By Julien Pretot
LES SABLES D'OLONNE, France (Reuters) - With his hands coarsened by salt, Armel Le Cleac'h grabbed a couple of emergency beacons and raised his arms in celebration, shining light on the thousands of spectators gathered to greet him at the end of his victorious solo race around the world.
The Frenchman, who arrived to a stadium atmosphere with fireworks lighting the sky above the Atlantic Ocean, held off a late challenge by Britain's Alex Thomson to maintain France's domination of the Vendee Globe sailing race.
Having not seen a soul since his departure on Nov. 6, he crossed the finish line in a record time of 74 days, three hours, 35 minutes and 46 seconds and was left feeling the effects of his grueling adventure.
"It's brutal," said Le Cleac'h after meeting his family and enjoying his first meal on land in more than two months.
After opening an 800-nautical-mile lead over Thomson near the feared Cape Horn, Le Cleac'h saw the Welshman reduce the gap to less than 40 miles before restoring a bigger advantage in the closing stages.
"I still don't know if I want to cry or if I must be joyful, I'm a bit worried about the return to normal life," an emotional Le Cleac'h told reporters.
"How it is going to be with my wife and my family, I don't know but I'm well surrounded and I'm happy.
"I was under tremendous pressure from Alex. He pushed me until the end."
Le Cleac'h, who beat Francois Gabart's previous record by almost four days, said he struggled to keep his emotions in check during the finale.
"I was thinking 'it's not possible, I can't lose this race'," he explained.
"Then a couple of days ago I started to believe I was winning but I actually slapped myself in the face as I grew worried that thinking about victory would jinx it."
Sailing through sea traffic, Le Cleac'h guided his 60-foot yacht Banque Populaire home without trouble and, having to wait for high tide, entered the channel leading to land a couple of hours after crossing the finish line.
Although his face showed no scars from his 74 days at sea, Le Cleac'h said he was in a state of extreme fatigue.
"At the end of my first Vendee Globe (2008-09) I finished without food, losing 10 kilos. Four years ago I was just disappointed with a second consecutive second place, physically I was alright," the 39-year-old said.
"It is different today. In the past five or six days it was pure racing, I barely slept.
"Mentally, I dug really deep, I pushed myself to the limit."
For the eighth time in as many editions, a Frenchman prevailed despite Thomson's late push.
"We lost Trafalgar, but we won the Vendee Globe," veteran French sailor Jean Le Cam, a rival competitor who is still at sea, said in a message to Le Cleac'h.
Thomson was expected to arrive on Friday between 0600 and 0900GMT.
Of the 29 sailors who started the non-stop race from Sables d'Olonne on Nov. 6, 11 have already called it quits.
Sebastien Destremau, aboard TechnoFirst-FaceOcean, is running last and still has to go through the feared Cape Horn, almost 10,000 miles from the finish.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis)