Sailing: 'Ellen was in a deep hole. I didn't think she'd make it'

Nick Townsend
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The Independent Online

Ellen MacArthur's counsel, confidant and self-confessed "emotional punchbag" on terra firma asks you to imagine a scream, one in which the brain is so disorientated by fatigue, the body so depleted of muscle power, that the vocal cords can barely function.

Ellen MacArthur's counsel, confidant and self-confessed "emotional punchbag" on terra firma asks you to imagine a scream, one in which the brain is so disorientated by fatigue, the body so depleted of muscle power, that the vocal cords can barely function. "If you ever hear someone screaming but there's no volume, it's one of the most frightening things," recalls Mark Turner. "There were moments in the last two or three weeks, she was shouting, or trying to shout, down the phone in frustration, 'I can't do this'. It was one of the darkest times for Ellen and me.

"She was in a real deep hole and I didn't actually think she was going to finish it, or even get through the next hour, let alone the next day - although there's been no time in any race that she's said she's going to stop. When you suffer deep fatigue, everything becomes emotional, everything becomes stressful. Decisions become impossible to make."

It was in her finishing straight, down in the South Atlantic, Mark Turner recalls, that Britain's record- breaking circumnavigator underwent that "torture - albeit self-imposed torture".

Turner, 37, has been the first mate (in the strictly nautical sense, one should stress) of Dame Ellen Far-From-Average since 1997, when he defeated her in a solo transatlantic race. They are joint owners of Offshore Challenges, an enterprise they established to, well, to do precisely what it says on the message in the bottle: penetrate the far excesses of human achievement on the unforgiving oceans. It is an 18-person company, supporting three sailors, including the 28-year-old MacArthur, and is organised on the lines of an F1 team. The pair are clearly kindred spirits. He once hauled a sled to the South Pole.

By Thursday, when we meet, the fervour has subsided in Falmouth. The harbour town, scene of Tuesday's rousing homecoming, has rediscovered its out-of-season genteel charm. Visitors seek out B&Bs, not B&Q,, MacArthur's multi-hull yacht, which is berthed outside the Maritime Museum. The £1.5m craft has been returned by its skipper in almost pristine condition. "Like a majestic flying bird," says Turner. Not, you muse, like the remnants of Pete Goss's ill-fated craft which lie in the museum, a stark reminder of the pitiless power of the elements.

Turner possesses the demob-happy demeanour of a man who could himself have been to sea for 71 days. In his own mind, he has. He holds up a hand-held computer displaying technical information, provided by satellite, updated every 60 seconds from B&Q. That, and the fact that he was once a professional sailor himself, enabled him to visualise being on board. "I lived it virtually 24 hours a day," says Turner, whose home is on the side of a mountain in Chamonix, France. "I didn't sleep more than three hours a day. I never missed a phone call [from Ellen] in 72 days. I didn't even take an underground train in case I was out of contact at a tense moment."

You suggest it must have been like a phantom pregnancy, experiencing her labour pains right up until delivery? He nods. "When Ellen crossed the line, the feeling wasn't one of elation, it was one of relief," says. "Even in the last hours, she could have been hit by a cargo ship or fallen asleep and ended up on the beach. It happens... This has been something I never want to experience again."

He adds: "Multi-hulls are so sensitive to change in winds, it's Sod's Law that the sails need changing when you desperately need sleep. From Cape Horn onwards, she was that far from the edge." He compresses two fingers virtually together.

"She needed to stop for half an hour and rest, but she couldn't. The cumulative effect had been to wear her down, and down. Physically, she had totally and utterly gone. She couldn't move, could barely speak. I don't know if I did anything to help. All you can do is be there, and have it taken out on you - much better me than someone like a close friend or one of her parents [Ken and Avril], who might get upset by it. To hear the stress and frustration of someone like that, sometimes in the middle of the night, and not be able to do anything about it was hard. I bit my pillow a few times."

The deprivations and hazards did not compare with those experience by Captain Joshua Slocum who, in his sloop, Spray, required over three years to become the first sailor to sail around the world alone, starting in 1895. Relatively speaking, they were far, far worse. He had no clock to race against.

So how do you provide solace to a woman who sails alone amid such fearsome, scowling seas capable of landing a catastrophic blow even to this eight-ton technological marvel, designed and constructed to thwart all the elements could throw at it? One in which whales and icebergs do not represent fascinating sightseeing, but are potential enemies? Where the 99ft mast had to be scaled three times? Where, at the start, a faulty generator meant she had to withstand extreme temperatures below deck?

"Things were starting to melt," Turner says of that setback. "I actually tried to convince her to stop, but she couldn't face the idea of that after 10 full-on days. Christmas was also a difficult period with storms. There was basically 20 tons of water smacking into the structure. You've built a boat from a computer model, trying to save every half kilogram. But you never know whether the real thing will hold together structurally."

But the final three weeks were the worst. "It was a matter of holding on, just dealing with it," says Turner. "I got some abuse sometimes. It wasn't meant to be personal. You have to hope it all comes out, and pray that she doesn't do anything really stupid, and jump over the side."

Turner confirms: "There's a number of stories of people getting so tired that they start to hallucinate, and they totally lose it. Most people do. I did."

What happens next to a woman who Turner describes as "that rare mix, someone who has an extraordinary amount of passion, is a sensitive person but has a huge amount of aggression", and who has emerged triumphant, trimming 32 hours off the Frenchman Francis Joyon's record (her new mark is 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds)?

Inevitably, more of the same - rather than chasing the commercial pound. "We could have made at least three million, I suspect, in the last three years if we'd taken all the endorsement offers and done all the celebrity tours," he says. "But then you become 100 per cent a target [of intrusion into her life]."

Possibly there will be an attempt at the transatlantic or the 24-hour records, he suggests, adding: "I don't think she'll try this again. It was too hard. She ended with scars, and I've got some, too, and I don't think they'll go away too quickly."

In space, according to the promotional blurb for the film Alien, nobody can hear you scream. The same is normally true out alone in the ocean. Fortunately for MacArthur, she had someone who could listen - and understand.

Team Ellen: The quay players

Stuart Alexander

Mark Turner: The driving force. At 37, he encountered Ellen as a competitor in the Mini-Transat and beat her. But he recognised her potential and formed Offshore Challenges with her. A workaholic who, if it is possible, sleeps even less than Ellen when she is at sea. Is her "punchbag" on the radio, organises finance and masterminds the publicity plan.

Neil Graham: A 49-year-old Australian, he is the technical director. Despite all the worries, the boat was in such good condition when it arrived in Falmouth that, with minor maintenance, it could set off round the world again today.

Nigel Irens: Revered in France as a multihull designer, the 58-year-old Briton, with his French business partner Benoit Cabaret, custom-made the 75ft trimaran to make it as manageable as possible for Ellen.

Peter and Sari Ulrich: Built the record-breaking boat at their Boatspeed yard in Sydney.

Ken Campbell: With a round-the-clock team of four, and with further input from the German meteorologist Meeno Scharder, gave Ellen constant weather and tactical advice.

Dr Kevin McMeel: Canadian-based doctor, who has also sailed with MacArthur, providing health monitoring and advice on tending to injuries.

Dr Claudio Stampi: A chronobiologist expert in monitoring sleep patterns.

Charles Darbyshire: The technology manager who installed all the boat's telecom systems and acted as a point of call back-up to Turner.

Lou Newlands: Managed the media programme.