Obituary: French sailor Florence Arthaud enjoyed success at sea and life to the full

PARIS (AFP) - Tough-talking French sailor Florence Arthaud, who died in a helicopter crash on Monday, was not only one of the finest sailors of her generation, but she opened up solo, long-distance racing to women in a rugged male-dominated sport.

Arthaud became a household name in France after navigating to victory in the brutal, solo Atlantic-crossing Route du Rhum race in 1990, and had many a brush with death during a colourful life.

Her sheer determination and navigational skills brought her countless trophies as she criss-crossed the globe from the 1970s, with her inspiration being the legendary Breton yachtsman Eric Tabarly, who disappeared in the Irish Sea in 1998.

She also opened the way for the likes of Ellen MacArthur, who ruled the waves for women in February 2005, when she broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe.

During the 1986 Route du Rhum, which was her third edition of the gruelling race, Arthaud answered a mayday call and doubled back in search of struggling countryman Loic Caradec.

She found his upturned catamaran, but Cadarec himself was never seen again.

As recently as October 2011, she herself actually had her life saved by a helicopter after falling overboard off the Corsican coast, and was only plucked from the sea hours later after calling for help from a waterproof mobile phone.

"It wasn't my day, it was a real miracle," she said later, after the helicopter had fished her out of the sea, conscious but suffering from hypothermia.

Born in the Paris suburbs in October 1957, her father ran a publishing house.

Her first brush with death came in a car wreck at 17 that left her in a coma, and she was known for a riotous lifestyle that saw her arrested in 2010 for drink-driving and admitted to heavy drinking in her worst moments.

When remembering her finest hours in an interview with AFP in October last year, the 57-year-old expressed little regret for the way she lived her life.

"We had nothing to our names, we didn't have a house, we lived on our boats. We were a group of mates and we were all family," she said.

"I had my daughter when I was 36. I hadn't had a typically woman's life before that. I had a riotous and adventurous life."

After her Route du Rhum win in 1990, she won that year's French "Champion of champions" award, which is akin to the BBC's Sports personality of the year award.

Olympic gold medallist swimmer Camille Muffat and Olympic boxer Alexis Vastine were also among the 10 people killed when two helicopters filming a survival series smashed into each other in rugged mountains of Argentina.