The stress game – Dame Ellen MacArthur talks to us about singlehanded round the world records and how it is the hardest thing to do in our sport

The stress game – Dame Ellen MacArthur talks to us about singlehanded round the world records and how it is the hardest thing to do in our sport

In Brest for Francis Joyon's arrival last weekend, Dame Ellen MacArthur seemed to enjoying her role as a spectator, for once not so much in the spotlight, the sole focus of media attention. As the holder of the solo non-stop around the world record up until this weekend, she of course followed Joyon's progress around the world with interest and even spoke to him a few times on the way around.
She uses the perennial Offshore Challenge superlative "awesome" in reaction to Joyon having taken 14 days off her record. Prior to his departure she reckoned 10 days was possible. "It is easy to say that now, but judging from my average speeds I could easily have taken a week off my record. I was five days ahead at Cape Horn and the time from Cape Horn to the Equator Francis did was really badly – that was his worst period – but mine was just catastrophic. I could have quite easily have picked up two days in the South Atlantic if I had had good wind, but I didn't. So instead of gaining two days I lost five, so a week, which is very honest. I could have had better weather in the North Atlantic coming down, because I had a depression off the Spanish coast. And the South Atlantic, the St Helena High, I spent more time in it than Francis did. His route from the start down to the Pacific – you couldn't want for better. You didn't have to make any choices – it was just all there right in front of you." This is all delivered matter-of-factly without the vaguest trace of bitterness.

And then there is Joyon's boat, IDEC2, at 97ft LOA some 22ft longer than her B&Q Castorama. "The boat is unquestionably faster, it's bigger, it's got no weight on it, its got no equipment, he's gone so simple, he has no big satellite transmitter, all he has is an Iridium. Its as light as can be. He's gone for the absolutely minimum, which was a very bold decision.

"Size is speed. The bigger the boat, the harder it is to physically manoeuvre, but the easier it passes through the waves as well. So from a stress point of view it is probably pretty similar. He would be more physically tired from the manoeuvres he had to do, however he didn't have to do many until he got to the Pacific. He was really lucky, he could absolutely haul ass, whereas after that in the South Atlantic it was a bit more full on and then he had to go up the rig, which I had to do, and that is just an absolute sod. It's the one thing you don't want to have to do on a multihull. In a Vendee you'd go up the rig just to check it and its not very pleasant, you'd get a few bruises, but on this you don't want to go up the rig because it's really dangerous and he had to go up three times, just as I did. It is horrible – I really felt for him when he had to do that."

While 'stress' is not something that ever comes across with the mild-mannered Joyon, the epitomy of calm, it is a word that comes up repeatedly when Ellen talks about this record.

"I think the stress is by far the biggest thing," Ellen continues. "I know Francis has finished absolutely exhausted and it takes a long time to get over it. It took me probably a year and some bits you'll never get over, because it is so much a part of you. It's like when you have a shocking experience or a really good one, or something that really marks your life – you never ever forget that and there are parts that just stay really clear in your head and the record's like that. You're purely stressed out completely for two and a half months. You're surviving on adrenalin, you don't feel hungry, you're nervous, your stressed, you're just functioning and concentrating on staying alive. Doing it for that period of time isn't great. There aren't many things in life that put you in that situation. Even walking across the Arctic, you put your tent up and go to sleep and switch off – you cannot stop on a boat like that. You can't switch off. It's relentless. But we choose to do it, which is even more stupid!" The best analogy we've heard is it like being on the front line of a war…

In this respect Ellen reckons that for Joyon this solo circumnavigation was very different to his last one due the vessel he was sailing this time. Last time he was aboard IDEC 1, Olivier de Kersauson's ancient former Poulain trimaran built in the late 1980s that de Kersauson had himself sailed around the world singlehanded.

"Just seeing Francis – this was different to his last record," Ellen continues. "The boat is faster. He didn't have to sail his boat at 100%, but he chose to because at the end of the day you don't know what's going to happen, so you sail the boat to its full potential. I'm not sure whether that was the case with his old boat, because it was old and it might have broken, so he didn't want to push it. So this was a very different record and I think the previous one was a lot easier on him – there were a lot of bits and pieces to fix, but it wasn't the same intensity of stress and that's what's different with this. I think he's had a very similar experience to me, but obviously two weeks less! But there's no question, there's the stress – you can feel it. You can't describe how stressful it is sailing a boat that fast for that long."

As a keen eco-campaigner, Ellen feels that Joyon's lap of the planet without a generator is a "fantastic symbol" and she says she would certainly investigate it the next time she sails around the world. However Joyon's set-up distinctly limits how much you can communicate. "You just don't have the power. Maybe with two wind generators. It's not completely using the power of nature, but it's pretty damn close. He used a fuel cell in the south."

