PsychoGeography #73: Why didn't Ellen just go with the flow?

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The Independent Online

Now that a few weeks have passed let me just take this opportunity to say quite how nauseating I found the brouhaha which surrounded Ellen MacArthur's record-breaking solo journey around the world.

Now that a few weeks have passed let me just take this opportunity to say quite how nauseating I found the brouhaha which surrounded Ellen MacArthur's record-breaking solo journey around the world. In the annals of sheer pointlessness, MacArthur's trip takes the mondial Jaffa Cake. The idea that any young person, sound of limb and - so far as one can judge - mind, would wish to travel that far, in that beautiful a manner, and yet be driven by such obsessive regard for the abstraction of time that they cannot pause for a minute to appreciate any of it fair makes my boils discharge blood.

Most of us spend our lives revolving between the twin poles of work and home. From time to time we find ourselves staring obsessively out of the window of our car at the lone copse, islanded by a muddy field. Then we wish we could just abandon our workaday shackles, stride across the furrows and plunge into it. MacArthur, on the other hand, is a young woman who has extricated herself from nature and acquired massive sponsorship from a DIY superstore chain, so that she can get back into the car and stare through the windscreen.

It is by no means besides the point to mention that the first solo circumnavigation of the world under sail was completed by Joshua Slocum before the end of the 19th century. Slocum had the good sense to stop off along the way, and engage all sorts of colourful natives with sly Yankee repartee. (He also wrote a brilliant account of his journey.) It seems to me that the competitive yachties who've followed in his wake have mostly been a deluded bunch, and sadly only those who are hugely deluded achieve anything.

One such was Donald Crowhurst, who embarked - ludicrously unprepared and under-equipped - on the first solo, round-the-world yacht race in 1968. Crowhurst, like MacArthur, was in multi-hulled craft, but there the similarities end. Early on in the race it became clear to Crowhurst that he wasn't going to win, or even finish. This would have been a disaster - he'd pinned all his fortunes on success. He had a small company producing pioneering self-steering devices which he hoped would take off if he did well - instead he was faced with total ruin. So, he cheated. He lay doggo in the South Atlantic while the other competitors forged on, falsifying his log, and aimed to rejoin the race on the home leg. However, as the other competitors dropped out it became clear that he would be unable to do this without coming in first, and, a fundamentally honest man, the prospect of "winning" appalled him.

Crowhurst went mad, and ended up writing reams of poetical and metaphysical speculation in his increasingly deranged journal, before finally taking a header over the side. His yacht, Teignmouth Electron, was found abandoned in mid-Atlantic like the Mary Celeste. Not a pretty end, and a tragic one, especially for his wife and young children. But can you imagine MacArthur - as Crowhurst did - reducing all of human endeavour to an algebraic expression which meant (to quote Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall's masterful account of his adventure, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst) "the summation of man from minus infinity to plus infinity is nothing - or, in general terms, that mankind, over the whole course of time, adds up to a blank". I rather think not.

Another circumnavigator infinitely more deserving of our respect than Dame Ellen is the Brazilian adventurer Amyr Klink. His Between Two Poles is an account of a trip by yacht around the world which involved a solo wintering-over in the Antarctic. This was a first, true enough, but as Klink himself says, "I wasn't escaping from anything, or needing to prove skills or ability [nor was I trying] to test humanity's further limits - none of that rubbish. It was just that this was what I most desired in the world."

If you set Slocum's understated can-do, Crowhurst's autodidactic insanity and Klink's mystic hedonism beside MacArthur's prosaic diary entry for her 59th day out and you have a sad picture of contemporary endeavour: "We've got a beautiful moon - the most beautiful I have ever seen. It's like perfection, but you struggle to appreciate it. You don't get to live moments like these very often but the timing is not ideal and that is what makes it difficult." Like, doh! Ellen, if that's what your massive achievement has done for you, you're better off taking a dinghy out on the Solent.