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Unassuming British yachtswoman born in 1976 and famous for her dedication to her sport, which has been her sole ambition ever since her childhood in Derbyshire. Derbyshire's in the East Midlands, and not exactly known for its wide expanses of water beyond, presumably, a reservoir or two. Then again, supposedly even the Swiss have got a navy, unless that's just a trademark for Swiss army knives that come in blue.

MacArthur credits her aunt's sailing holidays with giving her the bug, which prompted her to save up three years' worth of dinner money to buy an 8-foot long dinghy. By the time she was 18, she'd sailed single-handed around the British coast and was camping under the hull of a 21-foot Classe Mini that she was refitting in a French dockyard.

She secured the sponsorship that would let her keep racing, and with a roof over her head too, by winning her class of the solo race across the Atlantic Ocean, the Route du Rhum, despite an unpleasant incident with her keel hydraulics. MacArthur was taken to French hearts before she began to make news in Britain: sailing now has a higher profile in France than in the country that brought you Sir Francis Drake in any case, and she's surely channelling a little of Joan of Arc At Sea for them too.

So far her greatest achievement, and the one that made her name in the UK, is her second place in the Vendée Globe race of 2001, another solo effort in which contestants attempt to circumnavigate the globe.

To the untrained eye they seem to spend an awful lot of time circling around Antarctica, but the plan's actually to hit the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Horn and Cape Leeuwin along the way. Not hit, you understand. I'm sure it wouldn't be a good idea.

The Vendée Globe typically takes around a hundred days, although MacArthur completed it in 94, keeping in touch with the media all the while through the wonders of satellite phones. Living on 20-minute catnaps and tinned rations, she spent the Southern Ocean sections of the race shinning up the mast in freezing winds to repair an uncooperative mainsail, rounding icebergs and scooping flying fish off the deck of her trimaran Kingfisher.

Although she came out of the Doldrums in first place, Kingfisher broke her rudder less than 2,500 miles from the finish line at Les Sables d'Olonne, and the Frenchman Michele Desjoyeaux came home a day ahead, setting the record for the fastest single-handed circumnavigation of the planet - MacArthur's time still making her the fastest woman.

MacArthur sailed back across the Channel a household name, making a token appearance at the International Boat Show before setting off once again into the Atlantic to win the Challenge Mondial race as navigator to Alain Gautier.

Finishing 2001 as sailing's world champion on points, she was nominated as BBC Sports Personality of the Year but lost out to the ubiquitous David Beckham. Such is apparently the price of not spending one's sporting life moonlighting as a salesman for Pepsi, Brylcreem and assorted children's clothes, but even John Galliano would find it difficult to make a fashion must-have out of MacArthur's signature big yellow raincoat.

In 2002 MacArthur returned to the Route du Rhum, this time winning the overall title with a record time of 13 and a half days, and published her autobiography Taking On the World. While the celebrity confessional has become notorious for providing tabloids with several days' worth of headlines and discount bookshops with a reason for living, MacArthur's possibly the least likely woman in the public eye to shock the nation with tales of her romps, although unfortunately, one can't speak for the discount bookshops.

2003 saw MacArthur set off on January 30 for an attempt at the Jules Verne Trophy, a prize awarded for the fastest circumnavigation of the world in any sailing boat. Her choice was the 115-foot catamaran Kingfisher II, the yacht - then called Orange - in which Bruno Peyron had set the 64-day record. Difficulties with Kingfisher II's mast track delayed her start for two days until Tracey Edwards, herself attempting a different record, stepped in and lent MacArthur the mast track from her own Maiden II, one of Kingfisher's sister ships.

The Trophy race marked the first occasion MacArthur had competed with a sizeable crew, after making her name as a solo sailor. The thirteen men also aboard, for whom MacArthur was responsible as skipper, included Hervé Jan, twice a winner of the Jules Verne. Their record attempt lasted until February 2003, when the yacht's mast came down altogether, narrowly missing the three crew members on deck at the time. MacArthur had been 20 hours ahead of Peyron's record, although still two days behind another challenger, Olivier de Kersauson.

At one point during the Vendée Globe - but probably not when she'd just been up the mainmast - MacArthur told her satellite phone, 'I'd like to do this again in ten years, just for the hell of it,' a kind of passion mere landlubbers can only wonder at.

The inevitable biopic is sure to come around, and Winona Ryder can probably expect to be called upon; she'd have the looks, after all, and it's not as if Winona could walk off with a yacht...

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