Sailing: Joyon fights final gale in bid to smash MacArthur's record

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Just 24 gale-lashed hours stand today between a truly remarkable Frenchman, Francis Joyon, and a truly remarkable record not just for sailing solo round the world, but the second fastest circumnavigation of all time.

Waiting on the dock to hand back the title to the man she beat will be Britain's Ellen MacArthur who, in February 2005, was cheered by thousands into Falmouth and had the accolade of being made a Dame immediately transmitted from No 10.

She had knocked 32 hours off the record, set a year earlier by Joyon; this time she will see her time of 71days 14hrs 18min 33sec beaten by the staggering margin of over two weeks.

Joyon will have completed the 26,000 miles on his own faster than all but one other yacht. As long as he avoids any last-minute catastrophic damage – he managed to pile his last yacht onto the rocks of his native Brittany at the end of a transatlantic run – he will miss by less than a week the outright record of 50d 16hr 20min 04sec set by Bruno Peyron in the 120-foot Orange II in March 2005. However, he will beat by a couple of days the previous second-best time of 58d 09hr 32min 45 sec set by the late Steve Fossett's Cheyenne. Both of them were bigger and both were fully crewed.

It was in 1994 when Peter Blake and Robin Knox-Johnston earned their knighthoods when they set a time, with a strong crew, of 74d 22hr 17min 22sec in Enza.

They completed the last few miles with no sails and trailing ropes and drogues to slow them down in a gale showing no sapping of its strength.

Joyon is being pushed home by a similarly hostile weather system and should be taking every care, not least since finding that a bolt attaching the rigging to the top of the mast was trying to work its way loose when he went up to check damage to the rope which holds up the sail.

Climbing the mast was one of those jobs which MacArthur, by no means the wailing wimp she was painted by Spitting Image, had to screw up courage to do. Joyon went up a total of five times, injured an ankle as he was buffeted and battered, and fixed the problem.

When he first broke the record he did it in a tired boat, with sails by then more suited to providing a carport, with no major shore team, no outside weather routing input, but fortunately with a sponsor more interested in promoting endeavour than its own commercial interests.

Idec, an industrial buildings and factory park developer, came back and Joyon has delivered again. Last time, Rodney Pattisson, one of Britain's most successful Olympians, and with whom Joyon has often raced, was so impressed that he was on the dockside to give him one of his gold medals.

Joyon was torn; he recognised the depth of the gesture but his massive modesty made him a reluctant hero figure. But not a reluctant competitor.