Taking on the World tells the remarkable story of solo sailor Ellen MacArthur's magnificent obsession with sailing and going to sea, which began at the age of four. Her 26 years of intense living read like a fast-moving novel.
MacArthur was born in Derbyshire, about as far from the sea as one can get. At school, she saved her lunch money to buy an 8ft dinghy. From there, she developed an interest in "boats with tiny cabins". In her late teens, she took formal sailing courses and acquired a 21-footer, which she named Iduna . One of her friends, a consulting engineer, produced a marketing plan, which was the blueprint for a successful, single-handed, sponsored voyage around Britain.
She then teamed up with another sailor, Mark Turner, became involved in the rarefied world of single-handed racing, and finally patched together enough money to compete in the Mini Transat, a single-handed race to the Caribbean.
Much of the story revolves around her Herculean efforts to obtain sponsorship, a revealing glimpse into the competitive environment of sponsors and fundraising. For months, she slept on floors, on her small boat, and in a portable cabin. We journey through the highs and lows of the process, and the relationships that went along with them. Eventually, the Kingfisher organisation sponsored her in the Route de Rhum, a transatlantic race where she won the 50ft class.
From there, MacArthur graduated to the ultimate race, the Vendée Globe - sailing around the world single-handed, leaving the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn on the left side - the ultimate challenge for any sailor, let alone a woman in her early 20s. Her boat was built in New Zealand. She then calmly sailed her charge to England via Cape Horn, much of the way by herself.
In short order, she then competed in the Europe I New Man Instar race and won it in record-breaking time. Next, she sailed the boat across the Atlantic with a small crew and arrived with the start of the Vendée Globe only two months away. This was where her back-up team was of supreme importance, including the indispensable Turner.
In the meantime, she dealt with sponsors, developed a regime of sleep management, and managed to start on time. MacArthur says again and again that she is happier afloat than ashore. With a schedule like this, one can believe it.
The last third of the book describes the Vendée Globe from start to triumphant finish. MacArthur does not spare the reader, with accounts of her moods, her frustrations, and the day-to-day routine of sail changes, weather reports and constant worrying about other competitors.
Her emails, spelling mistakes and all, have a taut immediacy that can be chilling in its understatement. On one occasion, she spent over three hours up the mast repairing the mainsail, with the boat on autopilot, the wind blowing at more than 40 knots and 10m waves banging her about high above the deck. In an email written soon afterwards she said she took an hour to descend 15m of mast. Most sailors would have been flattened, if they survived at all.
Such incidents, where moments of intense competition and fear surface in the middle of more prosaic sailing, make this book fascinating. MacArthur is clearly not simply obsessed with the sea, she loves it. After a collision with a submerged object towards the end of the race and then a broken stay, which deprived her of the chance to win, she encountered some dolphins and marvelled at the peacefulness of it all.
Always in a hurry, MacArthur gave herself 34 days to write this book, which she admits was not nearly enough. In fact, the writing took over a year, much of it in airline terminals and trains, squeezed into a schedule on land and sea that would make most people wilt.
The book was worth the wait. It is all the more telling because it is written by the heroine herself without the relentless optimism of a ghost writer in the background. Even if an editor's hand has breathed heavily on the manuscript, and at times the emotional background is a little sophomoric, the book stands out in a marketplace crammed with sailing books of all kinds. Above all, it is the heartfelt story of an extraordinary woman with a wonderfully supportive family, who achieves her dream and beyond. MacArthur dedicates the book to her grandmother, who completed her university degree at the age of 89 while suffering from cancer.
Taking on the World will appeal to a far wider readership than the small audience of sailing enthusiasts. If you have a dream and are determined to realise it, this book will inspire you beyond measure.
As a sailor, I am in awe. The author is a giant in a world where larger-than-life characters abound. What on earth will she do next?
Brian Fagan is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, US, a long-time cruising sailor and the author of books and charts for sailors. An interview with Brian Fagan will appear in next week's "Textbook Guide".
Taking on the World
Author - Ellen MacArthur
ISBN - 0 7181 4525 9
Publisher - Michael Joseph
Price - £17.99
Pages - 396