Solo against the Sea; How Ellen MacArthur Fought Waves, Wind and Exhaustion to Break the Round-the-World Record

By Meadows, Susannah | Newsweek, April 4, 2005 | Go to article overview

Solo against the Sea; How Ellen MacArthur Fought Waves, Wind and Exhaustion to Break the Round-the-World Record


Meadows, Susannah, Newsweek


Byline: Susannah Meadows (With Emily Flynn on the Isle of Wight)

Thirteen days into her attempt to set a new record for sailing alone around the globe, Ellen MacArthur discovered that her boat's generator had been burning so much oil it wouldn't last her even half the trip. Worse, the backup generator spewed fumes and heated the cabin to 120 degrees. In three days, she'd be entering the Southern Ocean, off Antarctica, where 40-foot waves would force her to seal up most of the cabin's ventilation. Back home, her crew was frantically experimenting with other kinds of fuel. In the sweltering cabin, Ellen--now stripped down to her black sports bra--tried to fix the generators herself, but the boat's violent rocking kept hurling her against the bulkheads. Finally, the crew told her to try the olive oil she consumed to keep her body fat up. The generator gulped down the green-gold fluid and coughed to life. "I was elated," she told NEWSWEEK. "I think I actually shouted something out loud."

In the middle of the sea, there was no one there to hear her. For 71 days, Ellen couldn't rely on anyone to treat an injury or save her if she went overboard. Just to make it around the world alone is a storied feat that has obsessed sailors for a hundred years; last month, powered as much by will as by wind, MacArthur became the fastest person ever to complete the journey. Thanks to technology, she wasn't totally cut off: thousands followed her progress on the Web, reading daily updates. In the United States, children based science projects on the physics of the state-of-the-art 75-foot trimaran Ellen had dubbed Mobi. "She'll do for sailing what Mia Hamm did for soccer and Tiger Woods did for golf," says Marlieke Eaton of the United States Sailing Association. And even the old guard--wealthy white men who've long dominated the sport--couldn't resist the shy 28-year-old from England. "It's tough enough for 10 guys, let alone one. And if you're just a girl! You just have to go, 'Oh my God, you are a goddess!' " says Scot Tempesta, editor of sailinganarchy.com.

MacArthur was 4 when she started saving money to buy a boat, having told her mother she'd rather die than go back to ballet class. She read Practical Boat Owner magazine and drew dinghies on her pencil case. She'd grab fruit off the trees instead of spending her lunch money. At 10, MacArthur bought an eight-footer. At 24, she placed second in the Vendee Globe, the solo round-the-world race, on her first attempt. Breaking the world record was the logical next step.

On Nov. 28, 2004, Ellen screamed across the starting line with dance music blaring on the boat's stereo. Francis Joyon, whose year-old record stood to be broken, e-mailed from France to wish her luck (and remind her how hard it was going to be). MacArthur knew that she'd need to stay focused every minute; a moment's lapse could cause the mast to snap or the boat to capsize. To win, she'd have to push the boat to its limits, averaging almost 20mph--faster than most recreational sailors will ever go.

On day four, a storm attacked the boat with 46mph winds. Mobi would shoot down one wave before slamming into the next. It felt like an emergency brake was being pulled. "Your heart is literally in your mouth," she wrote in an e-mail to her fans. "Well, it's either that or your stomach--it all feels the same." The salt from the spray built up on her face until it felt like sand. …

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