Cobham, Inmarsat and Sunset+Vine on crest of a wave for Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15

Extreme is an overused word in sport but the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), now into its third leg of nine from Abu Dhabi to Sanya in China, does fit that description. Seven teams are racing over a 39,739 nautical mile route, going round the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn and through the Southern Ocean in the ultimate test of seamanship and technology – both in boat design and the broadcast and communications equipment on board each vessel.

The 2014-15 VOR marks a departure from previous events in the series as each yacht is identical to each other. This means, as Wolf (Yang Jiu), a crew member on the Dongfeng Race Team observed during the stop-over in Abu Dhabi, that the race is no longer purely about engineering, with the richest teams able to field highly designed vessels. Instead the Volvo Ocean 65s have been built to one template, with the same features and equipment, making the skill of the crew the key factor in winning this most demanding of sea challenges.

Also standard on all boats is a comprehensive communications and multimedia/broadcast installation. This provides both vital links between the competitors and race control in Alicante, Spain and the basis of a full video production chain that gives a dramatic insight into life on board. Each yacht has a crew of eight sailors, plus an onboard reporter (OBR); the all-women complement on Team SCA can be up to 12 including the OBR.

The reporters do not take part in the sailing but they cook meals – from freeze-dried ingredients – in addition to their main role of documenting the voyage. The OBR spends a lot of time below deck at the media desk, located towards the aft of the boat behind the navigation workstation. From these cramped quarters the OBR edits video and audio into packaged reports using Final Cut Pro on a laptop, which is also for writing a regular blog.

Wave-bound workflows

The onboard reports are assembled using a mixture of material shot by the OBR on a handheld camera (either a GoPro or the reporter’s preferred make) and feeds from fixed waterproof cameras positioned round the boat. There are five deck cameras, designed and built by LiveWire Digital. These include the main shot of the yacht sailing serenely along – or ploughing through mountainous waves – comes from a roll-compensated camera located on the stern underneath the Cobham SATCOM Sailor 500 Fleet Broadband antenna dome. This principal angle is supported by one camera on the mast mounted radar bracket for shots of crew members on the bow during sail changes; and two on the underneath of the spreaders beneath that. New for this race is the companionway cam, situated just above the hatch. This is intended to not only capture action in the cockpit and grinding area but is also for interviews, with waterproof microphones, made by LiveWire, built into the superstructure.

The companionway camera is operated from a panel at the media desk, giving the OBR full control of pan, tilt and zoom. This unit also allows the OBR to select feeds that are edited and assembled for video reports and streaming. Both the OBR and other crew members are able to access the cameras using iPads and iPhones for putting together packages.

A critical part of the camera set-up is the crash recorder. This is based on a delay line developed by LiveWire built into the media desk. It constantly records from a pre-selected camera – mostly the stern shot – and the onboard mics. The system is activated if there is a crash or capsizing incident or by one of the crew hitting one of the record buttons. After this the system will record the previous four minutes and following four minutes of action. The video is then sent to HQ using the LiveWire M-Link Newscaster software application through the FleetBroadband 500 for uploading to YouTube. This process is also used for distributing general broadcast material back to Alicante and video outlets. Subsequently, the video is sent to HQ using the LiveWire M-Link Newscaster software application through the FleetBroadband 500 or 250 for uploading to YouTube. This process is also used for distributing general broadcast material back to Alicante and video outlets.

Connectivity is provided by VOR partners Cobham, supplying the hardware, and Inmarsat for the BGAN network. Each boat houses a Cobham Fleet Broadband 500, which runs at 432kb/s and is used to send big files. Up to 4Gb of video can be sent from each vessel every day so this terminal is only switched on at specific transmission times. A Fleet Broadband 250 is on continuously for sending and receiving email. There is also a satellite unit for telemetry.

A brief history lesson

The history of the VOR stretches back to 1973, when it was known as the Whitbread Round the World Race and was sponsored by a British brewing company. Back then there was little, if any, media coverage of the event and communication equipment was fairly basic. Speaking in the sunny comfort of the Sailors’ Terrace in Abu Dhabi marina, a veteran of the 1981 Whitbread race recalled how the only link was a SSB (single side band) radio, used for communicating with the control centre and in case of emergency. “You could pass on messages to your family through that and give details of any incidents,” he said. “Anything newsworthy could be passed on to the papers but it might only get a couple of column inches.”

That has changed considerably since Volvo took over sponsorship in 2001. Today the onboard footage is used for a weekly 26-minute programme, Life at the Extreme, produced by Sunset+Vine, along with specially shot material at each port stop, including feeds from chase boats and helicopters. This is edited on Avid workstations, with facilities and galleries in converted containers set up at each call along the way. Graphics are supplied by 3D specialist Virtual Eye to give detailed views of the route and the harbours.

Life at the Extreme is screened by many international broadcasters, including Canal+, Sky, ESPN, RTL and CCTV. Volvo also has its own YouTube channel for the Race, as well as maintaining live streamed feeds online. VOR technology director Jordi Neves comments that the aim is to use the broadcast and multimedia hardware and software to tell the human stories of the race directly to the fans through various broadcast platforms and social media.

Neves comments that a key element in this is the communications with the boats, though a mixture of satellite phones, VHF/UHF circuits, RF and broadband. “On shore we have a hybrid set-up,” he explains, “including 3G, 4G, RF and IP. This gives a lot of flexibility.” The private IP network, which connects back to the VOR broadcast centre in Alicante, is provided by Inmarsat in conjunction with Cobham. A component of this is Cobha’’s NETNode Mesh IP radio system, which is based on COFDM and allows video, audio and GPS feeds to be integrated. As well as the broadcast and streaming element of this, Neves pointed out that the telemetry information allows the control centre to monitor each boat to check their position, that they are keeping within set tolerances and how the vessels are peforming.

The need to be constantly in touch was demonstrated dramatically during the second leg of the race from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi. At the end of November the Team Vestas Wind yacht hit a reef in a remote part of the Indian Ocean. As OBR Brian Carlin graphically and powerfully reported, both in his video package and at a VOR reception, the back-end of the boat was torn away and there was no alternative than for the crew to salvage what they could and abandon ship.

Fortunately, no one was injured and the crew was later picked up by a local coastguard. What did survive was the Cobham equipment, which made the vital connection to the control centre and helped Carlin record an event that sums up what an event like the Volvo Ocean Race is all about.

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