Satellite Eye on Yacht Race Brings Safety, Excitement

Opinion: Uninterrupted coverage of the Volvo Ocean Race makes for great publicity-and helps organizers spot trouble as soon as it starts.

In Spain, theyre getting ready for the start of the round-the-world Volvo yacht race. Satellite communications are what make it all possible.

Say that to the typical landsman, and youll probably get approving nods: "Yes, safety..." and thats almost entirely wrong.

The need for safety in blue water navigation did, indeed, start the satellite business up—Inmarsat was a consortium of marine navigational interests, and the name is derived from that.

But the fact is, the sort of nut case who will take a frail carbon-fiber yacht around the world for fun will do it with or without satellite comms. French sailor Eric Tabarly famously refused to have any communications equipment on his boats.

He accepted that this could lead to his death—as it did—but that was in June 1998, when he clearly did have the option of using satellite links. It didnt matter. The excitement and the adventure was the point.

/zimages/5/28571.gifRead details here about satellite operator Intelsat buying PanAmSat.

Excitement and adventure are not the first words most people associate with the name Volvo, which explains pretty simply why the company decided to sponsor the race.

And, yes, safety is very important to the race organizers, but the real reason they put Inmarsat F77 dishes on the sterns of those 70-foot racers was not safety, but sponsorship.

When what is now the Volvo race was still sponsored by British brewer Whitbread, people did pour money into the venture—but it was almost entirely in the hope of winning. The sponsors knew that if they didnt lift the trophy, their publicity rewards would be meager, not to say pathetic.

But you dont have to win a race to get good publicity today.

One of the competitors in the last race, Glenn Bourke, is now CEO of the race. He tells a good story of one of the best publicity coups his team pulled off.

It occurred on the leg from Cape Horn up to Rio, emerging from the ice of the Southern Ocean, and plunging rapidly into the 40-degree C steam bath of the tropics.

"Two of our crew came to the end of their shift and were sent below to catch up on sleep. There was nothing to do; no wind. We were becalmed, and everybody else had wind, and was sailing past us," Bourke said. "Shortly after they went below, one of them came up, and explained that he couldnt sleep. He said it was the drips.

"Pressed for explanation, he said he had the bottom bunk, and his colleague, above him, was sweating so freely that the drip, drip, drip was keeping him awake."

Next Page: Top-of-the-line technology can win the race.