Winded but Happy, French Solo Sailor Philippe Jeantot Sets a New Round-the-World Record

updated 05/30/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Battered by 30-foot swells and 55-knot winds, French skipper Philippe Jeantot, now 31, clung to the deck of his 56-foot aluminum cutter Crédit Agricole as he ran through "the roaring forties" bound for Cape Horn. "The boat shakes and you think you are flying," recalls Jeantot. "I was afraid that I was going too fast and the boat would explode. I just cross my fingers. I don't think about death."

That 48-day Sydney-to-Rio crossing was the third and most horrific segment of a four-leg, more-than-27,000-mile round-the-world solo race that climaxed May 9 when Jeantot breezed across the Newport, R.I. finish line of the BOC Challenge. His total elapsed sea time of 159 days two hours 26 minutes shattered by 28 and a half days the previous single-handed monohull record. The six-foot, 163-pound Jeantot, a professional deep-sea diver who had made four transatlantic crossings but was unknown as a racer, placed first among a field of 17 solo sailors (10 were expected to finish) that also included a Czechoslovakian defector, an Antarctic-dogsled driver, an Amazon explorer and a Zen Buddhist cab driver from Tokyo.

Jeantot's arrival was greeted with fanfare français, as he doused himself—and the crowd—with Möet champagne. Jeantot's mother, flown in from France to surprise him, arrived with a yacht-adorned cake (he finished the race the day after his 31st birthday), and President Français Mitterrand lauded him in a telegram as "un exemple de courage et d'intelligence...."

The praise was not overstated. Jeantot faced trouble from the start when one of his freshwater tanks developed a leak. He used a pressure cooker to distill seawater and rationed himself to two pints a day. Twice—on both the Cape Town-to-Sydney and the Sydney-to-Rio legs—his boat suffered knockdowns. The second submerged the mast and damaged the rudder, forcing Jeantot overboard in 35°F water to assess the damage. His food was canned stew, sardines and ravioli. Although he talked daily on radio to friends in France, Jeantot spent hours of solitude talking to himself, as well as to "the boat, the sails, the sea and the wind vane."

Jeantot's love of the sea began early. He was born in 1952 in Madagascar, but grew up with his banker father, mother, sister and two brothers in Quimper, on the northwest coast of France. "I am the free spirit of the family," says Philippe, who began small-boat sailing after reading The Long Way, French sailor Bernard Moitessier's memoir of his 1968 solo trip around the world. "I say to myself, 'I have found my road,' " Jeantot remembers. "From that moment every-ling has been for that dream."

After high school, he served in the French Army as a parachutist, then worked as a diver, setting a 500-meter world record with several other divers in 1977. Highly paid, Jeantot could work just one month yearly and still sail around his favorite (and secret) Caribbean isle with his then girlfriend. When he heard of the race in 1981, however, he dropped everything and persuaded the French bank Crédit Agricole to contribute some $175,000 to the $290,000 project, including construction of the vessel, designed by Guy Ribadeau Dumas.

After his trip, bachelor Jeantot (he sheepishly admits to "probably a girl in every port") faces problems he never had to worry about at sea. "This cost a lot of money," he explains. "I sold everything—my apartment, my boat. I can't live on this racing boat. What to do?" The $25,000 from his victory will help, but for now Jeantot is enjoying more immediate pleasures. "The most important thing," he says, "is a shower—all that wonderful water—a large bed that doesn't move and a big steak that I don't have to cook."

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