Ellen MacArthur: Sailing Through Heaven and Hell

Sunday, April 1, 2001 by

It’s all in the title; here was 50 minutes of extremes in ecstasy and terror, exultation and exhaustion, equatorial heat… and icebergs. But we could also find a contrast in terms of the post-production work, with Ellen MacArthur’s professional performance on camera rather showing up the uneven and often intrusive narration from Charles Dance.

Ellen MacArthur, a 24-year-old sailor, entered the Vendee Globe single-handed yacht race last year as the only female competitor and the youngest entrant. This was the race that nearly claimed the life of Tony Bullimore. In 1997, Bullimore spent six days in the Southern Ocean, surviving in the upturned hull of his badly damaged yacht Exide Challenger. He was recovered by the Australian Navy in their biggest peacetime rescue operation.

The programme sketched in the background, showing the lead up to the start of the race, moving rapidly to MacArthur sailing Kingfisher across the Bay of Biscay and south towards the tip of Africa. There appeared to be at least three cameras on board, and in the cabin a host of electronic equipment for navigation and communication. As one might expect, during the passage south, MacArthur was able to shoot some first-rate footage including her offering of booze to Neptune as she crossed the Equator.

After passing the Cape of Good Hope and turning east the temperature began to drop and the wind increased. From this stage onwards the narration became superfluous to the spectacle. One would think that any single-handed sailor trying to survive the elements would have said, “to hell with cameras and the same to the commentary”. Yet, at one stage MacArthur had to climb up the mast to carry out a repair. In the bitter cold she must have set up a camera beforehand and the result was a near perfect view of the trials she suffered whilst sorting the problem. She then recorded her emotions having reached the comparative safety of the cabin in a state of exhaustion.

As she approached an area of icebergs, a period of steady winds revealed a different side to MacArthur, as she was caught revelling in the sheer beauty of her surroundings. However, her fears of suffering a “Bullimore” were also captured as the emotional surf ride continued. Eventually she rounded Cape Horn and re-entered the Atlantic. At this stage her emotions became fixed on the chances of winning the race as she scurried to find more wind than the boat in front of her. The nail-biting excitement made gripping TV: a submerged barrel damaged one of Kingfisher’s dagger boards (a super efficient keel) and this had to be repaired – just when it seemed that she might even take first place. This was followed by another gear failure as the forestay broke, meaning that the mast was being held up only by the foresail – not good. Again, this brought swings of emotions.

One wonders if it was helpful to Ellen to be able to tell the camera how she felt. She certainly did not hold back. The final display came with the crossing of the finishing line in second place, the applause of the crowds, the welcome by her parents and the necessity of leaving Kingfisher – it was almost overwhelming.

This was one of the most impressive television programmes I’ve seen, and could only have been improved by a more thoughtful, less intrusive narration. Ellen MacArthur had undoubtedly been trained to have some technical proficiency in operating the TV equipment, but how she managed to film as much as she did in almost impossible conditions borders on the miraculous.


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