Florence Arthaud: Sailor who helped open up sailing for women and won La Route Du Rhum 12 years before Ellen MacArthur

"I'm not happy unless I can go out to sea," said Arthaud. "Once you reach international waters, we're all equal."

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The Independent Online

In 1990, the French champion sailor Florence Arthaud became the first woman to win La Route Du Rhum, the transatlantic single-handed yacht race between Saint Malo, Brittany, and Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, setting a record time of 14 days 10 hours and 8 minutes. "The world of sailing isn't especially macho," Arthaud said, noting that the French yachtsman Philippe Poupon, who had won the previous edition of the race in 1986, and finished second in 1990, had been one of the first to congratulate her on her victory.

"But sailing is not easy for a woman. It's a hard, tough world. You're on boat here, there and everywhere." She later said, "For years, I didn't have a home. I lived on a boat. I was 36 by the time I gave birth to my only daughter. I certainly didn't follow the traditional path. I lived like an adventuress."

Nevertheless, the 1990 performance by the pioneering Arthaud, achieved without a radio and while wearing a neck brace to alleviate a cervical hernia, broke new ground in one of the few sports where the sexes compete on equal terms. Her victory certainly set a precedent and paved the way for Dame Ellen MacArthur to win La Route Du Rhum in 2002.

Nicknamed "La Petite Fiancée De L'Atlantique", Arthaud never quite matched this achievement, mostly because of her forthright personality and the financial crisis of the mid-nineties that frightened away potential sponsors for such events. She inspired the next generation of French women sailors like Isabelle Autissier and Catherine Chabaud, and had been planning to launch a women-only yacht race around the Mediterranean this summer.

She died in a helicopter crash in Argentina which also claimed the lives of nine other people involved in the filming of the reality TV show Dropped, including the Olympic gold medallist swimmer Camille Muffat and the Olympic boxer Alexis Vastine.

Born into the Arthaud publishing dynasty in 1957, she was determined to strike out on her own and not just be known as a "fille de", the daughter of Jacques Arthaud who first took her sailing when she was a child. He also fed her imagination with the exploits of the French sailors Bernard Moitessier and Eric Tabarly whose books the Arthaud family published. Following a car crash in 1974, she was left in a coma, spent six months in hospital, and didn't make a full recovery for two years, prompting her to remark "tomorrow, we'll all be dead", a motto that would stay with her throughout the next three decades.

In 1978, she took part in the first Route Du Rhum, a solo race conceived to break the Anglo-Saxon hegemony of long distance sailing events, and finished a respectable 11th while the Canadian Michael Birch beat the Frenchman Michel Malinovsky into second place by less than three minutes. She returned in 1982, placing 20th, and in 1986 when she jeopardised her chances after altering her course to help in the search for Loïc Caradec (she found his multihull but he was lost at sea) before triumphing in 1990.

Arthaud had her own narrow escape in October 2011 when she fell off her boat while sailing around Corsica and was able to summon help with the waterproof mobile phone she had bought a few days previously in Italy. "It wasn't my day. That was a true miracle," she remarked at the time.

She was a member of the crew who won the 1997 Transpacific race with Bruno Peyron. Seven years before that, in August 1990, Arthaud had beaten the world record Peyron had set for a solo crossing of the Atlantic but they became firm friends.

After moving to Marseille in 2004, she ran an arts gallery, Flow, in the La Madrague area of the city. In 2009, she published her autobiography, Un Vent De Liberté (Freedom Wind), in which she described the hallucinations she experienced while staying awake out at sea for days on end. "You don't need to be tripping on LSD," she wrote. "Winches turn into lions, monsters, huge snakes."

"Sailing is in my blood. I'm not happy unless I can go out to sea. Once you reach international waters, we're all equal," said Arthaud, who in 1989 duetted with the singer and songwriter Pierre Bachelet on three tracks she had inspired on his Quelque Part... C'est Toujours Ailleurs album. 

Florence Arthaud, yachtswoman, author and gallerist: born Boulogne-Billancourt, France 28 October 1957; one daughter with Loïc Lingois, married 2005 Eric Charpentier (marriage dissolved); died near Villa Castelli, Argentina 9 March 2015.

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