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Ellen MacArthur's journey

Ellen's goal was to become the fastest solo circumnavigator of the earth, a 26,000 mile journey she had to complete in 72 days. Our story on "Dateline Sunday" is the account of that attempt. Dennis Murphy reports.
British sailor Ellen MacArthur clenches her fist in victory aboard her trimaran Castorama - B & Q during her solo round-the-world record attempt, Monday, Feb. 7, 2005 off the French coast, near the Isle of Ouessant, western France. Liot Vapillon / AP

Ellen MacArthur is sailing around the world—non-stop, 24-hours a day and utterly alone.

She’s slammed about by shifting winds, hurtling up and down 50-foot waves in oceans indifferent to whether she lives or dies.

Ellen is 28 years old and determined to become the fastest skipper on the planet—man or woman.

Will she break the record for solo circumnavigation of the world, or will the very attempt break her?

Five years ago, Ellen captured the imagination of armchair adventurers when she raced solo, non-stop around the world, against some of her sport’s top sailors.

Back then, she put her life on the line to keep her boat sailing but it paid off. She came in second, defeating 22 older, more seasoned captains.  She went around the world in 94-days.

But Ellen wasn’t content with taking silver.

The skipper to beat is a Frenchman, Francis Joyon, 22 years older than she.

In 2004 he circumnavigated the globe last year, in a whisker under 73 days, a blistering time, a record expected to stand for years and years.

But not if Ellen has her way.

Ellen MacArthur: At the end of the day you have to believe you can do it.Mark Turner, partner: This is her sport, this is what she loves.

Mark Turner has been Ellen’s business partner, and manager of her sailing ventures, for the past 9-years.

Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Did you think that she would circle the globe without breaking down?Turner: We gave it sort of 50/50 chance of going around.  And then if you got around maybe one in three, one in four chance of breaking the record.

So on a grey November afternoon in 2004, as hundreds of well-wishers in the British port of Falmouth waved her goodbye, Ellen sets off for the starting line to sail around the world again.

Murphy: Ellen, why the world you’ve done the world.  What was different this time?MacArthur: This was a new challenge. This was different, it was very pure.

It was pure because no other sailors out there racing against Ellen—only the clock. 

November 28, 2004  official time keepers start the race. She’s off.  Nerves pulled taut, her goal clear-eyed and simple. She has to be back in 72 days.

MacArthur: When you start you’re trying to achieve staying alive and getting home.  If you can do both of those, then you stand a chance of breaking the record.

Ellen is into the Atlantic headed south on a course sanctioned by the elite sailors who attempt these kind of records.

Her 26,000 mile route will take her down around Africa into the most treacherous leg of the journey, circling Antarctica through massive seas, dodging icebergs, then up the Atlantic along South America, across the equator again, back to where she began off the coast of France.

Twelve cameras on board are recording her voyage and recording her personal diary.

Her trip was tough—and not the least of it is keeping the reins on an explosive Formula-one style racing yacht, a million dollar, 75-foot trimaran: a new kind of boat for Ellen, custom-designed for this record challenge, a frisky sailing machine as fast as it is unforgiving if pushed too hard.

If a multi-hull goes over and capsizes—it stays upside down with the mast pointing to the ocean floor.

MacArthur: There’s a price to pay for the speed, and that is danger. And to push that hard on a boat—it does take a lot out of you and is incredibly stressful.

She’s nicknamed the boat Moby and below deck, her world for the next two-months is Moby’s  7 feet wide, 5 ½ feet high cabin, tailored to her petite dimensions.

There’s a bunk she’ll rarely use and a galley—a sink, one gas burner, and a kettle.  Food is freeze dried.

She’ll be alone but not out of touch. As you can imagine, Moby is equipped with state of the art devices: satellite phones, computers, Web cams.

MacArthur (video diary): It’s been pretty hard the first few days were not far off terrible. I was very stressed.

She is sailing day and night. There’s no comforting routine, no mealtime, no bedtime.  Sleep means grabbing naps—five, ten, twenty minutes at a time. Six hours in all, if she’s lucky.

