Ellen MacArthur is defined by the sea and that’s exactly how she wanted it to be. It was her element, where she felt most comfortable and at home – something she had been interested in since a child. Like a soldier who finds it hard to adapt to the normal life of chores and tasks once returning from the frontline, the same could be said about MacArthur when stepping foot on land. She would much prefer to be on the water. Testing herself against the elements.
Her achievements at the 2000 Vendee Globe single-handed yacht race, in which she finished second, would cement her place in the oceanic record books and begin her rise to stardom. Finishing second in the global racing event that takes place every four years, she was the highest place female and, in turn, became the fastest woman to ever circumnavigate the globe in a time of 94 days 4 hr 5 min 40 sec. She covered a distance of 38,600 km. (24,000 miles) in her yacht Kingfisher and, at the age of just 24, also became the youngest competitor to ever complete the voyage.
Her success pushed her on to wanting to achieve bigger and greater things. For her this was just a start on the global scale. Her achievements in Vendee Globe single-handed yacht race also earned her a prestigious MBE for her services to sport by the Queen. And Ellen wouldn’t have to wait long for further glory.
On the 28 November 2004, Derbyshire born McArthur, would take to the sea once more in search of breaking French male sailor Francis Joyon’s record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe which he managed in a time of 72 days 22 hr 54 min 22 sec, from 22 November 2003 to 3 February 2004. She already held the female record but she wanted the record outright.
Starting her voyage in Ushant, France, she rounded the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), sailed south of Australia, and rounded Cape Horn (Argentina) before heading back up the Atlantic to Ushant. With over a day to spare, she reached land on the 7 February 2005 in her trimaran B&Q/Castorama in a time of 71 days 14 hr 18 min 33 sec.
Her incredible achievement elevated MacArthur to heights even she could not have predicted prior to taking to the water. She became Britain’s sweetheart – a tough one at that too. Her teary video recordings documenting her tumultuous journey managed to grab the public’s attention to a sporting discipline not customary to the usual pleasure.
In a wider context, what she achieved, is even more remarkable when compared to other milestones in the history of human endeavour and challenges. MacArthur became only the second person ever to sail solo non-stop around the world on a multi-hull boat. Six times more people have stepped foot on the moon and more than 1,800 have climbed Mount Everest. Moreover, before MacArthur, four men, great sailors all, tried and failed to match the feat of Joyon, the first to succeed this feat.
During her the world record attempt, she had no more than 20 minutes' sleep at a time during the voyage, having to be on constant lookout day and night. Standing at only 5ft 2in 28-year-old, MacArthur was able to destroy the stigma in sailing that it was a male dominated arena and that sheer brute force and power was the key to success. An opinion that was knocked by the infamous Sir Robin Knox
Johnston, the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world. “"The common misconception, is that it’s all down to muscle," he said. "You need a mind that can focus, someone who can be happy on their own, dealing with things on their own, and is incredibly self-disciplined," he added.
On her return to England, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of her achievement. It is widely believed that she is the youngest ever recipient of this honour. MacArthur was also granted the rank of Honorary Lieutenant Commander, Royal Naval Reserve on the same day.
As with all records, especially those in the sporting field, her record would be competed and, eventually, broken. It was her old nemesis and closet competitor Francis Joyon who wanted his record back and he got it. He sailed solo around the world in 57 days 13 hr 34 min 06 sec from 23 November 2007 to 20 January 2008, in the 97-ft maxi-trimaran IDEC II. Joyon began and ended his 21,600-nm (38,900-km; 24,170-mile) journey in Brest, France. McArthur would, though, and still does, keep the female record.
MacArthur enjoyed an incredible career with two defining moments that will forever be remembered in the record books. In October 2009 MacArthur announced her intention to retire from competitive racing to concentrate on the subject of resource and energy use in the global economy.
Away from sailing, in 2003, sandwiched between her world record achievements, MacArthur set up the Ellen MacArthur Trust (now the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust), a registered charity, helping young people aged between 8 and 24 inclusive to regain confidence on their way to recovery from cancer, leukaemia and other serious illnesses. In September 2010, she also launched the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity focusing on accelerating the transition to a regenerative circular economy.
She has also written two autobiographies: the first in 2002 entitled ‘Taking on the World’ and, in September 2010, she published a second autobiography titled Full Circle.
Human endeavours are gripping and are a main feature in the Guinness World Records Books. When it comes to humans vs nature and the former comes out on top, it provides us all with hope and courage to go on and do better things. This is exactly what McArthur gave to others and her achievements live on in the record books and look likely to stand the test of time.