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1999 Archives

Yachtswoman to Face Round-the-World Challenge
By Dennis Smith

22-year-old Ellen MacArthur, one of the United Kingdom's most successful yachtswomen, is among 20 top international sailors now preparing for one of the most challenging sailing events ever conceived - next year's single-handed Vendee Globe Race, often referred to as "the Everest of ocean sailing". She will be the youngest competitor and one of only two women taking part in a quest to prove the world's best and fastest sailor.

Starting in November 2000, the non-stop 41,800-kilometre (26,000-mile) race, staged every four years, will be the fourth held and it is expected to be the most competitive yet with the winner hoping to be able to compete the gruelling challenge in less than the 105-day record.

The project involves the design and construction of an innovative 18-metre yacht for Ellen and a long and demanding training programme. She is scheduled to take part in the important UK Fastnet race, as well as a long-distance haul from Europe to South America later this year.

For Ellen, it all began when she was eight-years-old and an aunt took her sailing. She became hooked and saved up her pocket money for three years to buy her first boat, a 2.5-metre dinghy. She was an obsessive enthusiast she admits, spending all her spare time reading sailing books in the library and soaking up any information and advice available. By the time she was 18 she was good enough to have attracted attention from a number of professional fellow sailors and she won the UK's Young Sailor of the Year award.

In 1997, with little money, no sponsorship and not even a return ticket, she bought a second-hand yacht with her own savings and helped refit it for a solo race from Europe to the Caribbean. She followed this by taking part in a 43,400-kilometre (27,000 miles) race across the Atlantic and completed it in 33 days - bringing with it her first serious sponsorship from the Kingfisher group, a major retail group with 2,750 stores including Woolworths and B&Q in 13 countries.

With this money she bought a 15-metre boat and undertook another transatlantic race, winning her class and finishing fifth overall in the single-hull class. And last year she was recognised again for her achievements and received the UK's premier sailing award: Offshore Racing Sailor of the Year, the youngest winner in its 44-year history.

Exhausting racing conditions means sleeping in 10-minute snatches, a survival suit that does not come off for a week at a time and hands and wrists covered in salt sores and cuts. Dehydrated food comes in packets: if they get wet, the labels peel off and she does not know if she will be eating curry or pudding until she opens one. Sails, weighing twice as much as she does, may need changing a dozen times a day.

But she describes moments of pure elation, sunrises and seascapes that take the breath away. But there are nightmare times when lone sailors must become engineers. She talks of a night and day that ran together, when 15 litres of fluid - resembling cooking oil - burst from the rams controlling the keel.

Before she had fixed the keel, one of the sails ripped, which meant taking it down and sewing for five hours through the night. And then, later, the electricity powering the communication equipment failed. What keeps her going is a sheer determination not to be beaten.

"Five times a day in a long race you get the position of all the other boats in the race and work out whether you have gained or lost time," she said. "It would be easy to give up when you are tired but you must never lose the goal of the finish line. That's what you set out to do and that's what you stick to."

The Kingfisher group is now supporting her for the round-the-world race with backing of two million pounds sterling over the next two years. Sir Geoffrey Mulcahy, Kingfisher's chief executive, explained: "In her bid to win this challenging race, Ellen personifies the qualities necessary to be successful in business: ambition, drive and motivation. We have long had a policy of encouraging the young who have the ambition and ability to succeed and Ellen - and what she is doing - supports this philosophy."

Ellen responded: "I have dedicated my life to sailing and winning this race would be the ultimate reward for all my efforts. I hope, as well, that whatever I achieve in the race will inspire people from all walks of life."

Many of Kingfisher's 115,000 staff are young and every few weeks Ellen talks to groups of them, aiming to share the benefits of her own motivation, ambition and inspiration. The sessions have been successful and she is also a hit with senior directors. A spokesman for the company said: "For someone so young she is incredibly mature and understanding about business practices. She motivates the young to get up and do something and senior directors facing difficult challenges get the message that if you think you have got problems, imagine this...

"She is such a success in the workplace we have to ration the demands on her so she can get on with her training. She is a tireless ambassador for the sport. You only need a small amount of money to begin and you have got to start somewhere. Getting this far has pushed her harder than she would ever have imagined."

Ellen points out: "If there's one thing I've learned in this past year, it is that deep down in your heart, if you have a dream, then you can and must make it happen."

Facing the gruelling training programme over the next year, she said: "This has been my dream from an early age. Its taken a lot of sweat and effort to get this far. For the first time I have the proper funds to compete on a level with other top sailors. I'm out there to win and at the same time I'm committed to the objective of sharing the project with the widest audience possible - to inspire and motivate people from all walks of life."

For more information:

Kingfisher plc
North West House, 119 Marylebone Road, London, United Kingdom, NW1 5PX.
Telephone: +44 171 725 5713
Fax: +44 171 706 4485

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