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Olympic champion: Ben Ainslie

Image: BBC

At the 2008 Bejing Olympics, sailing trio Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson won gold in the Yngling class. Then sailor Ben Ainslie attempted to secure his place in history with his third gold medal in successive Olympic games.

Born in 1977, Ainslie began sailing in the seas off Cornwall when he was eight. By the time he was sixteen he was Laser Radial World Champion. In 1996 he took silver in the Laser class at the Atlanta Games and won gold sailing at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He figured it was time to make a change.

Ainslie, who lives in Lymington, put on 40 pounds in a gruelling weight regimen programme and moved to the larger Finn class. Within two years he had won his first Finn World Championships, and he went on to win a historic five Finn Gold Cups. It was gold again at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games in the legendary Finn Class. But many doubted he could win a third gold in the 2008 Olympics.

In 2008 in Beijing he had to sail on both Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday, the wind was blowing up to 20 knots. Ainslie was afloat an hour before his Finn rivals. He sailed the complete course in a magnificent show of support for the women in their successful quest for gold in the Yngling class.

"That was an inspiration watching them," Ainslie said, demonstrating that he is also the humblest of men.

Sailing with strength, skill and indomitable will, Ainslie won his third Olympic gold, becoming one of Britain's greatest Olympians.

Ellen MacArthur in bib jeans on her trimaran

Ellen MacArthur

Born in 1976 in Derbyshire, Ellen Patricia MacArthur began to sail as a girl after reading Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. She saved her school dinner money to buy her first boat. Standing just 5'2", she first became known when she came second in the 2001 Vendée Globe solo round-the-world sailing race in her boat the Kingfisher. She was just twenty-four. In 2003 she captained a crew in a round-the-world race, but was defeated by a broken mast in the Southern Ocean.

On 28 November 2004, just 28 years old, her dark hair cropped short and her life in her hands, she set off alone to circumnavigate the globe and break the world record.

She was sailing the 75-foot trimaran B&Q/Castorama, which her sponsors had built for her in Australia. “It’s always been about a team,” Ellen says - the team that builds her ships are crucial to her success.

She would have to provide spirit, skill and physical indomitability to win. Crossing the Southern Ocean she had "20 minutes' sleep in three days: the seas were so huge that I had to keep changing the sails or else I would capsize" (Telegraph).

A number of times she had to climb the 90-foot mast. Dressing in heavy clothes to save herself the battering of the sails, determined not to be knocked down to the deck, she managed to make the necessary repairs in heavy seas.

She set records for some of her legs, scudding past the Cape of Good Hope, before battling huge seas that almost destroyed her ship. When she crossed the finish line near the French coast at Ushant at 2229 UTC on 7 February 2005, she had beaten the previous world record by 32 hours, and set a world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of Earth.

MacArthur Celebrating her circumnavigation

The British poured out to welcome her home. The French called her la navigatrice Britannique.

She had triumphed after 71 days and 27,354 nautical miles on the high seas. The tale of her ordeals, despair, and triumph is described in several vivid books.

In 1967 HM Queen Elizabeth II knighted Sir Francis Chichester, the first person to complete a solo navigation. In 2005, The Queen knighted Ellen MacArthur.

Ellen is the Patron of the Nancy Blackett Trust which owns and operates Ransome's yacht, Nancy Blackett. The Trust inspires and teaches children to sail.

Knox-Johnston standing on his ketch in heavy seas

William Robert Patrick 'Robin' Knox-Johnston

Taking the challenge

In 1968, the Sunday Times challenged mariners to sail non-stop around the world, a feat then believed to be impossible. Nine men responded, including Robin Knox-Johnston, a merchant mariner.

Robin had known since he was a boy that he loved to sail. Born in 1939, he had gone to sea in the merchant navy when he was eighteen. But in the navy he sailed with and depended on other men. This was a completely new challenge, and likely to be terrifying. Further, he did not have much money, and he did not have a boat. Still, he wanted a change. He wanted to change his life.

So Knox-Johnston built a 32-foot wooden ketch he called the Suhaili and sailed out of Falmouth in the Times Golden Globe Race on June 14th 1968. He proceeded to sail round the world without stopping. When he rounded Cape Horn, the most southerly point of South America and the northern boundary of the Drake Passage, he was 20 days ahead of his nearest competitor.

Route of Golden Globe race

The route of Robin's circumnavigation. His voyage took 313 days. The seas were alive with whales. Dolphins swam alongside his yacht.

Image: NASA / WIKI

On April 22nd 1969 Knox-Johnston sailed into Falmouth and became the first person to circumnavigate the globe non-stop and single-handed.

After that Robin won round Britain races. He organized sailing races, and took the Jules Verne Trophy for the fastest circumnavigation in 1994 with co-skipper Peter Blake. When he was not on the water he was helping others learn to sail.

Age cannot stop a real adventurer

From 1992 to 2002 he served as a trustee of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and as as President of the Sail Training Association (STAR), which teaches youngsters to sail, and as a trustee of the National Maritime Museum, Cornwall. In 1996 he helped to establish the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. "It is perhaps his greatest achievement to have introduced so many people to competitive sailing via their involvement in Clipper Ventures (WIKI)." Robin also had another adventure up his sleeve.

Grizzled Robin Knox-Johnston

Sir William Robert Patrick 'Robin' Knox-Johnston CBE, RD
He has weathered his share of storms,
doldrums, and mechanical breakdowns.

In 2007, sixty-eight years old, Robin went to sea again, racing around the world in the Velux 5 Oceans competition. He was sailing at 15 to 30 knots, but was forced to make a number of unplanned stops for repairs.

Sleep was possible for about 90 minutes at a time. When he could, he enjoyed a cocktail between 5 and 6 pm, and toasted his wife, Suzanne, and their "storybook marriage" which had survived a tempestuous start. Suzanne died in 2003. He hoped the sea would heal his broken heart.

His voyage did accomplish one thing. He saw shipping and pollution on the high seas in quantities he had never seen before.

Somehow this pollution has to be tackled.

Boy on deck of sailing boat

Michael Perham
He has joined the great British maritime tradition.

Image: Michael Perham

Boy sails into record books

Fourteen-year-old Michael Perham of Hertfordshire decided he would like to challenge a world record by sailing across the Atlantic alone. He had a small sailboat and he knew how to sail. With the help of his parents, he made preparations. The trickiest aspect of his departure was taking time away from school.

He set out from Gibraltar on the 3,500-mile voyage to the Caribbean on November 18th 2006 on a Tide 28 cruising yacht with his anxious and hopeful father sailing two miles behind. When satellite equipment failed, Michael was forced to divert to Lanzarote and the Cape Verde islands, extending his absence from class. With repairs made to the Cheeky Monkey he sailed on - travelling toward the westering sun, and diving into the sea when necessary to free rope entangled in his gear.

On January 3rd 2007, Michael sailed into Nelson's Dockyard on Antigua at 1400 GMT, accompanied by a welcoming flotilla. He is the youngest person ever to sail across the Atlantic solo. He looked taller and older when he stepped out of his boat. His voyage raised more than £1,000 for Children in Need.

English bulldog puppy

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass