Saling: Wonder world of a high seas crusader

Andrew Preece meets a young sailor cutting through the misconceptions; FIRST NIGHT ELLEN MACARTHUR
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The Independent Online
THE GRAND PRIX sailors of the British Champagne Mumm Admiral's Cup team last week failed to regain a trophy that has eluded this country for 10 years. The pre-series favourites went into the final race leading but the team melted down when the pressure came on. Ironically, it was the same week as the Spirit of Britain America's Cup syndicate finally admitted defeat and bowed out of America's Cup 2000 which kicks off in New Zealand in October.

The America's Cup, like the Admiral's Cup, was invented in Cowes which, ironically, is where the 23-year-old 5ft 2in Ellen MacArthur has made her campaign headquarters. The temporary accommodation is a pleasantly shambolic half-share of a yacht design studio in the Cowes Marina where MacArthur sits cross-legged on the floor at her laptop while all around her campaign managers plot the course of her life for the next two years. For all of them it is a life's work built on the determination of a young girl from Derbyshire who was brought up just about as far as it is possible to live from the sea but saved her school dinner money relentlessly for eight years to pay for her first boat.

MacArthur could walk out of the Kingfisher 2000 HQ and around the Cowes dockside and not be recognised by most of racing sailing's establishment; the Olympic medallists, the America's Cup sailors and even the Whitbread Round the World sailors. She is ploughing what in England has always been seen as an unconventional furrow: preparing herself and her campaign team for the Vendee Globe Challenge, a single-handed non-stop round the world race that begins and ends in France.

The Vendee begins next November and will take the leaders around 100 days as they track south across the searing heat of the Equator, skirt the Antarctic ice cap, leaving the notorious Cape Horn on the left-hand side before the final sprint back into the northern hemisphere. In France, where sailing is a mass-market sport and hundreds of thousands of spectators turn out to watch the start and finish of a race like the Vendee, it is the mainstream. Here, it is a freak show most remember only when reminded of Tony Bullimore being plucked from his upturned hull where he had spent three days waiting to see if he would die in the last edition of the race in 1997.

But that perception could all be about to change. Ellen MacArthur is a breed apart from the Olympians and America's Cup sailors who have traditionally been in the limelight in this country. But she is no freak. Her determination to excel led her from saving dinner money to becoming the youngest qualified sailing instructor to the youngest British Yachtsman of the Year to a pounds 2m deal with the Woolworths/B & Q/Superdrug/ Comet holding company Kingfisher.

"I first sailed when I was four years old," MacArthur recalls. "My auntie's got a small boat, nothing special, an old boat, and I remember absolutely loving it, the whole feeling of being on the water, the quiet. It has an effect on you when you are a child. It just made me want to read and learn as much about it as possible."

MacArthur sailed alone around Britain when she was 18 and it was to the singlehanded branch of the sport that she unwittingly gravitated. "All of a sudden when I'd done my single-handed round Britain sail, I went back home and looked at my bookshelf and all my books were about single- handed sailing - Knox-Johnston, Chichester, Chay Blyth, those guys. And I'd not made that connection. I never thought `I'm going to be a single- handed sailor'."

It is easy to understand how she was seduced by the romance of the sea and the self-reliance of solo sailing rather than the intensely competitive cliques of the Olympic circuits. For many Olympians the sport is an outlet for their competitive spirit. For MacArthur the joy of being at sea is the overriding motivation. "I think the freedom you can get from a boat is unlimited," she muses as she gestures over a crowded Solent. "If you got on a boat out there on the water you could go anywhere in the world. Nothing to stop you. Nothing at all. And without the boat you're no good, you're nothing."

At present MacArthur's new state-of-the-art 60-footer is taking shape in New Zealand. When it is finished in January she and a team will sail it back to Europe. For someone who acknowledges her own lack of experience when up against the ever intensifying competition of the Vendee fleet, it will be essential learning as well as her first adventure through the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn that will eventually provide the sternest test in the Vendee. Meanwhile, she is racing around Europe trying to cram as much experience into her itinerary as the corporate side of her deal will allow. As an ambassador for Kingfisher at internal sales seminars, in-store videos and team-building sailing days, she will acknowledge her responsibility to the two-way sponsorship deal. Kingfisher took a punt and financed her charter of the 50-foot Aqua Quorum for the 1998 Route du Rhum Transatlantic Race and she did them proud winning her class and becoming the darling of the French media in the process; it was her fifth Atlantic crossing. In January the plc announced they were in for the long haul and were backing her plans to have a brand new formula one Open 60 designed and built for the 2000 Vendee.

Women have taken part in the Vendee before without ever doing well but MacArthur is no token female entry. "Sure, women are smaller and not as strong as the guys but Gautier [previous winner Alain Gautier] is not a big guy. You don't have to be enormous, you just have to think more, pace yourself and understand the boat."

Part of that understanding is sailing with people who have experience to share. MacArthur spends as much time as she can with Jean Yves-Bernot, a revered French weather expert who is coaching her in the nuances of meteorology. She is sailing small performance dinghies with the Olympian Paul Brotherton who is teaching her sail trim and balance. All grist to the scientific mill that surrounds modern racing. Between MacArthur and Turner there are no stones unturned when it comes to making up the inevitable deficit between the small 23-year-old and the French sailing legends who have made the Vendee their own.

Indeed, this week, at the end of the Cowes Week social festival that is such a marked contrast to Kingfisher 2000, MacArthur will set off on the Fastnet race as co-skipper of the most famous trimaran in modern sailing. The 60ft Primagaz has broken most ocean speed records and at present holds the record for the longest 24-hour run.

Together with France's equivalent of Michael Schumacher - Laurent Bourgnon - MacArthur will attempt to beat the record for sailing around the Isle of Wight before taking on the Fastnet record on Saturday. After that a two-handed transatlantic race starts in October and MacArthur will sail in an Open 60 with the legendary Yves Parlier.

At a time in life when a lot of people are kicking back after a long stint at university, MacArthur is immersed in keel drawings, sail shapes, weather patterns and, of course, corporate hospitality schedules. She's lived on a boat - on several boats - in a Portakabin in a marina in Hamble for one and a half years and more recently on the floor of the office in Cowes. Cooking doesn't interest her; there's no time for films or books. "In the Portakabin I just had a sandwich toaster and a kettle so that gives you a pretty good idea of my cooking skills. I feel much happier when I'm working towards the project and reading about weather or electronics or sailing or just working on the systems for the boat."

The burning question, particularly in the light of recent heroic British failure, is can MacArthur win? "I think anyone who gets around the world is far from failing but I'm not going out there just to sail around the world, I'm going out there to race the boat to the best of my potential."