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Donkin on Sailing

July 2009 – Sailing with Dame Ellen MacArthur

Richard Donkin sailing with Dame Ellen MacArthurIt’s 6.30am and a fine drizzle has varnished the wooden pontoon. “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 team colour of BT Team Ellen that supported Josse’s Open 60 campaign in the last Vendee 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. Not that we are alone. Around us are 1,779 boats and 16,000 sailors in one of sailing’s biggest annual events – the JP Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race.

More ritual than race, this is an occasion when all kinds of sailors, fair weather and foul, come together and parade their talents in one of the world’s great sailing venues, racing the 40 miles around the Isle of Wight.

On practice day, wearing a more macho black, I had joined Ben Ainslie and a crew of rock-star racers on Team Origin, one of the Extreme 40 catamarans that has become the yacht of choice for crews seeking to polish their skills ahead of next year’s America’s Cup series that will be contested in multi-hulls.

“Cat or Open 60?” said the organisers; 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 a clutch of talent in the final, including the 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 began to change immeasurably for the girl from rural Derbyshire who had demonstrated precocious talent and maturity, reaching Yachtmaster instructor level in less than a year. “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 as a comment on the intensity with which MacArthur approaches her passions. 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.

She’s not running the boat today. All the sailing calls are left to Josse and the team. But that doesn’t prevent her from leaping up continually to help with pulling in a spinnaker or bagging a sail. “Does this bring back memories?” she asks as I struggle with a zipper on a sail bag. She says that she often re-lives moments from her voyages when carrying out jobs on deck: ordeals such as climbing the mast in 40 knot winds in the Southern Ocean to remove a broken batten after the boat had been knocked on its side.

It’s eight years since she ran Michel Desjoyeaux close, coming second in the Vendee Globe, and four years since she broke the solo circumnavigation record in the trimaran she called Moby, 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 she 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.

Beyond these involvements, however, is another, growing interest – the environmental perils facing the world that she believes are advancing with a creeping rapidity. 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 up with the pace or reproduce her sense of urgency. “Oil is going to run out in 40 years and we have nothing yet to replace it. It’s frightening,” she says.

Some might be overwhelmed by her enthusiasm but I think it’s infectious and persuasive. 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.

A few years ago she was talking about another go at the Vendee Globe but, for now, at least, round-the-world sailing has been pushed in to the background as she concentrates more on her interests in sustainability, charity and sailing business.

The Vendee changed everything for MacArthur. For all the hardships she experienced at sea, probably the toughest part of all was living with the kind of fame that does its utmost to deny the right to privacy. Today, however, she harnesses fame as a platform for her accumulated passions. Time spent authoring two books, with a third on the way, has helped to ease the peculiar pressures that go with instant recognition. But she still gets approached for photographs and still poses willingly.

Maybe it was things I had read in the media, but I had worried that she 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 going down to the pub on an evening, only to face someone’s back at the bar; not any more.

The Cowes lifeboat comes alongside us. “He’s one of my mates, and a brilliant seaman,” she says of the coxswain waving to us from the bridge as he heads down to the Needles. There’s a wreck, an old cargo boat that’s marked on the charts, but every year one or two boats manage to hit it.

Later, looking back along the south of the island, 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 mono-hulls but a stiff handicapping system favours the smaller boats and the top prize, the Gold Roman Bowl, is won by Tattarat, a 25 foot 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.

Josse and a small crew are turning round at Cowes to sail 240 miles back to the west coast of France. I had followed his progress in the Vendee where he had vied for the lead until a knock-down ended his race in the Southern Ocean. “Will you be back? I ask him. “For sure, if it’s possible,” he says. “You have to go back.”

At 33, MacArthur has time on her hands for a change of mind, but she seems to be committed to a different future. A trip down to South Georgia, highlighting the plight of the albatross, threatened by long-line 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. I hope she wins, for all our sakes.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved