We talked to the round-the-world yachtswoman who is on the crest of a fresh wave in her hectic life.
During her record-breaking career, round-the-world yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur inspired countless would-be sailors of all ages to take up the sport. Now for the first time Ellen has revealed how the inspiration she gained from a group of youngsters recovering from life-threatening illnesses helped her battle through a critical moment of her life when she stared death in the face.
Following her retirement from professional sailing last year, she announced the launch of The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity set up to inspire people to re-think, re-design and build a sustainable future.
She also heads the Ellen MacArthur Trust, which gives young people recovering from cancer and leukaemia the opportunity to experience the thrill and challenge of sailing, and help regain their confidence. The Trust was formed 2003 after Ellen saw a similar project in France.
It was those French youngsters who helped Ellen survive the most dangerous moment of her sailing career. She explained: “I decided to form the Trust after sailing in 2000 in France with a charity called ‘Everyone Has Their Direction’ which took young people in recovery from cancer and leukaemia sailing and cruising.
“I went back the following year and sailed with the youngsters for a week and was really inspired by what I saw. I was nervous, because I had never sailed with young people before, never mind people recovering from serious illness. I didn’t know what to say or how to react.
“Yet within five minutes I was having more fun than I had had in years. They were normal young people who wanted to enjoy themselves and get on with things. I felt if they can show such courage going through something they didn’t choose they are true heroes.”
As a result Ellen went to hospitals in Paris to visit many of them before she went around the world in the Vendee Globe Round the World Challenge. She said: “The one time I was thinking about them very hard was when I came the closest to death I have ever come. I was off the Kerguelen Islands in basically the remotest piece of ocean in the world.
“Suddenly the boat’s auto pilot had a problem so in waves of 40ft I ended up flat on my side. I got it upright, but couldn’t get the sail down, so the only thing I could do was climb the mast. It was the most difficult time of the race because the waves were horrendous. I got up the mast and freed it, but then realised I had left on deck a piece of kit I needed to descend safely.
“It is a bit like hanging on to a telegraph pole in an earthquake. I lost my footing and was holding onto the mast with one arm, and was being beaten against it. I had no idea how I was going to get out, but I started thinking of the kids in hospital, and knew I had to get down for them. It is something I will never forget.
“When I finished the race some of them came to see me, and I sat with them on the coach before they went back to hospital. I thought there was nothing like this in the UK, and wanted to do it. It was not just about sailing, because a lot of those youngsters had not had a normal life. When they are getting better it is about stepping back into normal life, and for some the Trust trips are the turning point. They are on the mental route to recovery.”
Ellen will be back on the water on June 25 when she takes part in the JP Morgan Round the Island race. She recalls that her first appearance in the ever-popular event was back in 1997 with her 21ft Mini Transat boat.
“I love the race,” she says enthusiastically. “I have done it on so many different boats, and you take a lot out of the race for many different reasons. In 1997 just getting the boat around the Island was quite a challenge. I had only just received it from France, and it was my first race on it.
“There were just two of us onboard; the weather was windy and it was an amazing experience. This was a boat that a few months later I took across the Atlantic in a solo race, and Round the Island was my first training session on it. I then went across the Atlantic on a shoestring budget, with second-hand sails, no sponsor and finished 17th out of 50-something. It was my first solo transatlantic race, and I loved it.”
She continued: “When I did Round the Island on Kingfisher it was a very different experience because it was the year after the ‘Round the World’ on it. That sort of boat is not really ideal for sailing around the Island because of its size and the fact there is not a lot of room alongside all the other boats. So it was quite entertaining!
“When I competed on a trimaran it was different again because the multi-hulls start first, and when you get to The Needles and turn round to see what is behind you it is a beautiful sight. It doesn’t matter why you go into the race, it is a wonderful thing to take part in and to see.
“For those young people who sail with the Cancer Trust, and get up at 5am to go to the start line, it is a massive adventure. They love it. To sail around the Island with those young people who are in recovery from cancer and leukaemia is wonderful. It is like sailing around the world for them, and more satisfying for me than sailing around the world. You are sailing with people who look on it as an extraordinarily special occasion.
“But the Trust is not all about sailing. It is about allowing young people to step out of the illness and have an adventure and experience, and help them gain confidence to move on with their lives.”
In 2007 Ellen drove an Extreme 40 in the Round the Island race as a ‘thank you’ for a large cash donation for the Trust, and recalls: “It was a mad radical boat that usually races for about six minutes not 60 miles. Most of those on board had never been around the Island before; the boat had no engines or electronics.
“So off we went and the ride down the south side of the Island was hairy to say the least – we were flying along, and crossed the line first in four hours, six minutes to be back for breakfast.”
Ellen will be on one of the five Trust boats this year. She continued: “Round the Island is a race, and when I sail with the Cancer Trust we are out there racing. Obviously safety comes first, but we still get competitive, and always cheer if we pip one of the other Trust boats as we cross the line. Around 20 young people recovering from cancer and leukaemia will be taking part again this year.
“They love it and having initially come on the four-day trip and taken part in Round the Island, many come back to volunteer as helpers when they get a bit older. We used to stop at 18 years of age, but now do trips from 18 to 24 as well. We have done that because if someone gets cancer at 16 they have no qualifications because they have been going through treatment at the time of GCSEs or A levels, so that is why that age group is so important.”
Suddenly Ellen decided it was time to change direction, but admits: “Giving up sailing was the most difficult decision I ever made. I had no reason to stop and hadn’t done enough. But I realised there was a bigger challenge out there I wanted to be involved in.”
That challenge is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. She said: “I realised there were parallels between my life at sea and on land. When you sail around the world you take the minimum resources otherwise you won’t win. There is no support boat with you if you run out – that’s it.
“You develop this overwhelming notion of the definition of the word finite, and I had never applied that to land. When I stepped off the boat I realised we had finite resources on this planet and are not using them in a manner that will allow us to continue to be using them in 100 years.
“Everyone was talking about being more efficient, but if you have a number of finite resources and use them more efficiently it doesn’t solve the problem, it only buys you time. We don’t work on behavioural change, it’s system levels change, and the Foundation’s aim is to inspire the next generation to re-think, re-design and build a positive future.
It is the most exciting thing I have ever done in my entire life. I will sail but I won’t race sail again because unlike racing this project has no finish line. This matters more than any race – that was self indulgent. I went round the world three times, but what did it achieve?”