Young skipper braves the waves for refugee cause
ST. MALO, France, November 7 (UNHCR) - A brave new advocate for refugees was christened today in the storm-lashed French port of St. Malo by popular French singer Julien Clerc and the head of UNHCR's national association in France, Emanuelle Rouffi.
On Saturday, it is due to set off on one of the most arduous journeys in the modern sporting world - the famous transatlantic yacht race known as the Route de Rhum. "Ensemble pour l'UNHCR", as the boat is now known, is being skippered by the youngest competitor in the 60-boat race, 21-year-old Swiss yachtsman Nicolas Peitrequin.
Peitrequin, who already has a string of successes in his short yachting career, approached the Geneva-based UN refugee agency a few weeks ago, saying he wanted to promote the cause of refugees.
"Once we realised he wasn't asking us to sponsor him - more like the reverse - we accepted his offer," said Olivier Delarue, head of UNHCR's office for Switzerland and Liechtenstein. "Here was the youngest competitor in one of the most famous boat races in the world, saying he wanted to use his love of sailing to promote the refugee cause. The race has a huge following, not just in France, and hopefully he will inspire others to think a bit more about refugees - and indeed to contribute directly to improving their situation."
After the refugee agency accepted Peitrequin's offer, there was a mad scramble to produce the huge UNHCR logo and supporting text that will adorn the boat's 25-metre sails in time for the race. It was also decided to change the boat's name from Peitrequin's original choice - "Un Autre Regard" (or "A Different Perspective") to its current name explicitly supporting the UN refugee agency.
Already the partnership between Peitrequin and Clerc is bringing some tangible benefits. Upon completion of the race, which usually lasts between two and three weeks, a number of items - including UNHCR T-shirts autographed by all the competing skippers - will be sold through a special eBay Internet auction scheduled for early December.
"Ensemble pour l'UNHCR", which will have to endure the full autumn rage of the Atlantic before arriving at the winning line in Guadeloupe, is accustomed to stardom. It previously featured under a different name in the 2002 movie, "And Now Ladies and Gentlemen", by French director Claude Lelouch, starring Jeremy Irons and Patricia Kaas.
Peitrequin is exactly half a century younger than the Route De Rhum's oldest competitor, Canadian Mike Birch, who won the first Route de Rhum race back in 1978. The incredibly tight margin of his victory - a mere 98 seconds - turned the race into an immediate legend. Since then, the Route de Rhum has been held every four years.
Peitrequin's land-locked home country, Switzerland, is enjoying a sudden, unexpected success on the high seas, with its boat "Alinghi" currently leading the challengers into the quarter-finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup. The eventual winner will meet the New Zealand holder of the America's Cup in February 2003.
The young Swiss yachtsman is joining a number of celebrity supporters of UNHCR and the refugee cause, including French singer Clerc, Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie, legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti and renowned designer Giorgio Armani. Originally funded almost entirely by governments, the refugee agency has recently been trying to widen its private funding base as government donations have regularly fallen short of its needs over the past few years.
"Events such as this help us in two ways," said UNHCR's head of Private Sector Fundraising, Pierre Bernard Le Bas. "They bring refugees to the attention of people who might otherwise never have cause to think about them, and they also help us to raise funds - which are in particularly short supply at the moment. In particular, we hope that the actions of Nicolas will show the younger generation that they can do something to help refugees."