Sir Robin Knox-Johnston pays tribute to sailing star Florence Arthaud after helicopter tragedy

One of two helicopters that crashed near Villa Castelli
One of two helicopters that crashed near Villa Castelli
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Sailing superstar Robin Knox-Johnston has paid tribute to his friend yachtswoman Florence Arthaud who died in a helicopter crash in Argentina.

Florence was taking part in a gameshow called Dropped when the accident happened yesterday, also claiming the lives of Olympic swimmer Camille Muffat and Olympic boxer Alexis Vastine.

Gosport-based Sir Robin said he had known Florence since she was 11 and was a friend of her family.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: ‘I knew her father well he was my publisher in France and I saw her last October. She was extraordinary and an incredibly tough sailor that we all liked.

She won the Route de Rhum in 1990 which is no mean feat. She was exceptional.’

‘She was always out there doing it and for her period of yacht racing she was at the top of the game.’

‘She also did quite a lot of sailing with other people and was into sailing in a big way.

‘I’ll remember her as quiet and serious and extremely witty. I had a great liking for and huge respect for.’

Two helicopters carrying French sports stars filming a popular European reality show crashed in a remote part of Argentina, killing 10 people including the sports stars.

The helicopters apparently collided in mid-air near Villa Castelli in La Rioja province, about 730 miles (1,170 kilometres) north-west of Buenos Aires, La Rioja secretary of security Cesar Angulo told TN television. All 10 people on board - eight French nationals and two Argentine pilots - were killed.

Florence Arthaud

Florence Arthaud

“An explosion occurred and it’s believed that they collided,” said Mr Angulo, referring to the helicopters. Photographs showed the burning and smoking wreckage of the helicopters on the ground in dry scrubland with people gathered nearby.

The news of the deaths during the filming of the reality survival show Dropped sent the French sports world into mourning.

French president Francois Hollande said in a statement: “The brutal demise of our compatriots is an immense sadness.”

Muffat, 25, won the gold medal in the 400-metre freestyle at the Olympic Games in 2012, adding a silver medal in the 200-metre freestyle and a bronze in the 4 by 200-metre freestyle relay. She had since retired from swimming to focus on her personal life.

The smoking remains of a helicopter that crashed with another near Villa Castelli

The smoking remains of a helicopter that crashed with another near Villa Castelli

Olympic gold medallist and swimmer Amaury Leveaux said: “Camille was quite a shy and reserved person. She was discreet. But when it was time for a bit of a laugh she was always there.

“French sport has lost a great champion.”

Alexis Vastine won a bronze medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing, but his semifinal loss to Manuel Felix Diaz was marred in controversy as he was docked points by the referee in the final round. Vastine broke down in tears after the defeat.

In 2012, he lost in the quarter-finals at the London Games also amid controversy when he drew on points against Taras Shelestyuk of Ukraine but lost on the countback rule, thus missing out on a medal.

French secretary of state for sport Thierry Braillard said: “Some had finished their careers and one was dreaming of gold in Rio.

“I’m profoundly saddened. French sport has lost three stars this morning.”

People gather near the smoking remains of a helicopter that crashed with another near Villa Castelli

People gather near the smoking remains of a helicopter that crashed with another near Villa Castelli

Former France and Arsenal striker Sylvain Wiltord, ice skating champion Philippe Candeloro and former Olympic swimming champion Alain Bernard and veteran cyclist Jeannie Longo are among the other French athletes taking part in the show, but none were involved in the accident.

Wiltord tweeted: “I am sad for my friends, I’m trembling, I’m horrified, I don’t have words. I can’t say anything.”

Arthaud, who was 57, was a pioneer in sailing. In 1990, she won the famed Route du Rhum race - a transatlantic single-handed yacht race between Brittany and the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe - on her boat Pierre 1er.

The crew had arrived on Sunday in Villa Castelli, where it had previously filmed a version of Dropped show for Switzerland and Denmark, said the mayor of Villa Castelli, Andres Navarrete.

The Argentine statement identified the remaining victims as Laurent Sbasnik, Lucie Mei-Dalby, Volodia Guinard, Brice Guilbert and Edouard Gilles, as well as Argentine pilots Juan Carlos Castillo and Roberto Abate.

Argentine authorities were at the scene of the crash late yesterday trying to determine its cause.

Mr Angulo said one of the helicopters belonged to La Rioja province and the other belonged to neighbouring Santiago del Estero province.

“The helicopter from La Rioja was a Eurocopter with a capacity to hold six people. It appears to have brushed against the other helicopter from Santiago del Estero shortly after take-off,” the statement from the provincial government said.

A rugged, sparsely populated area is on the edge of the Andes mountain range that separates Argentina and Chile. The crash happened around 5.15pm local time.