Q&A with Dame Ellen MacArthur

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In August British super sailor Ellen MacArthur officially announced her plans to go on standby in North Cove Marina, New York City, for an attempt to break the single-handed trans-Atlantic record in her 75-foot trimaran, B&Q.

In August British super sailor Ellen MacArthur officially announced her plans to go on standby in North Cove Marina, New York City, for an attempt to break the single-handed trans-Atlantic record in her 75-foot trimaran, B&Q.

Though just 29 years old, MacArthur has been sailing for 25 years — professionally since 17. She is looking to beat Frenchman Francis Joyon’s time of 6 days, 4 hours, 1 minute, 37 seconds. Joyon, on his 90-foot trimaran, IDEC, set the time July 6, smashing Laurent Bourgnon’s 11-year record for crossing the Atlantic alone in 7 days, 2 hours, 34 minutes, 42 seconds.

Coincidentally, Frenchman Thomas Coville and his 60-foot trimaran, Sodebo, were also on standby in North Cove to make the same passage.

Soundings’ Jason Fell caught up with MacArthur at North Cove to discuss her plans to race across the Atlantic.

What are you doing to get the boat ready?

The main preparation was just getting the boat over here and mentally getting my head back in gear ready for the trans-Atlantic. In regards to what’s happening here, we’ve changed the sails over, put the food on board and taken the main engine out to make the boat lighter. That’s about it, really. Trying to make the boat as light as possible.

What are you doing to prepare yourself mentally and physically?

A mixture of gym and aerobics training six days a week. So, three or four days in the gym and then three or four of aerobics. It’s like that for me all year round though — nothing special just before I go.

So, as long as you know the boat is in tip-top shape …

Yes, if you know the boat’s ready to go then you’re in good shape.

OK. You recently tried to break the trans-Atlantic — Bourgnon’s record — but you came up a little short.

Last year [June]; 75 minutes and fifteen seconds short. And that’s nothing after seven days of beating your brains out on this boat.

Going into it this time, do you think you’re going to do anything different?

Last time the weather wasn’t amazing. We pushed like mad but there wasn’t good enough weather. The first part was very, very slow. This time we hope to have better weather.

So you’re waiting for that weather window?

Yeah. We need perfect conditions. If we don’t get perfect conditions we’re not going to break it because the record stands at an average of 20 knots. I mean, to average 20 knots boat speed you need to really, really haul.

Speed. What is this boat capable of, all out?

Top speed, 36 knots. She’s capable of averaging over 20, with the right conditions.

OK, so you’re single-handed, in the middle of the ocean. What’s your sleep cycle?

What do you do for food?

You try and eat three times a day. When [the wind] gets light you eat. You don’t have any want to eat, though. You’re not hungry. It’s like if you wake up in the morning and you have to go to the doctor’s or if you have an exam and you feel nervous inside and you don’t want to eat breakfast. It’s like that all day, every day. You just don’t relax. You’re so stressed. The motion of the boat is incredibly violent. You can’t walk anywhere without falling over. You’re absolutely drenched. At night, you obviously don’t see anything in front of you so you’re running blind and that takes a lot out of you.

What do you think is going to be the most challenging part of this record attempt?

Getting to the other side with the record — as simple as that — without capsizing or breaking the boat.

What would you say is most difficult about handling a boat like this all by yourself?

Trying to get the boat back through that gap (pointing to the narrow entrance to North Cove, laughing). No, really though, it is very stressful. It’s physically very hard. There are no hydraulic or electric winches; everything’s manual. All the sails, pulling them in and out, up and down, you’ve got to do it personally. It’s not like you can push a button and it all happens. People don’t always realize that.

What is sleeping like?

I sleep on a beanbag down below for 20 minutes at a time, max. During the around-the-world, I slept for two hours max, but that was only once a week.

Since I know you’ve made this passage, the attempt before, when you get to the other side and it’s over, how do you feel?

Completely and utterly exhausted: mentally, physically, emotionally.

As I understand it, the boat is obviously staying here while you’re waiting for the weather, but you’re not. What will you be up to?

I’m doing another race in November, the TJV, which goes from France to Brazil. So I’m going back to Europe to train for that in France.

Besides hopefully breaking the record, what are you looking forward to most?

Learning. You push yourself very hard out there and you learn a lot. You always learn a lot. I love learning and would say that’s what drives me and motivates me the most. It’s how you know you’re better at managing yourself and looking after the boat at the end of it. It’s hard to communicate just what it’s like to be on this boat when she’s doing 20 knots. You can’t. You’ve got be on it. You’ve got to be in the middle of it. It’s pretty cool.

MacArthur expects to be on standby no later than Oct. 20