Emily Richmond has been mistaken for Christ, had close shaves with pirates, speared her dinner and made water from a solar still to survive. We caught up with her in Borneo.
IndefinitelyWild: Where has the five-year journey taken you so far?
Emily Richmond: Five years ago, I left Los Angeles, sailed down the coast and hopped through Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama and then, from there, out to the Galapagos, then Easter Island and even Pitcairn Island. That's a really crazy island in the middle of the ocean, only accessible by private boat and full of really crazy people.
Then, I went to Samoa and New Guinea, where I staying for a year, then East Timor. More recently, I've been sailing around the eastern part of the Indian Ocean, through the Indonesian Archipelago and now I've come around Borneo, which is this huge island.
In the coming year, I plan to sail over to Sri Lanka, then East Africa, where I plan to stay for a couple years, working my way up and down the coast.
IW: Why did you decide to sail around the world?
ER: In a word? Romance. Everything about sailing around the world seemed logical and beautiful and smart. It is a really essential way to live. It's a huge project, but it doesn't cost a huge amount of money to do; you travel with the wind. Also, you can access places you couldn't access otherwise.
IW: How do you pace yourself? Is there a schedule you're trying to keep?
ER: When I left, I was coming from a world of schedules and I thought they were important. I realized they are not. Schedules are actually quite impractical in my life, my progress is directed by weather, repairs and what have you.
IW: Where have you spent the most time?
ER: In New Guinea, partly because I love the place and partly because my boat was taken out of the water and stranded there. On the way there, I'd been stuck in the doldrums for a while with no motor. There was nothing I could do except wait it out. So, I decided to install an engine on board when I got to New Guinea. Bobbie (my boat) was hauled out of the water by a construction company who promised they would have me back on the water in two weeks. A couple of days later, they decamped their machinery to the rainforest to raze trees for a palm oil plantation. And so my boat and I were marooned for nine months. I actually loved my time there.
IW: Bobbie looks a little sketchy.
ER: While my boat isn't in complete disrepair, it is an old workboat and there are tons of things that I need to maintain on it. When you're traveling with an ongoing project or there's something you need to get done, you meet way more people. Whenever I turn up at ports and have a major thing to fix, I feel sheer delight knowing that it will require me to collaborate with a bunch of new people. Most of my social circles have been built around that. If there was nothing going wrong, I'd be super bored and lonely.
IW: Do you feel like a total badass, out there all by yourself?
ER: I really like the word "badass," but I would never describe myself that way. I feel like a baby most of the time. But, I guess if you just keep going, people get the impression that you're badass.
IW: How prepared would you say you were when you departed?
ER: Well, when you leave to sail around the world, you don't have to do it all at once. A big trip is really just a bunch of small trips put together. You just have to make it to the next port, fix what's broken, make it to the next port, fix what's broken and so on. I had what I needed when I started, so in that sense I was prepared. Parts are easy to come by in Central America, that got me on my way even though the boat wasn't perfect.
IW: What have you experienced that you can only get on a boat?
ER: Right now, I'm in this region that is this mashed up border between the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia and there's a lot of lawlessness and sketchiness. There's a shitload of piracy going on. There are hardcore jihadists named Abu Sabaya that have kidnapped Americans for ransom. Being the only American here, it's definitely a concern. It's not something that's reported on. Neither are the more than one million Bajau sea gypsies that live here in a stateless limbo, unable to go to schools or hospitals or to vote.
IW: Tell us about the time you were mistaken for Christ.
ER: Not Christ as we think of Christ, but their Christ. They have a Black Jesus in New Guinea. It's a cult, not Christianity. There's a belief that, when you die, you come back with white skin. And there are no white people there, so me turing up was pretty shocking to them. They killed a pig and had a big celebration and dancing. They gave me lot's of stuff and, to be honest, I was really uncomfortable with it all. I didn't really know how to handle it. I was like, "It's not me!"
The spiritual leader cried hysterically when I left. They gave me all sorts of stuff to take.
IW: How do you sleep at night when you're solo sailing?
ER: Depends on where you're sailing. If I'm crossing the open ocean, I just go to sleep relatively confident that there won't be any ships to take my boat out. For the past year though, I've been in shipping channels everywhere I've gone. Ships going to and from China, crossing all over, it's a constant stress. In those situations, I sleep for ten or twenty minutes, wake up to check for ships, then go back to sleep.
There have been a few close shaves. I've had times where I've awaken to feel of the bow wake of a massive ship and realize I've come a couple seconds from death. But you have to sleep, sleep deprivation will make you go crazy. You lose your mind and make bad decisions during the day or slip and fall overboard.
There's not much you can do. People make radar reflectors, but the ships just aren't looking for small vessels like mine. Most of the time when I call them by radio, they aren't even on the bridge. It's a total crapshoot.
IW: Tell us a pirate story.
ER: There've been times when I've come across guys in pairs of motorboats at sea who have no fishing equipment. That's pretty indicative of pirates, but nobody's tried to kill me yet. When I see them approach, I usually cross dress and put rags in my jacket shoulders and act like a guy. It probably helps that I don't have some flashy yacht, there are rust stains and you can see I don't have big radars or navigation systems or any of that fancy shit.
IW: Have you met other sailors?
ER: I thought I was going to meet other young sailors out on the sea, but I haven't. I'm worried about our generation. It used to be people in their twenties and thirties going to all these wild places and having big adventures. I've been halfway around the world and the only other young sea travelers I've seen I met on Easter Island.
The first thing people ask me about is, "Where are you going next?" It's like you're not allowed to go slow and enjoy and learn about where you are. Too many people our age are more about ticking boxes.
IW: Do you fish for food?
ER: A friend of mine in Papua New Guinea left a bamboo and metal spike spear on my boat that I use to fish for food occasionally, when I need some protein. It's kept me fed when I've run out of supplies. The fish are pretty easy to catch, but normally I don't have time to gut them and prepare them while I'm sailing.
IW: How are you funding all this?
ER: Mostly, I just try to be very frugal. I don't dock in marinas and the cost of living here in Southeast Asia is very inexpensive. You can get by very well on $30 a week, even with eating out. In the beginning, I got a little money from Kickstarter, but that didn't last very long. I still get sponsorships through my website, but mostly I make money from working in places I've stopped.
IW: How healthy is the ocean you've seen?
ER: I've seen a lot to be concerned about. Off the coast of Panama, I discovered a huge plastic trash island that was hitherto unstudied. I charted its location for scientists. Here in Southeast Asia, there's been a collapse in the shark population — I think 98 percent are gone.
The problem is, people aren't spending any time in nature, so they don't see this. Cousteau said that his motivation for making films and going on expeditions stemmed from the fact that people only protect what they care about. I think that's true.
IW: Have you been in any big storms?
ER: Nothing devastating, that perfect storm hasn't hit me yet. But, there have been storms where the waves have been taller than my mast, which is 45 feet. I guess that's fairly bad weather.
You just have to get through them. They can last for seven or eight days, you wake up and think, "Surely the rain will stop today." But, it just keeps raining and stays grey and that can have a huge impact on my mood. My mental well-being is very connected to the physical world in that sense.
I wear a harness when the weather turns really nasty.
IW: What's your long-term plan?
ER: I'm going to continue on my way around the world. Some land was given to me in New Guinea and there's this one beautiful tree out there that I have imagined building a tree house in, Swiss Family Robinson style. I can see the floor pan and the materials it's made out of. I think the boat will always be close by though.
Cameron Smith is the tallest person to ever talk about riding his motorcycle to South America without ever actually doing it.
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