HOME AT LAST FOR TRIUMPHANT ELLEN

11 February 2001

Brough Scott swoops to within 50ft of heroic lone yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur at the end of her epic voyage

SHE still rides the waves. After 25,000 miles and 95 days, after terrible storms, terrifying Antarctic icebergs, life-threatening crises by the Equator and a broken forestay, Ellen MacArthur ploughs home to complete her Vendee Globe voyage into history.

Our aircraft found her yesterday morning, 88 cloudy, foam-crested miles east of north-west Spain’s La Coruna at 11.27 GMT. Down at mast height you could see the muscles of the sea.

The waves dipped and rolled with long, black, rippling sinews for as far as the eye could follow. Kingfisher Challenge worked her way among them, accepted rather than forgiven for defeating the harshest horrors of the ocean deep.

Up forward, the jib was filthy grey with two light stains running the full side of it. But the mainsail still gleamed bright with its splash of sponsors’ labels, and beneath there was the little waving figure the world is now waiting for.

Just a small, dark-haired woman in a red sweater and yellow oilskins, but even from the aircraft I could see that there was a confidence about her. We banked steeply and circled to begin another run with the wind roaring through the now opened window. This time she was leaning over the stern and waving upwards in elegant slow motion.

This 5ft 2in, 24-year-old has already lived way beyond most people’s dreams, but the time she finally makes it to port, up through the bunting and the crowds and the vast flotilla of pleasure boats paying tribute tonight or tomorrow morning, Ellen MacArthur will have become one of the greats.

By tomorrow everyone will know how the teacher’s daughter from Derbyshire got hooked on sailing when holidaying with an aunt on the East Coast as an eight- year-old. Not just hooked, but so obsessed that she first saved her dinner money to buy an eight-foot dinghy, then spent so many spare minutes studying sailing lore that, at 18, she graduated to sailing single-handed round Britain and became the youngest person to pass the Yachtmaster Offshore Qualification.

Two years later she had taken a one-way ticket to Brest in France, bought, refitted and lived underneath a 21ft yacht called Le Poisson and in it completed the Mini-Transat transatlantic race in 33 days.

The sailing world was stunned, the sponsors Kingfisher stepped in, and in November 1999 Ellen won her class in the transatlantic Route de Rhum. The pounds 2 million backing for the Vendee Globe Adventure in the 60ft Kingfisher Challenge was under way, complete with sleeping disciplines worked on with Claudio Stampi, a leading chronobiologist, usually limiting Ellen to lots of catnaps of no more than 20 minutes.

The adventure began on November 5 last year and straightaway Ellen was among the leaders. Technology has moved a long way from Robin Knox-Johnston’s first solo voyage in 1969. Via e-mail and cyberspace we were privy to almost every one of Ellen’s dramas. She must have been through the most talked-through loneliness in history.

When the forestay broke as late as Wednesday, Ellen was immediately into a conference call with race headquarters in France and the boat designer in Auckland, New Zealand. No sports event can have been quite so dramatically detailed. After a month at sea she was heading for the Southern Ocean, reporting idyllically: “The speed is incredible. We are surfing in 35-knot winds. It’s hard to imagine.” But the good times did not last. On December 17 a sail attachment broke. Trying to fix it over the next couple of days nearly killed her.

“I have found my limit,” she reported the next day. “It was really windy, really violent. I have never been so down in my entire life. It is the closest to death I have ever been. I am now very exhausted.” The next day’s entry was more encouraging: “It’s pretty good this morning. It is hard to imagine this could be the same place.”

Horrors were never far away. On January 3, she awoke to the spine-chilling sight of a huge iceberg passing by and in the next four hours had to pick her way through 10 more. “At one stage there were seven in a row,” she said, “I managed to jibe through the sixth and seventh of them but then was faced with two more. They were as big as an apartment building and they were close enough to feel the cold coming off them.”

The dates are important because they spell out the never-ending strain of the ordeal. Thus by January 24th on the way home she had closed up to second in the race but the effort was obvious. “It’s great because I am near the leader,” she said. “But I am tired and the boat is tired and I have got to push her to finish.”

All the more remarkable therefore that on January 28, slap on the Equator, she actually took the lead from Michel Desjoyeaux. Two days later her luck ran out. A drifting underwater container smashed into her undergear. “It was a gut-wrenching moment,” she said. “The sun was starting to set and then suddenly there was the most almighty crunching sound and the boat felt like she had hit land. “As I glanced behind I saw part of the rudder and the daggerboard floating away.”

By some incredible feat she managed to switch the second daggerboard (which is twice her length and weight) to the other side and was still hardly a hundred miles behind Desjoyeaux when a broken forestay finally fixed things on Wednesday. She will be second. For reaction, though, look no further than Alain Goutier, the 1993 Vendee Globe winner. “She has astounded me,” he said on Friday, before predicting even greater things, “because nothing frightens her.”

At 7 o’clock yesterday morning a mighty surf was crashing on the beach at Les Sables de Olonne. Six hundred miles south-west a little Englishwoman was beating homewards, still all alone. But the woman we finally located via an aircraft was in her element. The frenzied media circus that awaits her on her return will be a very different ordeal.

“I just adore the sea,” she said this week, “and to stop suddenly will not be easy at all.”

As we wheeled round for home and the pilot finally waggled the wings in tribute, both photographers were physically sick with the strain and adrenaline. For a few brief minutes we had been close to the wonders of the deep and to a young woman beyond imagining.

As Longfellow wrote:

“Ask not,” the helmsman answered, “the secrets of the sea.

“Only those that brave its dangers, can comprehend its mystery.”

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