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A female legend in a male-dominated sport

She was a beloved member of the French bluewater sailing “fraternity” who earned her nickname as the “Little Bride of the Atlantic” when in 1990, at the age of 33, she won in record time the fourth edition of the Route du Rhum, the solo trans-Atlantic race from France to Guadeloupe. Considered one of the best sailors in the world — a female rock star in a male-dominated sport — Arthaud, 57, was killed in Argentina on March 9 when two helicopters collided during the filming of a reality show for French television. Nine others also died in the accident, including three-time Olympic medalist swimmer Camille Muffat and Olympic bronze-medal-winning boxer Alexis Vastine.

Florence Arthaud set a record when she won the 1990 Route du Rhum, sailing an Open 60 trimaran.

“Florence Arthaud was one of France’s greatest yachtswomen and charmed the public when she won the 1990 Route du Rhum,” says a statement by the International Sailing Federation, the world governing body for competitive sailing.

“The whole of France is in mourning this morning,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the day after the crash.

Arthaud was participating in the reality series Dropped, the premise of which is to drop celebrities into a hostile environment and leave them to fend for themselves. The collision occurred over the mountains of La Rioja province in northern Argentina, about 700 miles north of Buenos Aires. “There are no survivors,” Horacio Alarcon, a spokesman for the provincial government, told Agence France-Presse, adding that weather conditions were good and the cause of the crash is under investigation. Filming of the show began in February but was halted after the crash.

Arthaud retired from competitive sailing in 2010 but remained an ardent supporter and revered figure of the sport. In 1978, at the age of 21, she was the youngest skipper competing in the Route du Rhum. In 1990, in her third attempt, Arthaud won the race, crossing the Atlantic in 14 days, 10 hours and 10 minutes aboard the trimaran Pierre 1. She established a new world record for the fastest solo crossing of the North Atlantic, breaking the previous record by two days. Adding to the challenge was the loss of her autopilot and radio during the race. She also suffered a hernia, but the victory earned her the accolade “Champion of Champions” by the French newspaper L’Equipe.

“Flo pioneered the way for women at the top of offshore sailing,” wrote Elaine Bunting in a tribute published by the British magazine Yachting World. Bunting said it “feels unreal” that 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.”

Arthaud nearly died in a car accident at the age of 17 and spent six months recovering in a hospital, at times in a coma. She skirted death again in 2011, when she fell overboard from her 33-foot yacht while sailing single-handed between Corsica and the island of Elba. She was carrying a marinized cellphone with GPS tracking, and rescuers pulled her to safety after two hours in the ocean. “I knew I wasn’t certain to survive,” she told French television reporters after the rescue. “All I can say is that it is a miracle. The devil does not want me.”

Looking back, Arthaud said she had no regrets about her full-speed-ahead lifestyle, which matched her full-throttle racing style. “I’ve lived the life of a free spirit and adventurer,” she told the French newspaper Le Monde in 2009.

May 2015 issue