How English Sailor Gained International Fame – copyright Peter Marsh
The scene in the small French harbor of Les Sables d’Olonne the evening of February 11 was unlike anything ever seen in the world of sailing. An estimated 200,000 people packed the tiny seaport to get a glimpse of France’s unlikeliest new sports star: 24-year old English solo sailor Ellen MacArthur. The day before, Michel Desjoyeaux had arrived and set a new, solo, round-the-world sailing record of 93 days. His welcoming committee was estimated to be 100,000–clear proof that winning isn’t everything in a contest that can justifiably be called “the toughest race in the world.”
In France, the outcome of the Vendee Globe race is as closely followed as the Tour de France, with daily TV reports and live interviews from the furthest points of the 26,000-mile course. They were watching intently, via the internet, as MacArthur stayed with the leading group down the Atlantic in November, and moved into the top three south of New Zealand as breakages and malfunctions thinned the fleet of 24 down to 16.
MacArthur’s well-tested 60 footer Kingfisher also had more than its share of misfortune. This began near the equator with a spinnaker splitting, requiring hours of hand stitching. The sail failed again and was dragged under the bows. The 5’3″ MacArthur lost more time winching and hauling the remnants of the sail back on board. She was the first to sight icebergs in the south Atlantic and came precariously close to hitting one, but never let this affect her desire to sail hard and fast.
After climbing the 85-mast to replace halyards early on, she was forced to make an emergency climb near the remote Kerguelen Islands in 30-foot seas and 40 knots of wind. A mainsail batten had broken through its pocket and hooked around the upper spreader. Knowing the sail would never come down in this condition, she struggled in near-freezing temperatures to remove the full-length batten, then spent an hour getting down to the deck.
Racing toward Cape Horn, MacArthur pulled ahead of some of the best singlehanded sailors in the world, Frenchmen with extensive experience in the southern ocean, and settled into second place 650 miles behind the leader, 34-year old Desjoyeaux. As Desjoyeaux sailed north back to France and victory, the unthinkable occurred. A wall of high pressure slowed him down off Brazil, allowing MacArthur to catch up and at one time even pass him to the west. Making sure to stay between his rival and the finish line, the Frenchman fought to keep his boat moving through the doldrums, as the French and English media discovered a story that was too good to ignore.
The Englishwoman had more work to do, besides navigating, plotting the weather and trying to sleep in 30-minute snatches. She spent 18 hours with the gennaker laid out on deck–this sail had to be carefully glued back together. The wind instruments broke on two consecutive nights so she had to change the anemometer at the top of the mast twice. “That was the moment I was most scared. I was at the top of the rig, there was this big squall, lots of rain but I didn’t mind that. The wind died off and the boat gybed seven times while I was up the mast.”
The two leaders raced back into the northern winter after circling the southern hemisphere at an incredible speed, well under the schedule to break the 105-day record and the 100-day barrier. With a week to go there was more drama to come: Kingfisher HQ announced that their yacht had collided with a submerged object two days before. (Once again only after the problem was fixed.) “There was the most almighty crunching sound and the boat felt like she had hit land,” Ellen radioed. “As I glanced behind the boat to see what I had hit I saw part of the rudder and the daggerboard floating away. It was a gut wrenching moment. I imagined I might have ripped the bottom of the boat out, the noise was so loud. So I immediately ran through the boat, checking in all the watertight compartments that there was no water in there.”
She spent a great deal of time getting the broken daggerboard out and then replacing it with the starboard one. Trying to manhandle a daggerboard twice her height and 1.5 times her weight, with the hull on a 20° gradient and slamming into each wave, was no mean feat. Throughout this arduous operation Ellen continued to head upwind so as to lose as little ground as possible. After the ordeal, she remarked, “I went beyond what I thought were my limits, but after all the work was done at the end of the day, Kingfisher was back sailing at her maximum. I’ve nearly got her racing to her full potential. Now, I’m back in the race. This incident has lost me 40 miles and there’s still another 2400 to go to the finish.”
When the clock was finally stopped, Desjoyeaux had taken an unbelievable 12 days off the record, averaging 12 knots, but MacArthur was still attracting the lion’s share of the attention and many of the questions posed to the winner at his press conference were about her. . “Ellen for me is a great mystery,” he said. “She is ten years younger than me and she could have beaten me. She came so close to me in the Saint Helen anticyclone, and she came back on me in the Doldrums and the Azores high. She has displayed a great deal of courage and determination and has threatened me right until the end.”
