Sailing around the world is the nautical equivalent of climbing Everest. Making the circumnavigation alone and without stopping for supplies or rest is a bit like making the ascent without oxygen or sherpas. To undertake a solo attempt on a multi-hull vessel — a feat that only five sailors had attempted and only one had completed — pushes the imagination (and perhaps the analogy) to something close to impossible, maybe something akin to scrambling up the world’s tallest peak barefoot.
Late Monday a 28-year-old woman named Ellen MacArthur did the impossible, completing a 27,354-mile lap around the world in a 75-foot trimaran. Not only that, but she did it in just 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds to break the previous record. The petite young lady — she stands at just five-foot, two-inches — traveled at an average of 15.9 knots on a flying journey that took her south of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, through Southern Ocean gales and towering seas.
What is most impressive about McArthur’s accomplishment is the stamina required to push her beast of a vessel around-the-clock, day after day. When Sir Robin Knox-Johnston became the first person to sail around the world alone without stopping in 1969, it took 312 days and he did it on a traditional monohull. McArthur’s craft was a trimaran she called Mobi because the central hull reminded her of a sperm whale. It is much faster than a monohull, but not nearly as stable. A single false move could have led to a capsize thousands of miles from help.
She rarely slept more than four hours in a day and rarely more than 20 minutes at a time. Just handling the helm and trimming the sails was more than a full-time job. She probably raised and lowered sails that weigh twice as much as she does more than 1,000 times. Twice she climbed to the top of the mast. She also had other jobs: She was Mobi’s meteorologist and navigator, the master of the single-burner stove she used to warm her freeze-dried food, and the all-around mechanic who at one point had to rebuild the desalinator that produced drinking water.
“The woman is absolutely incredible,” says Brad Van Liew, America’s foremost single-handed sailor. “In the sport of sailing, there is no greater accomplishment than the solo unlimited around-the-world record. Her size, her gender, her physical strength does not seem to make any difference to her.”
Her race around the globe was marked by every imaginable challenge. The problems with the water maker almost required her to pull out of the race. Her electric generator also failed, and her arm was badly burned when she attempted to stop its fumes from pouring into her cabin. At one point, she almost collided with a whale. Still, by the time she rounded the southern tip of South America and headed back toward the starting line, an imaginary line between France and England, it appeared that she would smash the record by four or more days. Then, as she approached the equator, she entered the doldrums where she was left in a windless sea off the coast of Brazil where her margin completely evaporated.
“The last 24 hours have been absolutely horrendous,” she told her onshore crew a few days before the finish. “I’ve had about 15 minutes of sleep I think through the night. There have been ships everywhere, rain squalls. We had the wind direction changing. At one point the boat tacked itself because the wind shift was so great. It’s been a full-on night and I am very, very tired. I’m just going to have to hang in there until the finish.”
A day later, as she crossed the Bay of Biscay, she was hit by a powerful Atlantic storm with gale-force wind and violent seas and was forced to assume a course that took her away from the finish line.
The record she had to beat was set just a year ago by a Frenchman named Francis Joyon. In addition to becoming the first solo multi-hull sailor to make it around the world without stopping, he did so much faster than anyone expected — 72 days, 22 hours, 54 minutes and 22 seconds. As a result, the record was thought to be secure for at least a decade. Even members of MacArthur’s support team admitted that it would probably take her two or three attempts. “I was hoping to keep the record a bit longer,” Joyon said yesterday. “The mere fact that she was able to sail around the world nonstop was quite an exploit, but to smash the record at the same time deserves my warmest congratulations.”
When an exhausted McArthur arrived in Falmouth Harbor yesterday, she admitted that she was relieved that her race against the clock had come to an end. “Speed comes at a very high price,” she said. “The motion of the boat can be horrendous.” But she also made it clear that she will continue to hunt for more mountains. “There are lots of other records out there,” she said. “The trans-Atlantic record is there and that’s something I’ll be aiming for.”
Mr. Knecht, the author of “The Proving Ground: The Inside Story of the Sydney to Hobart Race,” is at work on a book about illegal fishing.