Once the boats of the Volvo Ocean Race set off they are on their own. Or are they? Thanks to the wonders of satellite communication, help is only a phone call away should anything go wrong. Every one of the Volvo Open 70s racing in the 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race is fitted with Thrane & Thrane’s latest satellite transmission and receiving equipment – the technical bits that hide under those intriguing domes at the back of the boat. This equipment connects to Inmarsat’s Fleet F77 solution for access to telephone and high-speed,128kbps, data links over a dedicated single channel – a satellite link to you and me.
Every one of the Volvo Open 70s racing in the 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race is fitted with Thrane & Thrane’s latest satellite transmission and receiving equipment – the technical bits that hide under those intriguing domes at the back of the boat. This equipment connects to Inmarsat’s Fleet F77 solution for access to telephone and high-speed,128kbps, data links over a dedicated single channel – a satellite link to you and me.
Inmarsat was established in 1979 to provide safety and distress communications for all those at sea, for commercial shipping as well as for events like the Volvo Ocean Race. Today, services like Fleet 77 offer much more, superseding crackly old HF radio transmissions for a full voice and data communications system that rivals anything on land.
In addition to Fleet 77, each boat will also have a smaller terminal, the F33, and two text-based, Inmarsat C terminals. Inmarsat C, which is the cornerstone of the International Maritime Organisation Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, provides key weather and navigational data via SafetyNET, free of charge, to all mariners.
During the Volvo Ocean Race, the boats will rely on Inmarsat Fleet 77, via France Telecom’s distribution services, to receive six-hourly position reports and weather data they use for tactical decisions from Race Headquarters. Going the other way will be emails, voice communications and video, extensive telemetry – look out for wind and boat speed, wave heights and a whole lot more on this site – as well as sitreps on any safety or health issues.
But it is in times of trouble that the full range of Inmarsat communications will come into its own.
A crackly HF radio voice raising an alarm used to be the way, but now an Inmarsat distress alert is what Steve Huxley, GMDSS Staff Officer at the Falmouth Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre – the main coordination centre for the Race –has to react to. It gives voice distress priority so that with a press of a red button the skipper can be straight through to the rescue centre.
For the Volvo Ocean race, in conjunction with the Duty Officers at Race Headquarters, Falmouth MRCC organises emergency rescue, mounts a search operation or rallies crucial medical support. Each yacht entered for the race is self-sufficient, each having two medics on board and extensive practical experience and spares, so when a skipper commits himself to raising the alarm, he will have exhausted all other options. When Falmouth MRCC receives a distress signal, it will be because that vessel and its crew are in grave and imminent danger.
One of the boats activates a distress alert. It could be a rig failure, a medical emergency, any one of a hundred scenarios. The signal automatically transfers from yacht, to satellite, to Earth Station, to Falmouth MRCC (and does so quicker than the time it takes to read this description). Steve Huxley’s team registers the details, plots the position, sends out broadcasts to vessels in the area or calls the military to see if a naval vessel is close by. Can the crew survive on their own, can any of the other boats assist or is an air-lift required?
The most difficult situation is always if the vessel is in trouble thousands of miles from land. For the Volvo Ocean Race in the Southern Ocean it could be that the boat’s nearest safety asset would be another competitor.
Satellite communications enable the coastguard to be in constant contact with the boats across the world; they are only ever seconds away from specialist help. Bearing in mind that the Volvo Ocean Race is going to a part of the world where you are virtually as far from another human as it is possible to get on our crowded planet, thanks to its satellite communications, it is probably the world’s most connected sporting event. Across the globe, Inmarsat reliability exceeds 99.9 per cent, so the chance that the boats can get through in time of trouble is pretty good.
Steve Huxley speaks admiringly of how experienced the skippers are, how precise and calm they are about their requirements. A boat is out of VHF range after 30 miles, and out of MF range by 150 miles. Beyond that, you need satellite communications. Thanks to global technology, and the communications offered through Inmarsat, the world is a small place.
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