Obit from the NYT
the Waves, and Broke Barriers
Boston — After all the risks she took at sea, Florence Arthaud died on Monday
in an accident
far from any ocean: a collision
between two helicopters in
that also killed nine others, including the French Olympic
swimming champion Camille Muffat.
They were filming a new French reality show titled “Dropped” for the
leading French network TF1 in which small teams of celebrities were to be
transported by helicopters into an isolated area without food
or maps and
asked to return to home base without assistance.
But what was supposed to be a vehicle for entertainment turned instead
Arthaud, who died at the age of 57, was once the most popular sports
figure in France
: quite an achievement for a diminutive female sailor in a
country with no shortage of soccer, rugby, basketball and tennis stars.
But competitive sailing, particularly solo sailing, has long tapped into
something deeply embedded in the French psyche.
“I think the French like solitary heroes: adventurers, travelers,” another
French female sailor, Isabelle Autissier, once said. “It’s quite a part of our
culture with colonialism, the exploration of America and all the rest. I think
our culture is more oriented toward the individual exploit, while the AngloSaxons
have a culture that’s more oriented toward collective accomplishment.
We seem to have trouble getting organized as a group.”
In 1990, when Arthaud became the first woman to win the single*handed
, the Route
du Rhum, she triumphed not only over nature but also over the preconception that only men
were equipped to handle the
rigors of such an event.
She was nicknamed La Petite Fiancée de l’Atlantique (the little fiancée of
the Atlantic) and became a star and a symbol: a magnet for both the paparazzi
and for pop philosophers who wanted to analyze her social significance at
, which had founded the publishing house Arthaud, had deep
literary roots, after all, and it seemed fitting that the publishing house, run by
her father, Jacques, was drawn to grand tales of adventure.
But Florence Arthaud, the family’s most prominent adventurer, struggled
to convert her victory in the Route
du Rhum into more sailing success.
Economic setbacks in France
in the early 1990s made it difficult to find
sponsors. So, over time, did her tempestuous character.
“Florence was someone extraordinary on the water
but uncontrollable on
land, and that worked against her,” Autissier told Le Monde. “She ate. She
drank. She smoked at a moment when the byword was ‘no limit.’ That was
without a doubt not to the taste of the sponsors. Look at today’s sailors. They
are more settled, more polished, more good boys.”
The birth of her daughter, Marie, in 1993 kept her closer to home. But
sailing in France also grew more competitive: both on the water
and in the
boardrooms where financial backing for sailing campaigns was secured.
Arthaud became increasingly a peripheral figure in the sport and was
unable to secure funding
for another Route du Rhum, not even in 2010, which
was the 20th anniversary of her victory. Nor did she take part in what has
become France’s premier solo sailing event: the Vendée Globe, a quadrennial
around the world.
But Arthaud’s influence on other sailors, particularly other women, was
clear, and Frenchwomen of her own generation, like Autissier and Catherine
Chabaud, and next*generation stars, like the British prodigy Ellen MacArthursoon followed her lead.
“She was passionate about the ocean and nature, and it was not
something that was meant make her look good as it is for plenty of protectorsof the environment
,” said Olivier de Kersauson, the prominent French offshore
who was one of her friends and mentors, in comments to Le Figaro
on Tuesday. “She always made me laugh. She was funny
and open and she
regularly rose up from the ashes, always trying to restart her projects. She was
a magnificent and incredible person.”
Arthaud was sailing by the age of 6 and was involved in a serious car
at the age of 17 that initially left her in a coma and forced her to be
hospitalized for several months. When she recovered, her appetite for sailing
was even stronger and in 1978, at the age of 21, she took part in the inaugural
edition of the Route du Rhum. The youngest competitor and the only woman
in the fleet, she finished 11th and returned to compete in the race in 1982 and
During the 1986 event, she changed course to respond to the distress
of competitor Loïc Caradec and arrived to find his catamaran
had capsized. There was no trace of Caradec, dead at age 38.
But that tragedy did not dissuade Arthaud from pursuing her own career
and persuading the French real estate developer Christian Garrel to finance a
, the Pierre 1er.
In August of 1990, she broke the existing record
for a single*handed
, completing the journey in just under 10 days. In November,
she won the Rhum, crossing the finish line after 14 days and just over 10 hours
despite back problems and other health
“Calm down!” she shouted at the scrum of reporters and photographers
who were jostling to get close to her as she arrived on the dock
“I really don’t think the world of sailors is a macho world,” she said. “I
think it’s a world where people respect each other for their talents.”
But her greatest escape at sea would come more than 20 years later in
October 2011 when she slipped and fell off her 10*meter yacht Argade II near
midnight while sailing alone in the Mediterranean
The yacht, with her cat aboard, continued on autopilot
without her as she
remained behind in the water without a life jacket. She did have a cellphone
and a headlamp and was able to type in her pin number and telephone hermother on land for assistance. She was rescued more than two hours after her
call with the help of a helicopter whose crew was able to locate her by
her telephone’s signal.
“I was not at all sure I was going to make it,” she told Le Figaro. “I’m a
survivor. The devil didn’t want me.”
Less than four years later, a helicopter ride in Argentina put an end to her
life instead of saving it.