Lone-sailor MacArthur heads into critical hours

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Ellen MacArthur's attempt to become the fastest solo non-stop sailor around the world was in serious risk of stalling in the south Atlantic as she faced a frustrating weekend of light winds.

Unfavourable weather since MacArthur, Britain's top single-handed sailor, rounded Cape Horn in a storm with 55-knot winds on 13 January have shrunk her lead over her nearest rival to its smallest since she reached the halfway point in the race on new year's eve.

The very slow boat speeds achieved by her 75ft catamaran, B&Q, in light winds off the coast of South America have trimmed the 28-year-old's lead over round-the-world record holder, Frenchman Francis Joyon, to just one day and 15 hours, or 600 miles.

An equipment breakage and concerns about her health are adding to worries about the record attempt as she battles forward off Sao Paulo, Brazil, halfway between the Horn and, 1,500 miles away, the Equator with an estimated two to three weeks of the challenge remaining.

She was taken to the edge of physical and mental collapse by high seas and veering winds in the Southern Ocean passage. Fluctuating winds forced exhaustingly regular sail changes and constantly put the multi-hull craft in danger of capsize.

MacArthur survived four storms in the Southern Ocean, before passing the Falkland Islands in rough seas and starting her progress north to the Equator.

On Thursday she had to climb the 30ft mast twice for essential mast track repairs. The boat's mainsail rigging was damaged when a load-bearing headboard car (a mast track which secures the sail at the top of the mainsail) broke. She was able to continue using the sail by feeding a tack line round a winch but to make the repair safely had to turn the boat off the wind and effectively sail back down her course.

She said: "I feel like I've been beaten up this morning...stiff as hell, and moving round with the speed and elegance of an arthritic robot."

During the repair she cut her thumb, while last week, she suffered a nasty cut as a metal ring on the tack of a headsail became loose, hitting her on the forehead.

In the more recent light wind conditions, all her course and routing decisions remain critical to maintaining performance. For this she relies on information from Commanders Weather of New Hampshire, US, a specialist marine meteorological consultancy. Its specialists help keep her boat forging ahead in areas of sustainable wind. She also receives four e-mails a day of weather forecasts and advice on routing from her Cowes-based shore team.

B&Q must arrive at the finish line between the French island Ushant and Lizard Point, on the south-west tip of England, before 7.04am on February 9 to set a record.

Her principal sponsors, two Kingfisher group companies - B&Q in Britain and Castorama in France - expect her to receive a homecoming to match those of round-the-world pioneers Sir Francis Chichester and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in the late 1960s. MacArthur, who set out on November 28, has now sailed more than 21,900 miles in this record attempt.

Latest information at www.teamellen.com

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