Ellen MacArthur: The indomitable voyager with a time tattooed on her soul

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A neatly wrapped parcel with a Derbyshire postmark was handed to Ellen MacArthur, who was standing in the tiny cockpit of her 75ft trimaran B&Q. "Oh good," she said. "Mum's flapjacks."

A neatly wrapped parcel with a Derbyshire postmark was handed to Ellen MacArthur, who was standing in the tiny cockpit of her 75ft trimaran B&Q. "Oh good," she said. "Mum's flapjacks."

Standing alongside her, I was struck by this clash of the commonplace and the extraordinary. On the one hand, a loving mother sending her 28-year-old daughter a pile of home-made flapjacks. On the other, said daughter about to attempt something so formidable that only one other person in history - the Frenchman Francis Joyon, earlier this year - has managed it.

Since 1968 five others have tried, and all have failed, to complete a non-stop solo circumnavigation in a trimaran, the fastest ocean-going boat propelled by sail. In a trimaran or anything else, Joyon holds the world non-stop solo circumnavigation record. But if there is anyone on the planet capable of taking it from him, it is probably MacArthur.

This was the third time I had interviewed her, and each time I was captivated. She does not charm, exactly. She is disconcertingly direct and can sometimes verge on the waspish. Yet she has what I can only describe as a radiance of spirit. It is in her eyes, in her laugh, and in the matter-of-fact way she talks about challenges that buckle the knees just in the listening.

Her assault on Joyon's record began yesterday morning, with the arrival of the north-westerly wind she has been waiting for to catapult B&Q across the Bay of Biscay towards the trade winds and on across the Equator.

For two weeks before that, B&Q - a name chosen not for its catchiness or romance, but in homage to the project's principal sponsor, as you have perhaps guessed - was docked in Port Pendennis Marina, Falmouth. Every day, a steady stream of well-wishers came to the quayside to photograph MacArthur, get her autograph, shake her hand, tell her about the time they once met her in New Zealand, whatever. When I was with her an elderly man asked her if she knew what the record was, down to the very last second.

She smiled. "It's 72 days, 22 hours, 54 minutes and 22 seconds," she said briskly. Joyon's time is tattooed on her soul. And if she can travel just under 27,000 miles at an average of 15.38 knots, then she will beat it. But it is an extraordinarily tall order.

She showed me around the vessel which she now hopes will be her home until four minutes and six seconds past 7am on 9 February, at the latest, in which case the record will be hers. B&Q was designed specifically for solo record-breaking and, just as specifically, for her. The cockpit dimensions, the height of the mast, the amount of sail, all was calculated "to allow me to do the best possible job of sailing her".

Her bunk, where on Saturday night she managed only 10 minutes' sleep as she sailed from Falmouth to the starting line off the French coast, is tiny; even my 11-year-old daughter would look at it askance. As for all the navigational technology, the dials and needles and switches, they would intimidate even a Formula One driver.

In getting this thing around the world, MacArthur will have to be an engineer, an electrician, a cartographer, a weather forecaster, a sailmaker, a nutritionist (apart from her mum's flapjacks, all her rations are freeze-dried), and even a television director, relaying footage of her adventure via 12 webcams located all over the boat. There's every chance, too, that she will have to be a doctor. Should the need arise, she may have to stitch up a nasty gash, for which she has practised by taking a needle and cotton to pieces of orange peel. "A guy in the Vendée Globe had to sew his tongue back on," she told me cheerfully.

It was the 2001 Vendée Globe race, of course, which made her practically as famous in Britain as she already was in France, where great sailors are venerated. She finished second, becoming the fastest woman to complete a solo circumnavigation. She is also the fastest female sailor to cross the Atlantic, and fell only 75 minutes short of beating the fastest man. I asked her whether she considers it a true record, being the fastest woman over a stretch of water, rather than the fastest human being.

"Of course it's a record," she said, indignantly. "But I'm already the fastest woman around the world non-stop, so if that was what mattered to me, this project would be pointless, wouldn't it?"

I smiled weakly, and, in deference to the nautical theme, changed tack. Sailors are a notoriously superstitious lot. Would she be taking anything with her to bring her luck? Like a rabbit's foot?

She recoiled in semi-mock horror. "You can't say that!" Sorry? "That animal - what you just said - is very, very unlucky for sailors. In the old days they used to take them on board to eat, but they usually escaped and ate through the rigging. That's one of my main superstitions, never to mention you-know-what. There are others. They always say you should never leave on a Friday, but I'm not convinced by that one.

"Whenever I hear that word, though, I have to think to myself, 'am I on a boat?' And if I am, I have to scratch the mast. That gets rid of the bad luck. But it's amazing how often the word comes up in conversation. I said it yesterday. I was talking about someone being scared, and said they were like a... in the headlights. I had to run straight out and scratch the mast."

