Sailing: Peyron's historic journey: Frenchman set to eclipse round-the-world record

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FRANCE is poised to welcome home a record-breaking round-the-world yachtsman as Bruno Peyron, the skipper of the 85ft catamaran, Commodore Explorer, reaches the end of a demanding odyssey.

By midday yesterday he had 405 miles to go to the port of Brest and a breeze pushing him along at 17 to 22 knots. The challenge for the Jules Verne Trophy is to circle round the world, unaided, in 80 days.

Any time before two minutes past four today, French time, will see him complete the journey in 79 days. Any time before the same time tomorrow guarantees him the trophy, any time in the next 30 days secures a world record and all four are guaranteed a place in the history books.

After setting off from Brest on 1 February, his route has taken him down the Atlantic Ocean, east to the Cape of Good Hope, south of Australia and New Zealand on to the tip of South American and Cape Horn and back up the Atlantic.

Peyron, and the four crew members aboard Commodore Explorer, have had to contend with freezing weather conditions and debilitating damp, severe damage, a steering malfunction, and near-misses with two whales. On Sunday two crew members were swept out of the cockpit but were saved by their safety harnesses.

They have also had the exhilaration of speeding through the Southern Ocean between South Africa and New Zealand and, just last weekend, recording a 24-hour run of 507 miles, at an average of over 20 knots. The record of 525 miles midday to midday is held by the same yacht, when it was in its original 80ft form and known as Jet Services.

For comparison, Sir Francis Chichester circumnavigated the world in 226 days with one stop in 1966-67, Robin Knox-Johnston journeyed non-stop in 313 days in 1968-69, Chay Blyth and David Scott-Cowper went solo, the wrong way round, in 293 and 221 days respectively.

Roy Mullender took a fully crewed Great Britain II round in 133 days with one stop in 1975-76 and the present record of 109 days eight hours 48min 50sec was set by another Frenchman, Titouan Lamazou, who sailed single-handed in 1989.

The New Zealand-British attempt earlier this year by Peter Blake and Knox-Johnston came to an end when they suffered crippling hull damage to their 82ft catamaran, Enza New Zealand, 1,200 miles south-east of South Africa. Blake hopes to make another attempt in November, as does Lamazou. 'They (Commodore Explorer) have set the mark and I hope this will encourage other people to improve on their record,' Blake said.

On board Commodore they have run out of repair materials after patching life-threatening cracks while flying a hull in the vicious Southern Ocean. They have reported encountering 60- foot waves and near-vertical drops into the troughs in what Peyron described as his 'initiation into hell'.