Tech shouldn’t reduce excitement of the ocean race even if drinking urine less likely

How do you balance the use of technology to make an exciting sport more accessible to spectators and make participants safer without undermining the excitement?

That is the challenge facing organisers of the Volvo Ocean Race.

I visited the IT team supporting the race last week and was interested to see how IT is transforming how the event is broadcast to the world and how sailors are kept safe. Read the article I did here. It was great to meet an IT team made up of sailing fanatics, doing their dream IT jobs.

Launching in Alicante, Spain, seven yachts race for 83,000km stopping off in Lisbon, Cape Town, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Gaungzhow in China, Auckland, Itajai in Brazil, New Port in the US, Cardiff, Gothenburg and finishing in The Hague.

While the yatchs have changed little expert so the untrained eye since the first race in 1973, the availability of information about the race has been revolutionised.

Today spectators can follow the race via a mobile app or online while it travels the globe. In the past if you wanted to know what was going on you would call a number and listen to an answering machine message. You can follow it here now. I must admit I have become a bit hooked.

In the past if you wanted to see any action there was occasionally a VHS tape thrown ashore by a team, containing footage they had taken. Today there are seven cameras per boat including two satellite connected drones that can take off and follow.

Pic: Land-lover gets his sea legs

It is this broadcast that has forced the organisation to put IT development so high on its agenda. Without this sponsorship money would be hard to come by and at €12m per yatch over a three year period the sponsors will want their brands prominent throughout the eight month contest.

To make this possible the IT teams have the task of moving entire infrastructures, yes plural, around the world to ensure they are ready for the arrival of boats in port.

Indian IT services firm HCL helps set up the IT infrastructure supporting the race with mobile datacentres at each stopover port. These communications and technology hubs are transported in two 40ft freight containers with identical equipment in each, which leapfrog each other from port to port.

They contain layer 2 and 3 network switches, firewalls, microwave links, fibre drums, UPS packs, wireless network equipment, video encoders, network storage, servers and ultra-high frequency communication equipment. And all the support staff move around with it.

In comparison the boats, although being considerably faster, appear pretty much the same to someone that doesn’t sail. In fact today, unlike the past, all the yatchs are exactly the same apart from the sponsorship colours and logos. This is to ensure the race is all about the skill of the sailors.

The teams are not allowed to get an advantage through technology either, it is all for the benefit of spectators, although it does make it safer for them. Each yacht is connected to the control centre via a VPN. They receive a daily weather download and can get support if required in emergencies.

With all the work going on behind the scenes to ensure there is an IT infrastructure that can support the commercial needs of the race, it is easy to forget that the crews are travelling to some of the most isolated places on earth in often life threatening conditions

I asked the Volvo Ocean Race chief digital officer, Jordi Neves, how they balance the excitement. He told me that this is indeed one of the challenges.

While we all want digital technology to make our lives easier we don’t want it to make the sailors’ lives too easy. Where would the fun be then?