Sailing: Joyon shuns limelight on voyage to solo record

Frenchman heads for around-world glory but private nature ensures only lukewarm reception on his return home
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The Independent Online

The latest lonely pilgrimage of yet another remarkable but intensely private French solo sailor is due to erupt from isolation to celebration today. That is, if the French wake up to the fact that something very special is happening on their own doorstep. Francis Joyon left Brest on 22 November playing down an assault on a world record. "If you take away the adventure aspect of this kind of journey, focusing only on the competitive, then it's not worth much," he said.

He returns to Brest having sailed 26,000 miles around the world in 73 days - 20 days inside the old record - saying he is not interested in the "glamorous" part of what he does. "What counts, above all, is what my family and close friends think. The rest, like image and recognition, won't govern my life."

The doyen of French sailing journalists, Patrick Chapuis, said in Brest last night: "The French public finds it difficult to understand, to put in context. But what he has done, I think it is fantastic. I have read again everything from Joshua Slocum [the first man to sail around the world single-handedly] to the present day and nothing is as important."

Quite why the coast of Brittany produces people with a passion for undertaking crazy exploits in the wildest part of the planet - much as the Welsh valleys churn out fly-halves - is a mystery. But one of the most enigmatic of them, Joyon, has quietly been putting together a display of dogged determination that has put him in the history books.

Joyon has not just beaten the previous record for sailing non-stop on his own around the world, the 93 days, 3hr 57min 32sec set by his compatriot Michel Desjoyeaux when beating Ellen MacArthur to win the Vendée Globe Race in 2001. He has eclipsed that and all previous efforts, knocking nearly three weeks off the target, or 20 per cent, and has set a time which, not many years ago, would have seen him lift the Jules Verne Trophy for being the fastest of all time.

The original Jules Verne target was 80 days and was eventually achieved by another Frenchman, Bruno Peyron. It was then won by the Kiwi-British pairing of sir Peter Blake and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston whose 74-day time with six other crew members has been beaten by Joyon on his own in a boat the same size.

And all of this on a shoe-string. Having seen his previous sponsor Banque Populaire pull the plug, Joyon pressed on. His boat is the same 90-foot trimaran that Olivier de Kersauson used to lower the Jules Verne bar to 71 days in 1997. In a rental deal, Joyon has paid just €460,000 (£315,000) to achieve his dream, which is about a 10th of what Britain's Tracy Edwards planned to spend to do the same thing in her 110-foot catamaran before deciding that a world record attempt was not terribly compelling. The Frenchman found a sponsor called Idec, a small construction company in central France, but could not even afford a new mainsail, so has used De Kersauson's from 1997 and set off.

Not only that; he insisted that he did not want any outside assistance in the form of weather routing analysis saying: "It would have less value if I had a team ashore." He does have a small shore team, which doubles up in his communications office. One of them, Jocelyn Bleriot, whose grandfather's uncle was the pioneer aviator, says he has known Joyon for some time, but, even with his friends, he can be very distant.

The 47-year-old Joyon is one of that inner circle of ocean racers which bases itself in western Brittany. His home is in Locmariaquer on the Gulf of Morbihan, where he lives with his wife Virginie and two children of 11 and five.

Some say he is "cool as ice" and even among that group, which constantly treads the dividing line between stubbornly self-sufficient and stupidly self-confident, he is regarded as one of the few that could tackle the dangers of handling such a powerful racing yacht for so long on his own.

This was his first foray into the wilds of the Southern Ocean and he has come through. "His navigation was flawless and the pace was as impressive as if he had a full crew with him," says his vastly experienced rival and friend, Franck Cammas.

He has had a relatively trouble-free run, apart from having to climb the 100-foot mast once in the Pacific to mend the head of that old mainsail and fixing a damaged dagger board with resin. He has also sailed the final 2,000 miles with a small hole in the port float and has a highly suspect recipe for fixing dodgy electrical components. "I boil some water, plunge the offending piece into it and then let it dry. One of two things happens. It works again because the salt has been dissolved away or it's definitely dead."

Maybe the man has a sense of humour. But, while the joke book could be one of the shortest in history, the epic he has just delivered to an unsuspecting world adds hugely to previous feats such as winning the 2000 Singlehanded Transatlantic Race from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island, in the 60-foot trimaran Eure et Loire and then, in the same boat the next year, setting both a Round the Isle of Wight race record and then going on to win the Fastnet Race. "It is some achievement," says Bleriot, as would have his great-great uncle.

There will undoubtedly be television coverage of Joyon's arrival in France today and he has ensured that it will be in daylight. Not because he wants to be sure of the publicity but because the entry to the harbour at Brest, ensnared by rocks, can be tricky so he has decided, even if it means waiting for a while, to delay that.

There will also be many on the dockside to greet him but anyone expecting an expansive Joyon is likely to be disappointed.

"It's a bit of a delicate issue," says Didier Piron, a journalist for L'Équipe, the French sports daily. "He has always done things for himself, not for publicity. He has kept his life at sea to himself and has never been interested in communication. All attempts to talk to him on the way round have been cut very short. That is why the French public has not really been aware of what he has been doing. Even on arrival I expect he'll do only what he has to for the media and will keep it to the minimum."