Taking on the World by Ellen MacArthur

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Taking on the World by Ellen MacArthur

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An inspirational account of Ellen MacArthur's life up to and including her coming second in the Vendee Globe round-the-world race. The emphasis is very much on sailing and there is not a great deal of substance about her personal life. It's not ghost-written but the style is mature and compelling.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: June 2003
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 0141006978

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"I've just read this marvellous book," said my friend "would you like to borrow it? It's Ellen MacArthur's autobiography". Her son had given her the book on Mother's Day. I could understand that. Her son's a sailor, although aircraft carriers are more his thing than single-handed ocean racers. I've no connection with the sea, or sailing, but I didn't like to refuse and the book came home with me.

Ellen MacArthur had no connection with the sea either. She lived in land-locked Derbyshire, but her aunt had a boat and at the age of eight the salt water got into her veins. Boats don't come cheap, but Ellen was determined to have her own and she saved part of her school dinner money for three years so that she could buy her first boat, an eight-foot dinghy.

Ellen had originally wanted to be a vet, but fate intervened. Whilst she was studying for 'A' levels she caught glandular fever and had little to do but watch television whilst she recovered. At the time there was extensive coverage of the Whitbread round-the-world race and Ellen realised that what she really wanted to do was sail. One of the first steps that she took towards achieving this ambition was to sail, alone, around the British Isles.

I had always thought of sailing as being a rich man's sport. Ellen didn't come from a rich family and what she achieved came from her own efforts. She was willing to go through any hardships to get what she wanted. Home was a portakabin, if she could afford even that. Sometimes she camped out on, or even under, her current boat whilst she repaired or refitted it and looked for sponsorship for her next race. At times her life was extremely lonely.

Her ultimate ambition was to enter the Vendee Globe round-the-world race. When I've thought about sailing round the world I've imagined being on QEII, which is the size of a substantial building. The one trip that I have done aboard her took me across the Bay of Biscay, in what the crew described as "just a bit of a rough sea". I found the experience decidedly uncomfortable and a little frightening. Ellen sailed alone in a sixty-foot yacht through some of the roughest seas on the planet and under racing conditions. Her writing conveys the conditions vividly, but in a very under-stated way.

For more than ninety days sleep was taken in snatches. An hour's sleep would seem like luxury. No outside help was available to help with repairs and a problem with a sail in a storm meant that a climb up the mast to make the repair was necessary. This could mean several hours spent ninety feet in the air, whilst the yacht sailed on auto pilot. Amazingly this is reported factually. Despite extreme hardships there is never any hint of self-pity in the book. Even when things go badly wrong Ellen never blames anyone else. The weather being against her is not "one of those things" but her misjudgement in not having avoided the worst of it. She takes total responsibility for the consequences of what she does and for the decisions that she makes.

Although there is some narrative about the race most of the description comes from the emails which Ellen sent at the time. Initially I found the typos quite annoying - sometimes it was difficult to make sense of what was being said - but as I became involved in the story of the race they added to the atmosphere. There was no time to spell check and I'm glad they weren't cleaned up for publication. She was eventually to finish second but even though I knew the result I didn't put the book down until three o'clock in the morning when I was reading about the race.

I was amazed by how much I learnt about sailing from the book. Like most sports it has a language of its own, but I found myself absorbing details of sails, boats and weather conditions. Last weekend I read a newspaper article about a sailor who is starting on a single-handed race. I searched for information about his boat and was disappointed that there were no details of the sails he was carrying. I would have been interested to know, despite the fact that before reading this book the information would have meant nothing to me. There is an excellent glossary in the book but I didn't need it to enjoy the story.

Ellen teaches as she writes and I found that I was absorbing knowledge without realising it. She has that knack which only the best teachers have of leaving you feeling confident and inspired. You may not want to sail around the world but there may well be something else that you want to do.

I was surprised by the extent to which single-handed ocean racing is a team sport. Although the boat is sailed by one person it's the shore support, both before and during the race, which can make the difference between winning and losing. Ellen is always quick to give credit to the other members of the team and regularly uses "we" rather than "I", even when it would have been natural to take the credit herself.

If I have one quibble with the book it is that some of the men in Ellen's personal life are rather one-dimensional. There are not many but I was still apt to confuse them. I suspect there are two reasons for this: I don't think this is a subject which she talks about easily and I have a feeling that she has not yet met the person who can mean more to her than sailing. It is a very minor point though - I didn't read the book for details of her love life.

Most autobiographies have their share of self-indulgent photographs of the "me and the family at Clacton" type. There are a few, but they are more than off-set by some stunning photographs taken at sea. I've gone back to some of them several times simply for the contrast between the fragility of the yacht and the vicious beauty of the sea.

Perhaps the most startling point about this book is that Ellen wrote it. She did it all by herself. Look carefully at books by sporting heroes and you will find that many of them have been ghost-written. The story is the sportsman's but the actual writing has been done by a professional. Ellen didn't take this option. At the age of 24 and in the midst of a busy life she wrote a compelling and mature book. Her writing style is simple, direct and very compelling.

This book isn't just for sailors, or for people with an interest in the sea. It's for people with an interest in what can be achieved with determination and commitment. Most of the sailors entering the Vendee were older and had considerably more experience. The majority were men, who were bigger and physically stronger than Ellen, but only one person beat her and then only by 25 hours in a race which took 93 days.

You'll find her website interesting. It's even better when there's race on as there's the chance of live web-cam pictures.

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Buy Taking on the World by Ellen MacArthur at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Taking on the World by Ellen MacArthur at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Taking on the World by Ellen MacArthur at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Taking on the World by Ellen MacArthur at Amazon.com.


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