BRIGHT SPARKS 421 - Gamesmanship at the Bleeding Edge

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The Volvo Ocean Race never fails to excite, not to the mention all the big manufacturers piling their gear aboard these 70-foot carbon rocketships, reports KEVIN GREEN

BRIGHT SPARKS 421 - Gamesmanship at the Bleeding Edge
BRIGHT SPARKS 421 — Gamesmanship at the Bleeding Edge

For the six boats bashing their way around the world in the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race — which has just departed Alicante (Spain) — lies 39,000 gruelling miles through some challenging seas apart from the Southern Ocean.

Stopovers are Cape Town, Abu Dhabi, Sanya in China, Auckland, around Cape Horn to Itajaí, Miami, Lisbon, and Lorient. The accompanying inshore races give spectators close-up views of the action among the 11-strong crews of professional sailors. During the nine-month event they will experience temperatures ranging from -15°C to +40°C, regularly hit speeds of 20kts-plus, while crashing over massive waves and enduring only freeze-dried foods that have to last up to 22 days per leg.

It’s been said that Volvo designers prioritise the hardware at the expense of crew quarters, and having raced on a couple of V70s, I’d pretty much agree. Onboard life is a choice between a jarring black hell-hole below with the thud and the second engine powering the keel rams or topside, with goggles and survival suit donned for much of the time.

Technically speaking these boats are refinements of the previous V70s from the last event, with similar canting keels that swing 40 degrees, high-modulus carbon rigs and slightly sturdier hulls.

But the electronics have moved on apace, especially for the navigator, who’s jammed in a cubby below the cockpit sole with an array of smarts. This includes B&G Zeus multifunction displays powered by an H3000 Hercules data-processor and the ultra-bright HV 30/30 instrument display screens. External data inputs are essential for meteorological input and communications, which rely on broadband satellite reception.

Thrane & Thrane’s Inmarsat mini C dome, along with its Fleet Broadband 150, is used to transmit data — course, speed, canting keel angle, wave heights, temperature and much more — from sealed black boxes to Race Control. With a dedicated media person onboard for the last couple of events, this also includes video and full multimedia outputs.

At Race Control in Alicante major number crunching is used to predict the fleet’s position in 3D dimensions on Google Earth with all the variables (wind, currents and upcoming weather fronts) factored. In addition, the 2011-12 race can be viewed in real-time by Race Control.

Company UGRIB (click on, run by former Volvo Ocean Race navigator Marcel van Triest, manages the weather data server that all race navigators can access for particular GRIB files — which are downloaded to each boat’s particular race software for strategising.

"Now the satellites are there and the computer models of the atmosphere have evolved massively, which has everything to do with the computers being more powerful," explains van Triest. "So now there are quite reliable digital models of the earth’s atmosphere that gives us the actual conditions and the forecasts, and that is getting better every couple of years."

How this data is used is, of course, the competitive difference between the six boats, which have their own retinue of experts. This year, famed Australian meteorologist Roger "Clouds" Badham is working with race favourite Team Camper, but warned that weather science was still a fickle subject. "The weather models tend to be tricky in light winds, so can tell you porkies," he says.

For the web-viewing public, enjoying the Volvo Ocean Race Game is a fascinating way to put yourself in the skipper and navigator hot seats. It attracted 234,000 gamers last time around and this time has been improved so the needs of smartphones — Androids and iPhones —can be met, allowing competitors to ensure their yacht is sailing to its polars, updating waypoints and watching for weather fronts. Worth the effort when you consider there’s a Volvo XC60 car prize for the winner. Other improvements this year include racing your friends through Facebook.

"You see on the virtual game that the guy who gets the weather right wins the race," continued van Triest.

Finally, elsewhere in the techworld it’s METS time (Marine Equipment Trade Show) in Holland and as we go to press there’s a strong trend apparent in renewable-energy products and electric power.

Gear to look out for includes new fuel cells from companies including EFOY and MaxPower, while major power innovator Mastervolt has brought out the HybridMaster Ultra that attaches to the driveshaft to generate electricity as you sail along with the prop rotating. I’ll have more on METS in the upcoming columns if I can tear myself away from the Volvo Ocean Race Game.


1). The Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 is the toughest test of man and machine — seen here aboard Chinese team Sanya.

2). The Volvo Ocean Race Game puts you in the skipper’s hot seat, with a new XC60 car going to the winner.

3). Renewable-energy products will be prominent at this year’s METS marine trade show, including fuel cells. The EFOY Comfort 210 fuel cell transforms chemical energy into electricity (up to 2.2kW/h daily), with no moving parts and has been used on lightweight raceboats.

4). Mastervolt will showcase its HybridMaster Ultra generator at METS. When the driveshaft is spun by the main engine or is free-wheeling under sail, this unit generates up to 200amp.


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