PARIS -- No matter how many times Florence Arthaud appears before the world on terra firma, the image of her that endures is on the sea, a darkened profile thrown up in shadow against the sail of her trimaran, the Pierre Premier, bobbing with the warp and woof of the water. Floodlights from the ships that accompany her to the finish line intermittently illuminate a lone figure perched along the rail, sea-battered hair blown back by the stiff wind, cigarette in hand. Calm and almost home.
Last month Arthaud enthralled the world of sailing by winning the solo transatlantic Route du Rhum race from St. Malo, France, to Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, one of the most difficult boat races in the world.
For 14 days, 20 hours, 8 minutes and 28 seconds France followed her lonely trajectory and silently pulled for her when the boat's radio broke, cutting her off from all communication. The nation crossed its fingers when Arthaud's automatic pilot went out, forcing her to navigate around the clock for a week and snatch sleep a half-hour at a time. It sent up a silent prayer when mysterious reports came back from mid-ocean that "Florence is hemorrhaging."
Exhausted, exhilarated -- only half-believing -- she came through, trouncing two previous champions, Canadian Mike Birch and compatriot Philippe Poupon, who cruised in the next day. She beat the record finishing time by eight hours.
Arthaud, 33, was not only the first woman to win the Route du Rhum, but in the fall was the first woman to break the world record for a transatlantic crossing, arriving in England from New York after 9 days, 21 hours and 42 minutes. Before this year she had never won a race or broken a record in her life.
You might say she's on a roll.
For those of us who forgot, they still make athletes like Arthaud -- steroid-free, drug-free and greed-free. Meet a sailor: petite as a Parisienne at 5 foot 4 and 119 pounds, all bone and muscle. Her handshake is the grasp of sandpaper. A single gold hoop earring peeks out from behind a scruff of shoulder-length sandy hair, as if she might secretly be a pirate.
Brown eyes, guileless and direct, gaze out from a face bearing the lines of the sea and scars from a teenage car accident. This is a woman who says what's on her mind, as in this reflection on her bleeding from cervical problems in mid-race:
"I bled for two days, and then it stopped for a day. Then the fourth day I started to bleed again for two hours. There was blood all over the boat. Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. I must have lost two liters of blood. I thought to myself, 'If this doesn't stop, I'm going to die.' So I thought of sending up my distress balloon, but then I figured, 'By the time a boat can get here either I'll be dead, or else I'll have stopped bleeding.' "
Then she laughs, small, even teeth revealed between parted lips. "But then when you arrive, you forget all that. When I look back and see that at a certain moment I was ready to give in, it makes me laugh."
Now she is a national hero. Florence on the cover of every magazine, on every other talk show, launching a line of algae-based cosmetics, sponsoring sports watches, pushing Evian mineral water. But it is not because she is a champion that she is a hero -- it is because in this country, where the ladies win by guile instead of fair and square, where nude (or nearly) women adorn everything from fast-food salad bars to cable TV news shows, Arthaud broke the stereotypes.
From Homer to Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea," it was the man who left the woman in port and set sail for distant shores, the man who waged the lonely battle against Nature, in search of self. And now Florence Arthaud.
Some were confused, such as the well-meaning tabloid that announced on its front page, "Florence, you're a real man!" Others were frankly awed. "She's really all alone, up here, where it counts," said an elderly comedian, tapping his temple, when questioned about Arthaud on a recent news show. She has been showered with praise from practically every woman politician and star newscaster in the country.
"I don't feel like a man at all. I don't live like a man. I'm sure that I am more delicate in my way of navigating, more sensitive," says Arthaud. "I have to be because I don't have the same strength as a man, although I am strong.
"I think women project in me their desire for liberty," she adds. She's obviously thought about it. "I have always sailed in order to be free, to feel completely free. On the sea I am totally independent, alone."
Right, but is she happy? She looks as if the question was: Is the sea deep? Do the fish swim? "I have realized my dream," she says. "That's extraordinary. There are not a lot of people who get to do that. I feel like I am living a fairy tale. I have never listened to anyone. I have always done what I wanted, when I wanted. I have had the life I wanted -- and it has brought me victory."
