Three weeks before the start of the Vendée Globe, Steve White had resigned himself to withdrawing from the round-the-world sailing race.
He had risked his family's livelihood by remortgaging his house four times and taking out a seven-year bank loan but he could not convince a sponsor to contribute the £200,000 that he still needed to enter the competition billed as "the marathon of the seas".
But after one mystery phone call, 109 days and 28,197 miles, the 36-year-old finished the race yesterday afternoon in eighth place. In finishing the race, White, who has sailed for 12 years but had previously never spent more than than 22 days alone at sea, succeeded where more experienced and better-funded skippers failed.
Of the 30 professional solo sailors to start the race back in November, 19 were forced to retire. White's feat is made all the more incredible by the fact that his battered boat, Toe in the Water, was described by his team as a Ford Fiesta among a field of Ferraris.
Yesterday, as the 60ft yacht pulled into the French port of Les Sables d'Olonne, about 50,000 supporters cheered it on.
After leaving his boat for the first time in more than three months, White, from Dorchester, said: "I cannot believe how many people have come out to see me – it's really quite weird. God knows what they must think about me, a bloke from Dorset, standing waving like a muppet.
"I enjoyed every minute of the event though. It was a brilliant experience. I went into the race with certain expectations, but every one of them has been exceeded."
White, who once trained as a jockey, said he was proud to have completed the race with relatively little financial support but said that he had been lucky too. Befitting the austere nature of his campaign, he toasted his homecoming not with champagne, but with bottles of Theakston's Old Peculier ale.
His wife, Kim, and sons, Jason, 19, Isaac, nine, and Euan, six, greeted him on the shore. "I'm looking forward to finding somewhere quiet and having a pint," he said.
In finishing eighth, White ensured that British sailors enjoyed their most successful year in the Vendée since the competition began in 1989.
He joined fellow Britons Samantha Davies, Brian Thompson and Dee Caffari on a list of finishers usually dominated by the French.
But he nearly didn't make it to the start line – three weeks before the beginning of the race, White did not have enough money to enter and was on the verge of losing his home and his boat. His lack of finance extended to his wife having to borrow money to travel to London to get his children passports on the off chance that they would be travelling to France to see their father start the race.
While in the capital his wife received an anonymous phone call. The caller told her that he would sponsor the boat in the name of the Toe in the Water sailing scheme for injured service personnel, which is based at Headley Court, in Surrey.
"It was a bit of an incredible day really," she said. "But we have always been positive. We have never really known brick walls to stop us and just kept going and going. The voice at the end of the phone just told us to get on and get the boat ready and he would take care of everything."
Then followed a last-minute dash to prepare the boat. The family, including White's 16-year-old daughter Etyn, pitched in. Their efforts were almost undone as early as the third day of the race, when White had to tackle an electrical fire on board his boat. Further on, he faced storms in the Southern Ocean, broken sails and intense heat near the Equator.
There was also the loneliness which dogs most solo sailors. He was alone at sea on Christmas Day and on his 36th birthday and at one point earlier this month there was no other boat within 500 miles of Toe in the Water. But White kept himself busy, blogging on his website most days.
And despite the difficulties the race throws up, White has already got his sights on the next event in 2012, as his blog entry of 9 January shows.
After another two competitors were forced to drop out of the race, White went into ninth place and wrote: "It's incredible to be where I am position-wise, but it takes a bit of getting used to being here at the expense of so many other people who have gone out in various unfortunate ways. It's incredible though, if I had the money and entries were open I'd be paying now to secure my slot for next time."Reuse content