Sail of the Century

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Amidst scenes of rapture and celebration, Ellen MacArthur brought home her 75ft trimaran B&Q to be greeted by the news that, on Tony Blair’s request, the Queen was to award her the honour of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. ‘Dame Ellen’ however was flattered but not overwhelmed. She seemed more concerned about docking the boat to which she said she has “a special relationship with” than accepting gongs. “It’s all so overwhelming. I never expected such a reception. I planned for sailing around the world and you never think about the homecoming so this is amazing. I’m extremely tired and I’ll just let the coming moments and days wash over me but for sure I’m itching to get back out on the water in this boat again.”

That prospect rightly sent a shudder through her Project Manager, Mark Turner as he commented “we’ll see, let’s just enjoy this moment”. But Ellen still has unfinished business on the east-west trans-Atlantic record attempt that she narrowly missed out on last year by some 45 minutes. The boat now will need a complete refit with every inch of the carbon-fibre monocoque hull scrutinised and X-rayed for signs of damage whilst Ellen will require a good month of recuperation before she can face the oceans again. However, after five hours sleep on Monday night that she described as “like sleeping for a month” it was a sprightly and remarkably fit looking Ellen that stepped ashore and faced her adoring public.

The homecoming was spectacular, reminiscent of a conquering naval reception as thousands lined the rocky coastline and high points surrounding Falmouth harbour whilst an armada of boats of all sizes ventured out to welcome home Britain’s greatest sailor. Many came from all over the country as Falmouth experienced a winter hotel boom unprecedented for February. The forecourt of the National Maritime Museum became a sea of people cramming for a view as a make-shift stage was erected to celebrate her achievment.

As she stepped ashore she was greeted by her team as well as her parents and brother before thanking the crowds saying “a record means nothing if you can’t actually share it.” And share it she did with thousands logging on to her website and reading her daily email updates via advanced satellite communications provided by British Telecom. For the first time ever in a global race, the power of multi-media was brought home affording Ellen almost reality TV style coverage as she battled with the elements. The inevitable champagne spraying and flare-lighting started a day of celebration unseen in British yachting since the late 1960’s and the arrival of the then Robin Knox-Johnson (now Sir) after his maiden circumnavigation.

Ellen MacArthur has not only sailed into the record books, she has won over a legion of new fans and admirers with her new record drawing comparisons with the greatest sporting victories this country has ever seen. Immediately after Ellen finished, the previous record-holder, Francis Joyon who in setting his record took three weeks off the previous record congratulated the new holder, “I always said that Ellen was a serious contender, and I can see today that she has decided to prove me right. The mere fact that she was able to sail around the world non-stop was quite an exploit, but to smash the record at the same time fully deserves my warmest congratulations. Ellen achieved this result through her concentrated efforts. Her team worked hard and backed her before and during her circumnavigation, and she did not ever lose her resolve. Being well supported is one thing, but when you find yourself in the middle of the southern lows in this type of boat, you really feel very alone.”


Exhausted heroine arrives home to huge adulation

Close to physical exhaustion but running on pure adrenalin, Ellen Macarthur brought the 75 foot maxi-trimaran B&Q across the finish line off the Ushant peninsula on the North-Western tip of France to sail into history as the fastest person to sail single-handedly around the world. Ghosting across the imaginary line picked out only by helicopter search lights, a Navy vessel and the landmark Ushant lighthouse at 10.29pm on Monday night she was quickly boarded by her shore team whilst a doctor performed a complete health check and administered a sleep-inducing injection shot. She beat the previous time set in February last year by Frenchman Francis Joyon by an incredible 1 day 8 hours 35 minutes and 49 seconds to become only the second person in history to sail a trimaran (three-hulled vessel) around the globe, non-stop, single-handedly.

Speaking immediately after crossing the line back to her race headquarters in Falmouth by satellite phone that has been her lifeline to the outside world, an exhausted Macarthur said “It’s been a very tough trip and the final stages up the South Atlantic were extremely hard both mentally and physically. It’s all been one big draining event and I have a mixture of emotions going on in my mind right now. It’s lovely to be back and to see faces again and I’m looking forward to seeing my family again onshore.”

Plaudits were quick to rain in as the Queen offered her “warm and heartfelt congratulations” and the global sailing community were once again forced to sit up and take notice of this 28 year old from land-locked Derbyshire who has just ‘knocked off’ the biggest record in world sailing. Since starting out on this epic voyage on the 28th November she’s faced down some of the worst conditions the world’s oceans could throw at her. Winds that have gusted to 80 mph, waves described (by her) as “office blocks of water,” whales, submerged debris and all in some of the most desolate and isolated places on earth. Her body has succumbed to the pressure with her fingernails rotting due to the constant exposure to sea-water, bruises and cuts that haven’t healed beneath the layers of foul-weather gear she’s forced to wear to protect her from the elements and chronic fatigue caused by her only attaining a maximum of 15 minute sleep periods throughout the voyage. Despite all of this she has come through when most pundits, including herself, rated her chances at 20-25% to complete the trip and beat the record.

Along the way she has set new records for distance sailing and most remarkably at Cape Horn she was some 4 days and 2 hours ahead of the previous best time. However on the way back up the South Atlantic, Neptune (God of the Sea) was a cruel master as banks of high pressure producing little or no wind hampered her progress and cut her hard-won advantage to nothing. A successful navigation and fast passage through the Doldrums set up the record chance though with her shoreside weather routers, Commanders in the USA, plotting every last front and sea-state to the finish. A final storm just south of the Bay of Biscay reminded Team Ellen just how fragile her lead was but a dive in eastwards towards the French coast in the final approaches sealed her victory.

For the shoreside team headed by Project Manager and ‘punchbag’ Mark Turner, the overwhelming feeling in Falmouth was one of relief. “We don’t have to watch the clock ticking remorselessly away and my phone can finally be switched off,” said Turner straight after she crossed the finish line, “it’s been a momentous voyage and she’ll come back to Falmouth to a hero’s welcome. As for the future I can’t say but there are still some speed records out there that we’ll look at when the time is right.”

Team Ellen is a formidable set-up with fitness specialists, doctors, psychologists, fellow round the world yachtsmen and the inevitable sales and marketing gurus to maximise her exposure. The yacht itself was an open cheque book design by Cornishman Nigel Irens and funded by the Kingfisher group using their home-ware company B&Q as the sponsorship vehicle. Their returns since backing Macarthur in the 2002 Vendee Globe single-handed monohull race, where she finished second, have been enormous and this latest £4 million project left no stone unturned.

Remarkably she suffered little gear damage throughout her voyage, a testament to the carbon fibre workings and significant recent advances made in yacht construction and design over the past ten years. The boat was designed completely around the diminutive Macarthur who stands a mere 5ft 4in with all the control lines and winches geared to her power to weight ratio. The yacht itself is capable of speeds in excess of 35 knots and its type is revered as the hardest to sail with minor lapses in concentration punished by the most extreme consequences. A capsize could have proven fatal and throughout the voyage Macarthur was forced to back off, often sailing with little or no sail set to reign in the power.

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