Sailing: Passion and dedication that put MacArthur among sailing's all-time greats

She succeeds by grinding problems to death and already has another record in sight, says Stuart Alexander

Dame Ellen MacArthur yesterday won it all. She has conquered the oceans, conquered the beast of a boat that carried her through them, conquered the demons that could have forced others to give up, and set a stunning record for sailing solo round the world.

Dame Ellen MacArthur yesterday won it all. She has conquered the oceans, conquered the beast of a boat that carried her through them, conquered the demons that could have forced others to give up, and set a stunning record for sailing solo round the world.

She secured a place not only in national and international maritime history, but also in sports history and in the hearts of millions of ordinary people, many of whom would never dream of setting foot on a boat.

The second sailing dame - Naomi James was similarly honoured for being the first woman to sail solo round the world in 1978 - has done more than dream and this is not the achievement of a laid-back dreamer. While she could at last indulge in triumphal exuberance on a crowded dockside in Falmouth yesterday, the 71 days 14hrs 18min 33sec she was on watch had made the sort of demands of both mind and body that few could tackle.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston was the first sailor to complete the voyage, in 1969 in what he describes as "the bi-plane era" of technology. MacArthur, meanwhile, has completed the journey in a space-age piece of technology which has set the sailing world on fire.

The pathfinders who went before, including Sir Francis Chichester, may not have had constant communications, satellite navigation and non-stop weather information to pick the best tactical route, but nor did they have such a wild piece of kit to control or the pressure of a clock constantly ticking. Making B&Q go fast was easy. Driving it on the edge of control in the dead of night through storms and ice fields knowing your life was on the line - and the record was on the line if you backed off - was nerve-racking.

What marks MacArthur out from those pioneering nautical knights is the passion to succeed and hunger to win. Is she the greatest British sailor of all time? Probably not. There are some outrageously-gifted people in sailing, though the majority of them are specialists in short-course racing.

MacArthur has had to work at it. She has sent herself to every kind of school to hone up on skills which may not have come naturally. If she needed to learn about weather, she found a teacher. If she wanted to learn about preparation and maintenance, she worked among the professionals, learning French for good measure along the way. Even so, she could not take on a top Olympic fleet and win. She is, above all, a marathon runner. Coming from a small gentlemanly school, so were Chichester and Knox-Johnston, and they were both, also, highly competitive.

MacArthur beats the pair of them and has enjoyed creating success not because she lacks talent, but because she just grinds every problem to death. She's just one of those people who is determined to make things happen, has made sure, as top Formula One drivers do, that she has the right team around her and, when the occasion demands, can curse as well as she can cry.

What has not changed in those 36 years between Sir Robin taking 313 days and Dame Ellen's 71 is the mental approach needed. "You have to have that determination," said Sir Robin yesterday. MacArthur has that, plus resourcefulness and an inner stubbornness to be found in many of the world's top achievers, plus that other essential ingredient: a little luck.

Gear failure on such a complex piece of equipment as a modern-day boat has often been the bug-bear of other record seekers. However, MacArthur, by constantly running a meticulous maintenance programme and doing all those jobs people hate to do, in the most daunting of conditions, kept that threat to a minimum.

It was never meant to be as hard as it turned out to be. "We thought it would be a doddle," said the designer of the custom-made yacht. "We told Ellen the record was up for grabs, there for the taking."

That was early in 2003 when MacArthur was taking the decision to go record-hunting in a 75ft trimaran for a round-the-world crown at that time held by the man who had beaten her in the Vendée Globe single-handed round-the-world race, Michel Desjoyeaux.

His time of 93 days 3hrs 57min 32sec had been set in a smaller and much slower Open 60. It looked like a relatively soft target. But, unknown to MacArthur and her team, another Frenchman was scraping together his own attempt to be the fastest solo sailor round the world. Francis Joyon, a quiet and introspective man, had little money, had no major company backing, found some money from a 300-employee estate agency called Idec which meant he could only rent an old boat, could not even afford a new mainsail, had a shore team of two or three volunteers, and set off in November 2003 to muted fanfares and uncertain expectations.

Just under 73 days later he had made MacArthur's task 20 days harder. So impressed was Britain's Olympic triple sailing medallist Rodney Pattisson, who had often crewed with him, that he offered Joyon one of his gold medals, saying that what Joyon had done was so much more impressive than his own achievements.

Yesterday, Joyon was sailing in the Azores, but took time out to pay tribute to the person who had taken his record away. "I always said Ellen was a serious contender and she has decided to prove me right," he said. "The mere fact that she was able to sail round the world non-stop was quite an exploit but to smash the record at the same time deserves my warmest congratulations."

But Joyon, more than most, understands that, when the chips are down, you are on your own. "Being supported is one thing, but when you find yourself in the southern [ocean] lows [weather systems] in this type of boat you feel very alone. Having experienced the deep south in a multihull, and with the memory fresh in my mind, I know full well that this can be very tough on the nerves. I am sure that, at times, it must have been very hard going and I often thought about Ellen when she was in some difficult patches. Her trimaran is big, there is a large sail area, and in times like this it is not her shore team that was able to do much for her." But there were no regrets from Joyon, for whom sailing is not a route to glory but a way of life. "I was hoping to keep the record for a bit longer, but it was not something that I put on a pedestal, either," he said.

"Following my arrival, I [said] it was possible to improve on my time, taking into account my damage and the times when I was becalmed. However, I did not think it would be Ellen beating me so soon and so magnificently. Once again, well done to her."

Throughout this adventure, as she did when achieving fame with a second place in the Vendée Globe Race four years ago, she has referred to herself and the boat as "we". But this love affair has been a lot more confrontational than it was with her beloved Open 60, Kingfisher. "I have a totally different relationship with this boat," she said, "but something inside me tells me it is not over."

A transatlantic record missed by 75 minutes is high on the agenda.

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