The forgotten Dame who sailed round the world

She circumnavigated the globe singlehanded and when she returned was made a dame. Ellen MacArthur? No, Naomi James. Chris Redman meets a very different sort of heroine

Chris Redman
Saturday 12 February 2005 01:02
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Ellen MacArthur's triumphal return from her record-breaking voyage was a splendid sight. But for many onlookers there was also a sense of deja-vu. The welcoming flotilla of small boats, the rapturous reception ashore, the press plaudits for the brave heroine - hadn't we been here before?

Alas, time erodes memories as surely as the sea erases traces in the sand, so here are some clues: Dartmouth, 8 June 1978, 09.11 hours BST. That was the day 27 years ago when Naomi James, aboard her storm-battered sloop Express Crusader, limped into harbour to her own boisterous reception. She had become the first woman to sail solo around the globe via the dangerous and classic Cape Horn route taken by the great clippers of yesteryear.

Now Ellen MacArthur has eclipsed that all-but-forgotten feat. Her 75- foot racing machine B&Q made the journey in 71 days compared with 272 days for James's 53-foot Express Crusader - and she did it without stopping, with images of her voyage beamed daily to millions of television viewers. No wonder that amid all the homecoming hoopla the exploits of Britain's first sailing dame have gone unremembered.

That is the way Naomi James prefers it. MacArthur may have been sailing in her wake, but Dame Naomi has no desire to steal the limelight from the nation's new nereid. "I didn't relish the fuss back then," she says, "and I wouldn't want a repeat." The title that came her way six months after she crossed the finishing line goes unused - fading evidence of her brief celebrity. Nor does she welcome invidious comparisons with MacArthur who was two when Crusader sailed into the record books. "What I did was completely different," she insists. "Ellen is a professional racer; I was an adventurer."

Looking back Naomi, now 55, is the first to admit that becoming an adventurer was an unlikely outcome. Born on a land-locked sheep farm in New Zealand - she didn't learn to swim until she was 23 - Naomi was interested in horses. She had a daring streak but by her own admission excelled mainly in day dreaming, a habit that didn't square well with schoolwork with the result that she left to train as a hairdresser. Bored by that and dreaming of new challenges she boarded a passenger boat for Europe and adventure. She was helplessly seasick for most of the passage, an inauspicious introduction to the high seas. A better one came in France in summer 1975 when Naomi found herself strolling by the quayside in St Malo, killing time before the departure of the ferry to England. There, by chance, she met her future husband, Rob, who was skippering yachts for Chay Blyth and had put into the French port with a charter boat. "I wasn't the least bit interested in boats or sailing," Naomi recalls. "But I was more than interested in the man I had just met."

Love has a way of reshaping destinies and it wasn't long before Naomi was learning the ropes from Rob and gaining her sea legs - a battle that she was destined never to win completely. It was while waiting for Rob to return from an ocean race and marry her that the daydreamer had the mother of all day dreams: she would sail single-handed, non-stop, around the world.

James acknowledges it was an improbable dream. The young couple had no money for a boat and supplies and, more significantly, she had barely six-weeks' sailing experience. But she broached the subject on their honeymoon and after giving it a day's thought and inspired by her determination, Rob became her most fervent backer. Chay Blyth lent her a boat - the Spirit of Cutty Sark soon to be renamed Express Crusader when the Daily Express came up with last-minute sponsorship money; others raised money for stores.

With husband Rob already racing round the world in Great Britain II, she set off from Dartmouth on 9 September 1977 determined to make a non- stop circumnavigation. If possible she also hoped to beat the record set 10 years earlier by her hero, Sir Francis Chichester, in Gypsy Moth IV.

Despite intensive coaching from Rob in the weeks leading up to her departure, Naomi's sailing skills were less than perfect, particularly navigation. In her round-the-world sprint, Ellen MacArthur could rely on satellites to locate her position to within a few feet and also on her backup team on shore; James had to make do with a sextant for latitude and complex calculations involving chronometers and tables to determine longitude. It didn't help that she kept confusing the two. "I was terrified I wouldn't find the Canary Islands," she confesses. "When they loomed into view I was so pleased with myself I thought I had discovered them!"

It took Naomi less than three weeks to reach the Canaries. In that same timespan 27 years later, Ellen had already raced through the Atlantic and was heading across the southern Indian Ocean towards the antipodes. But comparisons of this kind are unfair on both. B&O was designed around Ellen, custom-built to enable her to drive 75 feet of bucking trimaran through the most dangerous waters in the world. "I would not have wanted to be at the helm of B&Q," says Naomi who gave up sailing after a hair- raising race around the British Isles in a similar multi-hull. "There is no margin for error."

That truth was rammed home for Naomi during a storm in the roaring forties six months into her voyage. By then metal fatigue had damaged her yacht's rigging and when gale force winds hit she was at their mercy. At 5am a monster wave "sounding like an express train" capsized Crusader and James, huddled inside for shelter, found herself upside down on the cabin ceiling. Just when she thought her end had come, the boat righted itself and by a miracle the mast survived. A frantic session at the pumps prevented the boat from swamping, but it was the mono-hull's self-righting keel that saved her. Had the same thing happened to Ellen, there would have been no happy ending. Naomi, who first met MacArthur on the This is Your Life tribute to the young yachtswoman, says: "B&Q is light years ahead. But I don't agree with those who say this means that Ellen's accomplishment was somehow less than mine."

That near-fatal disaster was the low point of Naomi's voyage. But it was too late to turn back despite the looming menace of Cape Horn. So she took the difficult decision to press on despite the weakened mast and jury rigging, rewarding herself once she had cleared the Cape with six hours' sleep. Prior to that sleep was a luxury. She averaged 1.5 hours per sleep and at critical moments would go for days without rest.

A week after rounding the Horn, Crusader reached the Falkland Islands where she made the repairs that would enable her to make it back to Britain. That spell in dock - and an earlier one in Cape Town where Crusader was fitted with a new autopilot and repaired her radio after 8,000 miles of radio silence - made it impossible for Naomi to claim a non-stop circumnavigation. But by the time Crusader reached Dartmouth she had made up enough time to beat Chichester's record for a solo circumnavigation by two days.

The closest Dame Naomi now gets to the sea is the strip of water in front of her small cottage at the entrance to Cork harbour in Ireland. It was the house she and Rob found together after her record-breaking voyage. But she lives there alone. Five years year after Naomi's solo feat and 10 days before their first child was born, Rob was making repairs to a yacht he was skippering when he plunged into the ocean. Rob did not made it back to shore alive.

The baby girl is 21, a first year student studying psychology at Trinity College, Dublin. Her mother is completing her doctoral thesis on Ludwig Wittgenstein, the German-British philosopher. When asked if she would discourage her daughter from sailing solo around the world, Naomi is quick to say no. But when the question is asked her eyes betray anxiety. "I just hope she wouldn't do it. She has more realistic horizons than I ever had."

Dame Naomi will never step willingly into a yacht again. Her decision was taken not after her husband died, but when they had won the round Britain race - in the same boat that would assist in Rob's death. Perhaps it's landlubber genes reasserting themselves. As Wittgenstein himself observed, "whereof one cannot speak, thereon one must remain silent".

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