Then & Now Ellen MacArthur, sailor

A DECADE AGO, she became the fastest woman to sail solo around the world, but she gave it all up to take on an even bigger challenge…


A DECADE AGO, she became the fastest woman to sail solo around the world, but she gave it all up to take on an even bigger challenge – the race to save the planet. Ellen MacArthur was just 24 when she came second in the Vendée Globe round-the-world race, the youngest sailor to circumnavigate the globe solo, non-stop. Her feat made her an international celebrity, and the emotional, often tearful video diaries she made during her 94-day voyage were mercilessly satirised on the BBC comedy series Dead Ringers.

Her passion for sailing began at the age of four, when she went on sailing trips with her aunt Thea. She avidly read books about sailing, and at eight she began saving her school dinner money to buy her first boat. At 18, she was a fully qualified yachtmaster and sailing instructor, was named yachtsman of the year, and sailed single-handedly around Britain.

However, sailing non-stop around the world, with no assistance, steering a 60ft monohull through high winds and rolling waves, was different. She did it again in 2005, this time setting a new world record of 71 days, beating the previous record-holder, Frenchman Francis Joyon, by just one day. MacArthur’s achievement earned her a DBE, the youngest person to have been awarded this honour, becoming known as Dame Ellen MacArthur. She was also awarded the Légion d’Honneur by French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, the same year Joyon won back his world record.

Anyone expecting the Englishwoman to retaliate with another round-the-world record attempt was in for a surprise, however, because in 2009 MacArthur announced her intention to retire from competitive sailing, to concentrate on two of her newest passions – helping young people with cancer, and the quest to build a sustainable future in a world that’s quickly running out of resources.

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MacArthur says her sea-change came during a trip to the remote Atlantic island of South Georgia. The sight of abandoned whaling stations made her think about how humankind uses up resources, then moves on to the next energy source, without a thought for future generations. "I've realised there's a much greater challenge out there," she said in a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph. "Our world has finite resources and we're using them at a very fast rate."

Last year, MacArthur set up the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Through her cancer trust, MacArthur organises sailing trips for young cancer patients, often joining them herself. The foundation has some wider goals in mind, such as educating young people to think creatively about building a sustainable future. The foundation works closely with businesses and educators to help young people develop ideas and strategies for a better future. “It’s complex, ‘big picture’ stuff,” says MacArthur, “so it calls on the best our educators can provide. If we are to create a prosperous, civilised and opportunity-rich society on minimal resources and expensive energy, a certain amount of rethinking and redesigning is needed.”

MacArthur lives in Cowes, in the Isle Of Wight, with her partner Ian, and last year she published her second autobiography, Full Circle.