So would it have made a difference that Joyon is physically four times her size? "Yes, I could never be as strong as someone the size of him, however much work I did. Strength matters, because if you've got to get the sail in, down or furled, the longer it takes, the more chance there is it's going to flap in the wind and the more it flaps, the more you'll trash it and there's a real danger you'll just trash all your sails. So that plays a huge part in it. I trained my… off before I went."

As we touched upon in our Groupama III article yesterday, one of the interesting aspects of the speed of the boat on a round the world voyage is how it performs in the Southern Ocean compared to the speed the depressions here move east at. Groupama III for example is faster than the depressions, whereas IDEC 2 and B&Q move at about their speed, while Volvo Open 70s are a shade slower.

"I thought about that," says Ellen. "I sat with the same depression all the way around the Southern Ocean. You move with the main depression and the front comes round and it tails off and then you get a secondary depression that forms. I had a really really horrible time just east of Kerguelen where there was a secondary depression forming right on top of me – I've never ever experienced anything like that at sea. It was horrendous. That's when I slept for 20 minutes in three days, because the wind was going from 17 knots to 48 knots, then 30 knots to 20 knots… Then for a few hours it would sit at 25 to 18 to 25 knots, so you'd take a reef out and then it would be 48 KNOTS just like that. And there's nothing you can do about that. You're moving with it, you can't go north or south to get out of it because it's growing over you, so you just go east with it, so you're stuck with it for three days. That kind of thing is just horrible. Francis didn't have a situation like that to my knowledge and it's a lottery. Yeah, you're going in the right direction but you're not going as fast as you could be
, because if you put your whole sail up, you'd flip straight away."

The new generation of multihulls, whether they are built for fully crewed or singlehanded sailing are certainly safer than their predecessors since they are not restricted to a maximum length. Ellen agrees with this but says they are still mutlihulls and any multihull can be capsized.

"If you are in the Southern Ocean on a big wave and the pilot lets go and you go side on to the wave you are history – the wave will break and it will catch you, the rudders and the board. With Foncia when we flipped everything was under control and then suddenly it wasn't. The bigger they go the less likely they are to flip."

When it comes to capsize you are also better off in a bigger boat. "In certain conditions I think B&Q was more probably more stressful than IDEC because it's smaller," says Ellen, although she confirms that while IDEC2 is a longer boat, she is not so much bigger. "Francis' boat is all in the bow. If you stand on the boat it feels like my boat. Size-wise you don't get on it and think 'I could never sail this'."

As to Ellen's personal sailing, she's looking forward to getting back into Open 60s but this won't be until after this year's Vendee Globe. With sponsorship from BT, the Offshore Challenge's Open 60 will be campaigned in this year's non-stop round the world race by Sebastien Josse. Come 2009 Ellen says she will certainly be on board for all the crewed races. But as skipper? "Yet to see. It makes no odds to me whether I am skipper or not. I am really looking to being on board her and sailing. That'll be fantastic."

We can't seem to draw the words "I will be doing the Vendee Globe in 2012" out of her, but this appears to be the direction in which she is heading. "I've always loved the 60s. I know things have changed – I sailed on a new generation boat with Bilou [Veolia Environnement skipper Roland Jourdain] in 2005, two years ago. And they have come on another step since."

After a singlehanded round the world record attempt on a multihull everything else must seem like a walk in the park. Once again we return to the stress factor. "For the amount that something takes out of you, this [solo RTW on a tri] is hard to compare. The Vendee is hard, stressful and it's competitive and you're tired, but you don't have the same mental drain to the same level as doing this. I'm sure there are people out there who will say it is not a race, you haven't got someone else there, but there are times on a monohull when you can chill out, you're in the conditions where what's the worst that's going to happen? The boat's going to lie flat, you're not even going to break your sails. Whereas in a multihull if you get things wrong it will go over, it will flip – that's the reality and that's what you're living with all the time. That's the stress, and the speed that you are traveling all the time – it is just relentless."

By coincidence our interview with Ellen takes place moments before Francis Joyon's press conference where the Mayor of Brest stands up to announce a singlehanded round the world race for unlimited multihulls to take place in 2011 (read more about this here). When we propose the prospect of such a race to Ellen she seems to turn slightly pale…

"I don't think you should underestimate what its like to sail one of these boats around the world. I wouldn't want to jump in and do that…"

Frankly we would love to see Ellen kicking butt against her old rivals in this year's Vendee Globe. For come 2012 we suspect a new generation of sailors will be competing in the Vendee Globe.

This article was brought to you in collaboration with

Boat Name *
Sail Number *
Boat Type *
Length Overall (LOA) *
Club *
Other Club *