Pacific first for Frenchwoman who rowed solo across ocean in wake of 'Kon-Tiki' explorer

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The Independent Online

Maud Fontenoy, 26, has became the first woman to row across the Pacific Ocean.

Maud Fontenoy, 26, has became the first woman to row across the Pacific Ocean.

Escorted for the last few miles by a French navy frigate and a large flotilla of traditional Polynesian canoes, the Frenchwoman completed the 4,287 miles (6,900km) from Peru to Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands in 73 days.

She was carried ashore in triumph by two men in Polynesian costume and was immediately declared a Tahia (queen) of the islands.

Mme Fontenoy, who had previously rowed alone across the North Atlantic, followed the westbound, equatorial current from the Peruvian port of Callao. She rowed slightly north of the route used by the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl in the balsa wood raft Kon-Tiki in 1947.

Mr Heyerdahl and his five-man crew took 101 days to reach French Polynesia. The French adventuress, from Meaux near Paris, had expected to match their time. She arrived a month early.

In a radio interview just before her arrival on Saturday, she confessed that she was "daunted" by the prospect of returning to the "world of people" after more than two months with just sharks and birds for company. "But it is a moment that I have looked forward to for so long, I am also overjoyed," she said.

Mme Fontenoy's worst moment came, she said, when her 7.5 metre (23 ft) rowing boat, the Oceor, capsized in high seas only six days before she crossed the finishing line. Her electrical equipment, including her radio and satellite telephone - her only means of communication with the rest of the world - were soaked.

"The whole boat filled with water. I thought I was going to die like a fish in an aquarium," she said.

Fortunately, the seas calmed and she managed to pull the light rowing boat upright. She dried the radio and telephone with cotton buds. At first, they refused to respond. Finally, the satellite telephone crackled back into life.

She wrote in her log: "I pushed the buttons. There was a beep-beep. A sweet warmth filled my body. A miracle. Someone picked up at the other end. Tears ran down my face." After her arrival, she said: "This was not an adventure but an exercise of will to prove that even a woman has the determination and physical strength to make a solo crossing of this length. My fingers are hurting and my back is in terrible pain, because I was really pushing it the last few days".

The Oceor, built in Picardy from red cedar wood and covered with fibreglass, has a sliding seat and oars in the middle and small cabins at each end. The front cabin is a store room and the rear cabin a kitchen and sleeping space. The craft has water-filled ballast tanks but several sealed compartments within its hull make it unsinkable.

Mme Fontenoy survived on dried food and sea-water, purified by two machines, one mechanical and the other powered by the sun.

President Jacques Chirac, who is visiting Japan, sent Mme Fontenoy a telegram of congratulations. "Bravo for this superb achievement," he said, before going on to salute her "courage" and "her moral and physical strength".