Sailing: A lifetime's work for the journey of a lifetime

A 21-year-old Englishwoman with just four years of sailing experience is about to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a very small boat. Stuart Alexander explains an obsession.

Quite what drives people to go to sea in small boats sometimes remains a mystery even to those who do it, but a 21-year-old woman from Whatstandwell, near Matlock in Derbyshire, is quite sure it is the right thing for her to do.

Ellen MacArthur has been sailing seriously for just four years, after her A level year was disrupted by glandular fever and an all-consuming sea fever took over.

The incubation period had been long and intense. "I had always been reading sailing books in my spare time, and had been saving my school lunch money since I was eight so that I could buy a boat," she explained yesterday.

MacArthur was sitting on the dock in the Brittany port of Brest, 48 hours away from taking part in a French-organised race, the Mini Transat. As its name implies, it is a race across the Atlantic, and the "mini" refers to the size of the boats, just 6.5 metres long.

She is the only woman among 52 entries from seven countries, among them 37 Frenchmen. But she will have alongside her the man who encouraged her to take part, another British competitor: Mark Turner, of Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight.

MacArthur's desire to rack up more and more sea miles has been almost obsessive. Upon taking a job at David King's sailing school in Hull, her work was so impressive that she won the Young Sailor of the year award in 1995, presented to her by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, previously a distant hero.

Then she bought a little 21ft Corribee and took four and a half months to sail singlehanded round Britain before starting almost a commuter life across the Atlantic, crewing mainly on 60-footers, including, on her 20th birthday, setting out from Newport, Rhode Island, on a two-handed race with Alan Wynne-Thomas to France.

And, all the time, she was working towards the Mini Transat. Living on first the 21-footer and then in a Portakabin in Hamble did not deter her. Explaining to almost bewildered parents, both schoolteachers, was undertaken patiently. The final decision was taken last Christmas Day and, when she saw the boat she wanted, Le Poisson, she said to herself: "This one's the one."

For Turner to be on the start line at all is something of a minor miracle. After months and years of planning, scraping together sponsorship cash and support, and working every spare hour available, just 10 days ago he discovered a major fault in the keel which would take three weeks to fix.

A frantic call for help was sent out to five supporters on electronic mail at 3am. By 9am one of them had responded, asking for more information. That was provided by noon and at 4pm nearly pounds 10,000 from Hugh Morrison of Financial Dynamics was winging its way to save the project.

This was further supplemented by a fresh cash injection from one of Turner's original backers, the Carphone Warehouse, colleagues at Spinlock rallied round again and, as the charter of a replacement boat was completed, the show was back on the road. "Not to be on the start line was unthinkable," Turner said.

So, at the quirky time of 15.02 tomorrow the pair set off on the first 7 to 10 day leg to Tenerife and then, on 19 October, the three-week run to Fort de France, Martinique. Ellen MacArthur's parents will be watching, knowing the dangers, knowing that technically the French authorities regard the race as illegal. But knowing also that a truly remarkable British young lady is flying a very proud flag.

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