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

Nick Townsend

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Data Capture / Telesales

£12000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Front Of House Team Member

£16500 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Manager

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has won the award ...

Recruitment Genius: Store Manager & Store Supervisor

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific