The Mapfre boat heads through big waves during the start of leg seven of the Volvo Ocean Race on Mar. 18 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
In the Southern Ocean, a few thousand miles off the coast of Antartica, extreme sailors can at times be closer to astronauts on the International Space Station than to any other human beings. Few have traveled these parts for good reason: they’re remote and dangerous. Enormous waves and glaciers tower over catamarans, tossing them around like a dog with its toys.
For 45 years, sailors have been racing around the world and across the Southern Ocean in the Volvo Ocean Race (formerly the Whitbread Round the World Race). Two decades ago, fans at home would only tangentially hear of their struggles via daily dispatches passed down from the boats and, if lucky, VHS recordings that would be dropped off days or weeks later when teams arrived in port.
Now, thanks to new technology, fans can get a real-time taste of the treacherous route through the Southern Ocean (the 6,500-nautical mile stretch from Cape Town, South Africa to Melbourne, Australia and the 7,600-mile journey from Auckland, New Zealand to Itajaí, Brazil) from the safety of their living rooms.
“We are some of the last explorers on the planet. We go to places where possibly no one has been before,” said Sam Davies, a sailor who skippered the all-female crew of SCA in the 2014/15 Volvo Ocean Race. “Thanks to technology, we can share this human adventure with others.”
For the past eight months, dozens of sailors on high-speed catamarans have been traversing the globe for this 11-leg race, which covers 45,000 nautical miles and is largely believed to be one of the toughest sailing races in the world. Last month, they passed through the only U.S. port stop, in Newport, R.I., fresh off a 5,700-nautical mile stretch from Brazil, and still battered from the combined 14,000 miles they sailed over the course of two legs in the Southern Ocean. During one particularly tough stretch, a crewman for the Scallywag team had been knocked overboard some 1,400 miles west of Chile’s Cape Horn and lost at sea.
The fact that the Volvo Ocean Race is a grueling test of human capability and teamwork was immediately clear after a day in Newport with these experienced sailors. But a tour of the sophisticated boats and makeshift broadcast studios, which pop up only to be deconstructed, moved and reconstructed days later, revealed something else: the race has become a hub for innovation.
The Scallywag sailor’s death in March was a stark reminder that technology is still no match for the ferocity of Mother Nature, but sophisticated communications systems and satellites have helped to dramatically improve the race’s overall safety record. Those same communications technologies, as well as sensors, cameras, and drones, have worked doubly to increase the race’s appeal by bringing its action directly to fans’ mobile devices.
Organizing something as long, grueling, and with as many moving parts as the Volvo Ocean Race requires a massive amount of technological coordination at port, at sea, and at race headquarters in Alicante, Spain, where the catamarans began their journeys on Oct. 22. When the race comes to its long-awaited conclusion this weekend (the final in-port race takes place in The Hague, in the Netherlands, on Saturday), race organizers will have successfully produced nearly nine straight months of daily live coverage, which included live streams from the boats.
“Technology is key for us to tell the story of the race,” said Samuel Piñeiro, the technology director for the Volvo Ocean Race. “We have been using technology to push the story out, make it available to different audiences, and really tell what is happening on board.”
Each catamaran is equipped with seven onboard cameras and two DJI drones that can automatically land themselves using GPS technology, even when the boat is in motion. Each also has 147 sensors that are constantly picking up data about the boat and the surrounding environment, as well as a mini data center below deck that race organizers call the “brain.” In there, crew navigators can check up on their boat’s status and map their most efficient routes to port.
Each team also has an onboard reporter embedded into the crew who is responsible for creating daily content and managing the livestreams that are then shared throughout the world. They are the only ones who are allowed to touch the drones, since race organizers fear sailors might be tempted to use drone footage to gain some sort of competitive advantage. While the Volvo Ocean Race has experimented with drones before, this is the first time they’ve been deployed widely.
“It’s pretty amazing having a crew embedded within the team whose job it is just to tell the story, because there are amazing stories that happen out there,” said Charlie Enright, a Rhode Island native and the skipper of the Vestas 11th Hour Racing team for the 2017/18 Volvo Ocean Race.
“The technology has advanced a great deal even since the last race as far as what we’re capable of. Take for instance the drones. We experience a lot of things out there that the person sitting at home on their couch doesn’t really get to see. But now with the advancement of drone technology people feel like they’re there on the boat with us and they can experience the Southern Ocean for themselves.”
Sailors don’t have much access to the internet, though the internet plays a large role overall. They can and are encouraged to post on social media to engage their followers, but are prohibited from seeing anything else on the internet, including the reactions to their own posts. Race organizers give them updates regarding how the post fared, such as how many likes and comments it received. The sailors also have a one-way communications system and can stream live to STEM classes on slower days.
Behind the scenes powering this logistical phenomenon are a number of large technology companies. This year, in its inaugural year with the Volvo Ocean Race, HCL Technologies has been the race’s official IT services provider and manager of in-port IT infrastructure. At each port, the tech giant runs miles of cable to power satellite broadcast studios and mini TV networks, only to pack up after a week, ship everything across the world and do that all over again at the next location.
Their technologies have been one of the primary engines powering the content generation that has become so crucial to this oceanic race. Similar to what SAP has been doing in auto racing and soccer, HCL Technologies has recently started to expand its partnerships in sports, an industry hungry for innovation as leagues and teams look to power new fan experiences.
Serving as a conduit between the boat, stratosphere, and race headquarters in Spain, technology firm Cobham and telecommunications company Inmarsat work together to run the satellite and radio communications equipment that connect the boats to land while at sea.
“Most sports take place in a stadium or a large arena where you are sitting and you are watching the actual sport. The Volvo Ocean Race is the world’s toughest arena,” said Daniel Breum, marketing director of Cobham Satcom. “With our equipment, you can suddenly be there. We have taken the action and the drama and brought it from the boat and back to the living room to where our spectators are.”
Elsewhere on the boat, Garmin provides the 360-degree cameras that have given the event its first taste of spherical video and virtual reality, something the Volvo Ocean Race is looking to produce more of as on-board connectivity improves (organizers were experimenting with 5G during the in-port Newport race). SAP equips team AkzoNobel with biometric sensors to track performance, which is something the Volvo Ocean Race will be looking to use more broadly across every team when the next race kicks off in 2019.
“Really understanding how the performance of the people is impacting the performance of the boat—that’s the next level,” said Piñeiro. “If I’m able to know how sleep deprivation is affecting the body, how their heart rate is going when they’re in the Southern Ocean trying to skip an iceberg, that will give you the next level of experience.”
In the future, biometrics, sensors, and virtual reality might combine to bring an even more immersive data-fueled experience to fans at home. Viewers might one day, for example, be able to virtually sit on the deck of one of these catamarans live while it zips through the Southern Ocean. They might also be able to see a steady stream of navigational, boat, and biometric data that gives them an intimate feel for how quickly things can change, and go wrong, at sea. Perhaps an alert could inform viewers that the skipper’s heartbeat has just spiked at the same time a wave comes crashing over the boat.
The organizers believe this sort of technology-infused action will increase the appeal of the Volvo Ocean Race. As such, they have decided to increase the frequency of the event from every three years to every two.
“Thanks to that data, we can really tell the conditions onboard. And with pictures and 360 video, we can start to feel what’s going on,” said Piñeiro. “I really want to have the possibility to be skipping the boat, I want to experience what’s going on onboard. This is where we’re trying to make the next jump. We’re doing 360 now, but the next step is VR. That’s the next level. ”