Dame Ellen MacArthur: How Does A Hero's Journey Begin? Dame Ellen MacArthur's journey began when she discovered sailing. She describes how years later she undertook her greatest challenge: to sail solo around the world faster than anyone in history.

Dame Ellen MacArthur: How Does A Hero's Journey Begin?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/458508346/460260285" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


So our hero's journey begins with the departure and Ellen MacArthur. Where are you right now by the way?

ELLEN MACARTHUR: I live on the Isle of Wight. It's a small island off the south coast of the U.K.

RAZ: We know it. I mean, we can rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight if it's not too dear.

MACARTHUR: Of course. Yeah.

RAZ: (Singing) Every summer we can get rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight.

MACARTHUR: Yeah. There you go.

RAZ: Ellen, I should mention at this point, is a sailor. She keeps her boat docked at the Isle of Wight. Oh, and she's also a dame.

MACARTHUR: I am in fact a dame, yes.

RAZ: It was an epic sailing trip that got her that classy title, but we'll get to that in a bit. What you need to know for now is the sailing part. It all goes back to when Ellen was just 4 years old.

MACARTHUR: I loved boats. I used to draw boats on everything at school - my schoolbooks everything. I had just boat drawings on my bedroom walls, you know, drawn on bits of paper. I just wanted it to be near the water. You know, as a kid you have boundaries, I suppose. You know, first it's your house and your house and garden and then it's the village and then it's, you know, some of the local towns. And then suddenly here's this boat that could take us anywhere in the world. And that - for me, that was just so, so exciting.

RAZ: For Ellen, this was the beginning of her hero's journey, her call to adventure and that epic sailing trip. Here's how she started the story on the TED stage.


MACARTHUR: When you're a child, anything and everything is possible. The challenge so often is hanging onto that as we grow up. And as a 4 year old, I had the opportunity to sail for the first time. I will never forget the feeling of adventure as I climbed onboard the boat and stared into her tiny cabin for the first time. I will never forget the excitement as we closed the coast, but the most amazing feeling was the feeling of freedom, the feeling that I felt when we hoisted her sails. As a 4-year-old child, it was the greatest sense of freedom that I could ever imagine.

I made my mind up there and then that one day somehow I was going to sail around the world. So I did what I could in my life to get closer to that dream. Age 10 - it was saving my school dinner money change. Every single day for eight years, I had mashed potato and baked beans which cost 4P each and gravy was free. Every day, I would pile up the change on the top of my money box and when that pile reached a pound, I would drop it in and cross off one of the hundred squares I'd drawn on a piece of paper. Finally, I bought a tiny dingey. I spent hours sitting on it in the garden dreaming of my goal.

RAZ: But sitting in a dinghy in her yard was a long way from sailing around the world. So as soon as she finished school, Ellen left home and enrolled in a sailing school.

MACARTHUR: Whilst I was there, I was suddenly surrounded by people who knew everything about the water and the sea who'd traveled all over the world on it, who were incredibly inspirational, who could help to teach me all those things that I, you know, hadn't previously known, so I was constantly asking questions and trying to dig deeper and understand, you know, how you do things? How does this work? You know, what do the lights mean? I was always, always asking questions. And then it was whilst I was there that I decided that I would try and sail solo around Great Britain.

RAZ: So when Ellen turned 18, she set off to do it.

MACARTHUR: Which took me four and a half months taking a boat that was 21 feet right around the country where you can't sleep on the boat because of the, you know - the ships and the rocks and the weather being made worse by the shallow waters and the wind against the tide. It's actually quite a mix of dangers and challenges and really at the end of that, I realized I could sail on my own. And I was comfortable with that.

RAZ: So comfortable that Ellen kept coming back to that dream she had when she was 4 to sail around the world.


MACARTHUR: So imagine how it felt just four years later to be sitting in a boardroom in front of someone who I knew could make that dream come true. I felt like my life depended on that moment, and incredibly he said yes. And I could barely contain my excitement as I sat in that first design meeting designing a boat on which I was going to sail solo nonstop around the world.

RAZ: Ellen had managed to get a sponsor to fund her spot in a giant around-the-world race called the Vendee Globe. She didn't win it, but she did finish. And for a moment there, it seemed like she had answered her call to adventure.


MACARTHUR: It was everything I'd ever imagined. Just like in my dreams, they were amazing parts and tough parts. We missed an iceberg by 20 feet. Nine times I climbed to the top of her 90-foot mast. We were blown on our side in the southern ocean. But the sunsets, the wildlife and the remoteness was absolutely breathtaking. After three months at sea, age just 24 I finished in second position. Id loved it so much so that within six months, I decided to go around the world again, this time to try to be the fastest person ever to sail solo nonstop around the world.

RAZ: Wait, so you come in second and you're like I need to go back out there?

MACARTHUR: You'd think that, you know, you'd - you finish around the world and the one thing that you want to do is to get off the boat and, you know, go and have a nice meal and have some salad or something that you hadn't been able to eat for three and a half months. But for me, I was actually more comfortable on the boat and happier on the boat. And the hardest thing I found at the end of that race was actually getting off the boat.

RAZ: Later in the show, the story of how Ellen MacArthur was tested on a second even more grueling trip. That's coming up. But first, mentors facing the crucible redemption and more stops along the hero's journey. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.