Arthaud was born in Paris and grew up among the privileged in the city's 16th arrondissement. Her parents own a publishing company that specializes in nautical subjects, and the family spent summers on the Riviera, often on the water. But Florence had a quick temper, a stubborn streak (which she has struggled to control), and did not always get on with everyone in her family. When her teens were over she fled Paris and the 16th arrondissement and set to sea.
By her count, for the past 12 years Arthaud had not lived in a single residence for more than a month at a time. She was always on the move, usually on the water, a trait she inherited from her grandmother, who at 98 still packs her bags and takes off for Cannes at the first opportunity.
Arthaud moved from Paris to Brittany to the Antilles islands to the Pacific Ocean, different races and different crews, penniless but committed to sailing. Fearless at 21, in 1978 she raced solo "transat," in sailing jargon, in the Route du Rhum. Since then she has crossed most of the globe's waterways in catamarans, trimarans, a monohull. But the boats were always borrowed or rented; she sought a sponsor so she could have her own vessel.
Then in 1988, on a visit home, her father put her in touch with Christian Garrel, head of a growing real estate group, Pierre Premier. The company was raising an apartment building across from the Arthauds' house, and Florence's father met the owner by chance.
"When I found Pierre Premier I had decided to keep trying for six more months or a year. I thought it was better to quit than to see one more fat, disgusting chairman of the board and have him saying, 'Yes, honey, of course we'll help you,' just so he could hit on me. I sail because I wanted to get away from all that," Arthaud says.
When she met Garrel, he listened to her proposals for 20 minutes and then, unbelievably, gave a simple yes. The company paid to build a new boat, the trimaran Pierre Premier, at a cost of $1.8 million, and supports Arthaud and her crew of five.
The three-hulled boat, completed in March, is 60 feet long and light as air, built of carbon and the synthetic Kevlar; its sails span 155 square yards. During the Route du Rhum it cut through the water at 20 knots.
"I am never afraid at sea. I feel protected, as if nothing can happen to me there," says Arthaud. "But the boats are very dangerous -- they are very extreme and they go very fast, like Formula One racing cars. I'm always very anxious on the boat. You are always at the edge of breaking or capsizing."
During the race she kept a journal that recorded her fears and hopes. She decorated it with pink felt-tip palm trees and little orange boats floating on a sunshine-yellow sea.
"Yippee!" she writes on Nov. 12, when the automatic pilot kicked back on. "I'm happy and feverish at the same time." Above the black ink text she has drawn her golden trimaran on the rise of a huge, blue Atlantic swell.
Then three days later she scrawls in big letters across two pages: "Still in the lead!!!!!!" Six exclamation marks -- she could barely believe it herself.
Is she really not lonely at sea? Was she born without a nesting instinct? "I can never stay put. I need to navigate, I need to be on the water," she says. "It's as strong in me as my need to smoke, or eat or drink. I preferred not knowing where I was going to sleep than the idea of going home and cooking for a man.
"But I have thought about the question if a man would ask me to stop." She pauses to reflect. "He could ask me to be more stable. ... But a man who loved me like I need him to love me would not ask me to stop. The other racers are all married, they all have wives and kids."
She yawns and blinks hard. Then she abruptly gets up and walks away from the dining room table. "I'm going to make some coffee. Want some?" She has been interviewing for two days straight since she got back from Guadeloupe, and in the evening will be the guest of honor on a variety show that she hates.
Here in her new apartment in the building that Pierre Premier built -- a penthouse duplex with a view of her parents' house from one window and the Eiffel Tower from another -- Arthaud seems to have everything that she could want. A French TV crew that is following her around for 48 hours lolls in the corner. Samples of the new Florence Arthaud Vivifying Mask and Reducing Gel are scattered on the table. Pierre Premier is building her a bigger, better boat -- twice the size of the winning craft -- for sailing around the world with a crew. The 80-day trip is planned for 1994 or '95.
"After that I'll stop," she says. "Slowly."
"I was always loyal to my ideas from the beginning, to be free. I'm happy to have succeeded without having deprived myself of anything, without giving in.
"Everything I do is for love."