Emma Richards, a dark horse in the Around Alone fleet, talks frankly about the prospects in her biggest race to date

A day before the prologue race to New York for the start of Around Alone, and the Pindar shore team is reconsidering Emma Richards’s runner winches. Asked to wind on the runner, she’s struggling and out of breath. Both she and her team are still working out ways to customise Josh Hall’s former Gartmore for her, and trying to find the time to do it.

For both Emma and her sponsor Pindar, Around Alone represents a big step up in commitment. The race demands a new level of preparedness, much more so than the Open 50 and multihull projects she has been involved with in the last three years.

The decision to move back to solo sailing but in a bigger boat was made only this summer, which has left her relatively short of time to make changes and familiarise herself with the boat. She knows it now, after sailing 5,000 miles from the UK to Newport via Bermuda, but one important thing she can’t yet gauge is how she will fare against others in Class 1, established and experienced skippers such as Bernard Stamm and Thierry Dubois. How competitive does she reckon she’s going to be?

“I don’t know. I’m hoping it’ll get better as the race goes on. On the first leg, if I’m in the middle of the fleet I’m happy because I can’t expect to beat Thierry Dubois, Bernard Stamm, Patrick de Radrigues. Thierry Dubois has already done a Vendee Globe and he knows that boat inside out and he must feel there’s nothing he can do to make the boat go faster. In fact, today’s the first day I’ve seen him on his boat. That’s confidence. I certainly don’t have that confidence.

“I think Graham Dalton is a dark horse. I’ve heard lots of different opinions about his sailing but nobody really knows what he’s done before. He’s a Kiwi and he’s really ready to go out there and scrap. But I think anyone who finishes the race could win. After the first leg I’ll see where I sit in the fleet.”

One of the difficulties Emma Richards faces is in finding ways to use the power of her boat to a maximum. Any comparison with Ellen MacArthur on Kingfisher would be deceptive, because everything from Kingfisher’s winch power and positions to sail area was specifically designed for her. Pindar was built and specced for different muscle power and stature to Emma’s.

She has new, lighter sails and her team has changed the primaries. “The primary winches for the gennaker are my big thing. I just physically couldn’t get them in unless I dialled down and got pressure out of the sail and then came back up again. I may even just end up doing that anyway. It is effective, it’s just slow.

“I’m getting nervous now because we’re just talking about changing the runner winches before Sunday,” she says. “I can get them in after a struggle, but you’ve just seen how long it takes me to get them in.”

How much of handicap does she think this is? “I don’t know, that’s the thing. I’ve learned a lot, changed things and I’ve tried all sorts of stuff. I’ve found what works for me and what works a bit faster, but compared with these guys I have no idea. Say they have a big gennaker up and I haven’t or I can’t cope with it in the stronger winds or whatever, they could easily have 4 knots of boatspeed more than me and that’s 100 miles [in a day].”

“Trial and error is the main thing,” she continues. “To be honest, if I’m losing that much I won’t push too hard. We’ll have to sit down and work out how to make up miles.”

Last week, she spent three days studying tactical weather with Lee Bruce. “As much as anything it was about where to find the best weather on the internet and the quickest possible route to find it,” she says. Some skippers spend hours comparing weather models from many sources; others prefer to consider a few and work from a narrower average. She thinks she’ll strike a balance that will let her sail the boat more. “I hope it’s not more than an hour a day because I think there’s enough on the boat to do.”

This project is an important milestone for Richards. In doing Around Alone, she has sacrificed the chance to be part of Tracy Edwards’s promising Jules Verne project with Maiden 2. She is here as a serious competitor and not an adventurer. A good race is a desirable part of the long-term strategy.

“I’m lucky,” she says. “I’m one of the few sailors on a good salary. I’m fully employed by Pindar. I have a pension. I have a company car when I’m there. But the fact is that I’m in the fourth year of a sponsorship deal and there’s only so long that I will be sponsored by Pindar.

“I couldn’t ask for anything more from them, except another 40 years’ employment – which is unlikely,” she laughs. “But I think we’ve proven value in the month before I left. It’s been amazing.”