Dame Ellen MacArthur: The surprising thing I learned sailing solo around the world
Published on June 30th, 2015
Twice a year, a group of interesting and impactful people gathers for the week-long TED experience — which attendees have described as “the ultimate brain spa” and “a journey into the future in the company of those creating it.” Dame Ellen MacArthur provided a presentation at the TED conference in March 2015, with the transcript now available.
MacArthur first hit the headlines in 2001 when she raced single-handedly non-stop around the world in the Vendée Globe, finishing second when only 24 years old. She was knighted by the Queen in 2005, following her record-breaking solo circumnavigation in 2004 on the 75ft trimaran B&Q
What do you learn when you sail around the world on your own, carrying everything you need? You learn that the view of the world needs some adjustment. Here is her TED presentation…
When you’re a child, anything and everything is possible. The challenge, so often, is hanging on to that as we grow up. And as a four-year-old, I had the opportunity to sail for the first time.
I will never forget the excitement as we closed the coast. I will never forget the feeling of adventure as I climbed on board the boat and stared into her tiny cabin for the first time. But the most amazing feeling was the feeling of freedom, the feeling that I felt when we hoisted her sails. As a four-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 100 squares I’d drawn on a piece of paper.
Finally, I bought a tiny dinghy. I spent hours sitting on it in the garden dreaming of my goal. I read every book I could on sailing, and then eventually, having been told by my school I wasn’t clever enough to be a vet, left school age 17 to begin my apprenticeship in sailing.
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.
From that first meeting to the finish line of the race, it was everything I’d ever imagined. Just like in my dreams, there 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 were absolutely breathtaking.
After three months at sea, age just 24, I finished in second position. I’d loved it, so much so that within six months I decided to go around the world again, but this time not in a race: to try to be the fastest person ever to sail solo nonstop around the world. Now for this, I needed a different craft: bigger, wider, faster, more powerful. Just to give that boat some scale, I could climb inside her mast all the way to the top.
Seventy-five foot long, 60 foot wide. I affectionately called her Moby. She was a multihull. When we built her, no one had ever made it solo nonstop around the world in one, though many had tried, but whilst we built her, a Frenchman took a boat 25 percent bigger than her and not only did he make it, but he took the record from 93 days right down to 72. The bar was now much, much higher.
And these boats were exciting to sail. This was a training sail off the French coast. This I know well because I was one of the five crew members on board. Five seconds is all it took from everything being fine to our world going black as the windows were thrust underwater, and that five seconds goes quickly. Just see how far below those guys the sea is. Imagine that alone in the Southern Ocean plunged into icy water, thousands of miles away from land.
It was Christmas Day. I was forging into the Southern Ocean underneath Australia. The conditions were horrendous. I was approaching a part in the ocean which was 2,000 miles away from the nearest town. The nearest land was Antarctica, and the nearest people would be those manning the European Space Station above me. You really are in the middle of nowhere. If you need help, and you’re still alive, it takes four days for a ship to get to you and then four days for that ship to get you back to port. No helicopter can reach you out there, and no plane can land.
We are forging ahead of a huge storm. Within it, there was 80 knots of wind, which was far too much wind for the boat and I to cope with. The waves were already 40 to 50 feet high, and the spray from the breaking crests was blown horizontally like snow in a blizzard. If we didn’t sail fast enough, we’d be engulfed by that storm, and either capsized or smashed to pieces. We were quite literally hanging on for our lives and doing so on a knife edge.
The speed I so desperately needed brought with it danger. We all know what it’s like driving a car 20 miles an hour, 30, 40. It’s not too stressful. We can concentrate. We can turn on the radio. Take that 50, 60, 70, accelerate through to 80, 90, 100 miles an hour. Now you have white knuckles and you’re gripping the steering wheel. Now take that car off road at night and remove the windscreen wipers, the windscreen, the headlights and the brakes. That’s what it’s like in the Southern Ocean.