MacArthur:  You’ve got to sleep.  And sometimes you can’t, you just can’t. You lie down, almost comatose, and you hear a noise and you have to go out and find out what it is.

Ellen has to be more than just a helmsman.  She is a mechanic, electrician, engineer, meteorologist, and navigator. 

MacArthur: You’re on your own.  If something goes wrong with the boat, you have to fix it. It’s really really hard and physically exhausting.

And of course, something big does go wrong, a potential end to her challenge.

MacArthur (diary): I’m really very nervous at the moment, we’ve got a bit of a problem with the generator.

December 12, day 14 -- two weeks into the race, the generator is malfunctioning.  It’s guzzling oil, far more than she’s stowed onboard. The sails drive Ellen forward, but the generator powers all her computer gear, her auto-pilot steering device and the desalinator that makes drinking water.

Without a generator she’s little more than a recreational sailor.

MacArthur: So I then had to go to the back up generator, which we had.

The back-up generator she carries is cursed, too. It gets so hot it starts melting Moby’s wiring.

MacArthur: And so I was literally living in a boat that was full of noxious fumes.

In desperation, with 30-mile an hour headwinds knocking her about, Ellen does some last ditch plumbing and routes chilly air from outside the boat into the cabin. The overheated generator inside is satisfied. It cools down.

The challenge continues.

MacArthur (diary): Back to the fun part, let’s get sailing and let’s get some good boat speeds and record-breaking pace.

With the generator problem solved, Ellen clocks her best 24 hours since setting out:  480-miles sailed at an average of 20 knots—that may sound slow but it’s blazing time for a sailboat.  

On December 17, day 19 of her voyage, Ellen rounds the Cape of Good Hope, on the southern tip of Africa—the marker for her entrance into the Southern ocean, where she’ll circle Antarctica. She is a solid 10-hours ahead of the pace clock.

But this isn’t the time or place to celebrate,  knowing very well what lies ahead.

MacArthur:  You’re about to go into the Southern Ocean on a 75-foot trimaran. And you know it’s gonna be very very stressful.

How stressful? How about 50-foot seas, gale force winds, snow, hail and icebergs shrouded in fog—conditions that could send the best of boats and skippers to an unmarked watery grave.

It’s nearing Christmas, three-weeks and 8,000 miles into Ellen’s journey.

Heavy winds of over 45-miles an hour have propelled her into the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica almost a day ahead of her pace clock.

Ellen MacArthur (diary): You know that the risks are higher. You know that the chance of capsizing in the south is higher.

She is at the bottom of the earth, about as alone as a human can get. The nearest land thousands of miles away and the ocean ahead, beyond treacherous: mountainous waves of ice water, boat shredding icebergs, seen and unseen.

MacArthur (diary): You have to be more on your toes, you have to be more ready—you just have to be ready.

Solo captains, like Ellen, have sailed this ocean and never been heard from again.  Capsized, skippers have waited up to four-days to be rescued.

Everything Ellen’s ever learned on the water is put to the test.

MacArthur: I’m pretty worried about this storm, really worried about this storm. My life is in Moby’s hands.

No one should ever have a White Christmas like Ellen’s: Gusts are topping out at more than 50-miles an hour. White boiling spray engulfing Moby, the boat she regards as a living, breathing companion.

MacArthur: It’s rough and I’m pretty wet. The generator stopped working 10 times this morning.  I’ve got leaks on my bunk and my bunk’s soaked and not really a great Christmas.

And there would be no let up until the New Year. Ellen and Moby would punch through one storm, only to find themselves caught in another.

Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Ellen, are you scared, wired, what’s the word?MacArthur: You can’t do a trip like that and say that you’re not scared, no. Because there are times when things are very stressful.  

Down there, Ellen only emerges from the tiny cabin to adjust a sail. Ice cold waves consume her. The sails are several times Ellen’s body weight, and she manually grinds them into place. A 45 minute chore, she does countless times a day.

MacArthur (diary): I can actually feel the air burning in my throat from breathing so heavily to get the job done.  But we’re there.  Oh—a big wave, (boat shakes) here we go bouncing around.  I’m going to try and get in my bunk and get some sleep because so far I’ve had absolutely nothing.

