Sailor Ellen MacArthur making waves
LONDON, England (CNN) -- With just hours to go in what is arguably the toughest round-the-world yacht race, 24-year-old British sailor Ellen MacArthur has suffered yet another setback.
Her rigging failed, leaving her with just one sail, rather than the handful she would have used in the final stretch of the 26,000-mile Vendee Globe single-handed race.
It is just one of the physical and emotional tests that Ellen -- the youngest competitor ever in the race -- has faced since setting sail with 20 other professional yachtsmen from France on November 5.
MacArthur, the only woman to have held the lead in the race's history, has had to face the icy Southern Ocean, the treacherous Cape Horn and the expanse of the Atlantic.
Along the way she has encountered icebergs half-a-mile long, climbed up the 30-metre (90 foot) high mast, collided with a submerged object, and taken part in a rescue attempt.
She has been cook, engineer, sail maker, photographer, and navigator.
Sleep has been snatched in 10-minute intervals as a result of the exhausting racing conditions -- a sleep pattern worked out with a specialist in an effort to combat fatigue. Her hands and wrists are covered with salt sores and cuts.
Dinner onboard the 60-foot yacht Kingfisher was a mystery at times after some of the labels fell off the sodden packs of dehydrated food.
And sails, which weighed twice as much as the 5ft 2in-tall MacArthur, needed changing up to a dozen times a day.
Her luxuries included chocolate (which ran out a week ago), and a plant which she nurtured with the help of gardening television expert Alan Titmarsh.
Predicting weather changes has been one of her biggest lessons.
But the woman from landlocked Derbyshire in England won the hearts of those following the race and the admiration of the French for her determination, guts and seamanship.
"When it's a race, you just can't stop," she has said during the race.
"It would be easy to say, 'chill out', when you're tired but you never have to lose the goal of the finish line. That's what you set out to do and that's what you stick to."
An estimated 200,000 people were expected to greet the yachts home -- with MacArthur possibly in second place -- though she has said her main aim is just to finish.
The winner of the race, which is held every four years, is set to be Frenchman Michel Desjoyeuax.
'Sailing's young hope'
The French have dubbed her 'la jeune espoire de la voile' (sailing's young hope).
She has received hundreds of daily e-mails, including some from Buckingham Palace.
MacArthur only took part in the race after the company Kingfisher stepped in to help where 2,498 had failed to even reply to her letters.
She has kept all the letters she sent, just as she has done the photos of all her boats.
Her first, a 2.6-metre (8 foot) dinghy, paid for after stashing away her school dinner money, is kept in her parents' back garden.
She has said, of her latest, Kingfisher: "When you spend so much time pushing, caring for, cajoling and maintaining a beautiful racing machine like this, you get very close. She's looked after me well, and I look after her. I haven't been lonely at all."
But if she has set the standard in the Vendee Globe race she has done so throughout her sailing life.
She became the youngest person to qualify as an offshore yacht master, and at the age of 18, after glandular fever had knocked her plans for A-levels and a veterinary degree, she set sail around Britain in an nine-metre (26-foot) yacht.
She was voted Yachtsman of the Year two years ago and a year later won the European 1 Star single-handed transatlantic race.
Her obsession with sailing began with the book Swallow and Amazons and a trip with her aunt on a trout pound.
Later, she lived in a metal container on the hard of a south English coast marina to save money and learnt French to help her liaise with boatyards when she moved to France.
Even if she does not win the Vendee she is set to become the fastest woman to have sailed around the world -- beating the previous record of 140 days -- and yet another place in maritime history.
Ellen MacArthur's Web site
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