Ellen MacArthur: Charting a course for new challenges beyond the ocean wave

Brian Viner Interviews
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The Independent Online

Whether Dame Anita Roddick ever met Dame Ellen MacArthur I don't know, but in terms of energy and charisma they are, or were, considerably alike. So it seems eerily symbolic that on the day the former's death was reported, the latter was heading to Paris to announce her new role as BT's "global ambassador for a better world", which is not a responsibility she takes lightly. She didn't get where she is today by taking responsibilities lightly.

Where she is today, to be precise, is a business-class compartment on a Eurostar train rattling through the French countryside, holding forth to a small group of journalists. In Paris – and indeed in French, which this formidable young woman taught herself 10 years ago while in Brest preparing for a mini-Transat solo race to Martinique – she will also announce the formation of BT Team Ellen, an elite band of sailors "dedicated to success on the water" and to the development of young talent. Her accomplished partners include the Frenchman Sébastien Josse and the Australian Nick Moloney. That's a bit like Manchester United joining forces with Arsenal and Chelsea.

It also seemingly means that MacArthur will be doing less sailing and more work in whatever is the oceanic equivalent of the managerial dugout. "I've done this [racing] for the last 10 years," she says. "There is a lot of pressure on one person to do the sailing, handle the media side, help with fund-raising and so on. The team structure allows us to pool our resources."

Clearly, too, she feels as if her personal sailing challenges have diminished, if not petered out altogether. After all, when you hold the round-the-world solo record, what other records would you covet? Quickest across the Bay of Biscay doesn't cut it, somehow. A press colleague asks her whether she might like to have a bash at the Olympics, or the America's Cup?

"Not the Olympics," she says. "Well, you should never say never, but I wouldn't have thought so. It's very different. And people start racing dinghies at the age of 10, or five even. It's a bit like saying to Schumacher, 'Do you want to go and win the WRC [World Rally Championship]'. He would probably love to drive a rally car as I would love, and do love, to sail dinghies, but as to whether I would go and compete, it's unlikely.

"The America's Cup, I would struggle with the amount of money necessary. I know it's the Formula One of sailing, but match racing isn't my area either. It's not where my skills set is."

She is quick to add that her skills set even in her area of expertise, long-distance racing, is still far from complete. "You never, ever stop learning, you just get more experienced. Like with the weather, the elements. You can see everything coming your way, and with experience you learn what every cloud will bring. Knowing what will happen is part of being a better sailor, because you are able to manage your own energy resources. If you get it wrong you end up in a mad dash to get the sail down, rather than getting it down a minute earlier."

Despite everything that she still has to learn, and despite being insistent that sailing still lights her fire, she admits that she needs wider horizons. That's some admission from a woman who has seen the widest horizons on the planet. "Sailing wasn't enough in many ways," she says. "I wanted to go further and do more."

The BT Team Ellen boats will all race under the banner of the BT Better World campaign. Which is all very well, I say, but to what extent do the boats themselves represent environmental awareness, which is part of the message that she is trying to convey? In short, how green are they? "Well, they're built of carbon fibre, like a Formula One racing car, which is unavoidable if you want to win on water. They're not as green as a wooden boat. But ultimately the boat is powered by the wind, which is quite cool." She giggles. "That's one element of it which is fairly green, really."

She last raced in June, finishing first out of more than 1,800 competitors in the Round-The-Island, the 55-mile race around the Isle of Wight, but isn't likely to race until the Extreme 40 circuit begins in May next year. With that in mind, I ask her whether she can find anything like the adrenaline rush on land that she experiences at sea?

"Well, I like challenges. When I wrote the book [her best-selling autobiography, Taking On The World] I didn't have to do it myself, but I wrote it cover to cover. That was a big challenge. You know yourself that sometimes writing is very hard."

I nod solemnly, and smile inwardly. I have interviewed MacArthur four times before, and there is sometimes a slight and doubtless unwitting condescension in things she says. On the other hand, it is genuinely hard to leave her company without feeling buoyed by her remarkable vitality.

"Another challenge," she continues, "was the Ellen MacArthur Trust, which takes kids sailing who suffer from cancer and leukaemia. We started with nothing, and yet we had to charter boats, provide clothing, all that. During Cowes Week this year we raised £109,000 in a week."

The trust exists not only to provide sick children with great experiences, but also to unearth potential sailing talent, which it appears to have done with one Daniel Monk from Basildon in Essex. MacArthur's eyes shine when she talks about him. Her charity introduced him to sailing four years ago when he was 16, he was instantly hooked, and he took part in the Round-The-Island race knowing that the following day he was due to have a bone marrow transplant.

Last year, the trust provided the funds for him to complete a Yachtmaster Offshore course, the qualification which MacArthur herself got when she was 18, and also arranged for him to fulfil his burning ambition of circumnavigating the world by entering him, without his knowledge, in the Clipper Round-The-World Yacht Race, which begins in Liverpool on Sunday.

'We had to say, 'Dan, sit yourself down,'" MacArthur says. "He's brilliant, brilliant with kids, a super chap, and he couldn't be a better ambassador for the trust."

The race is expected to take 10 months, during which Daniel will need regular health checks. " We've had to contact some embassies about him going in with regard to vaccinations and things. He can't have live vaccines. But for me it's amazing to be able to help someone like that. When I won the BT/YJA Young Sailor of the Year award I got a letter from Musto Clothing saying they wanted to give me some help with clothes, so it's great to be able to ring them up now and ask if there's any chance of giving him some kit."

MacArthur is still only 31, still "La Jeune Espoire de la Voile" (Sailing's Young Hope) to the French, and still decidedly young to have a protégé who reminds her of herself. Nonetheless, I get the feeling that there is a valedictory air to this interview, as if it might denote the end of MacArthur's big ocean-going adventures. And so I ask her where and when she was happiest on water?

"So many different times and different reasons," she says. "On the trimaran averaging 20 knots, with the boat just flying; coming round Cape Horn and seeing the first sunrise or sunset; going into the lead in the Vendée; sailing with the kids and having water fights and barbecues on the beach..."

The biggest kick, she adds, is being part of a team. "People ask me what was the best part of the record attempt and I say the whole project, the teamwork. There wasn't much time to sit back and enjoy it. The Vendée was quite relaxing by comparison. It's like driving a car; you drive down the road at 30mph and you don't have to worry too much; drive down the same road at 60mph, and you're pretty stressed; do that at 90mph and you're absolutely wired."

However much racing she does in the future, I have a feeling that Dame Ellen will find plenty to keep her absolutely wired.