Sailing with Dame Ellen MacArthur

“How do you like the colour?” asks Dame Ellen MacArthur, as I’m handed a bright purple set of foul weather gear. She looks good in purple. Even our helmsman, the weather-beaten, bristle-chinned Sébastien Josse, and his grizzled French crew look smart in purple. I look like a bilberry.

But purple is the colour of BT Team Ellen, the crew that supported Josse’s campaign in the last Vendée Globe round-the-world race. So purple it is and that’s fine. I would have sailed in a chicken suit to spend a day on the water with Ellen MacArthur.

It’s 6.30am, and around us are almost 1,800 boats gathered for one of sailing’s biggest annual events, the JP Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race. MacArthur is not helming the boat today. All the sailing calls are left to Josse and the team as we tackle the 50-mile race course around the Isle of Wight. But that doesn’t stop her from leaping up to help pull in a spinnaker or bag a sail. There’s not a shackle, not a sheet on the BT Open 60 that she cannot describe in minute detail, be it the specialist rope on the shrouds, or the weight, dimensions and depth of the canting keel.

On practice day, wearing a more macho black, I had joined Ben Ainslie and a crew of rock-star racers on Team Origin, an Extreme 40 catamaran. This has become the yacht of choice for crews polishing their skills ahead of next year’s America’s Cup series, which will be contested in multihulls.

“Cat or Open 60?” the Round the Island organisers had asked me; Ben or Ellen? It must have been like that for the judges of the UK Young Sailor of the Year award in 1995, when faced with two exceptional 18-year-olds, Ainslie and MacArthur. One was an up-and-coming Olympic hopeful, the other, a slip of a girl who had just rounded Britain in a tiny 21ft Corribee.

The judges chose MacArthur, and life changed immeasurably for the girl from rural Derbyshire. “Yes I remember those awards,” says Ainslie ruefully, over lunch on practice day. “We sat together at dinner and she talked about her boat for three hours solid.”

The remark isn’t delivered unkindly, but it is a comment on the intensity with which MacArthur approaches her passions. It’s eight years since she came second to Michel Desjoyeaux in the Vendée Globe, and four years since she broke the solo circumnavigation record in her trimaran, nicknamed Moby. A few years ago she was talking about another go at the Vendée but, for now at least, she is concentrating on her interests in sustainability, charity and business.

Moby was innovatively branded as B&Q on one side and Castorama – a French brand – on the other. The double-branding idea was generated by Offshore Challenges, the company MacArthur runs with long-time business partner Mark Turner.

Finding sponsors, running racing teams and now, increasingly, whole sailing events, such as the iShares Cup, define her business dealings today. Then there’s her charity, the Ellen MacArthur Trust, set up in 2003 to take children suffering from cancer and leukaemia sailing.

MacArthur is also deeply concerned about the environment. We’re in the Solent sitting on the rail as she articulates her fears for the future. I want to take notes but my notebook has slipped to the bottom of my foulies, not that anything I could scribble could keep pace. “Oil is going to run out in 40 years and we have nothing yet to replace it. It’s frightening,” she says.

She’s building a house on the Isle of Wight that she has designed on ecological principles. “I want it to be a house that looks and works as a house should; right not just for today but for the future,” she says.

Later, looking back, we can see hundreds of sails scattered like confetti across the water, overlooked by the shimmering chalk cliffs. I feel guilty sitting amidships changing sides now and again with a tack or a gybe, but Josse and the boys are doing well without us. We sneak up behind ICAP Leopard, the 100ft monster of a racer owned by Mike Slade, chief executive of property company Helical Bar. They try to wave us away. “I go where I go,” shouts Josse in thickly accented English.

In light airs we are pushing Leopard close, but the Open 60 can’t live with the bigger boat as the breeze rises towards the end of the race. We’re third over the line among the monohulls, but a stiff handicapping system favours the smaller boats. The top prize, the Gold Roman Bowl, is won by Tattarat, a 25ft Nordic Folkboat built in 1978 and skippered by Philip Williams, a director of Williams Shipping.

Wandering past the Royal Yacht Squadron later that evening, I watch the smaller yachts still streaming back to the finish line off Cowes, their white sails glowing in the dipping sun. A rainbow has formed over the water like a curtain falling on a perfect day.

Maybe it was things I had read in the media, but I had worried that MacArthur might be diffident. The opposite is the case. She is engaging company, fun to be with and brimming with stimulating conversation. It’s hard to believe that when she first came to the south of England as a sailor she found personal contact difficult, sometimes venturing into the pub at night, only to feel isolated and ignored. Not any more.

At 33, MacArthur has time for a change of mind, but she seems to be committed to a future with less competitive sailing in it. A trip to South Georgia, highlighting the plight of the albatross, threatened by longline fishing, was something of an epiphany. Sailing for pleasure is still there. It’s in her blood. Now, however, she’s shaping a bigger challenge for the future. The lady who took on the oceans has chosen to take on the world. For all our sakes, I hope she wins.

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