washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Columnists > Angus Phillips
Angus Phillips

Tiny MacArthur Sets a Whale of a Sailing Record

By Angus Phillips
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page E03

A monumental achievement in the sporting world went largely unnoticed here when a pint-sized Briton named Ellen MacArthur completed a solo, nonstop, round-the-world sailing voyage this month that clipped 32 1/2 hours off the record.

When MacArthur's 75-foot trimaran B&Q crossed the finish line off the south coast of England on Feb. 8, she'd been alone at sea for 71 days 14 hours and 18 minutes, much of it in the frigid, windy wastes of the Southern Ocean ringing Antarctica. Here's what she had to say about conditions there in an e-mail message 30 days into the journey:


MacArthur, 28, is joyous one day before shaving more than a day off the previous solo, nonstop, round-the-world sailing record. (Liot Vapillon -- AP)

Add Angus Phillips to your personal home page.

"Yesterday was a day from hell, with horrendous conditions and a few moments when your heart is in your mouth -- or your stomach. We got physically picked up by a freak wave yesterday which made poor B&Q seem so small, and that was probably the most scared that I've been on this trip. I didn't know how or where we would land.

"It's hardest when you have a few seconds to think about it; it's like waiting for the trigger to be pulled. There was also a wave that landed on the boat as if an elephant had been dropped from heaven. It was a statement of how irrelevant we are out here, and how we have to earn our permit to pass here. It's no place for bravado or complacency. This is real -- very black-and-white real."

Sixty-eight years from the time Amelia Earhart's airplane vanished in the middle of the Pacific, ending her quest to be the first woman to fly around the world, MacArthur came home to a heroine's welcome in Falmouth, having circled the globe at an average speed of 15.9 knots. She was dubbed a dame by Queen Elizabeth, congratulated by Prince Charles and applauded by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Francis Joyon, the Frenchman whose record she beat, paid gracious tribute: "I always said Ellen was a serious contender, and I can see today that she has decided to prove me right."

MacArthur, 28, bounced joyfully on the trampolines that separate the hulls of her fragile craft after finishing in the dark of night. She set off the traditional flares that signify the end of a great sea voyage, then joined her parents, Avril and Ken, for a repast of beans and toast after 2 1/2 months of freeze-dried fodder.

Finally, citing exhaustion, she disappeared, heading to rural France for rest and sleep with the cell phone cut off, leaving much of the world to wonder who this remarkable person is, and how did she get where she's been?

I met MacArthur five years ago in Auckland, New Zealand, where the 60-foot singlehanded racer Kingfisher was being built for her to sail in the singlehanded Vendee-Globe round-the-world race. I joined her and a cast of a dozen or so marine technicians for a shakedown cruise on the Hauraki Gulf and walked away unimpressed. The boat looked great, but was she the right one to race it?

The 5-foot-3 MacArthur seemed overmatched by the powerful, pale blue monohull, and as she peppered the techs with questions about its gadgets and foibles, I couldn't help thinking she was leaping in over her head. Project manager Mark Turner did little to dissuade me, saying he was worried, too, but that having a diminutive female skipper had not hurt in the quest for sponsorship.

So how did she do? MacArthur wowed the world by finishing second in the prestigious race, briefly leading the pack on the run to the finish from Cape Horn to France.

"She always knew more than she let on," Turner, who still manages her projects, revealed last week. "Even before the Vendee-Globe, she was already a very, very good sailor. She'd done three transatlantics, she was well up the curve from a seamanship perspective. All she needed was race experience, and she has a willingness and ability to learn that I've not seen from anyone, anywhere. That's still there. She's the same person."

Turner met MacArthur in 1996, when she was 19. "She found me," he said. "She was going around asking everyone she met how to get into racing. She had so much energy, not very many people could refuse her. She'd get help from people who didn't even realize they were helping her."

Turner was then organizing his own bid for the 1997 Mini-Transatlantic Race in tiny, 21-foot sloops. MacArthur said she wanted to go, too. He lined her up a used boat. While he worked on sponsorships, she worked on the boats. "She'd spend days preparing hers and nights preparing mine," he said. "It suited me, because I didn't like the boatyard work."


CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company