Feb. 7, 2023

Ellen MacArthur Is the Fastest to Sail Around the World

Ellen MacArthur Is the Fastest to Sail Around the World

February 7th, 2005: British sailing sensation Ellen MacArthur smashes the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe.


Cold Open

It’s January 29th, 2005.

A 75-foot sailboat slices through the undulating waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Crouched on the prow, one hand gripping the bowline, is a petite, elfin woman with short dark hair and a face etched with steely determination.

28-year-old Ellen MacArthur is sixty-three days into her attempt to break the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe. So far, everything’s going to plan for the young British sailor. She is currently on track to beat the previous world record by a day and a half.

But the grueling voyage is taking its toll on Ellen - both physically and mentally. Her limbs ache, her skin is weather-beaten and raw, and she’s exhausted. Over the past two months at sea, she hasn’t managed more than twenty minutes of uninterrupted sleep.

As Ellen wearily scans the wide expanse of ocean in front of her, she spots something out of the corner of her eye: a long dark shape moving beneath the water, right alongside the keel of her boat. As she looks closer, Ellen realizes with a stab of panic that it’s an Atlantic gray whale - a large adult, at least fifty feet long.

Ellen’s heart pounds as the whale’s humped back briefly surfaces… and a powerful jet of water erupts from the creature’s blowhole.

Ellen watches, transfixed with fear and awe, as the whale’s tail-fin emerges from the ocean. She knows that one flick of that gigantic tail could capsize her boat completely, and she braces herself for what seems like the inevitable impact…

But it never comes. The whale’s tail-fin comes crashing down with a thundering splash, but the creature vanishes deep below the surface and swims away, leaving Ellen unharmed. Ellen breathes a sigh of relief. She shakes off this near-disaster and then points her gaze toward the horizon, fixed again on the task at hand…

Following this close encounter with the whale, Ellen MacArthur will catch a favorable headwind and set a course for home. But the remainder of her voyage will not be free of challenges. She will be forced to contend with violent squalls, freezing conditions, and adverse winds before she will finally complete the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe on February 7th, 2005.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 7th, 2005: Ellen MacArthur Is the Fastest to Sail Around the World

Act One: The Vendée Globe

It’s November 9th, 2000; five years before Ellen MacArthur will break the record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the Earth.

Hordes of people crowd the marina in the French seaside town of Les Sables d’Olonnes. There’s a carnival atmosphere, as sailing fans from around the world prepare to wave off this year’s competitors in the Vendée Globe - the most prestigious competition in the sailing calendar. The concept of the race is simple: each competitor must sail alone and continuously around the planet. It’s the single toughest challenge for any professional sailor, an endurance test that separates the good from the great.

After bidding emotional farewells to their families, the competitors head off down the jetty. Among them are thecrème de la crème of competitive yacht racing. As they prepare to disembark, these experienced sailors all size each other up, analyzing the competition. Some direct their gaze toward a vessel named Kingfisherwith a young British sailor on board…

At just twenty-four years of age, Ellen MacArthur is the youngest person ever to take part in the Vendée Globe and one of the few unknown participants in this year’s race. She is also one of only two women taking part.

As they watch Ellen readying her mainsail, some of the other competitors frown with bemusement; she doesn’t look like your average sailor. At just over five feet tall, it’s hard to picture Ellen’s slight frame withstanding gale-force winds and twenty-foot breakers. But despite her youth and diminutive stature, Ellen is a highly skilled and accomplished sailor. She has always felt more comfortable at sea than on land. At the tender age of just nineteen, Ellen completed a solo voyage around the coast of the UK, becoming the youngest person ever to accomplish that feat. Then, three years ago, she completed in her first solo transatlantic race, finishing 17th.

But though Ellen has sailed in some major competitions, they’re nothing compared to the Vendée Globe. And as Ellen prepares for Kingfisherfor the long and grueling voyage ahead, her excitement is tempered with anxiety. The prospect of success in this race goes hand-in-hand with the ever-present threat of calamity. If something goes wrong out there, the odds of staying alive are slim.

But Ellen tries to clear her mind of worry; it’s time for the race to begin. She sails Kingfisherout to the starting line. At the sound of a klaxon, she points the bowsprit west and fills the mainsail with wind. Kingfisher’s prow bounces nimbly across the waves, slapping the whitecaps and drenching Ellen with spray. She inhales the sea air and grins. For the next three months, it will just be her, Kingfisher,and the wide open ocean. The thought fills Ellen with an exhilarating combination of fear and joy.

