Sailing: MacArthur in a hurry to go places

New faces for 1999: A determined talent is single-handedly taking the sailing world by storm.
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ON HER way to her retired teacher parents' home in Whatstandwell at Christmas, Ellen MacArthur groaned as the windscreen wipers on her car failed. "It was tipping it down and I had to be at a television interview," she said, "so I removed the cover under the bonnet, fished around, found the missing nut, and fixed it. It took half an hour, but most people would have called out the AA. I just thrive on problems."

The 22 year old, who is making a meteoric impact on British sailing, can sometimes be breathtakingly simplistic in her own self-belief. When she says you can do anything if you put your mind to it the accompanying facial expression is not one hoping for agreement but almost irritated that there should be any doubt.

There was no doubt in her mind when she started saving her school lunch money at the age of eight to save up for a boat, the first of which was an eight-foot dinghy. Nor when she bought a 17-foot cabin cruiser, or the 21-foot Corribee, in which she sailed single-handed round Britain at the age of 18. In the same year she had won the Young Sailor of the Year award for gaining both her Yachtmaster's and Yacht Instructor's certificates, and Derbyshire is a long way from the sea.

Nor is there any doubt in her mind that she will be on the start line in November next year for the French-organised single-handed, non-stop round the world race, the Vendee Globe. She has been in a hurry putting the sort of curriculum vitae together that will convince a major sponsor to build her a new, 60-foot yacht of the type now being campaigned by Mike Golding in the Around Alone Race, and which he will also be sailing in that race. MacArthur even went to work for the same Cherbourg boat builder, just so she would be better informed.

And not for the first time. She was the only woman shopfloor worker at Bowman Yachts on England's south coast, and lived in her 21- footer, with intermittent electricity and icy decks, on the nearby pontoon so she could use the office at night to send out "thousands" of sponsorship proposals.

Life then improved with a move to a portable office in a Hamble boatyard, working on her now-business partner's Mini-Transat 21-foot racing boat, continuing her search for support for her own similar project, and crewing on a series of cross-Channel races on summer weekends.

That led to an invitation to helpbring a 60-footer back across the Atlantic. "I was really happy, I didn't want it to stop when we reached France," she says. But stop it did, as she flew back across the Atlantic to crew for Vittorio Malingir in the Quebec to St Malo Race. And she then stood still just long enough to arrange to jump on to a similar racing 50-footer belonging to the Italian Giovanni Soldini and another delivery trip to Italy.

The pace then picked up, with her own Mini-Transat, helped by some support from her grandmother's trust fund, a two-handed Round Britain Race, and then the Route du Rhum single-hander to Guadeloupe in November.

That was with the support of the B&Q, Woolworths Kingfisher Group, which also just happens to be in the process of buying the French company Castorama and whose chief executive, Sir Geoff Mulcahy, owns two large yachts. "I have been very busy, it's been very hard, and it's taken a lot out of me, but this year has worked out absolutely just brilliantly," she says.

At the moment the wiser than her years Ellen MacArthur is looking no more than two years ahead. But a much longer glittering career beckons.