A day later Ellen arrived, with the crowds chanting her name along the waterfront: Ell-en, Ell-en. “It was the most amazing experience in my life seeing so many people here to see me. I thought that there must be someone standing behind me,” she said. Clearly overwhelmed by her reception, she added, “I don’t know what to think, I’m still blown away by the whole situation.” She had a ten-minute phone conversation with the English prime minister, Tony Blair, before stepping into a packed press conference.
Replying in both English and fluent French, she stated: “If the race was going to start tomorrow you can bet your bottom dollar that I’d be on that start line again! It was the hardest race ever but it’s very difficult to get off the boat. I always sailed to the maximum as much as I could, how the boat likes to be sailed. I’m elated to be second, it says a lot for the team and preparation, which is critical in a race like this.”
In the next solo trans-Atlantic race, the Route du Rhum, she again won the monohull division. These performances over a two-year span won her the official title of “world champion” of offshore singlehanded racing. By then, she was famous not only among sailors everywhere, but also to the general public in both England and France. And somewhere along the way, she found time to write her autobiography– the unashamedly complete story of her rise to international fame and it’s a stunning read–as candid and honest as she is in all her appearances.
The book takes you along on an adventure that often seems like a fairy tale, from the four-year old who said she’d “rather die than go to another ballet class” all the way to the seasoned Cape Horner just twenty years later. (Before her latest exploit of sailing around the world in 71 days in her 75’ trimaran B&Q Castorama and the world-wide celebrity that followed.)
It begins on a small farm in rural Derbyshire, an English county that is the equivalent of Kansas when it comes to sailing. Her parent’s were teachers and from an early age allowed her to play and explore in the surrounding countryside. Fortunately, her extended family included several people who would take this energetic child off her parents’ hands. By the time she was four, her grandmother was hiking with her in the local hills.
It was another independent woman in the family, her aunt, who gets the credit for introducing Ellen to sailing at the ripe old age of five. Auntie Thea kept her 26′ pocket cruiser. Cabaret on a mooring on the north side of the Thames estuary in the old port of Paglesham. It was Ellen’s grandma who volunteered to take Ellen and her older brother Lewis on the long train ride from Derby to London where they changed trains for the coast. It was a dreary trip, but this was just the prelude to the first night of her life on the water.
For the next few years they cruised the area called “the east coast rivers” where I too began my sailing, visiting the rivers and inlets in Essex and Suffolk, yachting centers like Burnham on Crouch and Brightlingsea and backwaters like Walton on the Naze. Foreshadowing her future career, her first solo sail was after her first trip to France, in Dunkirk harbor on a dinghy that Cabaret had towed across the Channel. Of course, that inevitably led her to want her own boat, and she started saving every penny. But her bank account had only reached $350 by the time she was nine, and again it was her grandmother who recognized her desperation and gave her the $500 she needed to buy an 8-foot fiberglass dinghy.
The next year, she was the youngest person (and smallest) to attend a junior sailing camp on a broad reservoir. She capsized eleven times during the first day, felt outclassed by kids who had all the best gear, and was homesick for the entire week. Needless to say, she came back a few months later and beat them all! By the time she was fourteen, Ellen admits to resenting the fact that “boys have more fun.” She solved this issue by selling the dinghy and buying a small centerboard cruiser, the Kestrel for $2500. She spent all her spare time repairing and modifying it, and during the summer holidays she was finally captain of her own ship. However, before she could go offshore, her parents insisted she get more training.
She found a nautical school run by a former ship’s captain in the one-time fishing port of Hull. It was far from the popular sailing areas but close to her home, which was another happy coincidence, as she was destined to spend far more time there than she imagined. Her struggles to pass England’s stringent university entrance exams contrasted with the way she waltzed through the yachting courses in Hull. Captain King decided she could skip the intermediate levels and go straight to the comprehensive Royal Yachting Association “Yachtmaster” exam.
In the next year, Ellen transformed herself from an academically modest high schooler to the star pupil at the Hull Nautical School. In 1994, competing against some very talented dinghy racers she won the Young Sailor of the Year Award. At the age of 17, she attended the gala ceremony with her parents and received the award from Sir Robin Knox-Johnson. By the age of 18, she was teaching the Yachtmaster course! To match her growing ambition, she had traded up to a new boat–a 21-foot Corribee.
This was a full keel design that could handle rough weather, but it was in a state of total disrepair. By then, it was clear that the people around her knew she was on the road to something special,.so there always seemed to be someone willing to advise, assist, or loan tools to return the little boat to seaworthiness. However, she had no particular goal until the Musto clothing company offered to sponsor her on a voyage. Within a few days, she had dreamed up the idea of sailing around Britain.
