(Adds Thomson quote, paragraph 17)
* UK sailor overcomes broken foiling fin to finish second
* Closed distance on winning Frenchman before falling short
* "Overwhelmed" by spectators' welcome after months alone
* Vendee is marathon feat of endurance on little sleep
* Race spanned 27,636 nautical miles around the world
By Julien Pretot and Tessa Walsh
LES SABLES D'OLONNE, France, Jan 20 (Reuters) - For Alex Thomson, sweeping up his crying two-year-old daughter Georgia in his arms soothed the disappointment of falling just short in the Vendee Globe after 74 days at sea.
Next to them were Kate, the 42-year-old British sailor's wife, and Oscar, their six-year-old son who saw his father return from the solo adventure around the world for the second time after he took third place in 2013.
Greeted on a beautifully clear, bitterly cold morning by hundreds of spectators in Les Sables d'Olonne on France's Atlantic coast, Thomson was all smiles despite exhaustion after barely sleeping as he hunted down eventual winner Armel Le Cleac'h of France, who won in a record time of 74 days, three hours and 35 minutes aboard Banque Populaire on Thursday.
"I'm a bit speechless, it's quite overwhelming to spend so much time alone and then to be with so many people," Thomson said. "I was in the cockpit eating breakfast and an armada of boats arrived. I thought, I'm not ready yet! So I finished my breakfast, cleaned my teeth and greeted them."
Thomson sailed with a broken foil in the last eight weeks of his 27,636-nautical-mile odyssey before taking his 60-foot yacht Hugo Boss home almost 16 hours after Le Cleac'h, who was also at the finish to congratulate his rival.
"It's funny because a few days out you almost don't want to have that many people as it's a bit daunting but coming to Les Sables d'Olonne for the second (time) in beautiful weather, I feel blessed," said Thomson. "I'm looking forward to getting some sleep, seeing my family and having my life back."
Thomson was in the lead when his starboard foiling fin broke in a collision with a floating object, resulting in him falling behind by a massive 800 nautical miles in the notoriously stormy seas off South America's Cape Horn.
"To be crippled on one side was really painful. I had to deal with that, stay positive, that was the most difficult challenge," he said.
SOLO 24-HOUR DISTANCE RECORD
However, he beat the record for the longest distance - 536.8 nautical miles - covered solo in 24 hours. He then cut his distance from the frontrunner down to about 35 miles, before fading in the final stretch.
"I was the hunter and he was the hunted so I did not feel stressed at all. It must have been horrible for Armel," said Thomson, now the most successful non-French skipper on the Vendee Globe along with compatriot Ellen MacArthur, who came second in 2001.
"I've spent the whole race wondering what could have happened if the foil hadn't broken, but it did. Congratulations to Armel, what a great race he had and he thoroughly deserved to win. He's not called' The Jackal' for nothing."
Le Cleac'h said: "You (Alex) made my life hard. I was under tremendous pressure from Alex. He pushed me until the end."
The Vendee Globe is one of the world's toughest sporting challenges, a brutally long feat of endurance in difficult and intensely stressful conditions, requiring constant planning to pre-empt problems while staying sharp on very little sleep.
"When you cross the line, it's all over and the whole world is lifted from your shoulders and I appreciate that feeling," Thomson said.
Brian Thompson, fifth in the Vendee Globe in 2009, told Reuters: "I'm overwhelmed how well Alex has done with the handicap of breaking his foil. To me, he would have won the race without a doubt if he hadn't broken his foil.
"I think he's won the hearts of the French, which is not easy if you're non-French and especially English."
Thomson said he was satisfied with his finish, which improved on his previous third place. "If you make the start, you're a winner; the next step is to finish and a podium place is an amazing achievement."
With Le Cleac'h having already said he will not take part in the next edition, Thomson is expected to have another go at it.
Asked if he would start the next Vendee Globe in 2020, Thomson replied: "You'll have to ask my wife.
"May we ask her?" a reporter said.
"No. Let me do some work on her first," he answered.
First, some sleep.
"I've slept five hours in the last three days and in the last 24 hours I haven't slept at all. I'm running on empty and looking forward to some sleep," said Thomson. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)