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.
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.”
-of-the-Line Tech Can Win the Race”>
The story made headline news, while the boats which were overtaking them received relatively cursory coverage. Gross—but effective PR. And its effective PR that drives these sailors. Oh, not the sailors themselves, but the people who provide the funding.
To harvest this publicity, on board each boat is a full video recording, editing, compressing and transmitting system.
It draws a peak current of less than 100 W and can drop into standby in a blink; and yet it can transmit full-screen video of a quality better than typical satellite TV subscribers normally see, at a rate that means you get 20 minutes worth of footage over about 8 hours.
The cost of such connectivity is worth calculating. Were looking at a full ISDN-speed link, charged at a minimum of $6 per megabyte, carrying video which plays back at a megabyte a second.
Inmarsat wont reveal exactly how much sponsorship it puts into the Volvo Ocean Race, but nobody is pretending all this video comes free.
But frightening though that bill looks, its peanuts compared with what people would spend if they could.
This years race, starting in a few weeks, will be completely a walled garden race—if you can call the Southern Ocean any sort of garden. The crew on each boat will be disqualified if they try to access any part of the Internet except the sites provided by the race organizers, and the reason, according to the IT manager of the project, is to stop the biggest wallet from winning.
How? Easy: weather forecasts.
Last time, all the skippers had access to the weather data provided by the race organizers. But they also had free Web access. The winning boat, Ilbruck, was seen to log onto other weather stations. If you think the bill for this years video publicity is horrifying, have a look at the figures:
“In one month, Ilbruck spent 11 hours a day surfing for weather data. They spent $100,000 on Internet access for the purpose of getting an edge on the other boats. Were determined to make the race a more even contest, this year; that simply wont be possible,” the Volvo IT chief said.
Telematics are important, of course. But most of the telematics on the boats can be handled in low bit-rate blips every 15 minutes. That gets transmitted over the cheapest, slowest Inmarsat service—600 bps—but thats enough to show position, speed, direction, angle of the mast, and so on, for the “Virtual Spectator” service that will let the rest of us watch the boats sailing. (Thats going to be a free download, by the way—but the exact details of how you get it were not available by press time).
Telemetry like that can save lives, Bourke said. There was a frightening incident in the last race, as the fleet left Cape Town; just a few hours into the leg, telemetry showed one boat suddenly slowing down from 14 knots, to 12, then 10, then slower still. What was wrong? Headquarters urgently contacted the team.
“What had happened was that a hatch had been replaced, and had come off. Water was pouring into the forward bulkhead, taking the bow further and further down, slowing the boat up. When they realised something was wrong, they went below to check the bulkhead, and opened it—and four tons of water poured into the main hull.”
By the time HQ made contact, the crew were able to report success in pumping the water out, and had temporarily solved the problem of the open hatch (“We sent one guy below into the bulk head to sit there and hold it shut,” Bourke said laconically) and family and friends, not to mention sponsors, were rapidly given the good news.
And, of course, it made headline news, because there were pictures.
The Panic Button Films
Action Almost Before It Happens”>
This race, the pictures will be better than ever. The bit of the arrangements that I liked was the “panic button,” which just about sums up the comms ethos on these boats.
The panic button has just one function: to start dumping the 10 or so gigabytes of video which constantly get recorded by the 10 video cameras on each boat—up the mast, below, and even on the helmet of one member of the crew—24-7. Hit the button, and you operate a time machine that means you effectively start filming whatever is going on, 2 minutes earlier.
Its not just for publicity; its often the case that when things go wrong at one end of the boat, the cause was an incident nobody saw at the other end. Using the panic button means you can see what happened before it started, from every possible angle—everything from a mast breaking to a crew member falling overboard is captured.
Great for safety. But even better for reality TV viewers, and for the sponsors. And without sponsors, would there be a race?
Todays Volvo Open 70 boat is the fastest sailing machine ever built on a single hull. These carbon fiber beasts have already crossed the 45-knot mark—Black Pearl, the Disney entry, went over the previous record for the greatest distance sailed in a day, coming back from New Zealand—without the help of a sea current that boosted the previous record. Entrants may well go over 50 knots. By contrast, the average boat speed in the very first race was around 5 knots.
Heres a final story from Bourke:
“We knew wed hit something. We just didnt know what; we thought it might be weed, kelp, something like that. We had a look through the hull with the endoscope, and saw nothing. So we turn the boat into the wind, and Waffler, a pretty brave guy—a little Kiwi, stoic sort, was told to go over the side and look.
“The temperature is cold, 5-6 degrees. Waffler jumps in at the bow, looks at the boat as it sails past him. He examines the keel, and he comes face to face with a 4-meter-long shark. Its snapped around the root of the keel; its now a paraplegic shark, but its jaws are working just fine while it gnashes around.
“He pretty much leaps vertically out of the water onto the boat, and tells us what he saw. Did you get it off the keel? was all we asked. He had to go back into the water, and he had to pull its tail off.”
Now, that would keep me watching the TV.
Contributing columnist Guy Kewney has been irritating the complacent in high tech since 1974. Previously with PC Mag UK and ZDNet UK, Guy helped found InfoWorld, Personal Computer World, MicroScope, PC Dealer, AFAICS Research and NewsWireless. And he only commits one blog—forgiveable, surely? He can be reached at [email protected]
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