Sailing: Sailing into the Heart of a Nation ; VENDEE GLOBE Rapturous Welcome Awaits Ellen MacArthur as British Yatchswoman Nurses Home Battered Kingfisher

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AFTER FIGHTING setback after setback, Ellen MacArthur yesterday revealed that fate had struck her yet another heart-sinking blow in the Vendee Globe race.

Twenty-four years old, with 24,000 miles completed alone in a 60- foot yacht, she was on the last lap of a remarkable journey yesterday, but having to nurse her crippled Kingfisher over the last 700 miles.

Early yesterday, the leader, 35-year-old Frenchman Michel Desjoyeaux, was 404 miles from home with MacArthur 285 miles behind.

It was late on Wednesday night, just after increasing her speed with a bigger sail in a last-gasp attempt to catch Desjoyeaux, that a loud bang accompanied the break of the steel rod stretched between the top of the mast and the bow.

The forestay also carries the furling system around which that genoa headsail is rolled. The break meant that MacArthur immediately had to shut down the power and also reduce the mainsail. The news was kept secret as conference calls between the boat, its designers, Merfyn Owen and Rob Humphreys, and the mast-maker in Auckland assessed the situation. As long as she did not try to put any pressure on the top section of the mast and kept sailing downwind, she could keep going. And if Desjoyeaux was pushing hard, he too could suffer a similar fate.

Nevertheless, a tremendous reception is waiting here in the north- east corner of the Bay of Biscay for the 5ft 2in woman from Derbyshire. A crowd of 200,000 is expected at this small fishing port and marina 60 miles north of La Rochelle, to watch her claim the distinction of a podium position for the youngest competitor in the fleet, and both the fastest woman and Briton ever to sail round the world alone. Of the 24 boats that set out in November, 16 are left. The last one, skippered by Italy's Pasquale de Gregorio, still has 8,000 miles to go.

Desjoyeaux is due to cross the finish today after 95 days at sea, while MacArthur still hopes to make it tomorrow. She has won a place in the hearts of a nation that reveres its ocean-racing loners and her feat has brought her fame. …