You could imagine it would be quite difficult to sleep in that situation, even as a passenger. But you’re not a passenger. You’re alone on a boat you can barely stand up in, and you have to make every single decision on board. I was absolutely exhausted, physically and mentally. Eight sail changes in 12 hours. The mainsail weighed three times my body weight, and after each change, I would collapse on the floor soaked with sweat with this freezing Southern Ocean air burning the back of my throat.
But out there, those lowest of the lows are so often contrasted with the highest of the highs. A few days later, we came out of the back of the low. Against all odds, we’d been able to drive ahead of the record within that depression. The sky cleared, the rain stopped, and our heartbeat, the monstrous seas around us were transformed into the most beautiful moonlit mountains.
It’s hard to explain, but you enter a different mode when you head out there. Your boat is your entire world, and what you take with you when you leave is all you have.
If I said to you all now, “Go off into Vancouver and find everything you will need for your survival for the next three months,” that’s quite a task. That’s food, fuel, clothes, even toilet roll and toothpaste. That’s what we do, and when we leave we manage it down to the last drop of diesel and the last packet of food. No experience in my life could have given me a better understanding of the definition of the word “finite.” What we have out there is all we have. There is no more.
And never in my life had I ever translated that definition of finite that I’d felt on board to anything outside of sailing until I stepped off the boat at the finish line having broken that record.
Suddenly I connected the dots. Our global economy is no different. It’s entirely dependent on finite materials we only have once in the history of humanity. And it was a bit like seeing something you weren’t expecting under a stone and having two choices: I either put that stone to one side and learn more about it, or I put that stone back and I carry on with my dream job of sailing around the world.
I chose the first. I put it to one side and I began a new journey of learning, speaking to chief executives, experts, scientists, economists to try to understand just how our global economy works. And my curiosity took me to some extraordinary places.
This photo was taken in the burner of a coal-fired power station. I was fascinated by coal, fundamental to our global energy needs, but also very close to my family. My great-grandfather was a coal miner, and he spent 50 years of his life underground. This is a photo of him (right), and when you see that photo, you see someone from another era. No one wears trousers with a waistband quite that high in this day and age. (Laughter) But yet, that’s me with my great-grandfather, and by the way, they are not his real ears.
We were close. I remember sitting on his knee listening to his mining stories. He talked of the camaraderie underground, and the fact that the miners used to save the crusts of their sandwiches to give to the ponies they worked with underground. It was like it was yesterday. And on my journey of learning, I went to the World Coal Association website, and there in the middle of the homepage, it said, “We have about 118 years of coal left.” And I thought to myself, well, that’s well outside my lifetime, and a much greater figure than the predictions for oil.
But I did the math, and I realized that my great-grandfather had been born exactly 118 years before that year, and I sat on his knee until I was 11 years old, and I realized it’s nothing in time, nor in history. And it made me make a decision I never thought I would make: to leave the sport of solo sailing behind me and focus on the greatest challenge I’d ever come across: the future of our global economy.
And I quickly realized it wasn’t just about energy. It was also materials. In 2008, I picked up a scientific study looking at how many years we have of valuable materials to extract from the ground: copper, 61; tin, zinc, 40; silver, 29. These figures couldn’t be exact, but we knew those materials were finite. We only have them once. And yet, our speed that we’ve used these materials has increased rapidly, exponentially.
With more people in the world with more stuff, we’ve effectively seen 100 years of price declines in those basic commodities erased in just 10 years. And this affects all of us. It’s brought huge volatility in prices, so much so that in 2011, your average European car manufacturer saw a raw material price increase of 500 million Euros, wiping away half their operating profits through something they have absolutely no control over.
And the more I learned, the more I started to change my own life. I started traveling less, doing less, using less. It felt like actually doing less was what we had to do. But it sat uneasy with me. It didn’t feel right. It felt like we were buying ourselves time. We were eking things out a bit longer. Even if everybody changed, it wouldn’t solve the problem. It wouldn’t fix the system. It was vital in the transition, but what fascinated me was, in the transition to what? What could actually work?
