Not so plain sailing: innovation takes the helm in the Volvo Ocean Race

Taking in 11 ports, and covering 38,739 nautical miles, the Volvo Ocean Race is the leading round-the-world sailing race for teams. Beginning this month, sailing’s biggest offshore race takes place in the most extreme conditions yet offers one of the most coveted prizes in the sport.

Seven teams set sail from Alicante on this 12th outing for the contest, which will last for nearly nine months and feature news and weekly coverage provided by host broadcaster Sunset+Vine|APP.

“This edition of the Volvo Ocean Race has been called The Human Edition and our goal is to capture the human stories behind the competition on-board the boats,” says Andrew Preece, Sunset+Vine|APP managing director. “We’re producing 39 weekly documentaries that are being broadcast by over 100 broadcasters. We are serving these programmes to them via our distribution cloud in a variety of different formats, with a team of around 20 people working out of race control in Alicante.”

Currently the race is in its first leg, comprising 6,487 nautical miles from Alicante to Cape Town. The first stopover events in Cape Town, also planned to form part of the coverage from Sunset+Vine|APP, are planned to begin on 1November.

Taking coverage to new extremes

There are a number of technical innovations for both the coverage and this edition of the race, starting with the boats used by the teams.

According to Richard Deppe, Volvo Ocean Race producer, the event organisers decided to design and build a one-design boat, the Volvo Ocean 65, that all entrants in this edition of the event would have to purchase from the organisation in order to take part in the race.

“There were many reasons for doing this,” explains Deppe. “Mainly it was to stop spiralling costs and to create a more level competitive playing field. Because of this we were able to build the media and communication systems directly into the boat, rather than, as had previously happened, the equipment was added after the boat had been built.”

The Volvo Ocean Race has equipped each boat with an onboard media station with six fixed cameras on the deck and the mast with input points for a handheld camera and a microphone network around the boat.

Camera and microphone points in the companionway hatch will get ‘right in the faces’ of the sailors. The cameras can be remote-controlled and directed, while specially designed microphone locations and systems will enhance voice recording.

There are also editing facilities on-board and a satellite system that allows HD footage to be transmitted back to base as well as live video conferencing. Each boat carries an On Board Reporter [OBR] who is tasked with shooting video, taking stills and generating stories on board the boat as well running the live video conferences, where broadcaster studios can connect directly to the boat and see the action on board through any of the on board cameras while interviewing a sailor. The OBR is an extra crewman whose only duties are to act as a journalist and cameraman, he is not allowed to sail the boat. The rules stipulate that there should be eight sailors plus the one non-sailing OBR onboard the standard teams, while all-women teams can race with eleven sailors plus one non-sailing OBR. (This edition’s Team SCA is the first all-female crew to enter the race in more than a decade.)

“Think of the boat as a floating studio and OB unit,” says Deppe.  “[The OBR] has a rudimentary seat and desk-style workstation. All of the equipment and camera controls are here, so he or she can sit below decks and switch between the six cameras. They can also create and transmit edited pieces or control live video links.”

The cameras and microphones have substantial protection from wind and water, enabling interviews in the cockpit.

“The extreme nature of the race means that most of the fixed equipment on the boat is custom-built,” adds Deppe. “[UK-based supplier Livewire] built a combination of fixed and PTZ cameras, utilising a range of components, housings and control units. These cameras feed into what we called the Video/Audio matrix and the contents ends up on embedded Mac Minis and AJA Ki Pro recorders. From within this matrix, the footage can be processed using an OBR’s laptop Mac with Final Cut Pro X. This is then sent off the boat utilising the Fleet Broadband FB 500 satellite system, which is supplied and managed as part of the race sponsorship from Inmarsat.”

With so many technologies combined into an interconnected end-to-end system, and all in the middle of the ocean to boot, there’s obviously the potential for setbacks. However, Deppe says everything has been performing well. “We have some problems when transmitting at certain heel angles and when the high tech sails get in the way of the spot beam for the satellite beam,” he explains. “We have a piece of software that tells the OBR when the boat is at a bad angle and orientation to the satellite.”

Back on dry land

The production hub in Alicante is the base for news production and distribution, from where Sunset+Vine produces live internet coverage of the leg starts and all the in-port races that take place at the start, each stopover and the finish. All content is received via a fibre optic link from a satellite receive station in the Netherlands. “We have a complex system of media checks and approvals, followed by ingest and archive and automatic distribution to our partners and other relevant parties,” explains Andrew Preece.

“All of the footage arrives into the production hub in Alicante,” he adds. “If it is news footage, it’s edited in Alicante before being uploaded to the Volvo Ocean Race ftp server for download by news broadcasters; we are working with a network of around 2,500 channels worldwide.”

“Our production team in Alicante are directing the action on board via a new innovation for this race – the Watch Producers,” explains Preece. “These Watch Producers are based in the race Mission Control with the race Duty Officers. They run a 24-hour shift pattern while the boats are at sea, communicating with the OBRs and organising footage and coordinating stories. This new conduit to the boats will help us to tell the real story on-board brought to life by the OBR using the onboard camera and editing systems.”

The 39 weekly programmes are also produced in Alicante before being uploaded to Sunset+Vine’s post-production facility in London for technical checks and conversion to international flavours. The content is then uploaded to the Sunset+Vine distribution cloud, where over a hundred international client broadcasters can download their version.

“Client broadcasters can contact our news team in Alicante and request any custom footage,” says Preece. “Custom 3D tracking animations show where the fleet is on the planet with weather information overlays. They can also make live connections to the boats through our bridge in the race Mission Control. With our innovative 24-hour Watch Producer system, a broadcaster can contact a production person in Alicante at any time of their day or night to order footage, arrange a live call or a 3D animation or any other broadcast service.”

The Volvo Ocean Race will finish in Gothenburg, with a final in-port race on June 27, 2015.

Subscribe and Get SVG Europe Newsletters