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Many sail alone, but few find a dazzling moment like Flo’s

2015 September 18

In 1995, in the quaint era when logo T-shirts (non-technical 100% cotton) were considered as important to business promotion as a Facebook page is today, SAILING created one that featured a portrait of Joshua Slocum and a drawing of his yawl Spray. It’s a classic. If you’re lucky enough to possess one, it might fetch a tidy sum on eBay, but better to preserve it as a tribute to a great sailing trendsetter.

Joshua Slocum a trendsetter? He sure was. The T-shirt was issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his completion of the first-ever singlehanded circumnavigation of the globe by a sailboat. Since then some 50 sailors have followed his lead and sailed alone around the world. 

On a less global scale, the growth of singlehanded sailing is evident in the popularity of numerous races for those who prefer to go it alone. Once considered something of a cult, singlehanded sailing, along with its shorthanded cousin doublehanded sailing, has moved into the mainstream of our sport.

Slocum, a sailing ship captain forced into retirement by the wintering of the once lush age of sail, sailed off in his frail 37-footer merely, it seemed, for lack of a good reason to stay on shore. 

There are some Slocums among today’s singlehanders, men and women who choose to sail alone with no agenda other than to experience solitude and independence in the offshore world. Others are driven to compete in races or against the records set by their solo-sailing brethren.

A friend who used to routinely cross the continent in a few hours as an airline pilot now spends days to travel a fraction of that distance in his vintage J/29—without a copilot. His accounts of his experiences in long-distance singlehanded races are invariably cheerful, even when describing races I’ve sailed with a full crew that left us all sleep-deprived zombies. 

By the way, in case anyone is wondering, solo sailors do sleep underway. For them, keeping a proper lookout is a luxury more than an axiom of seamanship.

There are some amazing sailing athletes in the ranks of solo sailors. I don’t mean just the professional sailors who sail exotic boats in races like the Vendee Globe, but amateurs who think nothing of solo-sailing an ultralight Moore 24 in a 2,250-nautical mile race from San Francisco to Hawaii or a 22-footer in a race from Marion, Massachusetts, to Bermuda.

Those are small boats for big oceans, but at least it can be said that they are nicely scaled for handling by a single person. Not so the vessels sailed by the elites of singlehanded sailing. Their Open 50s and 60s, monohulls that have much in common with the boats that drive eight-person crews to exhaustion in the Volvo Ocean Race, and their monster multihulls are such brutes that managing them alone is surely among the most daunting challenges in sport.

My heroine in that realm is the French adventure sailor Florence Arthaud, who sailed her first singlehanded transatlantic race at the age of 21. She went on to be a tough, outspoken, occasionally profane pioneer for women in singlehanded and crewed offshore sailing, including the Whitbread Round the World Race. She was an international sailing star before 1990, but in that year she etched her place in the history of singlehanded sailing with two splendid achievements as skipper and crew of a high-powered 60-foot trimaran named Pierre 1er.

Her tri was a complicated machine that in deck views suggested a vehicle designed for space travel. Flo, as her legion of French fans called her, looked tiny standing amid the giant winches, blocks and furlers and the massive crossbeams that connected the hulls. With that boat, she won the singlehanded Route du Rhum transatlantic race and broke the singlehanded transatlantic passage record in the same year.

Those feats are in the record books, but it is a photograph that memorializes for the ages a dazzling moment in her life that defines the spirit of bold sailing. The image was captured by the French sports photographer Thierry Martinez as Arthaud sped to the Route du Rhum finish line off Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe.

In the photo, made in the golden light of sunset, the mighty tri is churning a roiling white wake at some fantastic speed. Arthaud, then just 33 years old, is a lithe figure beneath the towering rig balancing with balletic grace on the rail of the windward hull, which flies 12 feet above the water. It’s a stunning tableaux full of panache and joie de vivre glossed with a touch of glamor that makes you want to shout, “You go, Flo! 

You can find the picture on the Internet. A word of caution to members of the sailing safety police: viewing it may induce mal de mer. Flo is not wearing a life vest or safety harness.

Twenty-one years later, her life was saved by a different kind of safety device. She was sailing alone on the Mediterranean on a 33-foot monohull near Corsica when she fell overboard. “I quite simply fell into the water while preparing to take a pee,” she explained. With her as she fell was a waterproof GPS-equipped cell phone, which she used to call her mother in Paris. Two hours later she was picked up by a helicopter, hypothermic but alive.

Alas, there will be no more narrow escapes for Florence Arthaud. She was killed in March 2015. After surviving thousands of miles of sailing alone, often in dangerous waters on dangerous boats, she died in a helicopter crash in Argentina with nine other people working on a television reality show. 

Her dazzling moment lives on.