Dame Ellen

After setting the record for a solo circumnavigation, British sailor Ellen MacArthur, created a dame for her achievement, is also the recipient of some unexpected homegrown criticism. Herb McCormick says her critics just don't get it

She was a wisp of a thing, really; that was my first impression. So much smaller than her outlandish plans. It was the austral summer of 2000 in Auckland, New Zealand, and I was one of a handful of journalists invited out for an inaugural sail aboard the recently launched Open 60 Kingfisher, a round-the-world rocket custom-built for little-known solo sailor and Vendee Globe aspirant Ellen MacArthur. The 23-year-old skipper, a five-foot-two-inch sprite from Great Britain, had somehow wrangled major sponsorship from the European retail chain for which her boat was named. On a lay day from the America's Cup action that had brought me to town, I considered the whole thing a lark, a sideshow even, nothing more than a harmless diversion.

And once under way, there was, indeed, a circus atmosphere to the onboard proceedings. Among a small army of boatbuilders, yacht designers, sailmakers, shore crew, and yachting writers, Ellen was almost an afterthought, a lost soul on her own boat. Back ashore, in an aside, one of my colleagues was left so unimpressed by Ellen's on-the-water aura that he confessed to one of her shore managers that he feared for the long-term well-being of the diminutive sailor. Frankly, I shared his misgivings. Did she have any idea what she was getting herself into?

Five years later, the answer to that question is crystal clear. Oh yes, the prodigious pixie had had a pretty good grasp of what it takes to push fast boats, relentlessly, across vast, empty oceans with only herself for company. In Ellen's world, we've learned, the only clueless people are the ones who doubt her.

For early last February, at the still-tender age of 28, Ellen pulled off her most remarkable accomplishment yet in a young life that's been full of them (in 2000, she won the singlehanded transatlantic race; the following year, she took second with a remarkable performance in the Vendee Globe). At the helm of the 75-foot trimaran B&Q, she sailed into Falmouth, England, after circling the globe--alone and without stopping--in world-record time.

In the 1960s, British solo circumnavigators Francis Chichester and Robin Knox-Johnston were knighted for their astounding round-the-world jaunts. Fittingly, at her journey's end, Ellen was made a dame, an equivalent honor for women.

Sir Francis and Sir Robin sailed in an era that can now be described as the Dark Ages of long-distance sailing. While under way, little was known of their fates for weeks and months at a time. In contrast, as Ellen raced the clock to better Frenchman Francis Joyon's year-old record for the fastest nonstop circumnavigation--a mark of 72 days and change, which most experts believed would stand for years--she did so with a rapt worldwide audience following every sail change via her state-of-the-art website (www.teamellen.com). And Ellen was never afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve. "I'm running close to empty," she reported in the voyage's final days. "This trip has taken pretty much all I have, every last drop and ounce."

Clearly it had, and anyone who's ever sailed out of sight of land can only marvel at the effort it must've taken to drive a big, unforgiving multihull at double-digit speeds in some of the most extreme conditions on the planet (Ellen's average speed for the passage was, gulp, 15.9 knots). And in the aftermath, many of Ellen's peers--including Joyon and Knox-Johnston--were lavish and gracious in their praise of her feat. Yet one of the more startling aspects of the entire affair was the backlash it created in some homegrown media circles. "Next time," whined The Guardian's Stephen Moss, "keep your thoughts to yourself until you come ashore."

As a convert to Ellen's cause--that daysail in Auckland feels like 50 years ago, not five--I actually feel sorry for Mr. Moss and his fellow critics. For they've utterly missed the point. By sheer example, Dame Ellen has taken it all one giant step farther. And in expanding the limits of her own horizon, she's also expanded ours.