MacArthur makes the long voyage to self-knowledge

British woman sailor is youngest competitor in the Vendée Globe round-the-world race which starts this weekend
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The Independent Online

Ellen MacArthur is one of the most popular sports personalities in France.

Ellen MacArthur is one of the most popular sports personalities in France.

She cannot set foot on the Paris Metro, for instance, without provoking delighted cries of recognition. Mention her name in Britain, however, and you are almost certain to be greeted with a blank "who?" Which is a curious state of affairs, considering that she was born and raised in Derbyshire and lives on the Isle of Wight. Still, the next three months might change all that.

This weekend MacArthur embarks on the Vendée Globe 2000, a formidably gruelling, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race. At 24 she is the youngest competitor and one of only two women taking part. Yet her record suggests not only that she will complete the course, but that she could be among the first to cross the finishing line. No Bullimore she. For it was the Vendée Globe, you might recall, in which the adventurer Tony Bullimore, the Eddie the Eagle of solo circumnavigations, came a nearly disastrous cropper a few years ago. His mishaps captured the public imagination, but did notimpress hardened sailors like MacArthur.

And difficult as it is to credit, for she is five foot not-very-much and could pass for even younger than 24, she is a hardened sailor indeed. She owes her popularity in France, where yacht racing is followed passionately, to her adventures in last year's Route du Rhum, a solo race from St Malo to Guadeloupe. Despite the trauma of losing her footing in a gale and being knocked nearly unconscious, of having to deal with 15 litres of fluid bursting from the rams controlling the keel, of the boat lying on its side for seven hours, she finished first in her class and fifth overall. This year, she actually won a 14-day race across the Atlantic from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island. Again, she was the youngest competitor and the only female. "I finished about 12 hours ahead of the next guy," she says, matter-of-factly. She's some woman.

We meet, incongruously, in a high-rise office building in the City of London, the sort of place where the doldrums means a stagnation of net profits rather than the region of equatorial ocean which, because of extreme heat and light winds, will be one of the trickiest legs of MacArthur's voyage. But it's not that incongruous, because big corporate sponsorship looms large in round-the-world yacht-racing these days.

MacArthur is sponsored by Kingfisher, the European retail giant which owns B&Q and Comet. Sponsorship didn't come easily, however. In 1996 she wrote over 2,000 letters to potential sponsors and received just two replies. But when she bought a one-way ferry ticket to France, picked up a humble 21ft yacht in Brest and over the course of five months refitted it on site, learning French so that she could deal with French shipwrights, then belted across the Atlantic in a 2,700-mile solo race from Brest to Martinique, sponsors began to take notice.

Kingfisher agreed to back her, and Kingfisher is therefore the name of her £1.2m, 60ft boat, which she collected in New Zealand in March, and sailed home. Her first boat was a three-foot dinghy; she bought it after saving up her school dinner money for three years. So she has come a long way from the smallholding in Derbyshire where she grew up. And is, of course, about to go a whole lot further, from the French port of Les Sables d'Olonne, southwards skirting Africa, eastwards towards Australia, around Antarctica and northwards skirting South America. There are 10 compulsory passage points. Otherwise, she can plot her own route. The Vendée record is 105 days. MacArthur is aiming to break 100.

"But it will be amazingly stressful," she says, chirpily. "For 24 hours a day the boat will be flying along, and if it's not then things get even more stressful, because you have to find wind as fast as you can. At the equator there is no wind, so you go from cloud to cloud trying to find little squalls. It's very hot, too, of course. I'll spend a lot of time inside but it's basically a carbon box, with no ventilation except the door, because any hole is a risk of water getting in. I'll have fans, though, running off the boat's battery which is charged by solar panels.

"It's all horrendously complicated. There are four or five computers on board, so it's not like getting into a boat with sails and a tiller and off you go. I virtually never steer the boat. The automatic pilot does that, and I spend over half my time at the chart table, navigating. But obviously when a sail needs changing you have to get up and do it. You have to be able to fix the engine, to take the computer apart and put a new hard drive in, even to give yourself first aid. Two nights ago I injected myself in the leg because I might have to do it with morphine or something. Also, you have to appraise the weather constantly. I've been learning about the weather in France from two meteorologists, so actually I only know the weather in French. And you have to do everything when you're stressed and tired. I monitored my sleep on my last transat (sailor-speak for a transatlantic race). I averaged four hours 10 minutes in every 24 hours."

MacArthur has been working with a sleep management specialist, learning to nap in bursts of 10 minutes. As for sustenance, she says she will try to keep to a breakfast-lunch-dinner routine, although this can be sabotaged if her packets of freeze-dried food get wet and the labels peel off, as happened once in the North Atlantic. "I was expecting beef bourguignon and I got fruittrifle," she recalls.

