VOLVO OCEAN RACE: Advanced technology will put race enthusiasts in touch with the on-board action

by Julia Zaltzman


The Volvo Ocean Race, it is fair to say, is somewhat of a dichotomy. On the one hand, it is a highly progressive sporting challenge that uses advanced Inmarsat satellite networks more than 36,000km away to track moving 65ft-long (19.81m) yachts slamming through 3-meter high waves in the middle of the world’s oceans via a satellite dome located on the back of each boat.


On the other hand, all crew are subjected to a blanket media blackout for the duration of the nine-month race to prevent the potential of any external support. So, while the crew are at the helm of the most innovative offshore racing boats on the planet, they are also completely cut off from the day-to-day stream of global internet chatter.


“The crew can send social content off the boat but they can’t interact with anyone, otherwise they might get help!” says Eric Ernst, Volvo Ocean Race stopover IT manager. The task, therefore, is how to maintain spectator interest for the duration of the race when the protagonists are locked away at sea. “Connectivity has always been our biggest challenge because that is the only way to tell the story of what is happening. Connectivity is part of our DNA,” he says.


Aboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing with sailors Ian Race Control, Alicante, Spain Walker and Simon “SiFi” Fisher February 2015


Aside from the obvious crew safety requirements, the main driver for increased connectivity is fan-based entertainment. Every boat in the Volvo Ocean Race has an on-board reporter (OBR) dedicated to capturing the stories of the race and the crew. The reporter is not allowed to do anything sailing related; their role is confined to sending quality footage back to race control, and to help create editorial content.


In the last race, they provided insightful nuggets of what life was like at sea, but the reports were very much from the OBR’s perspective, rather than the crew. The aim now is for the OBR to stay behind the camera, says Volvo Ocean Race chief digital officer, Jordi Neves, and for the crew to appreciate that they are the brand ambassadors.


“In the 2017-18 edition, we’re hoping that the sailors realise that there is real a world watching them,” says Neves. “For the first time, we’ll be equipping them with a device that will allow them to interact with the audience by Tweeting, posting on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. The guys won’t be able to see any responses because they don’t have access to the sites and we don’t want people coding secret messages into the replies that could help them, but we’re developing a system that will serve as a gateway to allow this one-way communication.”


The fleet at the start of Leg 2 from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi.

Race control functions as the crew’s link to the outside world. “It’s a NASA-style room in Alicante that on the one hand ensures the security and safety of the fleet, but on the other will take all the content and messages coming from the boats, and distribute it around the globe. It’s from that room that we try to tell the story,” adds Neves.


It is hoped that a daily digest sent to each crew member containing their stats and media logs will keep them enthused. On the flip side, it will also create a direct link between the crew and fans, so that those watching from home can dream about life on board and experience the highs, the lows, and life at sea themselves.


The fan experience does not end there, however. Within the race village at all stopover sites sits a media centre where Ernst and his team put together live IP broadcasts by building networks from helicopters to production desks where they use satellite signals and TV signals to create a live show.


“Everything we’ve built needs to withstand a massive amount of punishment because of the environment that these yachts race in,” explains Ernst. But, already at the cutting edge of technology, he says this form of immersive entertainment is only set to get more advanced.


“For future editions we’re looking at using 360-degree cameras, virtual reality, and augmented reality, with the focus on how we consume the race as spectators, and how fans can further understand the extreme life on board. All of that is going to drive a massive change to how we bring the drama of those at sea straight to the people watching from home.”


Danish sailors Nicolai Sehested and Peter Popp Wibroe of Team Vestas Wind on a live call with TV2 Denmark using Inmarsat uplink, October 2014