IT'S COWES WEEK AND THE SOLENT IS CROWDED WITH boats of every creed. Polished wooden dingies zig-zag across the swell, speeding yachts puff out bright spinnakers and gin palaces cruise arrogantly through the mayhem. But one boat and skipper draw more interest than most. Bobbing on a mooring a short way from the racing action is Kingfisher, the boat with which Ellen MacArthur came second in the 2000/2001 VendEe Globe yacht race and cruised into the record books as the fastest woman and youngest person ever to race single-handedly and nonstop around the world. Every few minutes another boat pulls alongside to take in the sleek, 60-foot vessel and wonder at how this five-foot-two waif of a girl managed to race it, alone, through some of the world's worst weather conditions.
Today, Ellen has invited a group of journalists and sponsors on board Kingfisher to see her prized boat at close quarters. As we move off the mooring and slice upwind through the green water, she fills us in on the details of the 2 million [pounds sterling] thoroughbred: how the 15-foot keel means the boat needs deeper water than the Isle of. Wight's Red Funnel ferry; how the corporate logos on the sails are painted on because stickers are too heavy; and how there's no toilet. Every so often she pauses and leaps up to help `Youngster', one of her four tanned and tousled-haired crew for the day, furl the jib sheet so we can tack. Despite her petite frame, she seems to find superhuman strength to haul on ropes and grind the winch. There's no doubt she's the boss, though the guys on board jokingly call her `Miss'.
This month, having spent several months ensconced in writing her autobiography, Ellen will be back on Kingfisher for the yacht's last professional appearance--competing in the seventh Route du Rhum. This race will take the duo from Saint Malo, France, to Pointe-a-Pitre in Guadeloupe. In it she will be competing against 55 contestants, including UK's Mike Golding. Like Ellen, he trains out of Cowes and is out on the water today. "No, don't hit him, Jonny," she calls out in a mock scolding school-ma'am voice as our skipper grins and makes a beeline for the rival yacht's bow.
Ellen did not initially plan to become a professional sailor, although from a young age she displayed many of the attributes that have contributed to her success. Born in land-locked Derbyshire in 1976, she admits that she's naturally determined and comfortable with solitude. "I was always quite happy on my own," she recalls. "When I was very young I'd sit on the kitchen floor with a cardboard box, some Sellotape and a pair of scissors and I'd be happy for hours." At school she worked hard and strived to get good A-level grades so she could become a vet. It was at this time that she developed her love for geography too, choosing to opt for one of two universities that accepted A-levels in chemistry, biology and geography rather than three sciences.
As it happened though, she never got to university. At 17, she fell ill with glandular fever and missed an important slice of the chemistry syllabus. Already a keen sailor--she famously saved up her dinner money at school to buy her first boat when she was eight--she realised that all she really wanted to do was sail. From her sick bed she decided she would set herself the goal of sailing around the UK. Her parents, perhaps surprisingly, wholeheartedly supported her change of direction. "My parents had seen me ill for a month, and I was pretty miserable and had no energy," she says. "They wanted to see me get better. I think if I'd said I wanted to go to the moon they would have backed me."
Ellen set off on her round-the-UK adventure on her 21-foot boat Iduna on 1 June 1995, heading out of Hull marina into the vast brownness of the River Humber. Her journey took her north to Scotland, through the Caledonian Canal, down the Irish sea to the South Coast, then north once more to Hull. …