But the race gets off to a bad start. Off the cape of northwest Spain, a violent squall churns the ocean into a roiling cauldron of steep and savage waves. Gusts of wind slam into Ellen’s sails at forty-five knots, smashing Kingfisher’s store cupboards from the walls of the cabin. There’s damage to the sails, too, and Ellen is forced to climb the mast to patch them up. The freezing wind lacerates her face and hands like shards of glass. By the time she’s finished, her fingers are covered in painful blisters. But the repairs are successful, and eventually, the storm clouds give way to blue skies.

For the next two weeks, Ellen rides the trade winds south toward the equator, marveling at Kingfisher’s speed and agility. Ellen can see from her satellite system that Michel Desjoyeaux, an experienced French sailor, is currently in the lead, already approaching the southern cape of South America. But Ellen isn’t worried. She’s exactly where she wants to be, and the prospect of winning never actually entered her mind. For now, she is focused on only one thing: taking care of herself and her boat.

But as Ellen sails into the Antarctic Ocean, the satellite map tells her she’s in third place, and it suddenly dawns on Ellen that she could go one step further than just finishing the race - she could actually win. Ellen and Kingfisherround the cape horn and sail across the Pacific. In the Indian Ocean, Ellen pulls into second, and now her sights are set on Michel, who is just twenty-six miles ahead by the time she reaches the equator.

But then, disaster strikes. The rigging attached toKingfisher’s foresail snaps, and the repairs cost Ellen severely. By the time she’s replaced the line, Michel has pulled even further into the lead…

Ultimately, Ellen will finish second in the Vendée Globe - a remarkable achievement, and one that will make Ellen one of sailing’s celebrities. But this accomplishment will not satisfy Ellen’s ambition. Instead, it will make her hungry for more. Soon, she will set her sights on a world record attempt that - if she succeeds - will propel Ellen beyond the ranks of competitive yacht racing and into the pantheon of the sailing gods.

Act Two: A Race Against Time

It’s November 28th, 2004; four years after Ellen finished second in the Vendée Globe.

A 75-foot sailboat, nicknamed Moby, skips over the waters of the North Atlantic, a few miles off the coast of northwest France. Ellen MacArthur, now 28 years old, crouches near the stern, carefully adjusting the angle of the mainsail. Ellen’s vessel is a trimaran - a boat built for speed, with three hulls for added stability. The sails are emblazoned with the colors of Ellen’s corporate sponsor, and the bright orange logo is the only splash of vibrancy on this otherwise gray and forbidding ocean.

Ellen turns and glances at the clock fixed above Moby’s cabin. She needs to be back here in 72 days or less if she wants to beat the record for the fastest, solo circumnavigation of the globe. Ellen feels a stab of anxiety as she contemplates the magnitude of the task at hand.

Unlike previous races, there’s nobody else competing against Ellen; this is a race against the clock. She is completely alone out here on the ocean, with just the occasional albatross for company. The thought both terrifies and thrills Ellen. Though she is equipped with a satellite communication system if she needs to be rescued, it won’t be of much use if she capsizes during a storm. If Ellen is going to survive this journey, she will need to rely on her wits alone and pray the elements don’t conspire against her.

The first week of the voyage passes without incident. Ellen has improved as a sailor since her second-place finish at the Vendée Globe four years ago. Many of the problems she had with her rigging and sails came from inexperience. Now, with more years of sailing under her belt, Ellen is better than ever at keeping tabs on the daily upkeep requirements on board. But the ocean is unpredictable, and even the most seasoned sailor cannot prepare for every eventuality.

On the tenth day of her voyage, somewhere off the west coast of Africa, Ellen encounters two Royal Navy battleships. As they draw near, they create giant rolling waves that violently rock Ellen’s boat. But when they catch sight of Moby, the battleships cut their engines and the sea falls calm. The ships then come so close that Ellen is able to call up to the sailors on deck. They have a brief chat, and when they wave goodbye, Ellen experiences an unexpected pang of sadness; she knows this will be the last human interaction she has in a long time.

Then Ellen sails past the equator, heading toward the cape of South Africa. She’s making good time, but as she continues south, things start going wrong. First, her generator malfunctions, depriving Ellen of the electricity she needs to power the satellite phone, the navigation system, and the desalination equipment required for drinking water. Thinking on her feet, Ellen re-routes some cold air from outside intothe cabin, hoping the cooler temperature will prevent the generator from overheating. And to her delight, it works. The generator starts whirring again, and Ellen staves off disaster.

