By Julien Pretot
LES SABLES D'OLONNE, France (Reuters) - Armel Le Cleac'h saw off a late challenge by Britain's Alex Thomson to maintain France's domination of the solo round-the-world Vendee Globe sailing race on Thursday.
After finishing second in 2009 and 2013, Le Cleac'h, aboard his 60-foot yacht Banque Populaire, won in a record time of 74 days, three hours, 35 minutes and 46 seconds to become the eighth Frenchman to win the gruelling race.
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"I never gave up, I wanted it so bad. It was really hard going up the Atlantic (to the finish) as I had terrible weather conditions," said Le Cleac'h as he waited for the high tide to allow him to navigate the channel and reach dry land.
"I started to contemplate victory only last night," said a tearful Le Cleac'h, who lost the race by just over three hours in 2013.
The 39-year-old, whose finish was eagerly awaited by thousands of fans in freezing temperatures in Les Sables d'Olonne on the Atlantic Ocean, saw Thomson cut an 800-mile deficit at Cape Horn down to less than 40 miles.
Thomson, who led aboard Hugo Boss until the starboard foil on his high-tech yacht was damaged about eight weeks ago, is set to take second place in the early hours of Friday.
The Briton, who is some 100 miles behind, threatened a late comeback this week, breaking the world record for the distance sailed solo in 24 hours when he covered 536.8 nautical miles.
Le Cleac'h, however, extended his lead on Wednesday to beat the fastest mark set by previous winner Francois Gabart in 2013 by almost four days.
"Sailing culture makes the difference here. The best boats are made in South Brittany," sailor Sebastien Picault, who worked on Banque Populaire's foil, told Reuters.
"Hugo Boss is a fine boat with huge bursts of speed, but it struggles in upwind conditions while Banque Populaire is a better all-rounder."
Of the 29 sailors at the start of the non-stop race at Sable d'Olonne on Nov. 6, 11 have already called it quits.
The last sailor, Sebastien Destremau, aboard TechnoFirst-FaceOcean, still has to go through the feared Cape Horn and lies almost 10,000 miles behind Le Cleac'h.
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar and Alexander Smith)