History is made in a homecoming scene not seen in British sailing for more than 30 years

Every foot of Falmouth’s waterfront was filled with people this morning, and all the streets right up the hill behind. All the way round to Pendennis Point, at the entrance and, further still, along the beaches, they crowded two- and three-deep. There were thousands more afloat on the water in every imaginable craft, suitable or unsuitable. Ellen MacArthur made history in Falmouth in a feat that not only ranks with Britain’s great sailing achievements, but ended in a spectacle that has never been seen in the UK since those pioneering days of Robin Knox-Johnston and Chay Blyth over 30 years ago.

There were people paddling kayaks out to sea and rowing rubber dinghies, and all of them jostling perilously with big motoboats and RIBs. Falmouth Coastguard, from their eyrie right above the entrance, must have been having kittens. At least every lifeboat, tug and police launch was out too.

Ellen made almost no acknowledgment of the huge crowds until B&Q was safely alongside a pontoon outside the National Maritime Museum. Not until her job was completely done did she relax and wave at the crowd. A huge cheer rose up. She lit flares and held them aloft in the pose that has become iconic in single-handed sailing, then sprayed champagne and anointed her boat.

After her support team came on board off Ushant last night, Ellen managed to get over six hours sleep. At a press conference later she told of how she’d woken to find a box with a bacon butty beside her bunk with the note ‘To Ellen With Love’ but been unable to eat it. But this sleep, her biggest chunk of solid rest in the last 71 days, was enough to fortify her later for a three-hour round of television interviews, public questions and a press conference.

The TV crews were here in such force that the entire rear of the museum was a cortege of satellite and outside broadcast vans, something unheard of in UK sailing. Besides them were 300 other accredited journalists, all of whose main questions were: how does this achievement rank and what will you do next? To those repeated questions the answers were the same: her feats and those before can’t be compared in any meaningful way, but being faster the voyage was definitely more stressful; and she intends to do more sailing in B&Q, including another transatlantic record attempt.

Ellen herself seemed more at ease than at any previous time and though she admitted to being overwhelmed by the emotion she was not overwhelmed by the experience. At a press conference this afternoon she answered questions in English and French, perfectly composed.

The only times she became overtly tearful were when she talked of the public support she’d had via emails – she cited several examples of messages that had affected her – and of the escorts she’d had at various times by the Royal Navy. That was special, she said, because these whole ships’ companies had come to support her and because, above all, they know what it is to live at sea. It was quite appropriate because, as well as being made a Dame today, Ellen MacArthur was made an honorary Lieutenant Commander of the RN.