Florence Arthaud, the French sailor who died at 57 in a helicopter crash in Argentina on Monday along with nine others, including two French Olympians, was celebrated by the French yachting world as the only woman to have won the Route du Rhum, a grueling solo trans-Atlantic race.
That victory, in 1990, was the apex of her career. Aboard the 60-foot trimaran Groupe Pierre, she outdueled the world’s top solo ocean racers in a 3,500-mile sprint that took her from Brittany, France, to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. No woman has won the event since.
In France her 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.
Officials in La Rioja Province in northwestern Argentina said Ms. Arthaud had been aboard one of two helicopters carrying 10 people to a remote gorge to film a television reality show, “Dropped,” when the aircraft collided. The participants were to be left to find their way back to civilization.
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 the Britons Sam Davies and Dame Ellen MacArthur.
“When she won, she was an inspiration to most girls in France and in Europe,” Isabelle Autissier, the first woman to complete a circumnavigation in competition, said in a phone interview from France on Tuesday. “She demonstrated that it wasn’t just the muscle of man needed to win solo competitions. It was the brain, accuracy in meteorology and working with yacht design.”
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.”
Davies is currently leading an all-women’s team in the Volvo Ocean race.
Though Arthaud and Autissier shared the mantle as France’s top female sailors, it was Arthaud who had the fastest start in the sport.
She was born on October 28, 1957, in Boulogne-Billancourt, France. Her parents ran a publishing house in Paris, and she grew up sailing with notable French yachtsmen, including the father of French offshore sailing, Eric Tabarly. At 17 she was in a serious car accident that left her in a coma. It took her two years to recover.
Sailing solo is inherently treacherous, but Arthaud was masterly in avoiding disaster. Her most recent close call came in 2011, when she was washed overboard while sailing solo off the coast of Corsica. She was able to retrieve her cellphone — it was in a waterproof case — and phoned her mother in Paris. She was rescued after several hours alone in the sea.Despite setting several transoceanic records, including one in the 1997 Transpac race with the French yachtsman Bruno Peyron, Arthaud wanted more from her career, but she had trouble finding sponsors in later years.
“It was painful for her,” Autissier said.
Arthaud was divorced. Her survivors include her daughter, Marie.