Taking On The World by Ellen MacArthur

Wet and wild life of a woman whose heart and soul belong to the high seas
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The Independent Culture

It was a combination of a doughty aunt and the Swallows & Amazons books which inspired Ellen MacArthur to go sailing. Although she lived in landlocked Derbyshire, a trip on her aunt Thea's little yacht, aged four, set her saving pennies towards a dinghy, eventually bought when she was eight.

The habit continued until the boats she was saving for were formidable machines which most people would quail from boarding, let alone sailing single-handed, non-stop round the world through mountainous waves and total doldrums, narrowly missing tankers, admiring the whales and albatrosses south of Australia, dodging icebergs in the Southern Ocean, finally turning left at Cape Horn to head home.

Ellen was only 18 when she sailed alone around Britain in a 21ft boat that she had rebuilt herself, and just 26 when she came second in the world's most arduous single-handed sailing race, the Vendée Globe. But for a last cruel failure of gear, she would have won. Such an achievement beggars belief: it requires extraordinary powers of endurance, strength and ingenuity, as well exceptional skills in racing tactics, weather reading and making running repairs on a sophisticated sailing system.

Now she has topped up her achievements by writing her own account of her life. You don't need to be a sailor to find it inspiring. It's about endeavour, a riff on Kipling's "If" that has you wondering why you don't just go out and fulfil your dreams. She writes with fluency and frankness, including her own outbursts of desperate anger as well as her deep affection for her friends, and showing a wisdom well beyond her years.

Deadly serious as she is about racing, she is even more in love with the sea itself, aware of its power but revelling in its beauty. "Ellen belongs to the sea," says one of her closest friends. "I think it will always look after her."

On finishing the book, we still don't know quite what miracle mix of genes made Ellen MacArthur "take on the world", but we do appreciate one vital element in her success. Behind her she had a family who believed in her all her life, helped her when her own efforts could get her no further, and were brave enough to let her go into a world so full of dangers. Generous wads of colour photographs supplement the text: family, friends; all her boats from the little cockleshell Ellen saved her pennies for to the space-age catamarans and trimarans she now skippers; hectic moments at sea, and glorious ones. One of the most striking is a close-up image caught by a long lens: Ellen eyeing Mich Joyeaux, the winner of the Vendée Globe, with a sideways look of concentration which reveals the awesome extent of her power and determination.

The lesson of this endearingly honest book is that anything is possible if you put your whole heart and soul into achieving it. "Goals are just dreams with a deadline" is her watchword; her motto is "A donf!": the French slang for "Go for it!". All of us could do with more of her tenacity and spirit.