All of which prompts one great big question: why? Because consider what MacArthur will have to put up with in the Southern Ocean, home to the fiercest weather conditions known to woman. "There's no land so there's nothing to stop the depressions blowing around," she explains. "I'll be down there for 50 days or so, and the waves are enormous, they can get up to 100ft high. It's seriously cold, too, ice on the deck stuff." So why? "I love sailing and I love being tested to my limits. I love standing at the bow, charging through the water with Kingfisher at 28 knots, sailing at the limit. It's like being in an out-of-control tube train, in the dark sometimes. And yeah, I get scared. I got caught in a force 11 coming back from Canada once, and that's big waves. I was with five guys and there was a cargo ship about half a mile away, and we could see its propeller coming out of the water, although only for two seconds every minute, when the ship was on top of a wave and we were. But to see a whole ship rolling, when it's 100 times your length, that's pretty mindblowing." Yes, I say, I can imagine that being pretty mindblowing. At this point I consider sharing with her my own nautical adventures, starting, and more or less finishing, with that terrible occasion 30-odd years ago when my lilo capsized in the open-air bathing lake in Southport. But I don't. Instead, I ask her about the kind of sea life she might expect to encounter.

"Albatrosses in the Southern Ocean," she says. "And lots of dolphins. I had 40 following me once, and they look right at you, they're incredible. I never tire of seeing dolphins. And sometimes I'm inside and I know they're there because I can hear their calls through the hull, which kind of acts like a big speaker. Then at night you see them swimming through the phosphorescence, when the water glows bright green. That's amazing. You also see whales in the phosphorescence sometimes. Actually, whales are quite a risk because they sleep on the surface of the water and don't hear you coming. I hit one once, near Newfoundland. Luckily there was no damage to the boat, but I don't think the whale was very well. Quite often you smell them before you see them. They've got very fishy breath, and it lingers, especially in fog. So you tend to know when they're around." And seascapes? She must see some astonishing vistas? "Yes, sunrises and sunsets can be really spectacular, because you are completely encompassed by the sky. You can see every bit of sky, above you and around you. The only land I'll set eyes on is the Canary Islands and Cape Horn if I'm lucky enough to pass it during the day." It must, I venture, be somewhat frustrating, seeing all this yet having nobody to share it with. And rather compounding the image of solitude, MacArthur tells me she is taking a tiny Christmas pudding made by her gran, together with a small phial of rum. Yet she insists that she will be anything but lonely. She will send and receive e-mails and, in the form of a satellite telephone, possesses a phone-a-friend lifeline more literal than anything ever proffered by Chris Tarrant. When she got belted on the head, 10 days out from St Malo during the Route du Rhum, she used it to consult her uncle, a GP back in Derbyshire.

It is remarkable, really, to think that MacArthur's story begins in Derbyshire, which must be the most landlocked county in England. "It all started when I was four and first sailed off the east coast with my auntie," she tells me. "I really loved it. I read all the Swallows and Amazons books, and later, Robin Knox-Johnston's book [ A World of My Own], which made me really want to sail round the world. Then when I was about 14 I started getting very interested in little cabin cruisers, and people at school definitely thought I was a bit weird. When I was 17, after saving for 10 years, I bought a 21ft boat for £1,300."

A year later MacArthur became the youngest person to win the Yachtmaster Offshore teaching qualification, winning the Young Sailor of the Year award in the process. By this time a nasty bout of glandular fever had disrupted her plans to become a vet. "And one morning I'd thought, 'I love sailing. Why am I thinking of being anything other than a professional sailor?'"

In 1995, in her boat Iduna - "named after the Norse goddess who arrived by boat bringing the apples of eternal youth," she explains, self-consciously adding "I was just a kid then" - MacArthur set off on a solo circumnavigation of Britain. She started in Hull, heading anti-clockwise, and it took her more than five months. "That's when my life changed," she says. "I had an overwhelming feeling that the past was behind me, the future ahead of me, and that I was suspended between the two." She visited 53 ports, most memorably Montrose, on the east coast of Scotland, where she was doubled up with food poisoning. "I laid up there for a couple of days. And the guys on the dock gave me the keys to their tea hut. It was full of pictures of naked women, and fag ends, and torn-up sofas, but it was their place, that's the point. That was typical of the way in which everyone has been so supportive." She will certainly not lack for support on Sunday afternoon, when around 500,000 people are expected to gather in Les Sables d'Olonne, lining up 30 deep on both sides of a mile-long canal through which the boats must pass.

Many of them will be shouting "Ellen, a donf!" which roughly translates as "go for it, Ellen!" They need have no worries on that score.