grounded on terra Americana as she works on her book. A boat in the middle of the vast ocean isn’t the loneliest place to be, that place is actually home. “I can’t wait to be gone again,” she says, her voice suffused with yearning. “It can be so isolating in the U.S.,” she continues. “It’s all about going to your job and being productive. The spiritual side of life is missing. It’s isolating to be in a culture like that.” Richmond speaks with a distant fondness of family and friends in the U.S., people whose company she enjoys but simultaneously feels oddly stranded amongst. “You have all these experiences and wherever you come back to, you sort of forever are a traveller,” she says. “You live alone in your own world because nobody knows where you’ve been or what you’ve done.”
Richmond is critical of her own society, but just as self-aware that she has perhaps, not seen enough of it. Next year she plans on walking through the U.S. for about nine months, mostly through reserved land and forested areas. It’s about veering off the interstate highway and getting a feel for the land in a much more visceral way. Once she’s done that she plans to sail around Africa in about two years. On such voyages there are of course, the practical things to take care of—food and water supplies, equipment and maps, staying alert to avoid pirates. A voyage isn’t just a glamorous adventure, it’s also routine, workaday housekeeping. “It’s like a full-time job,” says Richmond, who has had four vessels over the years. “People wouldn’t believe it, but it’s constant work to keep the boat going.”
You’d think a boat would be an expensive mode of transport and the least effective way to see the world. But in the U.S., there is a fairly large market for good quality, relatively inexpensive boats. “I think I spend less money travelling to exotic places full time than I do just living in America,” she says. “Travelling is actually cheaper.”
I ask her how her travels in reality measured up to whatever crazy, romantic ideas she had in her head when she first started out. “It’s been everything I thought it would be, and more,” she says, emphatically. “I have never got sick of it. I absolutely cannot think of anything better because travel allows you to be in a constant state of wonder and curiosity.” There’s a heightened sense of awareness, an alertness and openness that becomes one’s default setting. It also lets you be apart, unte-thered to social or familial ties, something Richmond finds liberating. “Travel is so much about solitude and the direct experience of nature,” she says. “When you are completely separated from people you become more of your animal self. And that is more interesting to me.”
It has been more than a decade, but Richmond has no intention of retiring the sails and putting down some roots—at least not yet. “I don’t know,” she says. “There are so many places I went to that I thought, ‘I can live here’.” She pauses, and then continues, dead-pan, “I think it would take losing an arm or a leg or being incapacitated in some way for me to stay in one place.”