Sailing: MacArthur's record hopes depend on mast climb

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The Independent Online

Despite being battered and bruised by a dangerous mast climb yesterday, Ellen MacArthur was last night preparing for a second life-threatening ascent to keep her solo round-the-world record attempt on track.

Though clearly distressed and physically exhausted by the first climb ­ to try to repair damage to the mainsail on her trimaran, B&Q ­ MacArthur said she felt obliged to scale the 30-metre mast again to finish the job.

In an e-mail sent at 7.06pm in unstable conditions from her boat, which is off the coast of Brazil, she said there was "no way" B&Q could continue without the repair being done. The overriding reason she was planning the second attempt yesterday, however, rather than wait to recover, was the effect of the bruising from the first attempt.

"I'm so bruised," she said. "And [if I wait], by tomorrow those bruises are going to be so sore I'm not sure I'll be able to move, let alone climb the mast again."

A spokeswoman from the MacArthur's shore team said that MacArthur was intent on making the second climb some time before sunset, which was around 1am GMT this morning.

MacArthur was forced to take action because of a problem with one of the sliding "cars" that attaches B&Q's mainsail to a metal track on the mast. Before the first climb, she said: "I am going up with the objective of checking the mainsail track at both the second and first reef points, if I can. Wind is decreasing so I just want to go for it.

"What I have done wrong to deserve this? The weather ahead looks terrible, we might lose our lead before the Equator which could be eight days away. Everything we worked so hard for we are losing. It is so unfair. It has never been so hard."

MacArthur is attempting to beat Francis Joyon's round-the-world record of 72 days, 22 hours 54 minutes and 22 seconds, set early last year. At one stage her lead was as much as five days, but it has been steadily eroded since rounding Cape Horn. At 8pm last night, the lead had been cut to two days and six hours. The climbs and repairs, even if successful, could see most if not all of that advantage wiped out.

Though exhausted after 53 days at sea, MacArthur has been working furiously in the light winds caused by a huge high-pressure system stretching from the coast of Uruguay, and has reached worrying levels of exhaustion, according to her shore team. She was able to rest overnight on Wednesday because of some stability in the wind, but that was before her latest setback. Her shore team say the problem could seriously threaten her record attempt.

A spokesman said: "It seems that before the car detached itself completely, it has been working loose and causing damage at each point in the past few days."

"It was really hard," said MacArthur after the first climb. "It was all I could do to hang on."

The full mainsail is crucial to keep up speed when the winds turn light, as they would normally do as she crosses the Equator and picks the shortest way through the Doldrums. Without that power, speed could drop dramatically and the position would be made worse if the wind direction also pushed her off a direct course to the finish.

In the Vendée Globe, Mike Golding has pulled back 60 miles on the leader, Vincent Riou, but the Briton admits his chances of catching the Frenchman remain slim.

Riou, on PRB, is now 170 miles ahead of the Ecover skipper, who is third, but is poised to break free of the Doldrums and pick up new trade winds.

"It's probably a concertina effect," said Golding, who is expected to escape the Doldrums today. "But I'm trying to capitalise on the gain, seeing if I can hang on to it."

Golding had held the lead in the solo round-the-world race before suffering two mainsail problems. However, his progress over the last 24 hours has helped him get back in contention and he is now just 60 miles off the second-placed Frenchman Jean Le Cam, on Bonduelle, who is going through the Doldrums on a more easterly track.

"I certainly feel good about the gain I've made on Bonduelle," added Golding, who is enjoying a much steadier passage through this unpredictable zone compared to two months ago when the fleet headed south and the winds gusted up to 40 knots.