It struck me that the system itself, the framework within which we live, is fundamentally flawed, and I realized ultimately that our operating system, the way our economy functions, the way our economy’s been built, is a system in itself.
At sea, I had to understand complex systems. I had to take multiple inputs, I had to process them, and I had to understand the system to win. I had to make sense of it. And as I looked at our global economy, I realized it too is that system, but it’s a system that effectively can’t run in the long term.
And I realized we’ve been perfecting what’s effectively a linear economy for 150 years, where we take a material out of the ground, we make something out of it, and then ultimately that product gets thrown away, and yes, we do recycle some of it, but more an attempt to get out what we can at the end, not by design.
It’s an economy that fundamentally can’t run in the long term, and if we know that we have finite materials, why would we build an economy that would effectively use things up, that would create waste? Life itself has existed for billions of years and has continually adapted to use materials effectively. It’s a complex system, but within it, there is no waste. Everything is metabolized. It’s not a linear economy at all, but circular.
And I felt like the child in the garden. For the first time on this new journey, I could see exactly where we were headed. If we could build an economy that would use things rather than use them up, we could build a future that really could work in the long term. I was excited. This was something to work towards. We knew exactly where we were headed. We just had to work out how to get there, and it was exactly with this in mind that we created the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in September 2010.
Many schools of thought fed our thinking and pointed to this model: industrial symbiosis, performance economy, sharing economy, biomimicry, and of course, cradle-to-cradle design. Materials would be defined as either technical or biological, waste would be designed out entirely, and we would have a system that could function absolutely in the long term.
So what could this economy look like?
Maybe we wouldn’t buy light fittings, but we’d pay for the service of light, and the manufacturers would recover the materials and change the light fittings when we had more efficient products. What if packaging was so nontoxic it could dissolve in water and we could ultimately drink it? It would never become waste. What if engines were re-manufacturable, and we could recover the component materials and significantly reduce energy demand. What if we could recover components from circuit boards, reutilize them, and then fundamentally recover the materials within them through a second stage? What if we could collect food waste, human waste? What if we could turn that into fertilizer, heat, energy, ultimately reconnecting nutrients systems and rebuilding natural capital? And cars — what we want is to move around. We don’t need to own the materials within them. Could cars become a service and provide us with mobility in the future?
All of this sounds amazing, but these aren’t just ideas, they’re real today, and these lie at the forefront of the circular economy. What lies before us is to expand them and scale them up.
So how would you shift from linear to circular? Well, the team and I at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation thought you might want to work with the top universities in the world, with leading businesses within the world, with the biggest convening platforms in the world, and with governments. We thought you might want to work with the best analysts and ask them the question, “Can the circular economy decouple growth from resource constraints? Is the circular economy able to rebuild natural capital? Could the circular economy replace current chemical fertilizer use?”
Yes was the answer to the decoupling, but also yes, we could replace current fertilizer use by a staggering 2.7 times. But what inspired me most about the circular economy was its ability to inspire young people. When young people see the economy through a circular lens, they see brand new opportunities on exactly the same horizon. They can use their creativity and knowledge to rebuild the entire system, and it’s there for the taking right now, and the faster we do this, the better.
So could we achieve this in their lifetimes? Is it actually possible? I believe yes.
When you look at the lifetime of my great-grandfather, anything’s possible. When he was born, there were only 25 cars in the world; they had only just been invented. When he was 14, we flew for the first time in history. Now there are 100,000 charter flights every single day. When he was 45, we built the first computer. Many said it wouldn’t catch on, but it did, and just 20 years later we turned it into a microchip of which there will be thousands in this room here today. Ten years before he died, we built the first mobile phone. It wasn’t that mobile, to be fair, but now it really is, and as my great-grandfather left this Earth, the Internet arrived. Now we can do anything, but more importantly, now we have a plan.