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Friday, 31 January, 2003, 15:13 GMT
Ellen MacArthur: Back on the high seas
Ellen MacArthur: Off around the world yet again

Again at sea on another attempt to make sailing history, Ellen MacArthur has already astounded the world with her courage and ability, but is forever drawn to that distant horizon.
"We believe we can beat it," said Ellen MacArthur, as she set out with her crew in their attempt to break the record for sailing non-stop round the world.

And most of Britain probably believes it too, so impressed have we been by her skill and courage in the face of the perils of the sea.

It all seems rather simple really. The Jules Verne Challenge allows any kind of boat, with any size crew; and MacArthur's craft, the maxi-catamaran, Kingfisher 2, is the current record-holder.

Ellen arriving in London after the Vendee Globe
Ellen arrives in London after the Vendee Globe
Sailing as Orange and skippered by the Frenchman, Bruno Peyron, it completed the circumnavigation in 64 days last year.

But while the oceans can be crossed, they cannot be conquered. How could you forget one of Ellen MacArthur's worst moments, recorded on video during the Vendee Globe, the toughest single-handed circumnavigation of the globe by yacht.

Finishing second, as the youngest, smallest and only female competitor, made her famous.

But no one would have exchanged places with her as she scaled a 90-foot mast to battle with torn sails during a violent squall near the Equator - "like trying to hang on to a telegraph pole in an earthquake".

"It's just too much," she sobbed to the camera.

There will be very difficult days but you deal with it - that's what makes the experience richer

Ellen MacArthur
But MacArthur says the sailor's self-preservation system "makes you forget just how bad things were - otherwise, you would be in too much shock. And it's that which allows you to go back out there and do it again".

Her biggest fear is "probably failure". When she was 10, she came last in all the races at a sailing school, where most of the youngsters had better boats and equipment.

"On the journey home I decided that I would never let this happen again," she recalled. "I wasn't going to be last, no matter what it took."


MacArthur comes from Whatstandwell in landlocked Derbyshire, but as soon as she could read, she savoured the pleasures of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons.

Ellen MacArthur in her first boat
Ellen aboard her first boat
By the time she was eight, and taking regular trips in her Auntie Thea's sloop off the Essex coast, she was hooked on sailing.

She saved her school dinner money for three years to help buy her own boat, an eight-foot dinghy named Threep'ny Bit. At home, she slept in a sleeping bag in the garage, to make room for all her charts in her bedroom.

"I didn't have many friends at school", she says. "I always spent more time with the boys, because they didn't do girls' things."

At 18, she sailed single-handed round Britain and won the Young Sailor of the Year award.

But it wasn't until she took part in a solo race across the Atlantic in 1997 that little Ellen, 5 ft 2 in with eyes of blue, attracted major sponsorship, from Kingfisher, the stores group.


It was Ellen's grandmother, Irene Lewis, who made it possible to enter her first big race.

She left Ellen £5,000 in her will, enabling her to pay the entrance fee for the Vendee Globe.

Ellen MacArthur at sea, Christmas 2000
At sea for Christmas in 2000
But her nan also provided inspiration. She was 82 when she graduated from Derby University despite suffering from lung cancer. She died three months later.

This example of courage helped Ellen MacArthur to realise her dream and, without a ghost writer, to tell her story in an autobiography, Taking on the World.

She became an international heroine, and particularly in France where her achievements, complemented by her fluent French, led one journalist to call her "the greatest Englishwoman since Jane Austen".

Now 26, she lives in a one-bedroom flat at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. But her emotional home is the sea, a romance which the man in her life accepts with pragmatism.

MacArthur says she never felt lonely during the 94 days of her solo voyage round the world. "I never needed anyone," she says.

Ellen MacArthur alone and on the ocean
How Ellen likes it, alone on the ocean
As the skipper and navigator in her latest challenge, MacArthur must marshal the skills of her crew of 13 men - four Britons, three Frenchmen, two Australians, two Canadians, a Spaniard and an Irishman - all older than her.

Climbing Everest may have become routine and the world becomes a smaller place each day, but the elements still command respect, at least from the wise and experienced.

Many people daydream of exploring their inner selves through such daunting challenges. For Ellen MacArthur, at sea again, the challenge is the essence of her existence.

"There will be very difficult days," she says. "You deal with it. That's what makes the experience richer".

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