PARIS – Florence Arthaud, the first woman to win the prestigious Route du Rhum trans-Atlantic sailing race, was killed when two helicopters filming a European reality show crashed in a remote part of Argentina. She was 57.
Arthaud, one of France's most beloved sportswomen, earned the nickname "the little fiancee of the Atlantic" when she triumphed in the Route du Rhum in 1990 at the helm of her trimaran Pierre 1er in record time.
Arthaud's victory in the famed race between Brittany and the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe paved the way for other women to follow in her footsteps, with the likes of Ellen McArthur, Isabelle Autissier and Karine Fauconnier finding inspiration in her feat.
Arthaud was one of 10 people killed when the helicopters apparently collided in the air Monday near Villa Castelli in La Rioja province, about 730 miles (1,170 kilometers) northwest of Buenos Aires. The dead also included French Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Camille Muffat and Olympic boxer Alexis Vastine.
During her Route du Rhum victory, Arthaud overcame difficult sea conditions, a faulty radio and a defective automatic pilot to beat a fleet of male sailors. A slipped disc forced her to wear a neck brace. She also set a record for a solo crossing of the Atlantic, with a time of 9 days, 21 hours and 42 minutes.
"You need character to go out to sea and to win the Route du Rhum as Florence did," said Philippe Poupon, a winner of the Route du Rhum and Solitaire du Figaro races. "She loved the sea. We've lost a big personality. There were many nights spent with Florence, discussions about life. She was very endearing person."
The daughter of a publishing house director born in the chic Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, Arthaud did not live up to the huge expectations her victory raised, but she became a symbol of women's rights after conquering a male-dominated sport.
"She was a fighter," said French sailor Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, who was second in the Route du Rhum in 1998. "At the time it was extraordinary because not many women were doing this. She opened the way for others."
With her voluminous hair, gravelly voice and cheerful banter, Arthaud also had a reputation for a colorful and tumultuous lifestyle. She was once sentenced for drunk driving.
After the birth of her daughter Marie in 1993, Arthaud took part in several crewed races and spent time on the Figaro circuit. In 2010, she failed in her bid to return on the Route du Rhum because of lack of sponsorship.
"We are obviously less supported than the men," Arthaud said. "Sponsors are more timorous when it comes to women. On equal budget, they will also pick the man."
Arthaud, who was divorced, was planning to launch a women-only event in Marseille, where she lived when not in Paris.
Arthaud, who survived a car crash as a teenager, experienced a near-death experience in 2011 when she fell from her boat at night in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. Her boat drifted away but Arthaud was located and saved thanks to her mobile phone.
"I led and adventurer's life and burnt the candle at both ends," Arthaud once said.