Britain (England & Scotland) is small as islands go, but its coastline encompasses every kind of hazard to navigation except perhaps ice. Halfway to Scotland, she spent two weeks stormbound in the industrial port of Hartlepool and was later forced to shorten the route by using the Caledonian Canal, a system of locks that bypasses northern Scotland. Bad weather continued to follow her into the Irish Sea and her log certainly supports the idea that the English summer is just a series of depressions interrupted by occasional sunshine.
It took three months to reach the Solent in time for the Southampton Boat Show, where she continued to attract attention as a “rising star” of the sailing world. With the help of the Musto marketing team, she began making the connections that would be invaluable in the future. On the dockside, she met yacht designer Merfyn Owen who would be central to the creation of her Open 60 Kingfisher. So it was mid-October by the time she completed the circumnavigation at her home port of Hull.
On the way home, she had taken a week off to join the crew on the Sea Cadets’ training ship Royalist and the offer of a captain’s job next year on one of their cruising yachts was waiting for her. First she had been asked to bring her boat to the London Boat Show and exhibit it in the pool. Again, she met more sailors involved in ocean racing, including Mark Turner, who would become her agent and advisor. This became the turning point where Ellen forced herself to make the crucial decision: she chose racing over cruising. In the spring of 1996, she towed her boat down to the Hamble River west of Southampton, lived onboard, and spent a tough time working on boats during the day and writing letters to potential sponsors at night. One day, she recalled, she mailed letters with $500 worth of stamps!
The connections she had made during her voyage began to pay off in May, when she was recommended for the job of shore crew on an Open 60 entered in the upcoming Singlehanded Trans-Atlantic Race by Alan Wynne-Thomas. That put her on the front line in Plymouth when the world’s top solo racers, most of them French, assembled in their fabulous high-tech boats. She was warmly welcomed into this close-knit world and her fascination with shorthanded sailing escalated. She watched the start with the clear understanding that she would be there four years later………….
There was a bonus for her work preparing the boat–she was to be the crew on the return trip. Ellen felt completely at home on that ocean crossing, passed through her first real storm at sea, helmed at 20 knots, and was entranced by Wynne-Thomas’ stories of the ’93 Vendee Globe. What’s more, he had entered the race again, so their voyage ended in Les Sables d’Olonne, France the start and finish of the non-stop race.
Within two weeks she was back in North America, following the itinerant life of the professional sailor, as crew on an Italian entry in the Quebec-St Malo Race. This crossing was characterized by the chaotic state of the boat–there were breakages of the steering and water-ballast tank and the propane ran out–a broach under spinnaker and a knockdown in Force 10 winds, but the crew never faltered.
Wynne-Thomas had failed to find a sponsor and had to charter the boat to Frenchwoman Catherine Chabaud. With Ellen, he walked the crowded docks to visit his boat to be sailed by one of France’s top female sailors. There was a second vow to be back in four years, then Ellen was again immersed in the struggle to find the funds to start her own racing career. Her target was the Mini Transat, raced in 21′ keelboats that sport a mast 2-3 times as tall as her Corribee’s..
This was to be a partnership with Turner, who already owned a Mini-class boat. It was a year of low-budget living and letters unanswered when the only funds she raised was a loan of $25,000 from her parents to buy a four-year old Mini. The cost of trailering it back and forth across the Channel to enter the qualifying races mounted, gear broke and had to be replaced. But through it all they soldiered on, finally landing backing from “Carphone Warehouse.” Ellen’s yacht was re-named “Financial Dynamics” just before the start.
Of the 52 skippers in the Mini Transat, Ellen was the youngest at 21, and the only woman, and was singled out by the local media for extra attention. Now speaking tolerable French, she was able to explain that she was just one of the guys! Racing with a threadbare spinnaker and an outdated design, she pushed herself to the limit to the Canary Islands, then again to Martinique in 24 days to finish the second leg in 13th place.
From this point, the shared goal with Turner was to put Ellen on the start of the Vendee Globe. The trans-Atlantic Route du Rhum was to be the stepping stone. To say this was ambitious was an understatement! Their credit cards were maxed out and they were significantly in debt to friends and family. To give an example: the entry fee alone was $8,000, paid just before the deadline by money left to Ellen in her beloved grandmother’s will.
Essentially, their game plan appeared to be based on total desperation: they should sign up for the race, then, with two months remaining, secure a boat, and finally a sponsor to pay for it–in that order! The only suitable boat available anywhere was an Open 50 named Great Circle owned by American Brian Hancock and berthed in Bermuda. Ellen and two crew flew out, built a new rudder, then sailed the boat to Spain as the sails disintegrated. While fitting new sails, they heard from Turner that Kingfisher corporation, owner of several chain stores in Europe including Woolworths, had signed on as the sponsor and he had found another 50 in the U.K. that was ready to go. She reached the start line with no time to spare for testing or practice.