She sleeps in her wet gear, or tries to, tuned to every groan, every jolt Moby makes. 

MacArthur: I’d lie in my bunk trying to sleep and I’d be, my teeth would be clenched together because I was so stressed... You’re so tired and you know you got to eat and you say to yourself do I eat or do I sleep.  It’s a choice. There were virtually no times on the trip that i wanted to eat.  I ate because I had to. There were times when I made a meal—thought I’d eaten it and it was an hour before I realized I hadn’t that’s how tired you are.

With the arrival of the New Year and the end of the almost spirit-breaking storms, Ellen has made it half way through her trip, still in one piece.

On January 1, 2005 -- day thirty-four, she is two-days ahead of the pace clock. As she passes beneath New Zealand, it is time to finally celebrate a late Christmas.

MacArthur (diary): Happy Christmas everybody.  It’s New Year and I’m opening my Christmas box. Just to see things that people have given you that you didn’t know were on the boat. And here you are in the middle of nowhere and it was just fantastic. Aw, mom, a stuffed animal...

But her exhiliration at the half way point is short-lived.

MacArthur: There’s actually an iceberg over there. Unbelievable.

Ellen thinks she’s steered clear of iceberg country. But there they are. Two of them. 160 feet tall just two miles off her bow. Only 4 hours of daylight remain.

MacArthur: It’s going to be a long night, a very long night.

Icebergs, then more absolutely bad weather: winds shifting maddeningly—50 degrees this way then that. Moby is accelerating wildly,  45-mile an hour gusts buffeting her sails.

MacArthur: There are times you’re sitting there thinking “You know if we get another five knots of wind, we’re—we’re history.”

What else could happen? The hail storm. The boat is coated in an inch and half of icy glaze.

Murphy: Did you ever feel you were out of control?MacArthur: A few times. There was nothing you could do about it by that stage. So you just have to survive it. You have to just hang on, and hope.

And she does—bludgeoned with fatigue and lack of sleep—after almost a month in the Southern Ocean—on January 12, day 45, Ellen steers north again and rounds Cape Horn, the southern most tip of South America.

She’d survived two-thirds of her journey, sailing 19,000 miles.

And the upside of the awful storms was that she made great time. Leaving the Southern Ocean she was four-days ahead of the pace clock.

But still there is no premature celebration.

MacArthur:  There was no point getting excited. And anything could happen. I could not have been more right because just look at what happened in the South Atlantic.

Ellen MacArthur’s challenge is going into the tank.

January 13, day 46 -- sailing north now off South America. Ellen and the boat she calls Moby are four-days ahead of the record setting time.

But Ellen is paying a heavy price for the last leg, around the South Pole.

Ellen MacArthur (video diary): I’d never been that tired before. I’d never taken myself to that limit before.  You’re just completely and utterly connected to the boat. 

A week into the South Atlantic and it’s a new problem altogether: barely any wind at all.

MacArthur: It’s more frustrating to have no wind than to have too much. With no wind you can’t do anything. You can’t move the boat you can’t go somewhere else. 

Day after day, and still no wind, Ellen finally starts to unravel.

MacArthur:  I’m so tired. I just so want to get out of this. We want to go that way and we can’t. I’ve just so had enough. It’s not a moment that tips you over, it’s just You are right on the edge. You are living on the edge. And yet, sometimes it’s just too much for you.

The lead is slipping away from her. Ellen’s making only 200 miles a day, half her pace in the Southern Ocean.

MacArthur:  All that effort, all that energy, I’m not going to give up.

Off Brazil, nearing the equator, Ellen finds some wind finally. But her four-day lead has dwindled to two. On shore, Ellen’s project manager, Mark Turner, learns that the boat is becoming as undone as her skipper.

Mark Turner, partner: The main sail was going to come crashing down and destroy the mast basically.

The mainsail has broken away from the top of the mast. If Ellen can’t repair the bracket that holds the sail in place, her challenge is over. She’ll have to climb the 100-foot tall mast to fix it.

