My France - Dame Ellen MacArthur

My France - Dame Ellen MacArthurDame Ellen MacArthur is a true heroine in France. Here the 33-year-old sailor tells FRANCE Magazine why she loves l’Hexagone and what it feels like to be awarded the L�gion d’Honneur

Dame Ellen MacArthur is a true heroine in France. Here the 33-year-old sailor tells FRANCE Magazine why she loves l’Hexagone and what it feels like to be awarded the L�gion d’HonneurWhat was your first experience of visiting France?Apart from a trip to Paris when I was at school, my first real experience of France was when my business partner Mark Turner and I were preparing for the Mini-Transat in 1997. We worked each day in Thierry Fagnent’s boatyard in Saint-Philibert – but the first time we went there, as soon as he knew we were English, he refused to speak to us! Once we managed to muster a few French words, he finally let us in... and went on to become a huge help in our sailing campaigns. Since then I have had a much less frosty reception and I feel huge affection for the French public and thanks for the warmth and hospitality they have shown me. 

How did you come to be fluent in French?My Nan absolutely loved languages and it was she who encouraged me to learn French. I picked it up while working in the boatyard so some of the phrases I have learnt are a bit... erm... colourful. My motto “a donf” comes from the start of the Route du Rhum in 1998, when a journalist asked me for a comment and all I could think of was this phrase that I’d learnt in the boatyard. I have never had a formal lesson in my life, which has sometimes led to some amusing comments, for example at the end of the Route du Rhum 1998 when I said “je suis cuir” (I am leather) rather than “je suis cuite” (I have been cooked by the sun)! 

Tell me how you first won the heart of the French nation?My first signing of an autograph in France was in 1998 at the start of the Route du Rhum. I turned up for my first race having no idea what the French racing scene was like. There were just under a million people in Saint-Malo to see the start of the race. The number of people, the atmosphere around Saint-Malo was extraordinary and I have never experienced anything like that outside France. The finish of the Vend�e Globe was no exception. To finish my first round the world race at 24 years old and to be welcomed by almost half a million people was just out of this world and something I shall never, ever forget.

How did you feel when you received the L�gion d’Honneur?It was overwhelming really. I was delighted to be able to receive it in front of my family and so many of my friends and colleagues who all in their own way had contributed to me being there. France has always been a great friend to me and I have always felt affinity with the French character which encourages “l’esprit aventurier” but to receive their highest award is something I would never have imagined. I felt it was even more of an honour as I am not French.

What do you think of being called sailing’s young hope in France?I feel hugely flattered of course, and a bit embarrassed at the same time. There are loads of phenomenal young French sailors out there with enormous potential and promise and, if they can draw hope and inspiration from my experiences that would be great.

What is your favourite part of the French coastline and why?It has to be the Breton coast as it is the area I have come to know and love.

Most Read

Is there anywhere French you haven’t been, but would love to visit?A friend of mine recommended the Pyr�n�es for walking holidays so I would love to go there one day. I hear the area near Prats-de-Mollo-la-Preste is beautiful.

What are your favourite aspects of French culture?I met the Ushua�a Nature presenter Nicolas Hulot a while ago and since then have been making my way through his whole bibliography, including the Pacte �cologique. I am very interested in the work that the Fondation Nicolas Hulot is doing. I would urge you to check out its website: www.fondation-nicolas-hulot.org

Do you have a favourite restaurant/hotel?I am fortunate enough to have lots of friends in Brittany who are great cooks, but I think one of my best memories was a dinner of fresh oysters at my friend, the photographer, Thierry Martinez’s house in Locmariaquer in the Morbihan – mouthwatering!

For more information on The Ellen MacArthur Trust, which supports young people recovering from cancer, visit www.ellenmacarthurtrust.org