Part 6 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Hero's Journey.
About Dame Ellen MacArthur's TED Talk
After completing her harrowing solo sail around the world, Dame Ellen MacArthur describes how that journey transformed her.
About Dame Ellen MacArthur
Setting off in 2004, Dame Ellen MacArthur sailed 26,000 miles in 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds — becoming the fastest person to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe. She was made a dame by the queen in 2005.
During her record-breaking solo sail, Dame Ellen came to a realization: our survival as a species depends on our reliance on a finite supply of resources.
In 2010, she launched the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works with government and business to transition from a largely wasteful linear economy to a regenerative circular economy.
She also runs the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, which uses sailing to build confidence for kids following cancer treatment.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
So for every hero, there's the triumphant return, the point at which she takes all the trials and tests and lessons she learned and brings them back home. Joseph Campbell called this moment delivering the potion, which brings us back to Dame Ellen MacArthur.
ELLEN MACARTHUR: When you sail around the world nonstop from Europe, you would sail from the mouth of the English Channel between England and France. You then sail down the Atlantic...
RAZ: She'd finished second place in a nonstop around the world sailing competition.
MACARTHUR: Once you cross the equator, you would head southwest towards the east coast of South America, and then you dive southeast underneath South Africa. You're effectively racing around the bottom of the Earth around Antarctica.
RAZ: It was a grueling adventure, but the moment she docked the boat, she knew she wanted to go back out to try it again and, this time, to break the world record, to become the fastest person to ever do it alone. She told the story of her attempt on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
MACARTHUR: It was Christmas Day. I was forging into the Southern Ocean underneath Australia. The conditions were horrendous. I was approaching a part in the ocean which was 2,000 miles away from the nearest town. The nearest land was Antarctica, and the nearest people would be those manning the European Space Station above me. You really are in the middle of nowhere. We were forging ahead of a huge storm. Within it, there was 80 knots of wind, which was far too much wind for the boat and I to cope with.
The waves were already 40 to 50 feet high, and the spray from the breaking crests was blown horizontally like snow in a blizzard. If we didn't sail fast enough, we'd be engulfed by that storm and either capsized or smashed to pieces. The speed I so desperately needed brought with it danger. We all know what it's like driving a car 20 miles an hour, 30, 40. It's not too stressful. Take that to 50, 60, 70, accelerate through to 80, 90, 100 miles an hour. Now you have white knuckles, and you're gripping the steering wheel. Now take that car off road at night and remove the windscreen wipers, the windscreen, the headlights and the brakes. That's what it's like in the Southern Ocean.
MACARTHUR: You can imagine it would be quite difficult to sleep in that situation, even as a passenger, but you're not a passenger. You're alone on a boat you can barely stand up in, and you have to make every single decision on board. I was absolutely exhausted physically and mentally. Eight sail changes in 12 hours. The mainsail weighed three times my body weight, and after each change, I would collapse on the floor soaked with sweat with this freezing Southern Ocean air burning in the back of my throat.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: I mean, you describe collapsing on the floor soaked with sweat, and that sweat is probably freezing on your skin. I mean, did you ever think, what the hell am I doing here? This is crazy.
MACARTHUR: I never, ever once thought what am I doing here, not once, no matter how hard it was because, you know, all my life that's all I wanted to do. I can't say sometimes I wasn't, you know, in fear for my life or, you know, on the brink of sanity because you've not slept for days in a row. I mean, it is brutal on your body physically and actually, probably more important, mentally. But I chose that. I wanted to be out there, and I love the fact that when you're on a boat you're connected to everything around you. You're connected to the boat. You're connected to the, you know, the temperature of the water, the temperature of the air, the wind speed, the wind strength. You're just connected.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
MACARTHUR: It's hard to explain...
But you kind of enter this different world.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
MACARTHUR: But you enter a different mode when you head out there. Your boat is your entire world, and what you take with you when you leave is all you have. That's food, fuel, clothes, even toilet roll and toothpaste. That's what we do. And when we leave, we manage it down to the last drop of diesel and the last packet of food. No experience in my life could've given me a better understanding of the definition of the word finite. What we have out there is all we have. There is no more. And never in life had I ever translated that definition of finite that I'd felt on board to anything outside of sailing until I stepped off the boat at the finish line having broken that record.
MACARTHUR: Suddenly I connected the dots. Our global economy is no different. It's entirely dependent on finite materials we only have once in the history of humanity. And it was a bit like seeing something you weren't expecting under a stone and having two choices. I either put that stone to one side and learned more about it or I put that stone back and I carried on with my dream job of sailing around the world. I chose the first. I put it to one side, and I began a new journey learning, speaking to chief executives, experts, scientists, economists, to try and understand just how our global economy works.
And the more I learned, the more I started to change my own life. I started traveling less, doing less, using less. It felt like actually doing less was what we had to do. It struck me that the system itself, the framework within which we live, is fundamentally flawed. It's a system that effectively can't run in the long term.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Wow. So, I mean, you return from the race around the world and, I mean, you're obviously changed. But, I mean, all of a sudden you come back with this entirely new perspective. And, I guess I should mention, you actually started a foundation dedicated to this idea, right? I mean, was that on your mind the day you finished that race?
MACARTHUR: Well, I was actually asked at the finish line at the around the world. I'd just been on the stage at the finish, and someone came up to me and said, you know, Ellen, is this the best day of your life? And I just kind of paused and I said, I'm sure that's still to come, but it's not a bad one. And I always think the most amazing thing you'll ever do is always in front of you. And I hope that for the global economy that that's how it is, that actually the better economy is in front of us, that we can really build something more resilient and, like, that for me is hugely exciting.
RAZ: You know, I can't help but think that people listening will hear this and they'll say, well, you know, I mean, she's - I can't do that. Like, she traveled around the world by herself on a sailboat nonstop. But, you know, I don't have that in me. I don't have that heroism or that bravery.
MACARTHUR: I think everyone has the capacity to do things within them that maybe they're not aware of or maybe only have to do in difficult circumstances. I think, you know, on reflection, when you've pushed yourself right to the limits and you know that you couldn't have gone much further or else you wouldn't have come home, you learn a lot. And, you know, people come up afterwards and they say, oh, you're so brave, but you're not. You're not brave to take on something that you choose. I think real bravery is taking on something that you don't choose, like young people in recovery from cancer leukemia or, you know, people who lose a close friend. You then have to deal with something that you have no idea how to deal with it, you cannot in any way prepare for. And for me, they're the heroes, and they're the unsung heroes, but they're the heroes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: That's Dame Ellen MacArthur. Five years ago, she started the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It's dedicated to preserving the earth's resources and promoting a more sustainable global economy. You can find links to more information about Ellen's foundation at ted.npr.org. And of course you can go there to watch her entire TED Talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOING ON A JOURNEY")
DUTCH TILDERS: (Singing) Going on a journey, may be back, but I don't know when, going on a journey, may be back, but I don't know when.
RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on the hero's journey this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out to ted.com. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brent Baughman, Meghan Keane, Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Casey Herman with help from Daniel Shukin. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Deron Triff and Janet Lee. If you want to let us know what you think about the show, you can write us at email@example.com, and you can follow us on Twitter. It's @TEDRadioHour. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.