Sailing - Dame Ellen MacArthur: Driven dame heads for the high seas once again

Barred from Cowes week, the heroine of British sailing is out instead to add the record for a solo Atlantic crossing to her circumnavigation crown Brian Viner
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So MacArthur, who had wanted to test B&Q in race conditions and is not used to being denied things she wants by anything other than the natural elements, will instead fly to Newfoundland, where she will pick up B&Q and sail to New York. There she will scrutinise weather reports until she judges that the time is right to launch her assault on Francis Joyon's single-handed transatlantic record of six days, four hours, one minute and 37 seconds. It was Joyon, you'll recall, whose single-handed circumnavigation record she broke in February. They are sailing's answer to Betty Hutton and the aptly named Howard Keel, who sang, in Annie Get Your Gun, "anything you can do I can do better/I can do anything better than you".

But this time Ellen might have to do more than get her boat. It is only a month since Joyon knocked a staggering 22 hours off the previous record, the record that MacArthur herself missed by 75 minutes last year. She knows that bettering the Frenchman's feat so soon is a long shot. On the other hand, she specialises in long shots.

"Francis has made it exceptionally, massively more difficult," she says. "It's déjà vu, really. I've got to average 19.7 knots for six days, which can be done but will be really, really hard. But I feel ready. Until the boat's over there I won't feel mentally ready, but physically I'm ready. I've spent a lot of time in the gym. I feel good."

Now that she has the solo circumnavigation record (and she says she would have to think long and hard before attempting to win it back, should Joyon or someone else wrest it from her) the single-handed transatlantic record is the one she covets most.

But she cannot afford to wait indefinitely for the right tailwind to carry her past Ambrose Light at the mouth of New York Harbour, which is the starting point. On 5 November she must be in Le Havre to begin the Transat Jacques Vabre, the two-handed race across the south Atlantic to Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, in which she is competing with another Frenchman, Roland Jourdain, and which she nearly won in 2001.

So what motivates and excites her more, breaking records or winning races?

"Pushing myself," she replies, "that's what motivates me. That, and working with a team. Do I prefer records to races? They're different. The clock never stops, never has a problem, never has an issue, like other boats do. In a race if you have a day without wind, the boat next to you has the same problem. So record attempts are more stressful."

Of course, as some cynics have pointed out, it's not stress that she is compelled to endure. The harrowing tribulations of her round-the-world voyage, as chronicled in her video diaries and satirised on television by Dead Ringers, could have been avoided simply by not making the trip. Does she understand people who seek to diminish her achievements in this way? Let's start with Dead Ringers: did she see herself being caricatured as a self-pitying whinger?

"I was sent a couple of tapes. It's quite funny. It's not harmful, is it? People need to laugh in this world, don't they? It's nice to see funny things on TV. Not that it was all that funny but ... I did actually think it was amusing, although having been in that situation, I know that at the time it really, really wasn't funny.

"And yes, I know I don't have to do what I do. It's my choice. But I don't do it to wave a flag, to say look at me. I do it because I love it.

"And the feedback we get here is that people who take that [cynical] view are about one per cent. Most people seem to be hugely inspired. And I know what it feels like to be inspired. I read Francis Chichester's book. I was a girl with a dream once."

MacArthur is talking at the Cowes offices of her company Offshore Challenges, which employs 25 people and in which she has a 50 per cent share with her long-term business partner Mark Turner. On the otherwise bare walls there are some framed front pages from national newspapers, celebrating her jubilant arrival in Falmouth in February. One of them, the Daily Mail, had a picture of her looking ecstatic and alongside it the headline: "£5m Ellen: that's the fortune our record-breaking dame can make next year."

The fortune interested the Mail but not MacArthur: sailing has certainly made her rich and famous, yet she has never sought riches or fame.

In fact, she says that one of the reasons she now enjoys going to sea is that she can find sanctuary from the constant recognition she gets on land. Paradoxically, she seeks anonymity in the very place that brought her celebrity.

Meanwhile, enquiries about her worth are batted away derisively. This is the fourth time I have interviewed her, and the first time was in 1999 before she set out on the Vendée Globe race, when she was almost entirely unknown in Britain, so I feel entitled to be blunt with her. What, apart from buying a plot of land in Scotland, has she done with her new-found wealth? Surely she has shelled out on just one luxurious holiday in the Seychelles, or perhaps a fabulous sports car?

"That's a stupid question and you know it's a stupid question," she says, her bright blue eyes flashing a mixture of amusement and irritation.

"I haven't changed since you first met me. I still fix my own hot-water system. And the way we've managed the growth of the company is by reinvesting everything. We do our own website, our own media relations, our own PR, our own sponsorship management, everything."

OK, so let's stick with the stupid questions. If she ever has a daughter herself (she is reportedly back with her former boyfriend Ian, incidentally, after a dalliance with a Portuguese diver), how might she feel about her going to sea on her own?

"I've no idea," she says. "Unless you have kids you can't even begin to imagine. And I won't think about having kids until it feels right. At the moment it doesn't feel right."

She pauses. She knows what I'm getting at. "My parents take it all in their stride. They have a daughter and two sons, I do a job that's a little bit different, that's all. We don't talk about it a huge amount. I know they worry, it would be odd if they didn't. I do feel sometimes that there's an element of selfishness on my part, putting them through it. At least on a boat I have some control when things go wrong, on land they can do nothing. But they know the score."

The score, when you think about it, is pretty sensational. MacArthur, the diminutive daughter of two Derbyshire teachers, is 29-years-old and a Dame of the British Empire. She has every right to consider herself the finest long-distance sailor on earth. Hell, she has even said no to David Letterman, politely declining an invitation to appear on his talk show in the wake of her solo circumnavigation.

"Actually, I didn't say no, I said, 'No, not now'," she says. "I was tired."

Her personal assistant Lucy continues to field calls from Letterman's bookers, and MacArthur continues to say, "No, not now". "But I'll probably do it," she says. "Maybe when I'm in New York this time."

Her condescension is magnificent, and when she is a 79-year-old dame rather than one of 29 she will be extraordinarily formidable. She is formidable enough now, but in truth it can be tiresome to be given little homilies about life from someone not yet 30, no matter what they have achieved. For example, when I ask whether she is more comfortable on water than on dry land, she says: "Probably, but life's about contrasts, isn't it?" If you say so, Ellen.

But I don't want to sound mean-spirited. After all, there are very few people less mean-spirited than MacArthur herself, who pours prodigious time and energy into The Ellen MacArthur Trust, which helps children with leukaemia.

"The charity that I do, and the racing that I do, is helped by my celebrity," she says. "So the positives of celebrity are amazing. But my least favourite part of the whole thing is being known wherever I go. You should try that for a day. It's very interesting. When you become a celebrity people assume that you're not normal, when you're no different from the person you've always been."

I can vouch for this, because the 23-year-old, pre-fame MacArthur that I met was just as self-possessed and wilful as the present-day version. I would be prepared, however, to debate the point that she is normal. All the stories - about her forsaking school dinners for years so she could put her dinner money towards her first dinghy, about her staying up all night writing 2,000 letters begging for sponsorship - hardly suggest normality.

And she concedes, when pushed, that she is unusually driven. "Dogged determination is my greatest strength. I don't give up, I won't let go, in other aspects of my life as well as sailing. For instance, I decided to write a book. Who else would finish a round-the-world race, carry on competitive sailing and write their own book as well? How many sports people write their own books, anyway?"

Indeed; on which subject, does she follow other sports? "It's hard when you're at sea, isn't it, which I am for six months of the year. I do try to follow the Tour de France. I think what Lance Armstrong has done is absolutely unbelievable."

It occurs to me that there are quite a few parallels between her and Armstrong: the mental courage, the physical fortitude, the terrifying single-mindedness. I ask her whether she has ever needed psychological help in preparing for a race or a record attempt?

"I did see a guy a couple of times, before the Vendée. But it didn't really help. 'Think of the finish' and all that stuff. I never start a race thinking about winning it, only that I'm going to give everything I can. I don't want to come back thinking, 'Damn, on this or that day I could have pushed a little bit harder'. I can't rest if the boat's not sailing as well as it can, sometimes to my own detriment. It's a weakness as well as a strength."

It is a weakness that may well help her to break Joyon's record.

Whatever, succeed or fail, she will then do the two-handed transat, before spending yet another Christmas a very long way from home, this time on the remote island of South Georgia, helping with a study of the albatross. Her folks, dishing out the turkey in Derbyshire, could be forgiven for feeling offended. But as she says, they know the score.