Turner: It was a very, very nervous time. And it was, you know, maybe it is all over.

Ellen is out of her camera’s view for most of her climb, but she does have a comment for it as she pulls herself up the shuddering mast.

MacArthur (diary): I hate this job sometimes.

Ellen’s satchel flies about as Moby lurches in 20-foot swells. No wind, and now way too much when she needs it least.

MacArthur: You go up there and you’re literally thrown against the mast time and time and time again.

In the cabin later, a badly black and blued skipper has successfully repaired the sail that threatened to end the race.

MacArthur:  I’m pretty sore really.  Every time I try and sleep, I wake up sweating and feeling like I’ve been in a fight.

The boat is fixed but the race is going into the tank.  Ellen had to sail off course to repair her sail, and is now just one day ahead of the pace to beat.

MacArthur: Well, the good thing is that it’s beautiful, the bad thing is that it’s not good for the record—no wind again, no wind again.

With just two-weeks remaining to best the record time, her challenge is looking like a nice try.
She’s 13-hours behind, and Moby’s barely moving.

MacArthur: I don’t know if we can still break record.  I believe we can.  I’m never going to give up not until the last second hand ticks over.

Sure enough, the very next day, trade winds swell Moby’s sails and Ellen is clicking along again—a respectable 300-miles in one day—and best of all, ahead of the clock again by six-hours.

January 27, day 60, Ellen crosses the equator.

MacArthur: This is to celebrate crossing the equator for the second time, Let’s hope we’re going home for a record. 

On day 65, Ellen is blazing the North Atlantic, a solid three-days ahead of the clock.

To break the record, she has to get there by four minutes after seven the morning of February 9th, eight-days away. The prize is within her grasp.

MacArthur:  Until I cross that line, it’s not happened.  And I find that very difficult to deal with and it’s a huge pressure, huge pressure. 

As soon as the favorable winds die and her lead has dwindled to two-days, the weather changes again. Gales. Filthy weather.

MacArthur: The sea state is really bad and the boat—she’s going to get annihilated. With four-days left to break the record, Ellen is off the coast of Spain, 700-miles from the finish line, bucking 35-mile an hour headwinds. There’s nothing to do but survive the squalls in one-piece and hope the lead has held.Turner: That last storm was a new test for the boat and for her. When she got through that then she definitely had an air of some kind of expectation.February 7, day seventy-one: The storm chewed-up some time but she’s still a day ahead of the record and fast approaching the finish line.  MacArthur: That afternoon, I really thought it was possible.  A friend of mine flew over who’s a photographer in a helicopter.  And I remember—that’s the first time I actually thought, “I’m gonna do this.”  And when you see the pictures from that helicopter, you can see it in my face.  It’s amazing. 

And later that night, out there in the inky black is the stab of the lighthouse, the finish line.

MacArthur:  Seeing that light, knowing that was there, that’s it that’s the end was extraordinary.

She does it. At 10:29 p.m. of February 7th, 2005, Ellen crosses the finish line in triumph and proves herself the fastest sailor on the planet.

Ellen Macarthur, age 28, had circled the globe, sailing 27,000 miles in 71 days 14 hours 18 minutes and 33 seconds.

She’d shaved one-and-a-third days off the Frenchman’s record.

MacArthur: It was just magic, it was fantastic.

By daybreak, Ellen and Mark are reunited.

Turner: For me it was relief that she was back first and foremost.  And yes, that we’d broken the record.  But primarily that it was over and she was safe.

A flotilla of pleasure boats escorts Ellen from the finish line back to her native England.

MacArthur: It was elation mixed with relief: relief that it was over, but elation that we’d just done it.Murphy: Was it worth it Ellen?  What you put yourself through?MacArthur: Was it worth it?  I’m still here, and I’m still smiling, so I think it was worth it.  But it was not easy.Murphy: People say that Ellen MacArthur is the greatest sailor in the world.MacArthur: I’m not the greatest sailor in the world. I just grit my teeth and get on with it. I just love what I do and I’m very lucky to do it.