I was listening to Dame Ellen MacArthur on Desert Island Discs.

She became the youngest person, ever.

To sail single-handedly.


Around the world.

The interviewer asked her who were her inspirations.

She said, “My grandmother was very influential.”

The interviewer asked why.

Ellen MacArthur said, “She always wanted to go to university, and in fact she won a scholarship to pay for her to go.

But her father, my great-grandfather, wouldn’t allow her to go.

They were a poor family, and he said she needed to get a job to bring money into the household.

So she did, but later she made sure her three daughters went to university.

And she was so fascinated with learning that every day, when I was young, she used to come to my school and sit in the canteen with me and my friends.

Then, when she was old and retired, and at the end of her life, she went back to university to get a degree.

And she finally graduated three months before she died.”

So there’s a clue to where Ellen MacArthur got the determination that made her sail a ship, that should have been crewed by a dozen men, for 71 days.


Thousands of miles from anywhere.

The nearest land 7 miles straight down.

The waves twice as high as the average house.

Sleeping a few minutes at a time, always on deck.

The interviewer asked her about her first boat.

How did she get it?

She said it was a little, tiny dinghy and she saved up for it.

“We didn’t get any pocket money when we were little.

So, anything we wanted, we either had to make it or save up for it.

I used to save the change from my school-dinner money every day.”

The interviewer asked her to elaborate.

She said, “Every day I’d eat beans, mashed-potato, and gravy.

Beans cost four pence, mashed potato cost four pence, gravy was free.

So I’d have the beans and mash swimming in gravy, almost like soup.

Everyone thought I was crazy. But I’d go home and stack the change up next to my savings tin.

When the change reached £1, I’d put it in my savings tin.

Then I’d fill in one of the little squares on a sheet of graph paper I had on the wall.

When I had 100 little squares filled in I’d take the money to the building society.”

The interviewer asked her how much her first boat cost.

She said, “£535″.

And you get another clue to the level of determination she considered normal.

The interviewer then asked what life had been like at home.

She said she’d been very happy at home, if slightly unconventional.

The interviewer asked her for an example.

She said, “Well, I only had a very small bedroom.

There really wasn’t room in it for the bed plus everything else I was making and storing.

So when my parents went out one day, I took the bed apart and put it in the barn.

I figured, if I asked them, they were likely to object.

But if I did it while they were out it would be a fait accompli.

And from then on, I just slept on the floor in a sleeping bag, and had lots more room for everything I wanted to do in my bedroom.”

You get another clue to the sort of determination that could make her climb to the top of a mast six stories high.

On her own in the middle of the ocean.

With the ship speeding along at forty miles an hour in the pitch dark.

And fix a broken block-and-tackle in sub-zero temperature.

You see, none of what she did was reasonable behaviour.

Not saving £500 from her lunch money.

Not throwing her bed out of her bedroom.

Not sailing single-handedly, non-stop, around the world.

Not for a 19 year old.

Not for a woman.

What I loved about listening to her was that she didn’t let other people’s ideas of what was reasonable dictate her behaviour.

She looked at the problem.

Worked out what she thought was the best way of proceeding.

Then, if it made sense to her, she went ahead and did it.

Whatever anyone else said.

She didn’t let other people’s version of what was reasonable stop her.

She came to her own conclusion.

How many of us do that?

How many of us question what we’re told and come to our own conclusions?

Don’t we usually just do what we’re told?

Reasonable people don’t do what she did.

Not the big things, not even the little things.

Because reasonable people just want to fit in.

So they don’t question what other people tell them.

But then reasonable people don’t do much.