Derbyshire's Dame Ellen MacArthur

Derbyshire Life has followed Dame Ellen MacArthur from Whatstandwell since 1999 when she became Britain's Yachtsman of the Year. Pat Ashworth catches up with her as her eagerly awaited new book is published and she plans a return visit to Derby.

Dame Ellen MacArthur has been up since 5.30am doing ‘a couple of last-minute edits’ to her much-awaited book, Full Circle., She arrives in the Penguin Books office at nine o’clock, exultant in the knowledge that by the end of today, the book will be finally ‘sorted’, she says with satisfaction.

At 34, the Derbyshire girl is still a fireball of energy, still full of the drive and passion that made her the fastest solo sailor to circumnavigate the world in 2005. Words tumble over themselves in a warm and animated conversation that ranges from sheepdog training on the Isle of Skye to canoeing on the canals and waterways, and the most frequently recurring word is ‘Amazing’.

She made headlines last year when she announced her retirement from competitive sailing to do what the papers described almost in disbelief as ‘Giving up the ocean to save the planet’. Her book, to be published on 2nd September, recounts with soul baring honesty and a new maturity the personal journey she has made in the decade that followed her record breaking first solo round-the-world voyage in 2001. Her second placing in that Vend�e Globe race made her the fastest woman sailor on the planet.

Choosing to leave sailing as a profession wasn’t easy, she acknowledges. Her world record reverted to Francis Joyon in 2008, leading to the inevitable speculation that she might want to challenge it again. ‘It wasn’t because I didn’t want to sail any more but because I’d found something more pressing, something that really matters, something that eclipsed sailing for the first time in my life,’ she says.

That ‘something’ arose from what can best be described as an epiphany experience on the remote and ruggedly beautiful sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, a wildlife sanctuary accessible only by sea. She camped on the island for two months in 2006 to highlight the plight of the albatross, a species under threat from fishing practices. The fragility of the island environment led her to reflect on sustainability in general and to contrast the way she’d lived at sea – managing resources like fuel and water down to the last drop – with the profligacy of life on land: flying to distant places, building boats on the other side of the world.

It didn’t happen straightaway, though. ‘I came back from South Georgia and did a tour of Asia for two months, planning to build a boat for the Vend�e Globe, but I chose not to race. All the opportunities were there, it would have been very easy to step back on board and just go and I would absolutely have loved to, but I chose not to,’ she says decidedly. ‘And that’s really the background of the book, maybe even from the middle onwards, because it starts with the realisation during the roundthe- world of what I’m learning and what I’m thinking ... things I see and days I remember vividly where a string of things happened that taught me something...’

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She scarcely pauses for breath in a passion to convey just how all this matters. She has written two previous books, Taking on the World (2002) and Against Time (2006), the latter immediately based on the logs of her epic 71-day journey. In writing Full Circle, she viewed for the first time ever the 21 hours of video footage she shot during that voyage. ‘I’ve written that it would almost have been easier not to pick up the camera. And maybe I’d have been a greater hero if I’d not picked up the camera at difficult times,’ she reflects.

‘I didn’t have to; it wasn’t like there was a spy camera on the wall that someone had put there. In some ways I could be openly emotional, which told the full and true story, but at the same time it does leave you open to criticism.’ Writing this ‘quite intense’ book at some distance from the event is very different, she says, from writing ‘when you’re in it and you feel it and you’re writing what’s happening at the moment and you’re thinking, “I’m knackered”.

‘Looking at the footage was ‘really quite incredible. The things I’d said or written during that trip bear so much resemblance to what I’m doing now, and at the time, I didn’t see it. It was as if even back then, I was learning things I didn’t realise the importance of until later. I didn’t have to think how I was going to bring this to life. It was all there.’ She retreated to her family home at Whatstandwell to begin writing it, in April and July 2009; continued it intensively throughout January and February at her permanent home on the Isle of Wight and spent the next four months editing and condensing what is ‘a kind of proper, thought, considered reflection.’

She speaks frankly about the turmoil into which she was thrown after the Vend�e: about ‘what it’s like to come back from a round-the-world when your world is upside down and all you crave is the normality of life and it isn’t there and it won’t be again, because your life’s changed for ever.