But as she approaches the notoriously treacherous Antarctic Ocean, the conditions turn stormy. It’s December now, and while her friends and family back home in England are celebrating Christmas, Ellen spends the holidays enduring forty-mile-per-hour winds and twenty-foot swells. Mountains of freezing water relentlessly hammer her tiny trimaran. Occasionally, jagged icebergs appear amid the waves like snarling teeth - if she were to hit one of these, Mobywould be dashed.

This stretch of ocean pushes Ellen close to her breaking point. Her arms are black with bruises, her joints ache unbearably, and she’s becoming delirious with fatigue. Sleep is almost impossible. She can only grab snatches of rest - five or ten minutes at most. The wind keeps changing direction, so Ellen has to climb the mast and adjust the sails multiple times a day. The only upside of the inclement weather is the speed at which Mobyis sailing. Despite the danger, she’s flyingacross the waves at a breakneck pace.

Eventually, Ellen escapes the treachery of the Antarctic, sails past New Zealand, across the South Pacific, and around the bottom of Argentina. She is now forty-six days into her voyage and four days ahead of schedule. If she maintains this speed, Ellen won’t just beat the record, she’ll smash it.

But while sailing north across the Atlantic, Ellen runs into a very different problem than she had in the Atlantic. She enters a stretch of ocean known as “the doldrums” - a belt of water just above the equator, where the trade winds of the northern hemisphere collide with the prevailing winds blowing up from the south. This forces the air to rise and fall in a circular motion, resulting in very little surface wind at all. Sailors have been known to get stuck in the doldrums for weeks on end, neither moving forward nor backward.

Drifting in the doldrums, Ellen’s lead will start rapidly slipping away - first down to three days, then down to only two. Ellen will begin to worry that if she doesn’t catch a favorable wind soon, then she will fail to beat the record. And as the clock ticks down, she will fear the worst: that all this effort - all this planning, pain, and suffering - all of it could be for nothing.

Act Three: Record Breaker

It’s February 5th, 2005; somewhere in the North Atlantic.

Ellen MacArthur shields her eyes from the salt spray as her trusty trimaran, Moby, bucks across the foaming whitecaps. A few days ago, the winds picked up and carried Ellen out of the doldrums. Now she is somewhere off the coast of Spain and seven hundred miles from the finish line. She needs to reach it in four days to beat the record. It’s doable, but she cannot afford any more mishaps. And it looks like one is headed her way.

Ellen’s heart sinks as storm clouds gather overhead. She grits her teeth; she’s going to have to endure one final test before the home straight. So as night falls, Ellen sails into the eye of a furious storm. With savage headwinds and thirty-foot waves, it seems like nature is trying to snap Mobyin two. Ellen clings onto the mast, gasping for breath as thousands of tonnes of seawater come crashing down on top of her…

But Ellen and her boat survive the squall. And by morning, Mobycreaks across a still, silent ocean. Ellen lost time during the storm, but she’s still one day ahead of schedule. And this realization gives her a new burst of energy. She unfurls the mainsail and watches it fill with a favorable wind. She points the bowsprit north and follows a course for the finish line.

Ellen sails hard for the next two days, summoning the final dregs of her will and energy. By the time night falls on February 7th, she is approaching the coast of northwest France, where her journey began more than two months ago. It’s a dark night, the sky inky black and moonless. But, up ahead, Ellen spots a beam of light reaching out across the water’s surface; it’s the lighthouse, marking the end of her journey. Ellen crosses the finish line having sailed 27,000 miles in 71 days - beating the previous world record by a day and a half. At daybreak, a flotilla of boats escorts Ellen from the finish line back to her native England, where thousands of cheering fans line the shores to welcome her home.

Shortly after her return, Ellen will be made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire - Britain’s highest civilian honor. But even having achieved her lifelong dream of circling the globe in record time, Ellen’s drive and determination will not abate. During her voyage, she was forced to harness nature for her own survival, and consequently, Ellen gained a new perspective on how the world is a place of finite resources. Following her return to dry land, Ellen will go on to establish a charitable foundation promoting sustainability and combatting global warming - an inspiring outcome of Ellen’s voyage around the world, a feat she completed in record time on February 7th, 2005.


Next onHistory Daily. February 8th, 1925. Leader of the Pan-Africanism movement, Marcus Garvey, enters federal prison for mail fraud, initiating a steep decline in his influence.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.