Sailing: MacArthur back in her natural element

Looking relaxed and refreshed after an out-of-character three-week holiday, Ellen MacArthur gave her partner a final birthday hug here yesterday before leaving him to celebrate ashore as she returned to the element in which she thrives best, the open sea.

Looking relaxed and refreshed after an out-of-character three-week holiday, Ellen MacArthur gave her partner a final birthday hug here yesterday before leaving him to celebrate ashore as she returned to the element in which she thrives best, the open sea.

For MacArthur, this is a personal test following a rare defeat earlier this year when she attempted to break the round-the-world record in the 110-foot catamaran Kingfisher 2. For all 12 of the 60-foot trimarans setting off on the 2,700-mile race to Rimini on the Italian Adriatic this is also a major test of seaworthiness after the carnage of November's Route du Rhum.

"I think some of the skippers had forgotten just how hard and cruel the sea could be,'' said Gérard Petitpas, organiser of the race on behalf of Mondial Assistance, yesterday. "They were concentrating on boats more suited to inshore speed. They need to show they are seaworthy or organisers will not agree to let them race.''

MacArthurhas renewed her association with Alain Gautier on a 60-foot Foncia that has twice suffered structural problems, including to its mast on the way to the start of this race.

Just to keep everyone on their toes, the fleet had to face the teeth of a 15-22-knot southerly on its first night slogging towards Cape Finisterre. Competitors will be hoping to be able to turn left through the Straits of Gibraltar in 72 hours, but the pressure may only increase as MacArthur, from the navigator's den deep in the central hull, mixes tactics with interpreting the conflicting weather patterns of the Mediterranean and the Adriatic.

MacArthur will not be with Gautier for the whole season, as she is awaiting delivery of a 75-foot trimaran being built in Australia, which will be devoted to record-breaking rather than racing, mainly single-handed rather than with a crew.

But the 60-foot trimaran circuit, firmly embedded in France, is at the heart of MacArthur's long-term plans. She hopes to be captaining her own team by 2005-2006, but that aspiration assumes the class will have maintained its strength and importance.

MacArthur is one of three women in the race to Rimini, the other two being the legendary Florence Arthaud and Karinc Fauconnier.

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