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Brian Viner finds a rare window in award-winning yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur’s diary and catches up with her over lunch on Eurostar, en route to Paris
For such an unnervingly driven individual, Dame Ellen MacArthur is also reassuringly equipped with a proper sense of humour. She tells me a great story about the opening of DBs, her friend Dana’s restaurant on the Isle of Wight, to which she took along her dog. On the way, the hound did a spot of business, which MacArthur dutifully scooped into a bag. When she got to the opening she left both the dog and the bag outside, but on leaving later that evening, remembered only the dog. Thus it was that, at the conclusion of her big opening night, Dana found on the doorstep what she decided, melodramatically but understandably, had to be a mafioso-style message from a rival restaurateur.
MacArthur has an infectious giggle which, following this anecdote, fills our business-class carriage on the Eurostar from London to Paris. She is on her way to a press conference, to announce her new venture with BT, the formation of a sailing team called BT Team Ellen. The team bears her name but Frenchman Sebastien Josse and Australian Nick Moloney, two of the finest racing sailors in the world, are also members. It is like Chelsea Football Club pooling resources with Manchester United and Arsenal.
It also means that MacArthur, still only 31, will not be embarking on any long-distance oceanic adventures for a little while, because it will be Josse flying the BT Team Ellen flag on the next big race, next year’s Vendée Globe. It was the 2001 Vendée Globe, of course, that propelled MacArthur to international fame. She giggles again when she tells me about the congratulatory phone call she received from prime minister Tony Blair shortly after reaching the finish, which very nearly coincided with her first, long-anticipated visit to a proper toilet in three months.
This story is interrupted, somewhere between Calais and Amiens, by the rattling arrival of the lunch trolley. MacArthur picks half-heartedly at a tuna salad with celeriac remoulade; there are times when she admits to eating like a trencherman, but this is not one of them. Nevertheless, lunch plays a significant part in her story, for it was by saving her school dinner money for eight years that she was able to muster the funds to buy her own boat.
‘For years at school I only had mashed potato and baked beans for lunch,’ she recalls. ‘That cost 8p. And the bus driver let me off my fare. My mum and dad only found out when I did a radio interview when I was 17. I kept a little tin, and every time I made it to £1, I crossed one of 100 squares. When I got £100 I put it in the bank. Eventually I was able to buy an 8ft dinghy, which I then sold and bought a 17ft boat, which I did a lot of work on and swapped for Iduna.’
She still has Iduna, the boat on which, in 1995, she completed a five-month solo circumnavigation of Britain. Since then she has, in more ways than one, come a long way. Even she, determined as she always was to do great things in a boat, can hardly have expected to be made the youngest Dame in the history of the British Empire. And receiving her DBE was not her first trip to Buckingham Palace. She had previously been invited for a private lunch, though she can’t recall what she ate.
‘We had soup, I think,’ she says. ‘And some meat. It was all very nice. I think there were eight of us. The Queen and the Duke of ... of ... her husband, a couple of people from the Palace, a lady from the Isle of Wight, and Sven-Goran Eriksson [when he was the England football manager]. It was just like going to someone’s house for lunch, really.’ Another giggle. ‘Just that it was a big house.’
Her favourite meal, she tells me, pushing away her half-eaten salad, is her mother’s moussaka, produced for family reunions, ‘although it doesn’t contain the usual ingredients of a moussaka because my brother doesn’t like aubergines and courgettes.’ She is considerably less fussy, which helps at sea because she doesn’t always get the meal she expects. ‘I don’t mind all the freeze-dried food but it’s a bit annoying if the packets get wet and the labels peel off, which happened to me once in the North Atlantic. I was expecting beef bourguignon and I got fruit trifle. On the record attempt we made sure that the food was labelled a bit better.’
It was in February 2005 that she got back from breaking the record for the fastest solo circumnavigation, an astounding 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds. During the voyage she deployed her cat-napping skills, sleeping for no more than 20 minutes at a time, yet still she was able, on the night she got home, to fall into a proper deep sleep. With food it was different. It took her weeks to eat properly, so accustomed had she become to grabbing something freeze-dried on the hoof. ‘Food’s just not a big part of my life,’ she says, somewhat unnecessarily. Nor is alcohol – not that she eschews sponsorship from drinks companies. The team’s boat in the Open 60 class is named after Estrella Damm beer, and she is also an ambassador for Mumm (and contractually obliged to crack open a bottle of their Champagne at the end of every voyage).
When I ask her what she is really, really bad at, this woman so famous for being really good at something, who at the age of 20 taught herself French just so that she could work in a French boatyard, she concedes that it is cooking. Her grandmother did give her a copy of Delia Smith’s How To Cook, she says, but she hasn’t got round to looking at it yet. ‘I don’t really care what I eat,’ she adds. ‘It’s just not much of a pleasure for me. The first time I ever had someone round to dinner was after the record attempt. But I am trying. I’ve learnt how to do a couple of stir fries.’
As we approach the Gare du Nord I tell her that I hope not to be invited to her house for dinner any time soon. She is still giggling when we pull into the station.
For information on what Ellen MacArthur is up to next, visit www.ellenmacarthur.com or www.ellenmacarthurtrust.org.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Autumn 2007