The fleet encountered four major depressions, and Ellen was handicapped by broken canting-keel hydraulics and the boat’s lack of headsail furlers. Nonetheless, she won the 50′ Class and beat most of the 60s. To crown this achievement, a picture of Kingfisher appeared on the front page of The Times of London. This must have helped the company’s decision makers go ahead and agree to foot the bill for the Vendee campaign.
With a contract for full sponsorship, MacArthur and Turner were able to proceed with the selection of a design team and the hiring of a small publicity staff. He became the coordinator of all the technical aspects of the project while she entered a one-year training program designed to broaden her sailing experience and prepare her for whatever lay ahead in the southern ocean. This included dinghy sailing with one of Britain’s Olympic dinghy team, inshore sailing at the Figaro school in France, the Round Europe, and Transat Jacques Vabre with one of France’s top professionals Yves Parlier, plus courses in meteorology, first aid, engine repair, electronics troubleshooting etc.
The winter of 1999 was a crazy succession of meetings, lectures, appearances at boat shows, and two trips to New Zealand to check on the progress of the new Kingfisher at Marten’s yard in Auckland. The America’s Cup (NZ v Italy) was underway to add to the party atmosphere in Auckland, but the new Open 60 was launched on time after five months of intensive work by a team that included several specialists who were flown over from England. The boat was customized to fit Ellen’s height and her physical abilities, but it would have to sail 12,000 miles back to France before its performance could be compared to another 60.
Everything went well on the passage to South America, and Ellen dropped her two delivery crew at the first anchorage beyond Cape Horn. Her first solo sail on the boat was the tough passage up the Atlantic singlehanded. (The book dismisses this tough passage in less than two pages!) Four years after she had prepared Wynne-Thomas’ 60 for the Singlehanded Trans-Atlantic, she was back, on the start line, a part of the strongest field ever assembled.
It was classic North Atlantic weather from the start. Three new boats were dismasted in the first gale, and the conditions only got worse. Ellen won in a new record time of 14 days 23 hours. It was a great moment for the British and French media who made much of the fact that she was also the youngest person and the only woman ever to win the race–facts which didn’t interest her at all. This concludes my brief re-telling of MacArthur’s early life.
The book takes 230 pages to reach this point, and it’s compelling reading. (If you only wanted to learn about the Vendee Globe, however, you might think this is the world’s longest introduction!). This event which had loomed over her for six years is recounted day-by-day with gripping descriptions of each of her six trips up the 90′ mast and how she still clung to second place behind Michel Desjoyeaux. She closed the gap to 26 miles at the equator before disaster struck again. Entering the north Atlantic, Kingfisher strikes something and the port dagger board is broken……..yet more heroics as Ellen hauls on the 150-lbs board from every possible angle to break it free, finally wrestles it out of its slot, and replaces it with the starboard one. (Try tacking that combination a few times!) But wait, there’s more! With four days to go, one of the two forestays snaps, nearly taking the mast with it.
Nothing can stop her, it seems. Sleep-deprived, unwashed, and totally exhausted, she steps ashore as an international celebrity. Uncharacteristically, she is completely unprepared for what follows. She is the hottest feel-good news story all over Europe and her life is no longer her own. For the first two days she can’t even spend time with her long-suffering parents. Months later, she is still retreating to the bathroom for a minute’s peace! Finally, there’s only one way to escape–go sailing!
The story ends with Ellen getting a taste for trimaran sailing by racing to Brazil in a double-handed race on a super-fast 60 footer, then deciding that’s the way to go for the next few years. And when Ellen MacArthur makes up her mind, don’t get in her way! The book concludes with eight pages of acknowledgements dating back to her first voyage and including seemingly everyone she met on the way around Britain. And yes, in case you were wondering, we even get a sampling of Ellen’s romantic involvements over the years with several of the men in her team. Singlehanded racing will never be the same again.
Postscript- After a few weeks on shore recharging from her epic circumnavigation, Ellen was back on the water in April, tuning up her trimaran for some short record attempts in the Channel. After a visit to Buckingham Palace to receive her honor from Queen Elizabeth II at the end of April, she was back up to speed.
Taking on the World by Ellen MacArthur published by McGraw Hill 353 pages
Note-I started taking notice of Ellen Macarthur when she raced a 50-foot boat solo across the Atlantic in 1998 and beat many of the 60 footers. I wrote my first official “Ellen” report when she won the Open Monohull division of the Singlehanded Transatlantic Race in July 2000.