Yachtswoman who was an inspiration to women sailors

Florence Arthaud: October 28th, 1957 – March 9th, 2015


Florence Arthaud, a sailor who has died aged 57 in a helicopter crash in Argentina, was celebrated by the French yachting world as the only woman to have won the Route du Rhum, a gruelling solo transatlantic race.

That victory, in 1990, was the apex of her career. Aboard the 60-foot trimaran Groupe Pierre, she outduelled the world’s top solo ocean racers in a 3,500-mile sprint that took her from Brittany to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. No woman has won the event since.

In France Arthaud’s photograph graced the cover of national magazines, and her striking looks – typically tanned, with piercing eyes framed by thick, wavy auburn hair – only enhanced the celebrity image.

Arthaud had been aboard one of two helicopters carrying 10 people to a remote gorge in northwestern Argentina to film a television reality show when the aircraft collided. Among the dead were Camille Muffat (25), who won three swimming medals at the 2012 London Olympics, and Alexis Vastine (28), who won a bronze medal in boxing at the 2008 Beijing games.

Arthaud had been a familiar competitor in sailing circles throughout the 1980s and 1990s, famed for her solo exploits. But none was as storied as her victory in the Route du Rhum.

The race is considered second in prestige only to the Vendée Globe, a solo nonstop around-the-world race. And her win helped pave the way for some renowned female solo sailors of today, including Sam Davies and Dame Ellen MacArthur of Britain.

Not just muscle

Isabelle Autissier

She added, “She was the most popular sailor in France for sure.”

Davies, considered the world’s top female solo sailor, recalled Arthaud from an early age. “I remember as a little girl cutting out this amazing picture of Florence and putting it on my bedroom wall,” she said. “It was this amazing picture of her on this silver trimaran Groupe Pierre looking so feminine. It inspired me that you could be a girl and sail these amazing boats.”

Although Arthaud and Autissier shared honours as France’s top female sailors, it was Arthaud who had the fastest start in the sport. Born in the Boulogne-Billancourt suburb of Paris, her parents ran a publishing house and she grew up sailing with notable French yachtsmen, including the father of French offshore sailing, Eric Tabarly.

In 2011 she was washed overboard while sailing solo off Corsica. She was able to retrieve her cellphone – it was in a waterproof case – and was rescued after several hours alone in the sea.

In later years she had trouble finding sponsors for her racing. “It was painful for her,” Autissier said.

Florence Arthaud was divorced. Her survivors include her daughter, Marie.