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Groupama Race 2016 - Safety is top priority

by Matthias Balagny 31 Aug 2016 14:32 BST 25 September 2016

170 sailors will be on the starting line on the 25th September for a 654 nautical mile race around New Caledonia. Running (with the wind behind) in sometimes breath-taking seas, or beating to windward against the swell.

The Groupama Race is not to be undertaken lightly. The participants spend months preparing themselves and their yachts for a physical and mental challenge. All year, Nouméa Yacht Club (CNC) and its Sailing Section, with support from other establishments (the French Lifeboat Service {SNSM}, the Professional Mariners College {EMM}, the MRCC, the Maritime Gendarmerie and the French Navy) organise training races, sea safety courses and man-overboard exercises.

Once the race has started, the hardened racing crews can thus adapt their race strategy and fine-tune their sail trim without having to worry about the preparedness of their yacht or the crew's capabilities.

All over the World, ocean races are subject to World Sailing Offshore Special Regulations. Nouméa Yacht Club (CNC) applies this standard to its own high seas competitions. Thus, the Groupama Race is an OSR category 3 race with the addition of a compulsory liferaft. Once a competing yacht is pronounced ready, a duly accredited inspector undertakes a thorough safety check and approves – or not – the vessel's compliance. All of the ship board communications equipment is checked: satellite phones, position reporting beacons and IDs of each personal location beacon (PLBs transmit the position of a man-overboard). The aim is to keep in touch.

Crews in the Groupama Race are taking part in a trying race. To be faster than the rest, crews will continuously push their yachts and themselves as far as possible. Crews are competitors but they are also representing sailing in New Caledonia. The race organisers want participants to present a positive sea-safety message.

So, Nouméa Yacht Club (CNC) and Groupama Pacifique require lifejackets to be worn at all times, over the whole race course, by day and by night. This requirement is sometimes subject to negative criticism. But it is no surprise to François Gabart, winner of the last Vendée Globe. He makes a favourable comparison between the lifejacket and car seatbelts. French drivers have been required to buckle-up since 1973!

Right from the first edition of this race, organisers have made the wearing of a lifejacket an unconditional requirement! For the last two races, a PLB must be attached to the lifejacket.

Another sea safety requirement – a man overboard exercise under spinnaker has become a classic part of Groupama Race preparations. Every entrant has to have completed the exercise before the start of the race. For New Caledonian entrants, the man overboard exercise is to take place on Saturday the 3rd September, in the presence of the Nouméa inshore lifeboat. Completing this exercise will make it easier for crew members to find their way smoothly in the event of the real thing.

Under the impetus of the Groupama Race and the Nouméa Yacht Club, the Professional Mariners College (EMM), jointly with the French Lifeboat Service (SNSM), offer a World Sailing (formerly ISAF) Sea Safety course. As for the Volvo Ocean Race or the Rolex Sydney Hobart, 30% of the crew of every yacht competing in the New Caledonia Groupama Race must have this qualification.

Qualification means a certificate that is valid worldwide for five years. The course is a mixture of classroom and practical, hands-on, sessions. Maintenance of safety equipment, storm sails, heavy weather sailing, damage control and repair, liferafts, fire extinguishers, flares, sea anchors are amongst the subjects of this course that takes a little over twenty hours. In evenings, or over a weekend, sailors study sea safety, yacht equipment and their limitations and relate their own experiences.

At least one crew member will also have completed a first aid at sea course. The principal aims of this course are to make a reliable assessment, to make contact (if possible) with the shore and apply the appropriate simple techniques to the patient.

The twenty or so entries will be tracked in real time, their positions being reported by satellite every five minutes. This will enable everyone to follow the race. In addition, any emergency action will be much facilitated by having an accurate position.

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