ELLEN MACARTHUR: From Derby Girl to International Sports Celebrity

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. The following piece was written longhand in a hostel in Belize, revised at an internet cafe in Guatemala, and appeared in NW Yachting in March 2001.

Ellen Macarthur

ELLEN MACARTHUR: Young Star of Singlehanded Racing

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 was 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. Here on the Columbia River, there was a smaller, but equally enthusiastic group of fans following the race's progress. 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.

Local sailor Nancy Rander was reading MacArthur's daily reports, and at this point she recognized something remarkable. "You never knew there was a problem until she had fixed it," Rander pointed out to me. Éllen simply never complained, just went ahead and did whatever had to be done," Rander was the skipper of a crew of nine women that completed the West Marine Pacific Cup to Hawaii in 1994 and remembers how much work that entailed for everyone. "But that was a walk in the park compared to what Ellen has done. She's incredible.........an inspiration for women (and men) everywhere, whatever their goals."

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.



Congratulations Ellen from Solar Navigator HQ


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."

"It's not about sailing, people are interested in the story, that you can make it happen. If you want to do something you can. I just chose to do it in a boat. My main aim was to finish and any one that crosses the line is a winner. I'll be racing Kingfisher and other boats in the future I think. It's early days. It's a big dream to get this race under my belt and I need to let it sink in. I'm dying to get back on the water soon".

  ELLEN MACARTHUR: No time To Slow Down

What's it like to be the most famous sailor in the world? Ellen MacArthur has found out since she sailed Kingfisher across the finish line of the Vendée Globe race in second place. They received a fantastic and surprising welcome back to UK waters in Southampton and then a few days later in the heart of London, at Tower Bridge. Next, she sailed to Caen, northern France, where the keel and mast were removed so that the boat could be transported by truck and barge to Paris for exhibit.

In between returning to Les Sables d'Olonne to meet each of the skippers as they finished, consulting on the one-hour documentary "Sailing between Heaven and Hell" shown on the BBC, and writing the book that she has dreamed of for years (to be published by Penguin in October) she has been spending a little time with her family in the English Midlands.

Having turned down a majority of the numerous offers to exploit her new-found fame (which could easily occupy her on land for a year or more), Ellen's summer will be spent at sea. This 24-year old, who has sailed 40,000 miles in the last year on the Kingfisher, will take on a new and exciting challenge by competing in the Open 60 trimarans.

She has been asked by Alain Gautier, Vendee Globe winner in 1992-3, and also part of the Kingfisher Design Team, to compete with him onboard Foncia his state-of-the-art 60 foot trimaran. The season kicks off on May 13 with in the gruelling non-stop Challenge Mondial, from Cherbourg to Tarragon, Spain via the Azores Islands and the Gibraltar Straits.

Then its on to a series of five Grand Prix events - four days of intense fully crewed races at incredible speeds in sight of land and spectators - that will culminate in the big event of the year, 4500 miles of high-stress racing from Le Havre in northern France to Brazil in doublehanded Transat Jacques Vabre. "I was surprised and flattered when Alain asked me to join his team for the season onboard Foncia. I certainly have a lot to learn, but that is going to be a great new challenge for me. This is a new discipline and it's going to be a very steep curve leading up to the Transatlantic race."

During the year, Ellen will also compete onboard 'Kingfisher' in two inshore Grand Prix events, as well as the EDS Atlantic Challenge (St Malo-Hamburg-Portsmouth-Baltimore-Boston-St Malo) and some record attempts in European waters. Nick Moloney, a Whitbread, America's Cup, and multihull sailor (Playstation), will co-skipper Kingfisher throughout the year. Nick also attempted the Mini Transat in 1999 in ex-'Financial Dynamics/Le Poisson' - the Mini 6.50m (21 foot) boat that Ellen raced across the Atlantic in her first solo race in 1997.

Ellen and friends won the Challenge Mondial after gales and calms had scattered the fleet.



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Ellen MacArthur began her world solo record attempt Sun 28 Nov 04 @ 07:10









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