As a youngster with a close and loving family, she developed a strong link with things to do with boats. Besotted, as she puts it, having gone on a trip to the East Coast as a middle-England land-locked kid to have a sail in Cabaret - a 26ft yacht of character that her auntie Thea had bought as a wreck and done up herself.
Her parents were school teachers. They lived on a smallholding in the heart of rural Derbyshire. Her dad was a bit of a collector of tools and machines. He was a lover of machinery and antique engines often acquired at farm sales, so he stored them in an ever increasing number of sheds. As a teacher his subjects were craft, design and technology.
Ellen with her folks
The family were largely self-sufficient in terms of growing much of their own food. They loved long walks in the country whatever the weather.
Grannnie Nan had a passion for learning. Although in her younger days she was denied the opportunity of conventional higher education, she achieved her goal much later in life - gaining a University degree in German through shear determination.
Working out the course
As a kid Ellen was a bit of a tom-boy, preferring to play with a block of wood and a good sharp knife, rather than make-up and dolls. She tended to be a bit stubborn and head strong, and ballet lessons were not appreciated. As a shy six-year-old she won a writing competition. She started her sailing library with Arthur Ransomes Swallows and Amazons (1), passed on to her by Mum and Nan. It triggered her imagination for adventure.
Kingfisher, steady as she goes
Clearly Ellen inherited a potent mix of genes, which - along with that early environment - could lead to great things. At ten years old, the birthday present of a week at a dinghy race training camp was what she desperately wanted, and got. She capsized eleven times, got repeatedly soaked without a wet suit, was either last or second last, got homesick and reckoned she could do better.
She pursued her love of the sea and sailing with remarkable focus. Fortunately, as it turned out, she got glandular fever when she was due to sit her school exams, so that she did not have the grades to go to University. She had escaped from the conventional world of education and its too frequent stultifactions - instead, she set about learning everything she could about sailing from wherever she could.
Checking the rigging
There was not a lot of money about, but with her dedication she inspired people to help her. She became a keen, competitively successful dinghy sailor, much encouraged by David Kings sailing school at Hull. He told her parents I dont know where your daughter is going, but wherever it is shell go a long way on the water.
But her sights soon turned to ventures on a grander scale. And for that she needed her yachtmasters ticket and a bigger boat.
Out on the boom
After much study of yachting mags such as Practical Boat Owner she found and bought an oldish Corribee 21, which she describes as a a big yacht with tiny dimensions but a real little sea boat. She named it Iduna, did it up and sailed round Britain in order to start the drive to gain 2,500 sea miles experience - a basic condition for applying to take the yachtmasters exam. To those Scots who are west coast sailors, she makes endearing comments about the Caledonian Canal and mooring off Oban at Kerrera.
The book is entitled Taking on the World. She certainly did with Kingfisher, a 60 ft beauty. You had best buy the book to read how this was achieved and in what style. All I hope to do here is to whet your appetite.
Sunny sailing, the easy bit
She writes well - no ghost writers - again fulfilling that early promise. There are many transcripts from her diary and e-mails, written sometimes under the most harrowing of conditions. These transcripts are as they are - typos and all.
What comes through so strongly is the sheer grit of character - a stickler in the face of adversity, putting up with appalling conditions - at sea and on land - in order to achieve her goal.
What is also so patently evident is her keenness to learn all kinds of things - sailing tactics, electronics for navigation and communication, mechanics, boat construction, meteorology, nutrition, sleep patterns, interpersonal relationships, fund raising, handling the media - subjects for which Universities and Colleges would run separate and prolonged courses to much less effect. She is not a follower of safe convention, but a highly focussed achiever.
This book is a gem. Even if you are not into boats, it is inspirational.
19th January 2003
Ellen MacArthur, skipper of a total crew of 14, is about to set off in Kingfisher 2 for a non-stop Jules Verne round the world record attempt.
Kingfisher 2 is a 100 ft mega-catamaran with a 39.5 metre mast. She was built in New Zealand. They will be starting from Ushant, on the North tip of Brittany. Presently she is on red alert waiting for an appropriate window in the weather.
Their progress can be followed on www.ellenmacarthur.com
1. Ransome, Arthur. Swallows and Amazons. Red Fox; ISBN: 0099427338 (Find on amazon.co.uk).