‘Learning to deal with that and being so young and never having sought that, never wanting to find that, and finding yourself in that situation and keeping your feet on the ground and focusing on the next thing to keep you in a world you can control – I’m almost saying I had more control on the boat than I did on land in a funny kind of way.’

Back from South Georgia and Asia, she embarked at the end of  2007 on a private and unreported voyage of a very different kind. Together with Ian, her partner of five years, whom she met in 2004, she travelled 300 miles on the inland waterways from Shardlow, in a canvas canoe, ‘sleeping in a tent we made on my Mum’s old sewing machine, and I made a sail, and welded up a little bracket for the top of the mast and it all folded down into a little bag and we took Floss [one of the couple’s dogs] with us and went on this amazing adventure,’ she says, with a childlike fervour that makes you understand exactly why Swallows and Amazons remains her favourite book.

She shines as she speaks of the kingfishers and Shire horses encountered; of the contrast of town and countryside; of Huddersfield and Wakefield; of the march of development that has seen warehouses abandoned and railway tracks become cycle tracks. ‘Learning through that journey also helped me make the decision. I kind of got to a point of no return,’ she reflects. Flying straight off to Barcelona for the start of the new two-handed round the world race being jointly run by her company, OC Events, she ‘went off on my own and made the decision: that’s it, I’m closing the door behind it. I still had some sailing commitments to fulfil but I knew where I was going.’

Real progress has happened in the last year, after three years spent ‘trying to work out what exactly it was I was trying to do, because I could have done anything.’ She hastens to say, ‘I don’t mean thatarrogantly, but I could have raised any amount of money to sail anywe’ve got a problem. But I didn’t feel raising awareness was going to solve the problem. I wanted to help solve the problem.’

So in September she will be launching an educational foundation aimed at ‘changing the mindset of a generation of young people to understand the principles that are needed to get it right for the future. We’ve got it wrong. We’re living unsustainably: there are lots of flaws in the way we live, and it’s how it is, and of course if you find all these resources underground you’re going to pull them out,’ she says. ‘But we have to realise they aren’t going to be around for ever and we need somehow to try and teach young people a different set of principles as to how we live in the future. They respond so well, they see it as a massive challenge.’

The house that she and Ian have built on the Isle of Wight is another part of the journey. They didn’t build it because they were passionate about sustainability but when ‘an old cottage came up that had snapped in half, literally – it was 1930s brick and had a crack right down the middle of it’, and they knew it would have to come down because they couldn’t fix it, the couple decided that if they were going to build a house then it should be the right house, cheap to run and well insulated.

‘It isn’t an eco-house but a sensible house, the kind you build to be future-proofed,’ Ellen says with enthusiasm. ‘It’s going to be there for generations, the time and effort put in will stay there and hopefully in a thousand years, someone can still be living in it.’

They share it with Floss, a rescue collie from Skye – ‘the shepherds really couldn’t do anything with her, broken leg, ended up with gangrene, lost half a foot, the whole thing was amazing’ – and Norman, a sheep dog from the Isle of Wight. ‘If you saw him, he is a Norman,’ she says delightedly. ‘He’s lovely, smashing colour, very settled, very steady and pretty chilled.’ She works both dogs with sheep, something she has aspired to do ever since she tried to herd ducks as a child. And she has chickens too – a life much like the simple, sustainable upbringing she enjoyed on the Whatstandwell smallholding and for which she warmly credits her parents, Ken and Avril.

She is still sailing for pleasure, of course – ‘all the time’ – but most especially with children from the Ellen MacArthur Trust which she set up in 2003 to boost the health and self-esteem of children with cancer, leukaemia and other serious illnesses. The team did a 2,000-mile round- Britain trip last year, taking on five children at each of 17 ports for the next leg of the voyage, and on the day of our interview, Ellen had just completed a race round the Isle of Wight with children from the Trust. ‘I absolutely love it,’ she says. ‘I got up at four, joined the guys before six, we started at seven and finished just before three and we had a ball. An absolute ball.’

She gets back to Derbyshire ‘more than ever’ these days, despite a schedule that continues to be hectic. She will be speaking at the Assembly Rooms on 7th September (Box office: 01332 255800), as part of her book tour, and if our half-hour conversation is anything to go by, An Evening with Dame Ellen MacArthur should be absolutely unmissable.