Joyon the reluctant hero welcomed home after smashing world record

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Dame Ellen MacArthur could still manage a huge grin yesterday as she joined the thousands who gathered dockside at the western tip of Brittany here to pay tribute to the sailing phenomenon that is Francis Joyon. Nearly three years ago she had beaten his record of 12 months' standing for sailing solo round the world with a new time of 71 days 14 hours.

Earlier, in the small hours of a windy January morning off Ushant, Joyon, 51, beat that time by 14 days, 44 minutes and 27 seconds. He had not just snatched his record back, he had crushed it and pulverised it and achieved much more than a sailing record.

His time of 57 days 13hr 34min 06sec was a triumph of human endeavour, courage and determination and MacArthur was unstinting in her praise.

"I am so happy for him," she said after watching from a helicopter as Joyon made his entry into the harbour with a barrage of fireworks and a cascade of water jets. "What he has been through took a lot, it has been really hard. When, after being pushed for so long, he had to go up the mast to make repairs near the end, that was really brutal. I know, I have done it."

Did this mean that she now had to consider trying to win back the record? "I don't know," she replied. "It is certainly motivating to be here. Until it was broken, I didn't know how I would feel."

The initial run down the Atlantic was so fast that it served notice of a serious threat to MacArthur's hold on the record. His run around Antarctica was near perfect, never encountering headwinds as, this time, Joyon was also guided by his weather router Jean-Yves Bernot. When Joyon first set the record for the first time in 2004 he had no outside help.

The return north up the Atlantic nearly ended in disaster when a vital rigging pin holding up the mast was found to be working loose. Joyon went up the mast five times to lash it securely in place, and there were signs all over the boat of similar running repairs to the rig and sail mechanisms.

But Joyon, among many attributes, is a resourceful man. Physically, he is very strong, with hands like shovels. Mentally he is strong – a typically stubborn Breton, but bullet-proof said a friend – and he has forthright views about how life should be lived.

On the inside of both outer hulls was written the message "Pour permettre aux hommes de rester libres de leurs mouvements at leurs pensées" – that is, to allow mankind to stay free in both movement and thought. Joyon had also made the point of having no engine, relying on solar panels and a wind generator to charge the batteries.

He hates razzmatazz and publicity, and insisted on delaying a big media conference – he was the lead item nationally and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, called personally – to take his family for lunch. A request for an interview by Time magazine was, apparently, politely, but firmly, turned down.

The French have always revered their sailing heroes, but high praise indeed came from Jocelyn Blériot, the great-nephew of the pioneer aviator Louis. Of all the current crop of top-level French sailors – and they could fill a room – Joyon, he believes, is the true inheritor of the mantle of Eric Tabarly, the man who sparked the nation's love affair with ocean racing over 40 years ago when winning the single-handed transatlantic race from Plymouth.

Joyon will continue to do his own thing. While his new, 98-foot trimaran Idec, designed by the Anglo-French partnership of Nigel Irens and Benoït Cabaret, was being built he took his family cruising to Tahiti and back for six months. He wanted to put his family first, not least his wife, Virginie, who dreads his exploits.

The Idec, chief executive, Patrice Lafargue promised "no limit" support for future projects – "he would buy me the moon if I asked him today" said Joyon – but the next two years include only Transpac and 24-hour distance record attempts.

Unless, of course, someone takes his crown away again.