I first met Ellen MacArthur in 1999. She was relatively unknown then, at least to the sailing community. She was a young British girl that had done a bit of sailing. I had heard of her because she had sailed the Mini-Transat and I was a big fan of the event. I got a call from my friend, the yacht designer Merf Owen. He told me his girlfriend wanted to charter my boat for the Route du Rhum race but had very little money. He said her name was Ellen MacArthur and she was hoping to do the Vendée Globe in 2000. Ellen and her business partner Mark Turner (now Chairman of OC Sport) flew to Marblehead and came to my home to discuss the boat and hopefully make a deal.
We sat in my living room and I remember for the first time in my life feeling totally inadequate. Ellen knew more about my boat than I did. She was intense, perceptive and totally focused. She asked me questions that I couldn’t answer. Her knowledge of boats and sailing far exceeded mine and by the end of our conversation I let her take the boat on a wing and a promise because I saw something exceptional in her. And I was right.
Ellen landed a major sponsor for the Vendée Globe and went on to finish second, and extraordinary accomplishment not because she was a woman, but because she was racing against some of the best solo sailors in the world. Her accomplishment blew sailing wide open. She quickly became a household name in England and France and not long thereafter her notoriety spread to the US and beyond. She blazed a path for women in sailing long before Team SCA’s entry in the Volvo Ocean Race. Not content with her Vendée performance she set her sights on another sailing challenge; the non-stop, solo around-the-world record.
For her attempt she and her team built a 75-foot trimaran designed by Nigel Irens who went to great lengths to ensure that the boat was suited for a small person. Ellen is only 5-foot 2 inches (1.57 m) tall. In 2004 I flew to New Zealand to interview Ellen and to go for a sail on the boat. She was as intense as ever, focused on her goal and determined to break the record. What I remember most was that it took five strong men a very long time to wind up her mainsail. I had simply no idea how Ellen alone would be able to get the sail up, say nothing of reefing and unreefing while dealing with the giant headsail at the same time. It was mind-blowing, but Ellen did set off, she dealt with unbelievable weather in the Southern Ocean, and returned home with a new world record, a lap of the planet in 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes 33 seconds. It was by any measure an extraordinary accomplishment.
While myself and others waited to see what she would do next she did something that really surprised all of us; she retired from sailing. She had already been appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (the female equivalent of being Knighted by the Queen) and it’s believed that she is the youngest ever recipient of that honor. The French President awarded her the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest award for her contribution not only to sailing, but to society.
It’s been a while since I last saw her. I knew that she had set up the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, but to be honest I was never quite sure what her foundation did. That was until last week when I was clicking around the Internet looking for something to keep myself amused. I love TED Talks and knew that there had been a big TED conference in Vancouver earlier this year. I was not surprised when I stumbled onto a speech that Ellen gave at the conference, but I was blown away it. Take 17 minutes out of your day and be prepared to be blown away. This is a masterful presentation that could only be given by someone who has sailed around the world. I speak from experience when I say that circumnavigating the world, propelled only by the wind, and getting around in a relatively short amount of time, gives you a very unique perspective on the size and delicacy of our small blue marble. Please watch Ellen’s talk and please let’s all try a little harder to take care of our planet. Here is the link – Brian Hancock.