Unless you've been hiding out in remote regions for the past 18 months, you'll have full cognition of the name Ellen MacArthur. This 24-year-old pixie-cum-sports-heroine made a relative leap to the forefront of offshore single-handed racing by acing last summer's Euro One New Man STAR (transatlantic race) aboard her 60-foot Kingfisher.
That was impressive, particularly since the five-foot, two-inch MacArthur out-performed some of the top professionals in this specialized discipline. She followed that up by logging an almost unbelievable second-place finish in the round-the-world epic, the Vendee Globe. What could she possibly do to top that?
Riding the wave of those successes, MacArthur recently shepherded her Kingfisher team to the top of the leaderboard in the EDS Atlantic Challenge, a five-stage, crewed race originating in France, which twice crosses the Atlantic and stops in two US cities (Baltimore and Boston). In the process of this triumph she has established herself as sailing's most recognized celebrity. (Yes, I do mean bigger than Dennis Conner, but not in the literal sense.) These days, MacArthur is to offshore racing what Kobe Bryant is to the National Basketball Associationan out-and-out phenom. But perhaps more significant than her on-the-water triumphs is the publicity that she has garnered for the sport. MacArthur and her handlers have been pivotal players in bringing offshore sailing to the attention of the press and the electronic medianot only in Europe, but here in the US as well.
Two weeks ago MacArthur's ocean-going exploits were the subject of a special hour-long edition of NBC's Dateline ("Young Woman and the Sea," July 23). "Whether they think she's another Lindbergh, or a Madonna on a monohull," pronounced Dateline's on-camera narrator Dennis Murphy, "
one hundred thousand fans are on the dock, waiting in the cold, foggy winter evening for Ellen's return." The scene Murphy describes took place in France a few months ago. When she arrived in Baltimore at the conclusion of Leg Three of the EDS Challenge on July 30, MacArthur and her crew were feted by fans, onlookers, and, of course, the media.
The fact that MacArthur and the other four crew aboard Kingfisher won this 3,430-mile leg by more than 200 miles only served to heighten the hype that has come to surround them. The architect of much of this publicity is MacArthur's business partner Mark Turner, who has been crewing aboard Kingfisher throughout the first three legs of this event. After helping MacArthur secure the patronage of Kingfisher, one of Europe's leading retail conglomerates, Turner has divided his time between managing the numerous details of the project while MacArthur is at sea and ensuring that her efforts receive maximum publicity. Taking a media-friendly outlook, he and his co-workers have produced and disseminated regular updates from on board the boat in the form of text, audio, still images, and video, not to mention arranging numerous public appearances for their diminutive star, which include the Dateline piece. (According to sources at the EDS Atlantic Challenge offices, their website received 500,000 hits the day after that broadcast.)
Turner's latest coup with the media will take place on Leg Four of the EDS Atlantic Challenge when Herb McCormick, the yachting correspondent for the New York Times (and the Editor of Cruising World magazine) steps on board Kingfisher as part of the crew. McCormick's presence will no doubt lead to some significant ink for Turner and company, and for the event itself. But this next leg will be the acid test for the event's popularity as it is losing its most prominent player. MacArthur has very quietly departed for Europevia airwhere she will resume training aboard the 60-foot trimaran that she shares with Alan Gautier. Kingfisher has been left in the capable hands of co-skipper Nick Moloney.
Turner, who has also stepped off the boat for the remainder of the race, has cagily replaced MacArthur with Whitbread Race veteran Adrienne Callahan as the navigator for the rest of the event. To garner more interest from race watchers on this side of the Atlantic, he has also placed US Olympic silver medallist Jonathan McKee on board for a cameo appearance during Leg Four. And reportedly, a journalist from Business Week magazine will sail from Baltimore to Boston with Helena Darvelid and her otherwise all-female crew on board AlphaGraphics.
The crew on AlphaGraphics surged into the news during Leg Three when Asia Pajkowska was swept overboard in the middle of a raging gale at night. Darvelid and her crew performed a near-amazing rescue and got their wayward Pole back aboard despite treacherous winds and haystack-size seas. Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times deemed the incident worthy of some ink, and a few regional publications followed suit. That incident, say the publicists who work on behalf of the race, was just one of the many newsworthy highlights the event has produced. "We're getting an amazing amount of attention here in Baltimore's inner harbor," said Meaghan Van Liew, one of the event's media managers. "And Leg Four should be pretty active as we have several journalists on board." Van Liew also alluded to the potential of one of these vessels setting a new 24-hour-speed record on the final leg back to France. All of this is welcome news for event creator Sir Chay Blythe, who envisioned the race as a means of further utilizing an abundance of Open 60s as well as a way to break into the US market.
Despite at-sea heroics, Olympic appearances, and potential speed records, it remains to be seen if the EDS Atlantic Challenge can survive the absence of its marquee participant and sustain the wave of publicity that it has thus far enjoyed. Nonetheless, at a time when the America's Cup is too distant for most mainstream media to pay attention, and the Volvo Ocean Race hasn't achieved its pre-start critical mass, MacArthur and the EDS Challenge competitors have helped to keep sailing on the radar screens of assignment editors around the world. We owe these sailors a debt of gratitude for that.
Yesterday, the fleet staged a mock start in Baltimore and then proceeded down the Chesapeake Bay toward Norfolk for today's 4:00 p.m. official start of Leg Four. If all goes well for the racers and they avoid the probable mishaps that can result from light air, summer thunderstorms, and New England fog, you'll be reading about them in the headlines soon. You can bet on it.
Sill Hangs on to Second in EDS Challenge by SailNet
Kingfisher Takes the Lead by SailNet
The Vendee Globe, Entering a New Era by Dan Dickison
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