Staying connected

Text by Jonno Turner
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Staying connected Text by Jonno Turner
Stranded, thousands of miles from civilisation as we know it, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Smart phone, laptop, and all the other technological luxuries we're so accustomed to, rendered useless.

Put simply, for the sailors of Team Vestas Wind, holed up on the deserted Ile-du-Sud, just keeping in touch with the rest of the world was an almost insurmountable challenge. 

That's where Inmarsat came in. In the 2014/15 edition and many before it, they made it possible for the boats to send back photos, video and live streaming from the most remote corners of the planet - and when Team Vestas Wind found themselves cut off and in the middle of nowhere, Inmarsat stepped up to help.

Here, we chat with Inmarsat's Senior Vice President, Chris McLaughlin, about the communication challenges brought on by the incident, learnings from the event and reflect upon a Race partnership which spans four editions...

So, Chris. When did you find out about the Team Vestas Wind incident?

For us, the whole Team Vestas Wind rescue story began with a call from Race HQ, and the question: ‘Chris, do you have any satellite terminals that can get a story off of an island?’. It rapidly unfolded that there had been a disaster - and that the world's media wanted to hear the story. Of course, we didn't know at the time just how badly damaged the boat was.

What was your initial response and plan of action to keep the stranded sailors connected?

We actually tracked down the latest generation of Cobham Explorer 710 Inmarsat BGAN Terminal and flew it from Mauritius to the island, so that the crew’s story could be told. It meant that they had the full suite of Inmarsat and Cobham products - the BGAN terminal, the Inmarsat IsatPhone 2, solar charges, spare batteries. In fact, we sent an extra four IsatPhone 2's so that the crew members could keep in touch with their families. In addition, we were using the Cobham Sailor Inmarsat-C locator devices for safety, as we would on any ship, and we were fully employed with the communication departments and rescue services. 

Can you give us an example of when you'd normally use something like a BGAN terminal?

BGANs are usually used in newsgathering, military, reporting special forces aid and disaster recovery. It's a favourite of the SAS, as, in laymans terms, it's a flat, coffee-table-book sized terminal, which you can point at a satellite and get you half a megabyte or more of connectivity in the middle of nowhere.

Following the incident, what feedback did you get from the sailors?

We got a ringing endorsement from Chris Nicholson and the team on just how good the IsatPhone 2 was, and how reliable the battery life was. In fact, we've just loaned Chris a Cobham Sailor Inmarsat FleetBroadband, an IsatPhone2 and a locator device for his family trip around the world in their cruising boat. He's now convinced that no one should go to sea without a satellite phone in their grab bag. He says it's a no-brainer.

So the phones were in the grab bags, but what wasn't on board - because why would you need one? - was a BGAN.

We could've - maybe we should've - but we didn't, put a 250kb paper-back-book sized terminal in the rescue box. You talk to the skippers beforehand and they'll all tell you they don't need the extra weight. You don't know you need it until you actually do.

On that note, how have you seen the equipment onboard evolve over the past three editions?

Over the last three races, everyone's kind of accepted the domes on the back of the boat. I remember in the 2005/06 race when they were first there, and they were 64kb, skippers used to wonder why they had the weight in the back of the boat and what was the purpose of it, and the next race it was still much the same. But now, it's not even talked about. 

Check out Genny's Inside Track visit to Inmarsat HQ during Leg 5

What learnings did Inmarsat take from the Team Vestas Wind incident?

Inmarsat is a hybrid - whilst we deal with aid and trade and commercial shipping is our bread and butter, 60% of our business in fact, we also are a major contributor to governments and defence around the globe.

As you can imagine, we have to be enormously flexible on what they want. We are involved in drones, aircraft surveillance, tracking, border security, we contributed to dealing with piracy, and we're contributing with communications that are involved in the migration flows that we're seeing across the globe.

As such, there was nothing intrinsically difficult about the Team Vestas Wind incident from an Inmarsat point of view, other than that the bottom of the boat was ripped out, the batteries were destoryed and the onboard equipment dead. 

However, we were very pleased that we had in the rescue bag put an IsatPhone 2 with a spare battery and a solar charger. I think our biggest learning was that, if you're going to have one IsatPhone 2 onboard, it's a great idea to have two. Potentially, you might put a small BGAN terminal onboard as well, so that the Onboard Reporter would be able to communicate.

Overall, I think the kit we've got on the Volvo Ocean 65 is the right kit, but I think the one thing it demonstrated is that any long distance sailor would be mad not to have a IsatPhone 2 in their rescue bag. 

Is that something that the average coastal sailor needs to worry about?

The average sailor, in coastal waters, with a 40/50ft boat, is somewhat spoiled. They think that there is always going to be GSM coverage on their mobile phone. And in many cases across, for instance, the English Channel, there's probably going to be coverage. But you have to ask yourself, what if there isn't?

For whatever reason. What if you're out of reach? Was that $500 IsatPhone 2 that you thought you'd never need, about as useful as some of the electronic kit you've bought onboard? Is it more useful than that extra little gadget that you thought was really cool and you just had to have one? We've all been there, we've all done it, I'm a sailor too and my garage is full of those bits.

I think if you're going distance, and if there's any doubt that you'll be off-coast and outside of GSM, you owe it to all your crew to have a satellite phone onboard. You can buy them from the internet from any number of dealers. The IsatPhone 2 is proven by the Volvo Ocean Race.

You mentioned all of the work Inmarsat does with the military, trade and safety industries. Where does the Volvo Ocean Race sit alongside those?

There are synergies. A few weeks ago we had the President of China here, and when he saw a photo of Dongfeng Race Team, he asked if they'd won. The last info he had, they were winning. We explained that no, sadly, their mast had broken. And when it was translated to him, he smiled and said, 'next time'. 

We had a meeting with the Indian Prime Minister a week later. We had Turkish defence people here recently. The US Department of Defence is one of our biggest customers. We're engaged across the globe. 

And very three years the Volvo Ocean Race demonstrates that Inmarsat works everywhere. It's a wonderful partnership between the two of us. We're very fond of the Race.

I remember back in 2004 when we were approached to do the Volvo Ocean Race, I asked Admiral James Ellis, former Navy top gun, former astronaut and astrophysicist, whether he thought it would be a good fit for Inmarsat.

He gave me a great line: 'If it works on a 70ft soapdish, I believe it will work on my aircraft carrier.'

The Volvo Ocean Race provides the most extreme platform for Inmarsat in a maritime environment. Maritime is our biggest business, and it remains today that if it works in the Volvo Ocean Race, it will work for the world's shipping industry.