History Centre Heroes: Ellen MacArthur DBE

by Rosemary Babichev

It was ‘Swallows and Amazons’ the classic children’s story of sailing and adventure on the Norfolk Broads that led Ellen MacArthur to choose the tack that made her a record breaking yachtswoman. She first hit the headlines sailing solo round the world aged only 24, little more than a decade after saving up for her first boat, the ‘Threp’ny Bit’ with money from missing dinners at school in Derbyshire where she grew up.

Photographic portrait of female sailor Ellen MacArthur

Her connection with Plymouth came in 2000 when left the port to race to Rhode Island in the USA in just 14 days, 23 hours and 11 minutes, setting the record for a woman making a solo passage East-West across the Atlantic. She has continued to champion the city as the starting point for the Transat, the first solo yacht race in history which has started from Plymouth ever since it began in 1960.

Her most incredible feat is circumnavigating the globe entirely alone in her high-speed trimaran in 2005. She had to face heaving seas fleeing from an 80 mile-an-hour storm in the Southern Ocean, knowing she was at any time four days away from being rescued – the nearest humans were on the international space station somewhere above. She successfully took the record from Frenchman Francis Joyon, and though he took it back three years later, she is still the fastest woman to sail round the world solo to this date.

On a vessel leaping across mountainous waves, racing the clock she knew her life depended making the right decisions in her battle with the weather, but that she had total control over everything that happened on the ship. MacArthur learnt above all the importance of planning. Each last item she needed during the voyage had to be brought from the outset, if something got used up she would have do make do without.

Photography of Ellen MacArthur celebrating after breaking the round the world sailing record

After this, shocked by abandoned whaling stations on a desolate island in the South Atlantic while on a survey of Albatross she began to see her experiences on a boat at sea as a metaphor for our world in the universe. Like the food and materials she used as she sailed along, she felt the critical importance of doing something to stop coal, oil and gas being burnt up to no advantage to the planet.

Since 2008, instead of using her immense determination to plan ever faster solo crossings, MacArthur seeks out international decision makers and people of influence in universities and governments to explore ways of developing a ‘circular economy’. Waste would be eliminated altogether. Every product would be designed to have a complete ‘life cycle’ – each component when obsolete or used up could be used in other products or services and have new functions in supporting human life.

She now runs the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that funds research into plastics and textiles, beer making from waste bread, and urban biocycles. It supports an online community to ensure the ideas behind changing from a one way, linear economy to a circular one are discussed continuously.

Photograph of an Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust sailing yacht

Her lifelong love of the excitement and freedom of sailing she shares with children suffering life-threatening illness through the Ellen MacArthur cancer trust. MacArthur has now put her courage and commitment to survival in the service of other people.