thrilled Britain and France in 2005 by sailing round the world solo inside 72 days – for which she was immediately knighted. Today, she is a champion of ‘the circular economy’. Brian Draper met her (and her collie) in Cowes on 11 February 2011.
Photography: Andrew Firth
In your book Full Circle,1Full Circle: My life and journey (Michael Joseph, 2010) you wrote: ‘As a child I longed simply for the sea.’ Growing up in landlocked Derbyshire, where do you think that longing came from?
I know exactly when it happened: it was when I sailed for the first time. I was four years old and my Auntie Thea had a small boat on the coast and I was given the chance to go and sail it for four days with my brother and my nan. I remember looking down into it for the first time and seeing this total little world, like a little home; and then I remember the most amazing feeling when we hoisted the sails for the first time, the feeling of freedom. I was used to running through the fields, but this – it was like we could go anywhere in the world, just harnessing the power of the wind.
Can you say, as a great sailor, what makes a sailor great?
I don’t like saying I’m a great sailor. I was all right and I had some successes… I loved it. I absolutely loved it.
There’s different types of sailing, and I don’t think I’d be able to get a gold in a 20-minute race at the Olympics. My skill was more about being aware of everything that’s going on, always looking, looking, looking around, pulling in information from multiple sources and processing it to deal with the moment and trying to be proactive, not reactive. You have to be able to repair the engine, or to sew your arm up if you cut it open. You have to be able to get the right supplies for 71 days, because there’s no stopping to get anything else. You have to be able to manage a team of people. All these things are vital.
What fascinated me was the breadth of knowledge that I needed. I love learning, I always have, and the fact that you can never learn everything [there is to know] about the sea, about navigation, that you’ll never sail a boat as well as you possibly can because there’s always something new to learn – I loved that. And it was an incredible challenge, like trying to juggle – and never, ever, ever giving up.
I’ve always been quite practical. As a kid, I was always making stuff. I was always in my dad’s garage, getting under his feet, putting his tools back in the wrong place. I’ve always loved fixing things, creating things – I made my first pair of sailing trousers, because for 10 years I was saving all my money for a boat.
Your family seem to have been an early source of inspiration for you. Your parents, in particular – they didn’t push you but they didn’t stop you, either.
They gave me the freedom to follow my dreams, I suppose. I went to a comprehensive school in an ex-mining town, and sailing round the world was not the kind of thing you could talk about and everyone would go, ‘Oh yeah, I want to do that, too!’ You know? People thought you were bonkers.
I think the fundamental thing is knowing that you absolutely want to achieve something. If you don’t know where you want to go, you can’t have that same level of motivation
My mum and dad were teachers and I was trying to get the grades I needed to be a vet. I put a lot into it – I did work experience every Saturday for three years at a vets’, but the careers adviser just said: ‘You’re not clever enough, so don’t bother applying.’ And then, at 17, I got glandular fever and only then did I give my head space to process the fact that I could do something else. I remember lying on the sofa feeling awful and watching a sailing programme on the TV and saying: ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ That was when a passion for sailing became a belief that I could do it. I had absolutely no idea how I would get to sail around the world, but that’s what I was going to do.
Was it a belief that you could do it or you would do it?
Same thing for me.
That was in February 1994, and in February 1995 I announced I was going to sail solo around Britain. In 1996, I did my first two transatlantic races; in 1997, I did my first solo transatlantic race, and then in 1998 I managed to secure Kingfisher [plc] as a sponsor and won the Route du Rhum2A single-handed transatlantic yacht race over some 3,500 nautical miles which takes place every four years in the 54 class. And then in 1999 we built Kingfisher, in which I was to compete in the Vendée Globe3A non-stop, single-handed, unassisted round-the-world yacht race which takes place every four years in 2000. So, within five years of lying on the sofa ill, we were building a 60ft boat to sail round the world. When I say it, I can’t believe it.
