- by Carol Standish
Taking on the World A Sailor’s Extraordinary Solo Race Around the Globe by Ellen MacArthur (McGraw-Hill, 353pp, $14.95)
Early reviews of Taking on the World suggested that author, Ellen MacArthur needed a more rigorous editor. Who wanted to know the gory details, the criticism ran, of the champion sailor’s life, that she was “a stubborn child, in no mood to come out,” so her mother had to be induced, for instance?
This reviewer begs to differ. One does not suddenly, at the ripe old age of 24, decide to race a high-tech sail boat single-handedly around the world. Without some explanation of how the decision was arrived at, the attempt, in her case the remarkable achievement, would be hollow even to the most rabid sports fan.
MacArthur does confess that this book would have needed to be published in two volumes without the patience and tolerance of her editor, Rowland White but the method in White’s madness was clearly to allow MacArthur to be the same extraordinary self in her book as she is on the water “I always try to give my all to any project that I undertake, and this book is no exception. I have not tried to write a sailing book…but more simply a book about my life. I hope you enjoy it.”
How did a landlocked, barely middle-class child (both parents were teachers) from rural England ever become a champion in what many still consider one of the world’s most elite and expensive sports? How could that same young woman end up finishing second in one of the most ambitious, arduous and dangerous contests in the world?
The answer to those questions as well as the technical “how I did it” are all part of the extraordinary story in this well-written account. But all the details of success boil down to a single factor, Ellen, herself. The book is, in fact, a little like a (PG) True Confessions except that it is completely devoid of hype. From her early fascination with the ocean (starting at the age of four) to the big race itself, MacArthur does not spare herself or her reader any of the disappointments or embarrassments she overcame to reach the top of her sport. Nor is she disingenuously humble about her triumphs.
MacArthur the racer, revealed by MacArthur the writer comes across as one of the most guileless and genuine—not to mention, frighteningly determined person (what she calls “sheer bloody-mindedness”)—ever to achieve sports celebrity. In the most matter of fact way, she beguiles us to share her total devotion to her sport—and her family and her friends and her supporters. (At the end of the book, she includes an unprecedented nine pages of greatful acknowledgements of those supporters.) And, of course, that is the secret of her well-deserved success.
The fact, then, that the first 227 pages of the 353 page book are concerned with growing up, (she bought her first boat with saved lunch money) family, education dilemmas (she thought she wanted to be a veterinarian for quite a while) and early sailing experiences are as revealing as the account of the Vendée Globe itself.
Great Britain has an accredited training ladder for would-be sailors that is far more elaborate than anything in the U.S. After her first taste of the sea, she never lost her attraction to it. Rather, her girlhood focus on the ocean, training, sailing and competing, culminated in the solo round Britain sail (at the age of 18) which she undertook to attract the attention of corporate sponsorship she needed to race professionally.
The balance of the book is a day by day account of her round the world alone experience beginning with the incredible training necessary for any solo endeavor (electrician, engineer, sailmaker, doctor). Incidents both sublime and terrifiying are frequent. The number of times the woman was compelled to climb the 90 foot mast in a big sea for rigging repairs would make an ordinary person rather live in a cave. She makes no bones about it. There were a time or two she didn’t think she’d make it back to the deck, let alone to the finish line. But she is in constant communication, via satellite and email (much of which is included) with her team and that seems to have made a major difference. Although a solo performer, she is a team player. She will not let them down. Nor does she let down her reader. With this book, she has produced another win.