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Two Women Battle for Round the World Honors


By Bob Fisher
Guardian, UK

Rivals Tracy Edwards and Ellen MacArthur to battle it out for 26,000 mile non-stop round the world trophy

Britain's two leading female sailors will next year compete head to head in multi-million pound attempts to break the round the world record and claim a unique place in sporting history.

Tracy Edwards, 39, and Ellen MacArthur, 25 confirmed yesterday that they will navigate the world's most dangerous stretches of ocean in twin assaults on the Jules Verne trophy - an open challenge to sail 26,000 miles non-stop from the English Channel, round the Cape of Good Hope, through the seas around Antarctica, past Cape Horn and back to the English Channel. They will sail in virtually identical 110ft catamarans.

The record for one of sailing's most coveted prizes is currently held by France's Olivier de Kersauson in 71 days and 14 hours. Edwards believes she can shave up to 10 days off that crossing.

Although the pair may not race at exactly the same time - competitors pick their own starts over a four-month weather window - their participation will ignite media interest and open the way for sponsorship worth millions of pounds. It will also shine a spotlight on what is believed to be a frosty relationship between the two women.

Yesterday Edwards announced that she had remortgaged her home to help buy a maxi-catamaran, Club Med, which has been renamed Maiden II. She will need around £5m sponsorship to set sail with her all-woman crew, some of whom attempted the same challenge with her in a 92ft catamaran, Royal & SunAlliance, four years ago.

Although that trip ended in disaster after 15,200 miles when gale-force winds smashed the mast of her vessel off the coast of South America, it established her as Britain's premier female sailor, until MacArthur finished second in another round the world race, the Vendeé Globe, last year.

"This is unfinished business, not just for me but for all of us," said Edwards, who will have to leave her two-year-old daughter, Mackenna, behind. "Within hours of erecting the jury rig after the dismasting, the talk was of 'next time'. It wasn't therefore difficult to recruit the same crew once more.

"I'm 100% committed to skippering the boat. However, I'm sitting in salubrious company. In the past two years they have all gone off and raced and they are all skippers in their own right. Over the next few months we will be looking for the best person to skipper this boat. It may be me or someone else."

MacArthur has already announced that she will captain her own boat with a mixed-sex crew. While her recent triumphs have been more spectacular than those of Edwards, each has either been undertaken single-handed or with a small crew. The strength of Edwards' successes has been her ability to manage a crew. This has been repaid, as was announced yesterday, by loyalty. It is the separating factor of the two campaigns.

Edwards' persistence with an all-woman crew is predictable, since it has become her distinguishing trademark. Although it will inevitably draw criticism from sailing's more conservative quarters, who will point to the immense physical challenge of the race, her decision was yesterday supported by one of Britain's leading sailors, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.

"I don't see why not, they're getting stronger and better. But this is a race of physical strength; I lost a stone when we went round," said Knox-Johnston, who held the Jules Verne Trophy in 1995 with the same boat which was later dismasted by Edwards' crew.

The trophy was started 12 years ago by a group of Frenchmen in an attempt to beat the time set by Phileas Fogg in the Jules Verne novel. Fogg accepted a £1,000 wager in the Reform Club to cross the world in 80 days by any available transport, which in his case included balloons, boats and camels.

In 1990 the same challenge seemed just feasible for a sailing boat, but when Olivier de Kersauson set off from the agreed starting and finishing line off Ushent in 1993 with an 86ft trimaran, he failed to finish in time.

But months later another Frenchman, Bruno Peyron, succeeded in an 85ft catamaran, beating the 80 days by just a few hours. The excitement ensured that the race would survive and one year later Knox-Johnston, sailing with Sir Peter Blake, lowered it to a little under 75 days.

De Kersauson has subsequently lowered it again and is once more attempting to better it. His 110ft trimaran, Geronimo, has already crossed the equator after six and a half days, a speed which if maintained would bring him home in 63 days.

But the ultimate prize carries the added risk of sailing further south than most consider prudent, with icebergs a constant danger.

The massive seas can also capsize multihulls, which lack the stability of bigger boats. If that happens halfway between Australia and Cape Horn, rescue vessels take a long time to arrive. But Edwards, in particular, is well aware of the risks.

Tracy Edwards

Age 39

Background Grew up in Llangennech, near Swansea, and began sailing at 15. Got a berth in 1985-86 Whitbread round the world race, only woman in crew. Lives near Reading with daughter.

Highs: In 1989, skippered all-female crew of Maiden in Whitbread, winning two stages. Awarded MBE in 1990.

Lows: In 1998 entered Jules Verne for the first time after smashing Channel crossing record. But mast of her catamaran snapped and boat limped to Chile with improvised rig.

Ellen MacArthur

Age: 25

Background: Born in Derbyshire, was inspired, aged 8, by sailing trip with aunt. Saved dinner money for three years to buy dinghy, and by 18 had circumnavigated Britain.

Highs: Finished second last February in Vendée Globe round the world race, and became youngest person to circumnavigate globe single-handed. Came third in BBC Sports Personality of the Year poll, unprecedented for a sailor.

Lows: Accused of cheating by fellow competitor in EDS Atlantic Challenge, her first race after Vendée Globe. Strenuously denied claims she received illegal navigation guidance from expert on Gulf stream.

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