I put everything, everything, on the line for it. The boat that I sailed round Britain in, which I’d saved my school dinner money for, I [then] lived in for two-and-a-half years. Then I moved into a Portakabin in a boatyard for a year and a half. I used to work all day trying to get sponsorship, writing thousands of letters, and then work all night in the yard to earn enough money to eat. I was just totally, totally focused. And loving it.
Most people never follow their dreams. Do you think that everyone has that kind of potential in them?
I think the fundamental thing is knowing that you absolutely want to achieve something. I was very lucky at the age of 17 to be able to say: ‘That’s where I’m going.’ If you don’t know where you want to go, you can’t have that same level of motivation. But not everyone’s like that. Life is full of all sorts of different people and most of the people who are my heroes were not saying, ‘I’m going to sail round the world.’
My nan had a dream, to go to university, and she never let go of it all her life – and against all odds she managed to achieve it at the age of 83. She nearly died doing it – she had fibrosis of the lungs – but she got a degree in European languages. She was truly amazing. She showed me what was possible – and she always used to encourage me. She was incredibly determined.
Your achievement as a sailor, especially in breaking the round-the-world-solo record, evoked a huge emotional response from people. Do you think that might be because most of us haven’t pursued our own dreams in the way you did and your story stirs something in us?
I don’t know, I didn’t really [write the book] for that. I felt so lucky to have been able to find a sponsor and sail round the world that I really wanted to share the experience with as many people as possible. And not just the highs. It would have been easier in a way just to mention the good bits. What an amazing hero! Look at Ellen, she’s broken the record, she loves what she’s doing and everything! But actually some of it was really hard, because you’re tortured by sleep deprivation when you are pushing a boat that hard in the Southern Ocean. You’re right on the edge.
Out there, [you are] a very small speck in something that has no interest in your presence. We think we’re quite important, but you put yourself in that environment and you think, ‘Crikey! I’m just nothing’
I wanted to try to communicate as much as possible what that was like. It’s not just the beautiful sunsets and, you know, surfing the glittering mountains beneath the moon. It’s the lot. I’m a great believer that it’s contrast in life that makes it so intense and exciting. If every day was sunny, we wouldn’t appreciate a sunny day; but after a rainy day you really appreciate it, and I like that.
Did you have time for reflection when you were sailing the Southern Ocean, amidst all that silence and solitude?
It’s not quiet! It’s very noisy, and the noise is eerie. And it’s violent. You’ve got waves smashing on the side of the boat – you can’t stand up without holding on.
Did you see the ocean as something to be conquered?
I never, ever felt I was battling against the ocean. You’re trying to use every bit of its energy to help you in your mission, to win the race or break the record. It was about working with what was around you, not fighting it.
If there was no weather system, the sea would be glass-flat, so it’s not the sea that is angry, it’s the great storm that pushes it around that makes it how it is. So, I’ve always kind of felt that it’s more the weather that creates any difficulty – but at the same time you’re living in the contrast in that storm, and you’re scared witless but you feel alive. You’re living on adrenalin, you’re living on instinct, you’re not thinking about anything other than the goal of getting through to the other side of the storm and you’re absolutely wired. And that’s an incredible experience, which we have so rarely in life.
Sometimes it’s tricky, for sure. Sometimes you’re a bit worried. You understand how animals live in the wild, because you’re in this very exposed, unprotected world, just trying to survive. You’re totally tuned into everything, listening to every noise the boat makes, feeling every change in temperature, watching the whole horizon – you’re connected to everything.
Did you feel at one with what was going on around you?
You are absolutely insignificant out there. You are a very, very small speck in something that has no interest in your presence. You know, we think we’re actually quite important and you put yourself in that environment and you think: ‘Crikey! I’m actually irrelevant. There’s a lot of other stuff that lives out here, and here I am and I’m just nothing.’ You’re part of something and you feel like you’re trying to understand it, but… At one with the ocean? I’m not sure that’s how I would put it, but you’re connected to it and totally tuned into it.
And you get off the boat and that stops. Entirely.
