The Volvo Ocean Race is the world’s most famous ocean sailing race. Its history dates back to 1972-73 when it was first called the Whitbread Round-The-World Race and was organized by the Royal British Navy.
Over the decades the race has changed dramatically, from amateur sailors looking for an around-the-world adventure story to the full-time sailing professionals of today, competing on cutting-edge racing machines. But perhaps the most public change has been in the technology that brings the race to the rest of the world.
I took part in the race in 1993-94 onboard Tokio. The 12th edition of the Volvo Ocean Race kicked off this past October in Spain and is scheduled to run through June 2015 with a two-week stop in Newport, RI in May. The race will run for nine months over nine legs, 40,000 nautical miles and 11 port cities around the world.
New this year is the introduction of the first-ever one-design boat to the race. The “Volvo Ocean 65” yachts being used by each team were designed, constructed and assembled by the same syndicate of five companies based in the U.S., Italy, France, Switzerland and England. This is a dramatic departure from past editions when individual teams would hire their own designers and builders to deliver the boats months before the race start.
One of the biggest consequences of this one-design shift was an increased emphasis on media. With the race working closely with boat designers and builders, a premium was placed on the ability for each boat to produce quality content allowing news organizations and the public to follow the race (“floating production trucks” is what some in the press have called them).
For starters, each team features an embedded journalist: onboard reporters called OBRs who are not allowed to sail or race the boat. They are only allowed to cook, clean and report. The purpose of the onboard reporter is to have a trained multimedia journalist who is able to handle the difficult ocean sailing environment over nine months. More than 2,500 applied; seven were selected. During the race, they are required to shoot video and photographs, interview sailors, send back written text and produce livestreams. All of this is transmitted back to Volvo Ocean Race Headquarters in Alicante, Spain.
Teams communicate with race control via a system of Inmarsat satellites, the same satellite company that assisted in the search for Malaysia Airlines 370 with its advanced tracking technology. Each boat sends back three minutes of footage per day via satellite, as well as a minimum of five photos and text. This makes up the visuals that are sent to the news media, put out daily on the VolvoOceanRace.com website and distributed via social media like Twitter (@volvooceanrace) and the race’s popular Instagram account, which has grown its follower base more than one thousand percent since the race start. The video is used as the bulk of a weekly television show and for global TV news features seen around the world.
Each boat is equipped with two Cobham satellite domes that connect to the Inmarsat network. Email data speed via the Inmarsat network is 500Kbps on the main dome and 250Kbps on the back-up.
To get the best pictures and video, the boats are fitted with five fixed cameras and multiple microphones for natural sound and dialogue. The OBR can sit below deck and act as a producer, toggling between the various cameras and listening to the audio. The media station is equipped with full digital editing and other production capabilities. There’s even a designated interview location near the hatch with built-in microphones and slight protection – it’s all relative – from the elements.
One unique feature is the “crash button”. Cameras are constantly recording the sailing action (like a security camera) but it would need to maintain a huge amount of data, so the system starts overwriting its own files after a while. If you hit a crash button, the system starts saving the recording from 10 minutes earlier. That way you never miss a big wave or a signature moment.
That moment could include a mast breaking – as it did three times in the 2011-12 race – hitting something in the water, or even grounding the boat as Team Vestas Wind did in late November. All of it was remarkably captured on video in the middle of the night, becoming part of a popular YouTube clip.
Finally, the teams are frequently asked to livestream interviews. Recently, top golfer Rory McIlroy was able to chat live with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Ian Walker while he was 3,000 miles out at sea. French morning television shows frequently do live “look-ins” and interviews with the boat of French skipper Charles Caudrelier during offshore legs. And fans can check in with teams when Race HQ goes live to a boat out at sea.
The livestreaming can even be used for safety purposes. Last race one doctor on land had to talk through the process of popping a dislocated shoulder into place following one onboard accident. It was a success.
Over the course of nine months, the OBRs will takes thousands of photos and hours of footage – but ultimately they could be judged by that one split second when they captured that perfect picture: the evening sunset, the ocean spray on the lens or the dolphins emerging from the water. At the end of the race, one onboard reporter will be selected for his or her work as the Inmarsat Prize Winner. But like an elementary school soccer league, this might be one contest in which everyone deserves a trophy.
The Volvo Ocean Race starts again on February 8, travelling 5,246 miles from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand. Expect amazing photos and footage, all the work of the on-board media experts.
T.A. McCann is the founder of Rival IQ and also founded Gist.com. Robert Penner of Volvo Ocean Race contributed to this post. You can follow the Volvo Ocean Race on Twitter (@volvooceanrace) or on its website.