Life in Sausalito After 7 Years Sailing Around the World

Landfall Leatherworks

Last year I made an extremely difficult decision: I left a four year relationship with a man and a seven year relationship with a lifestyle. Boat life had come to define me. I was introduced as “Emma, my friend (daughter, granddaughter, niece) who is sailing around the world.” I was terrified to walk away from seven years of incomparable freedom; of living at the whim of the elements, of a comfortable floating home with a new backyard each day. It was essentially all my adult self had known, the scaffolding of my existence. But I was clinging too tightly to that limiting identity of “boat Emma” and needed space to extricate my self-worth from those sea roving years.

Landfall Leatherworks

It was 2015. I was 21, fresh out of college, and in search of adventure. Thankfully, I was also naïve. And brave; but maybe the bravery fell beneath the umbrella of naïveté. From my childhood home in Marin County, I scoured Latitude 38 magazine’s list of “Captains Looking for Crew,” and next thing I knew, I was aboard a 35’ cutter heading south out of Pillar Point Harbor. I switched boats in San Diego and continued through Mexico. Months passed. I carried on and made the crossing to the Marquesas aboard a 30’ steel gaff-rigged ketch. It was slow (48 days), but I was hooked. I had entered the alternate reality of being a tiny speck in the middle of a vast ocean. This venture began to feel less like a trip and more like a lifestyle. I loved having only time — nowhere to go, nowhere to be, no one to be. Oh, how I wrote, read and drew.

After a few thousand more nautical miles, I arrived in New Zealand where I met the man with whom I would sail for another four years aboard a 1980 Amel Sharki. We slowly worked our way north to the Philippines, and I slowly fell in love with Phil and his unparalleled zest for life. We traversed southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, landing in South Africa just in time for the pandemic. We crossed the Atlantic from Namibia to Suriname one year later, and in Grenada I decided it was time for me to make a change.

Landfall Leatherworks

I spent this past year feeling quite unmoored. I struggled with adjusting back to life on land and constantly wondered if I had made a great mistake walking away from my little floating home and the thrilling variability of life aboard. Why would I give up spearfishing on uninhabited Micronesian atolls and summiting active Vanuatuan volcanoes to peer down at roiling lava a thousand feet below? Why would I trade traversing oceans for sitting in traffic? Because something was missing. I was unsettled, and often unhappy. A year of foundering and sitting with my thoughts, with myself, and I’ve arrived at some semblance of clarity.

Landing back in Sausalito this winter, I started crafting distinctive, durable bags from upcycled sailcloth and leather under the brand name Landfall Leatherworks. Landfall is that first glimpse of land after having been at sea, that distant hazy view of an island’s outline on the horizon. Making landfall is simultaneously thrilling and bittersweet, complex. I distinctly remember my first view of a craggy French Polynesian island 48 days after leaving the Mexican coastline, and with it that first whiff of earth — a rich, sweet smell of soil, decomposition, and wood-burning cooking fires. I thought over those seven weeks of sea and sky that the sight of terra firma would be exciting, that I would be excited. But I Initially surprised myself with a sinking feeling — knowing that land meant a complication of lifestyle, an end to the relative silence of the open ocean, and the beginning of bureaucracy, paperwork, money, internet access. But we are quick to adapt, and the joys of an iced beverage, a fresh meal, and a conversation with a new face remind us why we need community, solidity, grounding. There is a fine balance between the freedom of disconnecting from the world and the richness of connecting back to the collective human experience. 

Landfall Leatherworks

This little business is my landfall; the tangible result of my desire to make sense of, and make something of, my years at sea. And what better place to start than right here in Sausalito’s historic working waterfront? I have always derived gratification from working with my hands to create tactile objects both functional and beautiful. My handcrafted Landfall Leatherworks bags are both, with an added element of sustainability. The upcycled sails innately lend a compelling quality to the bags – no two are alike, and each carries the story of its former voyage. 

In a world of fast fashion and mass production, we need to return our focus to the local community and pre-existing materials. Modern sails are made of Dacron which is a polyester fiber that is nonrecyclable and nonbiodegradable. Sails, though incredibly durable, have a working lifespan of about eight years on most full-time cruising boats, and a fraction of that on racing boats (the stitching breaks down from UV exposure, and the general structural integrity of the fabric diminishes from sun, wind, chafe, and flogging). Think about what that means in terms of the sheer quantity of discarded sails each year in the Bay Area alone, where we have almost 40 marinas with around 11,000 total slips. It is a phenomenal material (lightweight, strong, water resistant, and so easy to clean) that would otherwise be fated to the landfill. My designs maximize use of the fabric and elegantly highlight the original features of the sails by incorporating hardware — grommets, hanks, tacks, clews, reinforced sections, vinyl windows — and stitch patterns. These bags are more than vessels, inextricably linked to my story and the sea itself. 

Landfall Leatherworks

I may no longer know what phase the moon is in or what the tides are doing, but I’m enjoying a newfound settledness. I recognize that my cruising life will always be a part of me, but that it does not define me. When I think back on those years, the sensation and mindset of longer ocean passages is the most striking, most foreign of all my experiences. It is the most distilled version of living I have known — where life becomes not about “doing” or “accomplishing” but about “being,” in a grand space of sea and sky with a fluid sense of time. An unhurried space in which I was content to sit and watch the horizon, the approaching thunderheads, pods of dolphins, the myriad temperaments of the sea’s surface, or bioluminescence coiling off in the wake on moonless nights. My journals bring it all flooding back:

“The sickle moon set early allowing the starlight to go unchallenged. The brightest reflected, multiplied on the prism-like ripples covering the long period ground swell. We’ve lost the wind. The squawks of red-footed boobies and white-tailed tropicbirds crack the silence. I glimpse their flapping shadowforms only occasionally against the inky murk. This is the hardest part, the stagnation and complete inability to change our circumstances. The feeling of human agency disappears when the wind does. And the hours of waiting begin while land sits there 800 miles away, not growing any closer. I forget to notice how beautiful this liquid desert is, how metamorphic. That no one has ever been here, right here. That right here never looks the same. That its mood will never again be what it is right now: cerulean sky, ourselves perched in an amphitheater of squalls, billowing white clouds with flat grey bottoms leveled as far as the eye can see, some venting slanting rain showers like gauzy cement rhombuses.” (17-day passage from Addu, Maldives to Victoria, Seychelles)

I hope I can hang on to that slowness, that focused observation of the present moment, while I embark on this new voyage. I know it’s in me. And I know I’ll head back out there, someday.

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