Sailing: MacArthur's pounds 2m quest for stardom

Big business is backing British yachtswoman's dream of solo success.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE PUBLIC apprenticeship of Ellen MacArthur into the big time of international racing has been taking on new dimensions this year after teaming up with one of France's greatest practitioners of the art of solo sailing, Yves Parlier.

MacArthur's programme over the next two years is a crowded one, but at the end the 22-year-old from Derbyshire is likely to be as well known on television chat shows as she is on any dockside.

The Kingfisher retailing group, owners of Comet, Woolworths and B&Q and with large commercial interests in France, where singled-handed sailors are major sporting figures, is investing pounds 2m in making MacArthur the top woman in sailing worldwide.

Yet there is a contradiction in the action-girl character that is the initial image and the honest-to-goodness, feet-on- the-ground young woman who not only recognises her own limitations, but can talk about them openly. Neither is she some starry-eyed, little rich girl indulging her whims. Her first dinghy was bought with the dinner money she saved at school.

Earlier this year MacArthur cut an astonishing figure at the launch of her ambitious plan at a London sports bar. In front of a packed room she stood alone, no desk, no notes, and talked about herself, her past, her hopes, and all with considerable humility.

A veteran of two singled-handed crossings of the Atlantic, she is nevertheless filling in the self-recognised gaps in her sailing expertise with tuition from Paul Brotherton, who represented Britain in the 470 class at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. They are sailing a Laser 4000 and MacArthur is excited because she is helming, "so I am responsible". They also get on well "because we are both from the north".

She has sailed a Figaro in the two-handed Round Brittany Race with Gael Clea'ch, and has just tackled the techniques of Open 60 sailing with Parlier in the Round Europe race. She will team up with him again for the two- handed transatlantic Jacques Vabre race in November.

The next big event on the timetable is the Fastnet Race on a 60ft trimaran with another Frenchman, Yvan Bourgon. Experience of the wild Southern Ocean will come later this winter, when - with a crew to help - she will deliver her pounds 1m Kingfisher boat back to these shores after it has been built in New Zealand.

There is an element of tortoise and hare in yacht racing. As in motor racing, to finish first you first have to finish and the fastest boats with the best crews can often see all their efforts undone by gear failure. That is why her project team of designer Rob Humphreys and project manager Merfyn Owen are collaborating to produce a design for the Kingfisher Open 60 which can complete the course. They do not want a repeat of the capsizes which have twice been the downfall of Isabelle Autissier, the French solo yachtswoman .

And it is the Vendee Globe, which starts on 5 November next year, that is the big one for MacArthur. Despite the dramatic rescues of Raphael Dinelli by Pete Goss and Tony Bullimore by the Australian Navy in the last race, the number of entries is expected to be even higher this time.

Giovanni Soldini, the winner of the recent Round Alone race, has misgivings. He feels the non-stop singlehanded race is a very special challenge, not to be undertaken as a matter of routine, not even run on a four-yearly cycle.

However, MacArthur, who is also taking extra tuition in navigation, communications and first aid, has no qualms. "It's something I have always wanted to do and I feel I will be ready in 18 months' time," she says.

"Desperately inside me I want to do that race. It's been a goal, and I am lucky enough to do it with Kingfisher. Now it's my job. It's what I do. I am happy on my own at sea. I have sailed with others and don't have a problem with that, but I prefer to be on my own. I guess there's just an attraction of being responsible for everything."

The big money has in no way gone to her head. "I'm not into indulgences like a new car," she says. "I still run my E-registered Fiesta. I'm not an impulsive buyer and I've got what I need to live.

"The money side is not what I am into at all. The biggest thing is that it's just great to be able to go out there and do it."