S&R Honors: Ellen MacArthur

I first became aware of Ellen MacArthur in 2001, along with everyone else, when she launched her first solo round-the-world sailing adventure. She was a sailor, all right, so I could empathize. Actually, she had been a terrific sailor for a number of years before that, but who pays attention but other sailors? She came in second that year in the Vendee Globe round the world sailing race, a pretty remarkable achievement for a 25-year old woman. She kept racing, picking up an MBE along the way. Along with having an asteroid named after her. In 2004, she nearly broke the record for a transatlantic crossing, falling short by an hour and a quarter. More to the point, at age 29, and still only 5’2” tall, she established the world record for the fastest circumnavigation in 2005.

This record has always been held by a Frenchman, so the former record holder, Francis Joyon, reclaimed it three years later. Still, MacArthur is still the only woman to hold this record at all, and she held it for three years. How long does it take to sail around the world in record time? In Macarthur’s case, it took 71 days, 14 hours and 18 minutes. Give or take. No matter male or female, this is a long time to be bouncing around in the wind and rain, not to mention the occasional 20-foot wave, on your own. MacArthur did it on a trimaran—a monohull would have taken several weeks longer. And she did it non-stop—unlike some of the previous record-holders, who sometimes took one or two stops along the way. This is the eastward route, by the way—the westward route generally takes about two to three times as long. Along the way, she founded a foundation to introduce sailing to cancer surviving kids.

MacArthur became a media darling for a while there—how could she not? Short, spunky, cute as a bug’s ear, and obviously fearless, she became hugely popular. And a lot more honors came along—she became a Dame Commander of the British Empire—the honor that Francis Drake and Francis Chichester also received. Along with the French Legion d’Honneur. She’s a fluent French speaker as well. Of course she is. But then she faded gradually from the public eye, and retired from professional sailing entirely in 2010. Well, most of it, anyway. Because in 2010 she launched the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

How we get from round-the –world sailing to a foundation that works with management consultants McKinsey is an interesting tale, and it’s too bad I really can’t say much about it. When she retired from competitive racing, she announced she wanted to get involved in resource conservation issues. And I suspect most people had the same reaction I did—vague good works with an environmental theme, ho hum. We should have paid attention to MacArthur the sailor and what she accomplished. Because she’s accomplished something equally remarkable in the past several years. I have to assume that when she set up her foundation, she knew exactly what she was doing—she had a particular vision, and she knew how to implement it. Sailing is an activity where lack of planning can be highly punitive. MacArthur obviously learned that lesson well.

Big time sailing takes you among the moneyed classes in a pretty serious way, and she clearly knew how to talk with the right people. Because in a scant couple of years her Foundation done some remarkable work, and has put out some remarkable publications, in a near revolutionary attempt to make some significant changes in how stuff is made. And when I say stuff, I mean pretty much everything—ranging from candy bars to automobiles and jet airplanes. The point here is encapsulated in the concept of The Circular Economy—making something so that everything in that product is re-usable in some way. Thinking biologically, in other words, both in the design of products and the manufacturing process itself, though the life of the product. What a concept. It’s not MacArthur’s—it’s actually been around for a couple of decades. And McKinsey has been pushing it for a number of years now. More recently, in 2012 the European Commission in 2012 also decided that this was the way forward for manufacturing. It’s an idea whose time has clearly come. And MacArthur had a particular vision about this, and found herself in the right place at the right time, and was able to capitalize on it to do some good works. Who has signed up? Oh, how about these guys? There are some heavy hitters on that list—and the list is growing.

So here’s to Ellen MacArthur. She had already done something insanely great before she was even 30. And now she’s doing something just as impressive, in fact more so. She’s doing something that actually has the potential to improve the world in a meaningful way. Not many of us are in a position to do that, but she was, and she’s made the most of it. If she’s successful, our grandchildren will have better lives because of it.

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