Full Circle, By Ellen MacArthur

Waving hello to the good life
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The Independent Culture

Full Circle is really two books. The first details Dame Ellen MacArthur's astonishing sailing achievements; the second, her decision to give up competitive sailing and promote sustainability. MacArthur certainly conveys the loneliness, exhaustion and exhilaration of her solo round-the-world trip of 2004-05. Her on-board emails, complete with typing errors from her rolling keyboard, add to the sense of immediacy. Despite some "this will go down to the wire" clichés, she writes evocatively, without a ghostwriter, managing to merge the race tension with admiration of moons, sunsets and albatrosses.

We discover her instinct for reading the weather and she's forever under the deck rigging up improvised solutions to save the ship. She worries about breaking her neck climbing the mast. Had she been swept overboard, the boat would have carried on sailing on autopilot.

Breaking the round-the-world record is the fruition of a five-year plan. But then MacArthur's life changes with a trip to South Georgia in the Southern Ocean. The eerie, abandoned whaling stations that once employed thousands and killed 175,000 whales have a huge impact: "We can watch a resource deplete before our eyes, but then quite simply walk away as if nothing was amiss". MacArthur studies sustainability, inspired by the knowledge that on her boat she could waste nothing. Her life becomes more The Good Life than ocean strife. She builds an eco-house on the Isle of Wight with her partner Ian. The fastest woman on the seas discovers the joy of slow travel in a canoe through the canals of the industrial north with Ian and her dog, Floss.

Soon she becomes disillusioned with the negative message of environmentalists. She decides to start a foundation with a more optimistic aim, to encourage young people to "rethink and redesign the future", to move from a linear economy to a fossil fuel-lite circular one. You wonder if she'll be tempted out of retirement by her competitive spirit. And it would be easy to dismiss MacArthur's green epiphany as another celebrity vanity project. But she comes across as a thoughtful person, ill at ease with stardom, and her passion for conserving resources has deep roots in both her sailing and her ancestors' roles as fishermen and miners.

Pete May is the author of 'There's a Hippo in My Cistern' (Collins)

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