French sailing gained a new hero as Armel Le Cléac'h wins the Vendée Globe ahead of his British rival Alex Thomson

France gained a new hero this afternoon when solo sailor Armel Le Cléac’h crossed the finish line of Vendée Globe race in Les Sables d’Olonne. It was third time lucky on this great race for the 40-year-old Breton, who finished 2nd on his previous two races.

This time Le Cléac’h confidently seized victory by setting a bold new course record of 74d 3h 35m in his boat Banque Populaire.

He beat the time four years ago set by François Gabart by 3h 22d. By an interesting coincidence, it was near enough the time of four days faster predicted at the start by VPLP, the designers of his boat (and, indeed, all the new designs).

“I hoped to win this race ten years ago,” he said at the finish. “Today is a perfect day. I understand that today I have done something big. My team have been amazing they’re the dream team, and this is their day too.”

Olivier Blanchet / DPPI / Vendee Globe

Finish arrival of Armel Le Cleac’h (FRA), skipper Banque Populaire VIII

Le Cléac’h rounded Cape Horn some 800 miles ahead of his nearest rival, Alex Thomson, but saw that lead eroded time and again as Thomson repeatedly found an overdrive gear. The predominantly starboard tack Atlantic sections suited Thomson, whose port foil had remained intact.

At one point in the last days approaching France, Thomson closed to within 32 miles.

Le Cléac’h could not be overtaken. But the duel between the two, which has raged since the first week of the race, has defined this edition of the Vendée Globe.

The French sailor, nicknamed ‘The Jackal’ because of his relentless, predatory pursuit of racing rivals, this time became the prey and Thomson the hunter.

Le Cléac’h paid tribute to his pursuer, saying he had driven them both on right to the final night of the race.

“It has been very difficult with Alex behind me, he gave me a really hard time in this Vendée Globe,” he said. “Each time things went his way and I got nothing. It was stressful because he kept catching me. With a lead of 800 miles off Cape Horn, I didn’t think I’d be facing such pressure.

“I’m very happy for Alex, it is a great 2nd place.”

Finish arrival of Armel Le Cleac’h (FRA), skipper Banque Populaire VIII

Le Cléac’h betrayed mixed but strong emotions at the finish, and at one point sobbed, perhaps with relief.

Yet he confessed to few weaknesses, and seemed to attribute the closeness to his rival near the end of the race to a run of bad luck.

“In the Pacific…. a halyard hook broke and that stopped me from using one sail in the Pacific. I was a bit afraid after that that the others would break too.

“I thought I’d made my getaway at Cape Horn, but everything was against me, the high in the South Atlantic, which blocked my path, then the Doldrums, which weren’t kind to me, followed by the transition zone around the low off the Canaries. It was a bit of a mess. Each time things went his way and I got nothing.”

He added: “I have really been pushing hard. If I look fine now, it’s because I’m happy to have won, but it’s been tiring. There were times when I felt everything was going against me, so it was highly emotional even before I crossed the line.

“When the wind disappeared I tried to find something to help me. Something lucky. I prayed to the wind gods and that’s when I shaved off my beard.”

“It was when I tacked off the Scillies that I finally was able to enjoy myself. I haven’t had too much work to do and would like to thank my team. It’s down to them that this boat performed so well.

“That’s three Vendée Globes in a row for me. The dream has come true, so now I’m moving on to something else. I’m pleased to be back with others and to be getting a good meal. It’s a huge change for me.”

Alex Thomson is expected to cross the finish line in the morning of 20 January.