People say, ‘What’s it like to come back to the real world?’ and it’s like ‘Which is the real world?’, because actually that world was pretty real.
What kept you going when things got really tough?
Well, first of all you are doing what you love. At no point did I ever say: I don’t want to be here. I mean, I was absolutely in heaven!
But also you get to that point where you almost feel like you’re not just doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for all those people who’ve put so much in. And that was almost a bigger motivator at those times: knowing I’d be letting people down. I’m so lucky to be able to do this, I’m going to give it everything, absolutely everything I have. I’m never going to throttle back.
Even in the worst storms, I always saw through to the other side – which is an important factor in getting through it. I didn’t think, ‘It’s really bad today’; I thought, ‘It’s going to get better’
I think a lot about the kids with cancer and leukaemia that I sail with,4She first sailed with children with cancer and leukaemia in 2000, on a trip organised by the French charity À Chacun son Cap. As a result of this experience, she set up the Ellen MacArthur Trust (later the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust) in 2002. and in the Vendée they probably saved my life. I was 20 feet up the mast, hanging on by one arm in a 55-knot storm, which on the Ellen scale of horrendous I can say was right up there. And I couldn’t get my foot back into the mast and I was being beaten to pieces against it because we were coming down waves bang! and there was a searing pain in my shoulder because my arm was being pulled out of its socket and I was thinking, ‘I don’t think I can hold on’ – and then I just thought: You can’t fall, because those kids are following you. And that is the reason I got down the mast.
When I got back to the deck, I was seeing stars, I was almost, you know… But it was very, very clear that what got me through wasn’t me, it was them. It was me as a function of them.
The threat to your life out there was very real, wasn’t it?
It was huge. In 2003, we capsized the trimaran Foncia – you know, everything’s fine and five seconds later the boat’s upside-down. And if that happens in the Southern Ocean, you’re 2,000 miles from land and if you’re outside, the chances of making it are very slim. And if you fall off the boat, you’re dead.
You talk about everything that could go wrong, but you never doubt that you will come back. Even in the worst storms, I never doubted it. I always saw through to the other side – which is an important factor in getting through it. I didn’t think, ‘It’s really bad today’; I thought, ‘It’s going to get better.’ It might be one day, it might be two days, it might be a week, it might be three weeks, but it’s going to get better. I always focused on where I wanted to be in order to deal with where I was.
Did you confront your own mortality?
I wouldn’t give it a second thought. I think the moment you believe it could happen, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll accept it.
Did you ever pray?
I wouldn’t say I prayed, but I often felt that something might be looking out for me.
In the Vendée, I was sailing along in the Southern Ocean, I put the radar on as a precaution, I had a little snooze at the chart table for 10 minutes and I woke up and looked at the screen and there was nothing there, everything was fine. I started cleaning the window, as it was all covered in condensation, and as I dragged the rag down it I saw a wall of ice. All I’d seen for a month was sea, and there was a wall of ice! I was waiting for the crunch, because icebergs are not forgiving. It wasn’t as big as it might have been but it was probably 40ft high and I missed it by 20 feet max. And that does make you think…
Sailors are quite superstitious, for whatever reason, and one thing we always do is give a gift to Neptune when we cross the equator. I always take that really seriously. I’ve thrown a silver charm into the water that I’d worn round my neck for years. Once I was in a race and I couldn’t leave the helm because we were going so fast and when we crossed the equator I had nothing to give except my favourite hat, so I took that off and threw it into the sea. I had to give something. I’ve no idea why we do it, but if I didn’t I would be very worried.
You’ve experienced two profound awakenings, it seems to me: the first was to sailing, the second sustainability. Did you feel they were connected in any way?
Not at the time… They both happened when I stopped and I thought, and on both occasions it totally changed the course of my life. The second time wasn’t as sudden – it was like opening up a little crack in a wall and just beginning to get a peek of what was [behind it]…
I was fascinated by the islands in the Southern Ocean, which are in the middle of nowhere, and [eventually] I was given the chance to go and visit one of them. I met a lady in the Falklands who invited me to go and help to count the albatrosses on South Georgia. I went there for two months and I saw the abandoned whaling stations and I started to think: This is what we do. We go in somewhere, take the resources, use them up and move on to the next thing. And I kind of thought: How many times can we do that?
And that’s when I started looking into oil. I never doubted that that’s going to be around forever – and then you pick up the 2008 [International Energy Agency] report and it says, ‘We’ve got about 40 years left’ – and I thought: That’s in my lifetime.
For me, it was like a little first step, a realisation that I just couldn’t ignore. And I didn’t know why I couldn’t ignore it. Common sense said: ‘Go and win the Vendée Globe – you’ve only ever come second.’ I could have raised any amount of money for any sailing project, but I didn’t. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was stop sailing, but I knew that something had changed and I couldn’t commit to go and do that for another four years or more, because there was something else I was learning about and I didn’t know where it would take me but I had to stick with it.
A lot of what I’d learnt at sea – the fact that once you’ve used a litre of diesel you won’t be able to replace it, that sense of things being finite and precious and the instinct to manage your resources – I’d never really connected with [life on] land, and that’s what I did in South Georgia. And when I made that connection, it was like ‘Wow! this is massive!’ It [related to] everything that everyone does in every country in the world. You start discovering a huge interest in things you’d never really thought of before and having conversations you never thought you were going to have. It was really fascinating and inspiring – and as scary as your journeys at sea. All I wanted to do was learn, and this quest for knowledge about everything was quite overwhelming.
Did you feel that this was some kind of calling?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t normally say this, but, seeing as you’re asking… About six months after the Vendée Globe, [when I was 24,] I was with a very close friend and totally, totally out of the blue I said: ‘I’m supposed to do something. I’ve got no idea what it is but I’m supposed to do something.’ And that was it. There was no kind of big moment, I wasn’t just stepping off a stage or anything – it was just quite random, and I didn’t give it a second thought. It wasn’t until I was writing [Full Circle] that I remembered it happening.
There’s something else that was really weird. When I broke the round-the-world record, I was asked by a journalist as I stepped off the stage: ‘Ellen, is this the greatest day of your life?’ And, in that kind of euphoric, crazy moment, I paused for quite a long time and just went: ‘I think that’s still to come. But it’s not a bad one.’ Afterwards, I thought that was a really bizarre response.
So, what happened next?
After three years of research, spending time in all sorts of weird places, you start talking to people about what you’ve learnt and everyone’s thinking, ‘Oh, crikey!’ and you can see from their body language how uncomfortable they are – you know, they just don’t want to hear it – and in the end all you can say is, ‘Use less!’ And that was a big issue, because that’s not Ellen speaking, that’s not me saying: ‘Whatever you want to do – you know, fix your lawnmower or sail round the world – believe you can do it and then make it happen!’ All I could say was, ‘Use less!’ And that’s not a goal, it’s a necessity.
Being efficient is absolutely part of what we have to do in order to get where we’re going, but where are we going? What does it look like? For a while, I didn’t really know. Now, now, I do see where we’re going. I see that there’s actually a different way of doing things that is positive, actually is restorative rather than just less bad. And getting there is probably the hardest thing we’ll have ever done in our existence, but I believe it will work because it’s based on principles that have existed for millions of years. ‘The circular economy’ is what we call it. We use all these materials in a linear way – and yet life itself is cyclical. Everything flows; there is no waste. You can have an abundance of stuff if you do it according to the principles that work long-term.
You’ve set up an educational charity, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. What exactly is its purpose?
If you want a one-liner, it’s to inspire a whole generation of people to rethink, redesign and build a positive future. It’s about thinking differently about how we do things. Otherwise, we’ll never actually have the materials, let alone the energy, to [live] in anything like the way we do now in 100 years’ time, or even 50 years, or even 20 if you look at some of them.