A chortle. "I once talked about this to another journalist. I talked about never mentioning the creature with long furry ears, and when he wrote the piece he said it was unlucky to say the word 'elephant'."

Laughing, I told her never to over-estimate the intelligence of journalists. She did not disagree; she has suffered the usual witless tabloid intrusions into her private life. Her fame, however, has mainly done her good, partly by making it easier to get her projects funded, but also by yielding heart-warming feedback from those inspired by her indomitable will.

She declined to give me any examples. "I can't tell you their stories," she said. "They're private letters. But I have been told some incredible things. What I say to people is not that every dream is achievable but that if you do have a dream, you should give your all to make it happen."

MacArthur's all is more than most people's. She has told me before the story of how, by skipping school dinners literally for years, she saved enough of her dinner money to buy her first boat, an 8ft dinghy. Where this single-mindedness comes from, she doesn't quite know. Her parents are quiet, genteel folk who still seem to regard their only daughter with a mixture of pride and bemusement.

"This is what I do," she told me firmly, when I asked how her parents reacted to the news that she was about to embark on her most formidable challenge yet. "It's my job. I'm sure they have reservations as any parents would; like any parents would if you were driving a car six hours down a motorway. But when I was 18 I sailed solo round Britain, around rocks which is much more dangerous than the open sea. I've been doing this since 1994. They've had time to get used to it."

She was being ever so slightly disingenuous, I suspect, in claiming that sailing round Britain is more dangerous than ploughing through waves potentially 100ft high in the southern ocean. What must that be like? I invited her to describe it, in terms that someone like me - whose only experience in directing a sailing boat across a stretch of water was in a park, with a remote-control unit in one hand and an ice-cream cone in the other - might comprehend.

"Imagine you're in a car, driving off road at high speed, in the dark without headlights," she said. "You're having to hold the steering wheel in both hands just to stay in your seat. It's pelting down with rain, and not only do you have no windscreen wipers, you have no windscreen. That's what the southern ocean is like at night. It's brutal."

Perversely - although knowing this remarkable young woman, not surprisingly - that is the bit she is most looking forward to. Like racing drivers have their favourite stretches of track, so do racing sailors have their favourite expanses of water. And hers is the southern ocean.

"It's amazing," she enthused. "There's this amazing sense of freedom. Hardly any islands and no ships, because no one really goes down there. Just nature. Albatross with wingspans in excess of 2.5 metres, the occasional whale, and icebergs. Most people in the Vendée didn't see any, but I saw nine in one day because I was pushed to the south of a depression. The first one I saw I didn't expect at all. I missed it by 20 feet. I woke up, took a look round, and as I cleaned the window it was right there, alongside."

MacArthur is unembarrassed by her profound, almost romantic attachment to Kingfisher, the monohull in which she completed the Vendée. Again, it is something non-sailors do not understand, the emotional communion between skipper and boat. And with B&Q, which she has already sailed solo across the Atlantic, the bond is getting to be the same. After all, she was involved in every stage of its design, and became practically a commuter between England and Australia during its eight-month construction just outside Sydney.

It is smaller and lighter than Joyon's boat, which will be a boon at times, a burden at others. She knows that she will have to push even harder than she did in the Vendée, not least because her opponents this time are the clock and the calendar, which push on even more relentlessly than other boats.

"You give all you have, so in that sense there's no difference between a record attempt and a race. But when you're in a race and there's a difficult weather situation coming, you can say, 'OK, this is what I'm going to do'. And four hours later when you get the position reports, you can see whether anyone else has done the same thing. It's hugely comforting to find that they have. But on your own, who knows? You feel very vulnerable."

Still, she is a better sailor now than she has ever been. "How much better is the $64,000 question," she said, with a smile. "But I never get on a boat and don't learn anything. The minute I think I'm not learning I'll get off and never get on again. Across the Atlantic [in B&Q] I learnt how hard I could push her, how resilient she was in certain conditions. That was only seven days, so this is very different. But I pushed her harder than I thought I was capable of, and myself too. I averaged two hours 40 minutes sleep per 24 hours, in five, 10, and 20-minute slices. For the last few years I've monitored my sleeping patterns, which is crucial. Like anyone, my mental and physical well-being directly correlate to the amount of sleep I've had, but at the same time I can sleep for five minutes and feel I've slept for an hour."

This necessary preoccupation with herself and her body is inclined to make some people think that MacArthur must be singularly self-absorbed. It's not true. "People think I want to be on my own," she said. "That's not it at all. I can deal with my own company, but I get a massive amount of pleasure working with a team. There are about 15 of us involved, and for the past 12 months we've been like a family. It's not the trip that excites me, it's the project. The trip just drives the project."

And now she must "just" drive the boat, to the limit of its potential.