Michael Beaumont

The young woman and the sea

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Ellen Macarthur

Michael Joseph, pp. 416, £

When Ellen Macarthur was nine she saved her pocket money, by eating less, to buy her first little boat and slept on the floor of her bedroom so as to store the boat's mast and sails. At 18 she decided that sailing round Britain alone 'seemed to be the most natural thing to do'. At 24 she raced alone single-handed around the world, was the fastest woman ever to do so and was only just beaten into second place in the race. Taking on the World is her autobiography. She is 26.

The book is a thrilling adventure story, more interesting perhaps if you know a little of sailing and the sea, but written for someone who does not. Above all it describes, in matter-of-fact terms, the guts that are needed, the skills that have to be acquired, to repair a boat at sea when anything can and does break, from the ropes that hold the sails up to the sails themselves, the carbon fibre hull, the navigation equipment and the satellite communication system. Again and again she has to shin up a 90-foot mast in a near gale with the boat going full pelt. Anybody who has been up a 30-foot mast in a bosun's chair with someone to winch them up, safely tied up alongside a dock, will have an idea. She had to climb every foot unsupported and was sometimes up there for four hours:

A lot of bruises, very sore. It's hard to describe how it feels to hang on up there. Like trying to grip on to an enormous shiny pole (which for me is just too big to get my arms around properly), with someone continually kicking you, and trying to shake you off.

The description of the VendZe Globe single-handed race around the world fills about a quarter of the book; the rest covers her childhood, starting with her determination to sail at the age of four when she first saw the sea, away from home in Derbyshire, right in the middle of England. By 18 she had passed the navigation and seamanship exam that gave her roughly the qualifications needed to be a lieutenant in Nelson's navy and she found herself teaching the tugboat men and bargees who work the east coast. They were quite surprised. After sailing alone around England and Scotland she describes living in a container by the Hamble river while she and friends desperately try to find sponsors to enable her to race single-handed across the Atlantic in a 20-foot boat. At last Kingfisher plc comes to her rescue; she builds a boat in New Zealand, sails it back round Cape Horn and enters the VendZe Globe.

Apart from the physical and mental toughness implied (she is modest enough in her description of all this) there are fascinating insights into her life at sea. She rejoices at the sleigh-ride sensations of careering down great waves in the Southern Ocean at some 25 knots and describes the navigational dilemma faced by someone racing; the further south you go the shorter the route (look at a globe to see why), but the more that takes you into the icebergs that will sink you if you hit one in the night. And all the time you are balancing that decision against the need to find fronts and low pressure, filthy weather in short, so as to maximise the wind.

One question occurs throughout all this. Would you be quite as impressed if she were not five foot three and a woman? Somehow, a fit, tall young man might not be quite so admired. Is it male chauvinism to be so carried away? I don't know. I do know that this book involves you in the life of someone remarkable, of whom there are very few in the world. And she writes it all herself, vividly, and on the whole well. If you wanted to grumble you could say that she is a little too enthusiastic with her adjectives. Her friends and fellow competitors are so often 'fantastic', 'awesome' or 'incredible'. But by the end of Taking on the World that is just what you feel about Ellen Macarthur.