Ellen MacArthur: ‘I saved up my dinner money for my first boat’
‘Ellen MacArthur, 35, made international headlines in 2005 when she broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in a yacht.‘
‘How did your family influence your work ethic and attitude towards money?‘
I come from a very hard-working Derbyshire family, going back to my grandfather, who was a coal miner. It was instilled in me and my two brothers that if we wanted something we’d have to graft hard. At home, we did most of our own building work, fixed the cars and grew our own food. There was no instant gratification. It’s that self-sufficient environment that I love, and growing up in the countryside really allowed me to flourish. My parents were amazing in that they didn’t encourage or discourage us regarding our passions – they let us find our own way. They taught us that education is important, but that it comes in many shapes. I grew up loving sailing, having been introduced to it by my aunt at the age of four, but never thought I could make a career of it until I was 18 and watched the Whitbread race on television. It was then I realised that with sponsorship and canny budgeting, I could make my dream a reality. From then I did everything possible to cram in as much knowledge about sailing – working at a sailing school during the day, gaining practical skills, and then swotting up at night on the theory.
Tell me about how you saved up for your first boat
I can still vividly see that first trip I took with my aunt and the overwhelming sense of freedom I felt, knowing I could explore the world from the “tiny” island we lived on. I didn’t get any pocket money when I was younger, but I saved any birthday and Christmas money from the age of eight. However, it wasn’t until I reached secondary school that I had the chance to save properly. I was given dinner money every day, but I’d live off the cheapest meal possible – beans and mashed potatoes, piled with gravy – and siphon off the remainder. Every time I had a £1 pile of coins, I’d mark off a box on a big wall chart, until I reached 100, and then take it to my building society. I did that every day until I left school at 17. With those savings I was able to buy a little eight-foot dinghy I christened Threp’ny Bit, followed by a 21-foot Corribee on which I single-handedly sailed around Britain when I was 18.
Because I’d scrimped so hard to afford them, I spent every waking hour maintaining and improving what I had – understanding how things worked was as important as any voyage I’d ever undertake.
Despite being a big scrimper, did you ever worry about how you were going to make ends meet?
Absolutely. When I was working at the sailing school in the North East, I knew I’d need to move to the south coast if I was really going to make it as a professional sailor. So I relocated to Hamble in Hampshire and lived on my Corribee for two and a half years, during which time I tried to gain as much experience as possible. I’d barter my talents to be able to afford every bit of kit I needed. For instance, I’m a good artist and I secured a commission to do a painting of a sailor’s boat. That allowed me to earn the airfare to Quebec to do the transatlantic race to St Malo.
Now that you’ve retired from professional sailing, have you relaxed the reins on your spending?
No, I don’t spend money on anything I don’t really need. I hardly ever go shopping because I don’t really get any pleasure from it. I do like a good bargain though – I use something called Wightbay, which is like eBay for the Isle of Wight. We never trailed around the shops as kids; within reason we made what we needed. I used to make whatever I could for my boat – my first pair of sailing trousers were made from a cheap pair of oilskins, onto which I sewed a hood and some handwarmers. Sadly, a lot of people don’t value things like that. I still have my Corribee that I spent all those years putting my pennies away for. I don’t think I could ever sell her because she’s a part of me. When you graft so hard for something, you respect it more.
Any prized possessions?
Many of the things I love are priceless to me, but to others they would have no value. For instance, the rug in my lounge at home came from the barn at my parents’ house – it’s old and scruffy because it was given to my mum by her mum and she in turn received it as a wedding gift in the Thirties.
What’s the most difficult lesson you’ve learnt about money?
When you have a dream and you’re just starting out, very few people are prepared to help you; yet the minute you’ve done something, everyone wants to help you. Maybe that’s how it should be because it makes you really fight for things and put your heart and soul into your dream. You make your own luck. When I was awarded the Young Sailor of the Year award when I was 18, Keith Musto, the founder of the MUSTO outdoor clothing company, was in the audience. He was one of the few visionaries who really recognised my potential and has sponsored me since 1995. They’ve been truly instrumental in my career success.
What’s been your best business decision?
My nan was an incredible inspiration to me, returning to school after her father had made her leave early, and getting a degree when she was 83, dying three months later. Unbeknown to me, she’d set aside £5,000 for me to get when I turned 21. The year after her death and two months before my first huge race, the owners of the boat I was supposed to be sailing sold it very suddenly. It was also the exact time when I had to pay the non-refundable entrance fee, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to race. There I was with no boat, no partner and no money for the fee. When mum heard how dejected I sounded on the phone, she fessed up and gave me the money early. Without hesitation, I handed it over because I was determined to make the other elements fall into place – they did, and it was the making of my career.
Do you regret any major business decisions?
No. Sometimes you go down one route because you think you have to take every opportunity and things don’t work out as well as you’d planned, but you learn from each experience. In 2003, 14 of us crewed a boat to break the cruise round-the-world record, and we were comfortably within reach of breaking it, but then our mast broke and we limped into Freemantle, Australia, two weeks later, our hopes dashed. You can’t foresee every possibility in this line of work, but I try my hardest to make sure I’m as prepared as possible. I’m not someone who regrets things in my life – everything happens for a reason.
Is there anything you hate about dealing with money?
Money’s a great enabler and is a means to an end, but I hate chasing it.
What sort of tipper are you?
If they’re pleasant and do a good job, then I’m a fair tipper. However, when I’m out doing work for my sustainable living foundation, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, I find it much harder because it’s essentially someone else’s money.
Do you bank online?
Yes, because needs must, given my schedule, but I think it’s nice to be able to pick up the phone and speak to someone or visit a branch in person. It’s very sad that there’s less and less personal contact. It’s all about continuity and building a relationship.
Do you invest in stocks and shares?
I’m not really into that. I prefer investing in tangible things like tools or skills. I’m investing in my future and doing something I can control, whereas investing in something outside your control doesn’t change your future, it’s just parking things where you hope they don’t get smaller. That’s a conversation I often have with the financial adviser for my foundation and my cancer charity, the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust. While past economic trends can guide you, I tend to use my gut feeling to make decisions.
What’s your financial priority for the next five years?
I’m not earning anything at the moment apart from the book I wrote, Full Circle, because all the work I do for my foundation and cancer trust I do for free. So my priorities are professional ones – how the funding is going to be spent, securing more of it and spreading the message of the foundation about how important living and working sustainably is.
If you could play God, is there anything about the business world you would change?
Yes, I think one of the most important things to do is think long term, and very few chief executives and strategists do. They’re more homed in on quarterly and annual reports, rather than how will this business run in 10 years’ time. Visionaries are a rare breed.
MUSTO has supported Ellen’s projects since 1995. For more info on Ellen and MUSTO visit musto.com‘
(Taken from The Telegraph)
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