Asia experience one of a kind for MacArthur

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am

Yachting great Ellen MacArthur has met many challenges in her 29 years, but sailing off the eastern coast of China is nothing short of Russian roulette, she said - 'like playing a video game in which you have only one life'.

She may have sailed more than 400,000km of the world's oceans, most of it on her own, but the British seafarer says this is one of the most harrowing voyages she has undertaken.

After breaking the solo round-the-world record last year, MacArthur and her team set their sights on setting 12 new records over 10 legs in Asia, sailing from Japan to Singapore, aiming to cover 7,200km in a two-month period.

She and her three-man crew are leaving Shanghai today and heading for Taipei in B&Q, their 75-foot trimaran, on the fifth leg of a 10-stage journey. And so far the Asian experience had been anything but plain sailing, she said.

'Fog, fog and more fog made this like a game of Russian roulette. Negotiating the busy waters off the Chinese coast is comparable to driving blind on the M25 during rush hour - dodging fishing boats, fishing lines and cargo ships all the time,' she said. 'The number of ships around us at times was unbelievable. I have never seen so many fishing boats as we did when the fog cleared a little; a sight that I fear disappeared in Europe probably 30 or so years ago. It felt like we were in the middle of a harbour.'

With the situation so perilous the crew had to spend sleepless nights on constant radar watch.

'The eerie silence haunted by the echoing fog signals sent a chill down your spine. There was boat after boat, strobe beacons on the ends of the fishing nets, everywhere you peered deep into the fog you were sure that you saw a boat, or something, but was it just your imagination.'

The crew was fixated on the radar screen for seemingly endless periods of time trying to determine if what was showing up was a wave, a fishing boat, a line of floats on nets, a cargo ship, or all of the above. 'It's like a computer game, with only one life. It's quite incredible,' she said.

At one stage the boat sailed over a zone of beaconed fishing nets, a moment that had the crew frozen in fear. 'Almost ghost-like in the fog we watched from the front beams. Everyone was on deck, waiting for the lines of floats, and hoping that the nets would pass safely under the boat,' she said. 'And with all the ships in the area, some on a collision course, you wonder just how they do it.'

Another problem the crew encountered was unreliable weather forecasts, which were often very wrong.

When they finally get close to their destination, if fishing nets are not threatening to slow them down or stop them completely, bureaucracy certainly does.

With leisure sailing a new concept in China, officialdom often struggles to grasp it. From a regulations perspective, for instance, leisure boats are treated the same way as cargo ships. When MacArthur's yacht finally made Shanghai, they needed 40 different documents to satisfy the various government bureaus before they could berth.

When they arrived at the mouth of the Yangtze in the middle of the night - shivering and exhausted - officials told them the river was closed and they would have to wait.

'Discovering that the river was closed was a tough one to take,' MacArthur admitted, but following frantic behind-the-scenes efforts they were finally allowed through.

After Taipei, MacArthur and her crew will set sail for Hong Kong, which she hopes to hit by April 24, and where things should be more navigable - in more ways than one.

'Yes, I've sailed in lots of places but I've never been to Hong Kong. It's a big sailing city and I really can't wait to sail into the harbour.'