I feel that there’s almost a different energy in my voice now, because what I’m working towards is something that actually does make a difference
When we set up the Foundation, our objective was that its mission statement should be understandable by everyone. It doesn’t even say ‘sustainable’ on our home page. ‘Sustainable’ is not a great word – it’s just not aspirational. But ‘positive’ is. I think a third of the population are into that green stuff, and have been for years; but what we try to do is encompass something that everyone can understand, so you don’t lose the other two-thirds of the class the moment you mention the environment. Like the Top Gear audience: when I talked to [Jeremy] Clarkson about oil [running out], he said: ‘Yeah – 28 years, whatever it is.’ And actually it’s future energy we’re talking about. It doesn’t really need an ‘eco’ or a ‘green’. It’s what will work in the future.
You seem to have a lot of confidence in human nature, but isn’t our selfishness partly to blame for our malaise?
Yeah, but I don’t think we did it on purpose.
We’ve had this incredible amount of energy that we’ve been able to unlock from the earth and of course we’ve used it. We’ve been able to build cities, we’ve been able to travel, we’ve been able to save people’s lives – we’ve increased our quality of life in so many ways. The treatment for cancer and leukaemia in the last 100 years has come on a thousandfold because of our ingenuity.
You know, this whole industrial age has only been the last 150 years, and yet look at what we’ve achieved in that time! We’ve achieved the impossible. We stood on the moon – and not in the age of microchips, but seven years before I was born! It’s incredible. You know, when my great-grandfather was born, there were 25 cars on the road in the world. Now there’s 600 million. It fascinates me how much we can achieve.
And people have evolved over my lifetime to have different aspirations maybe from when I was a kid. But we’re not bad people. You know, you pick up things as a child, good or bad, from the people around you. I don’t think that someone who just happens to have a hobby of shopping is a terrible person. It’s what everything on telly tells them to do, it’s what their friends are doing – and they want to look good. You know, it’s natural to want to look good and feel good. We’ve always done it.
Consumerism at the moment is a linear system and that’s why there’s a big issue with it: because it’s ‘take, make and dispose’, which will never work long-term. But I don’t think a lot of people have questioned it – I just think they’re getting on with their lives. My older brother’s a paramedic; he doesn’t sit and think about this every evening – his job is saving people’s lives.
Michael Braungart, who’s a professor at Delft University, has pointed out that we always talk about ‘minimising our footprint’. Does that mean it’s better to do nothing, or never to be born? And what he says is: What if you have a positive footprint? What if what you do is restorative, not destructive? For example, what if you play a role in slowly refertilising farmland where the topsoil has been degraded over the last 150 years?
This isn’t just about composting in your garden. That’s a very, very small example of it, but it can be an industrial process. For example, let’s say this shirt was made of polymer. At the end of its life, it goes back to the manufacturer, gets depolymerised, turned into new yarn and made into a new shirt. If you do that using 100-per-cent renewable energy, where’s the problem?
Does this feel like a new mission to you?
Let’s not make this personal, because it’s not. Often people write, ‘Here’s Ellen on a mission,’ but it’s not as if I’ve been put here to do this. I do feel I have a voice, and I want to use it to try and do something positive. I’m lucky enough to be able to raise funds, to be able to put the Foundation together, to have the ear of CEOs and people in government (which is only really a result of what I’ve done through sailing).
Am I positive? Yeah, I am. If we really put our minds to it, we can do pretty much anything. I really believe that. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we can’t do it
But, you know, am I positive? Yeah, I am. If we really put our minds to it, we can do pretty much anything. I really believe that. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we can’t do it. And once I understood that there was a different way of looking at things and doing things, it put me in a very different mindset, which could then allow the unlocking of funds. The corporations who’ve put money in believe in what we’re doing. They get it.
Where do you draw your inner energy from now?
I’m hugely motivated by the team that I work with, who are incredible people in their own right and very driven. You know, the sailing was about my goal and my dream and it was very selfish, and I think I have more energy now with this, because this isn’t about me, it’s about something far, far bigger. And I really like that. It puts me more at ease, if that makes sense.
