Florence Arthaud had an extraordinary career and seemed quite indestructible, says Elaine Bunting

It feels unreal that Florence Arthaud is gone. She always seemed the most indestructible of sailors, less vulnerable than many of the male solo sailors I’ve met: truly strong and with a calm aura of inner strength.

I always thought her wise, too, giving up professional sailing (as did other top French women sailors, such as Isabelle Autissier) at the zenith and leaving it just as confidently behind to do her own thing in her own boat for her own pleasure.

Killed this week in a terrible helicopter crash in Argentina, Florence Arthaud – ‘Flo’, as she was affectionately known – is a huge loss and is much mourned in France. She cut a dash in sailing. One of the most famous photos of Flo (below) by Thierry Martinez, is of her winning the solo Route du Rhum in 1990, aged 33, standing on the windward hull of the golden trimaran Pierre 1er with her wild hair flowing in the night breeze off Guadeloupe.


Florence Arthaud Route du Rhum 1990

Florence Arthaud Route du Rhum 1990

Flo pioneered the way for women at the top of offshore sailing. Ellen MacArthur many will consider as the most successful female offshore sailor of all time, but while she was still at school, Arthaud won the Route du Rhum and, the same year, broke the solo transatlantic record by setting a new time of 9 days, 21 hours 42 minutes.

She was highly successful in the Figaro solo class and raced two-handed in the AG2R transatlantic race with Jean Le Cam.

Arthaud was cherished for her indomitability, and for good reason. Before her death this week, she had narrowly escaped losing her life at least twice before. The first was when she was only 17 and involved in a serious car accident. She emerged from a coma to find she was paralysed and disfigured, and spent six months in hospital followed by two years of painful convalescence.

Arthaud was always positive, saying that she was “lucky to live. It got me out of my environment, and showed me what was meant for me. I felt I had the right to do anything. At school I was not very bright intellectually or good at sports, but sailing, that’s what I could do.”

One morning, she left her family a note on the pillow. It said: “I need to take off.” She went to the sailing club at Antibes and launched herself into the small world of offshore racing. At 21 she was the youngest skipper in the 1978 Route du Rhum, and dubbed ‘la petite fiancée de l’Atlantique’. She finished 11th, and vowed to return.

In the Route du Rhum in 1986, she picked up during a storm a Mayday from fellow sailor Loïc Caradec sailing the catamaran Royal II. Arthaud immediately went to help and was the first to reach the position, but there was no sign of Caradec. She never forgot the experience of being unable to give up hope of finding him.

But Arthaud was to have her own closest brush with tragedy at sea in 2011. She was sailing her 10m yacht single-handed between Corsica and the island of Elba in late October when she lost her balance and was knocked into the sea while getting ready to have a pee.

Miraculously, her GPS enabled mobile phone saved her life. She had bought the water resistant phone only days before and was carrying it with her in a pocket. She was able to use it to make a call to her mother in Paris, who alerted the rescue authorities.

The position of the mobile phone was used by rescue services to pinpoint Arthaud in the water. She was rescued at approximately 0200 local time after two hours in the water and was transferred to hospital suffering from hypothermia.

After being discharged the following day, she commented: “I think of all those I’ve competed with, of Tabarly and other friends who were lost at sea. I knew I wasn’t certain to survive. All I can say is that it is a miracle. The devil does not want me,” she told French TV.

Her yacht was found several hours after the rescue and towed into port.

Given her love of the sea, and her great skill at avoiding its perils, it seems especially shocking and tragic that Florence Arthaud died in this crash. She is a great loss.