Sailing: MacArthur counts the miles to glory

Finishing straight proves as testing as anything that has gone before on a trip which has stretched the soul

The successful end of her precarious attempt to become the fastest solo sailor round the planet was a tantalising prospect for an exhausted Ellen MacArthur yesterday. At 07.04am she had 96 hours to complete the final 670 miles to the finish off Ushant. She should not need all of them - but she was about to take another pasting from gale-force headwinds.

The successful end of her precarious attempt to become the fastest solo sailor round the planet was a tantalising prospect for an exhausted Ellen MacArthur yesterday. At 07.04am she had 96 hours to complete the final 670 miles to the finish off Ushant. She should not need all of them - but she was about to take another pasting from gale-force headwinds.

This pilgrimage has stretched body, mind and boat to their limits, and no wonder there is a continuing note of caution coming from MacArthur and her team. Just three days ago they saw a fellow soloist, Mike Golding, lose his keel a mere 52 miles from the end of the Vendée Globe round-the-world race, so MacArthur is all too aware of how much she relies on the kit she has under her feet, the 75-foot trimaran B&Q.

One small breakage could trigger a domino sequence to bring everything crashing down. When she was second in the last Vendée, another woman, Catherine Chabaud, was dismasted approaching the Bay of Biscay, just 600 miles - as MacArthur was yesterday - from the finish.

But, catastrophe apart, MacArthur should be able to celebrate, at the latest on Wednesday, and assume the mantle of others like Sir Francis Chichester and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. Can "arise Dame Ellen" be far away? There is a vast difference, however, between what those two nautical knights achieved and what Ellen has done. Knox-Johnston was entirely on his own for 313 days, no emails, no weather routing, no constant source of reassurance.

MacArthur had 72 days to face, every one of them with massive shore support. Hers was a custom-built assault on what had been a relatively soft target until Francis Joyon set off in an underfunded, heavy, old boat and lowered the record by 20 days last year.

When MacArthur shot to fame, coming second in the 2000-01 Vendée, the mantra in her camp was "single-handed, but never alone". She did not endear herself to many by saying that on a scale of one to 10 what she has done now is "nine point something" whereas "I would stick the Vendée Globe on a five, max".

The satirical television programme Dead Ringers could have a field day with all the tears and drama that have accompanied this journey. But that would be not to know - and she can be difficult to know, despite the outer layer of unfettered emotion - the inner Ellen. The man who came second in this year's Vendée, Jean le Cam, can be embarrassingly Latin in his emotions, in contrast to the ice-cold, self-focused winner, Vincent Riou. MacArthur has both sides to her nature.

She has sinews of steeland an "up and at it" determination never to be beaten. But she has also been saying: "I am sitting here with tears in my eyes, not really knowing what to do with myself... I doubt I shall ever be able to express what this trip has put me through... I believe I am running so close to empty it is only the energy from others that is keeping me going... this trip has taken all I have, every last drop and ounce... There are no reserves, and I am pretty fragile right now."

In effect, she has never been alone. Her shore team deny that their communications bill will be enormous, but she has had two sets of weather routers guiding her every mile, she has on-tap medical advice and even sleep monitoring - sleep deprivation has been a major problem.

If MacArthur's exploits have overshadowed those of Golding - and the French media are furious that she should have timed her run, as they see it, to steel the thunder of their prestige event - they can never completely obscure either the other individual efforts that have been made or the foundations for the future of British long-distance solo sailing that have been laid in the two events.

Before he started and all the way through the Vendée race, Golding was saying that, at 44, he thought this was his last major crack at round-the- world solo sailing. But before he finished there were already murmurs within his camp about doing what used to be called Around Alone, renamed Five Oceans, which has stopovers. He also conspicuously failed to rule out another Vendée when he finished late last week. And he is scheduled to do the Calais Round Britain Race in the summer, followed by the two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre from Le Havre to Brazil in November.

Still to finish the Vendée, Conrad Humphreys, 31, in Hellomoto has put up a remarkable performance after stopping in Cape Town for over a week to repair his rudders. He had moved up to seventh place yesterday, despite his keel malfunction-ing. In 2000-01 Golding had to restart after eight days following a dismasting in less than eight hours and also finished seventh, with the fourth fastest time.

Back in the UK is the young Turk Alex Thomson, 30, who had to retire his Hugo Boss after a massive failure saw his mainsail boom punch a hole in the deck. If Golding is ready to hand over the baton, these two would be eager to grab it and finally break the stranglehold that the French have held throughout the life of the Vendée Globe.

The question for Mac- Arthur is whether to continue along the controllable path of record-hunting or return to the more exposed competitive race track.

Captain's log: timetable of a record-breaking voyage

28 Nov: 08.10GMT

B&Q crosses the start line at Ushant at a speed of 27 knots. Must recross the line by 07.04 on 9 Feb to break Francis Joyon's record of 72 days 22hr 54min. "Relief to be over the line, relief to be going. I was so nervous and emotional."

7 Dec: Day 10

Crosses Equator at 02.30 to set new fastest solo time of 8d 18hr 20min. "To cross the Equator over 14 hours ahead was brilliant."

12 Dec: Day 15

Problems with main water-cooled generator threaten to end attempt. Back-up air-cooled generator fills the cabin with fumes. Fresh-water makers also fail. "Everything is flying around the cabin. I've had my head smashed against the hull by the violent motion."

17 Dec: Day 20

Passes Cape of Good Hope at 17.56 to set new, fastest solo time of 19d 9hr 46min. "Effectively, my target is now 415 miles a day. I think it is doable."

1 Jan: Day 35

Now 2d 13hr 40min ahead. "I think the biggest thought... is the disaster which has happened in the Indian Ocean and all the death and trauma it has caused."

9 Jan: Day 43

Best 24-hour run of 501.6 miles. "We're in a boat that's getting tired, a skipper that's getting tired - mentally and emotionally zonked."

12 Jan: Day 46

Rounds Cape Horn at 07.46 in new best solo time of 44d 23 hr 36min. "I will miss this wild and wonderful place."

27 Jan: Day 61

Crosses Equator 29 hours ahead, setting new solo record time of 60d 13hr 35min. "I gave Neptune the most precious thing I had [a charm from a silver necklace] to get us home."

2 Feb: Day 67

Three days 10 hours ahead, but cannot avoid light airs ahead. Exhaustion levels "on the limit of endurance" and physical condition deteriorating. "I think I just have to be realistic and do my best."

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