I’ve never wanted to be famous. I never wanted to be the centre of attention. (I don’t like my photo being taken.) And so that was a shock – a shock I wasn’t prepared for – and it taught me a lot in my own life, about being me and staying who I am.
You’re very goal-oriented. How do you make sure you are pursuing the right goal?
Was sailing round the world the right goal? Actually did it really matter? To me, yes, but did it really make a difference? No. It did inspire a lot of people, I know, because they’ve sent me letters. You get a lot of different responses – you get criticised as well.
But I find it hard to believe that anyone could not feel passionate about what the Foundation is doing. But that’s about all our futures – and that does matter, massively. And I feel that there’s almost a different energy in my voice now, because what I’m working towards is something that actually does make a difference.
Your focus is on people rather than the planet, isn’t it?
Absolutely. Totally, yep. It’s not about saving the planet, it’s about us. The planet will be here in millions of years; we might not be. We’re the only animal – or thing – on the planet that’s dependent on resources that won’t be around forever.
You know, I love animals – as you can see, I’ve got an amazing dog – but I care hugely about people, and that’s a pretty good motivation. In fact, if anything is the motivation for this, it’s seeing those young people at the [Ellen MacArthur Cancer] Trust fight cancer, come out the other side and rebuild their lives. When you see all they’ve been through… It just puts everything in perspective, really. It just makes you think a lot.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a kind and honest person. That’s it. I think that’s the only thing that matters.
This edit was originally published in the April 2011 issue of Third Way.
|⇑1||Full Circle: My life and journey (Michael Joseph, 2010)|
|⇑2||A single-handed transatlantic yacht race over some 3,500 nautical miles which takes place every four years|
|⇑3||A non-stop, single-handed, unassisted round-the-world yacht race which takes place every four years|
|⇑4||She first sailed with children with cancer and leukaemia in 2000, on a trip organised by the French charity À Chacun son Cap. As a result of this experience, she set up the Ellen MacArthur Trust (later the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust) in 2002.|
Ellen MacArthur was born in 1976 in Whatstandwell, near Matlock. She grew up on a smallholding and attended the Anthony Gell School in Wirksworth.
She bought her first boat, an eight-foot dinghy which she named Threp’ny Bit, when she was 13, and a small yacht named Iduna when she was 17. In 1995, she sailed Iduna single-handed around the coast of Great Britain.
In 1997, she competed in the Mini Transat solo transatlantic race in a 21ft yacht she had fitted out herself, coming 17th. The following year, after coming fifth in the Route du Rhum (and first in her class), she was named ‘Yachtsman of the Year’ in Britain and ‘Sailing’s Young Hope’ in France.
In 2000/01, she came second in the Vendée Globe solo round-the-world race in Kingfisher (named after the company that sponsored her), setting the current world record for a solo non-stop circumnavigation in a single-hulled boat by a woman. She was subsequently made an MBE.
In 2002, she won the Route du Rhum with a record time. She also set up the Ellen MacArthur Trust (renamed the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust in 2010).
In 2003, she skippered the catamaran Kingfisher 2 in a round-the-world record attempt for a crewed yacht, but was defeated by a broken mast.
In 2004, she narrowly failed to break the record for a west-east transatlantic crossing, in B&Q/Castorama, a 75ft trimaran designed especially for her. (She did set a new record both for a solo crossing and for a crossing by women. She still holds the record for the fastest solo east-west crossing by a woman and the fastest in a single-hulled boat.)
On 7 February 2005, she broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation, having covered 27,354 nautical miles inside 72 days. She was made a DBE immediately in recognition of the achievement – possibly the youngest woman ever to be ‘damed’ – and in 2008 a Chevalier in the Légion d’Honneur.
She retired from competitive sailing in 2009, and in 2010 launched the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
She is the author of Taking On the World (2002), Race against Time (2005) and Full Circle (2010).
Up-to-date as at 1 March 2011