Published: Thursday, 27 October 2016

The Volvo Ocean Race is installing a new hydro-generator to act as a back-up power source to the Volvo Penta engine on each of the Volvo Ocean 65 racing yachts – part of the one million euro per boat refit process currently underway in Lisbon, Portugal and an important milestone in the quest to become energy-neutral on the race course.

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(Photos: Volvo Ocean Race)

All eight boats – the seven from the last edition, plus the new boat being built at Persico Marine in Italy – will feature the unit, which can already provide enough power to run the essential onboard systems in the event of mechanical failure. 

Depending on the results of continued pre-race testing, its use could be mandatory at times during the 2017-18 edition in order to provide results during real-world race conditions and begin to reduce the amount of fuel used by the boats for their electronic systems. 

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One boat has already been installed with the unit for testing, and the results have been significant, according to the Race’s Director of Boats and Maintenance Nick Bice.

“In the last few years, we’ve been working hard on alternative energy,” he explains. “The hydro-generator is effectively a propeller which you drop over the back of the boat, similar to a small outboard, which spins around with the water flowing, generating electricity to be fed back to the batteries on the boat. Our tests have shown no noticeable impact on speed performance in terms of increase of drag. The results have been positive enough to convince me there’s no reason why in the future we can’t be energy neutral on the race course.”

Volvo Ocean 65s To Install New Hydropower Units

“We’ve sailed about 3,500 miles with the hydro-generator on the back of the boat and during that time we didn’t have to turn on the engine. That’s saying a lot, as normally, we’d run the engine for an hour to an hour-and-a-half every day,” says two-time Volvo Ocean Race veteran Liz Wardley. “We’ve proved what it can do, and now we just need to prove its reliability not just as a back-up power source, but a primary one.” 

The fleet-wide refit that is currently underway at The Boatyard facility in Lisbon will be completed by June 2017 – four months before the start of the next edition in October 2017.

Upgrades are being made across over 500 individual line items in many areas of the boat including composites, masts, deck gear, electronics and engineering. In addition, all boats will undergo a full One Design paint job.

Meanwhile, the Volvo Ocean Race is also reinventing its unique Onboard Reporter programme in order to tell more of the raw story than ever before – with the Race creating a squad of multimedia reporters able to work across the fleet instead of necessarily being permanently attached to individual teams.

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In the penultimate announcement in 10 days regarding the 2017-18 race, the team of 10-12 Onboard Reporters will be more fluid and flexible, potentially being able to embed within teams on a leg-by-leg basis instead of signing on with one team for the whole race as before – and avoiding also the very late appointments by many of the teams in the last edition, which compromised the technical abilities of the OBRs in some cases.

“We’re putting the emphasis firmly on the reporting side of the OBR’s role, and we are already up and running with the trialing and training as a result of being able to move forward now. The quality of OBR we believe we can acquire by doing this will also help in what of course is a difficult task of balancing integrity and acquiring sufficient trust of the sailors – like a war reporter jumping in the front line with the soldiers. We actually experienced, for unfortunate reasons in fact, having more than one style of OBR in the last race onboard Dongfeng and it worked very well,” says Volvo Ocean Race CEO Mark Turner. “Having dedicated reporters onboard the boats, embedded in the action, was a groundbreaking step when it was first introduced back in the 2008-09 edition – and now it’s time for the next evolution. Their only job is to tell the team’s own story in as raw a way as possible, to share what remains just a small slice of the incredible journey of the team onboard. We probably still only share 5% today – if we could get to 15% that would be great, and we would not be digging too far into certain sensitive content that should still stay on the boat.

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“It’s another part of our commitment to share just a little bit more of the raw and direct story of the teams, and faster than ever before – whilst of course being sensitive to the personal stories onboard. Just like in any professional sport today, this balance is important.”

According to Volvo Ocean Race’s Head of TV Leon Sefton, this is a fundamental shift in the way that content is gathered onboard.

“It’s true that the OBRs will not be able to create the sort of long-term bond with their teams that they may have done in previous editions, and we could lose some of the storytelling opportunities that are provided by that kind of relationship,” he explains. “But we believe that the ability to rotate the OBRs this way will provide a crucial distance between the teams and the OBRs that will better enable them to properly perform the role of an observational journalist.

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“We’ve already begun the process of trialing and training OBRs, and by the start of the Race, we’ll have a pool of top storytellers across the fleet. Of course, this news doesn’t mean that we will rotate all Onboard Reporters, every single leg – if there’s a particularly interesting story or relationship on a particular boat, then of course it would make sense to let it play out for multiple legs – but this added flexibility gives us the opportunity to shake things up if we feel it’s necessary.”

No OBR will be on the race unless their basic safety and ability to survive onboard the Volvo Ocean 65s has been well-tested pre-race and signed off by at least two Skippers. The ambition is in fact for the whole pool of OBRs to actually train on any of the boats to which they might be assigned during the race itself.

Teams have been capturing footage since the first edition of the race in 1973-74 – but originally crew members would take turns to perform reporter duties, using 16mm film cameras and homemade water housings.

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Full-time Media Crew Members were added to each team in 2008-09 as dedicated story-gatherers, and the role was renamed as Onboard Reporter for the 2014-15 edition.

The news of the changes follows a prominent campaign to recruit the next reporters to the storytelling squad, which closed in September.

“We’ve raised the bar in terms of our search for the next generation of Onboard Reporters ahead of 2017-18,” adds Turner. “We’ve received applications from 126 countries and the quality is incredible, with experienced media professionals including war reporters, adventure and nature documentary makers and digital broadcast journalists.”

The Volvo Ocean 65 racing boats are effectively mobile digital production facilities, operating with state-of-the-art satellite hardware and services supplied by Cobham SATCOM and Inmarsat. 

As part of a refit process currently underway at the Race’s Boatyard facility in Lisbon, all Volvo Ocean 65s are gaining two new fixed camera angles, taking the total to six positions across the boat.

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Each Onboard Reporter has additional access to night vision and action cameras, while drone and 360-degree cameras will also be in regular use across the fleet.

“We were the first to use drones from the oceans as part of our storytelling in 2014-15, and led the way with 360-degree footage offshore, as well as streaming live during the Cape Horn rounding,” says Sefton. “We’re going to continue innovating across the OBR programme. Thanks to our partners we have the ability to go live from anywhere on the planet, at any time, and the OBRs work around the clock to capture and transmit the real story from the boats. 

The Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18 will begin on Sunday Oct 22 – in almost exactly one year’s time – when the starting gun is fired in Alicante and the teams set out to complete a total of 45,000 nautical miles of offshore racing, over a course that takes in 11 landmark cities in five continents over eight months.

Organisers revealed the start dates for the first three legs of sailing’s longest and toughest adventure on Friday, rounding off a series of 10 major announcements on the future of the Race in the past weeks.

Volvo Ocean 65s To Install New Hydropower Units

The first official action of the 2017-18 edition will be the Alicante In-Port Race on Saturday Oct 14 before the Volvo Ocean Race itself begins eight days later with Leg 1 – a 700-nautical mile sprint to Lisbon, Portugal. It will be the fourth-consecutive time that the event has started from its Home Port of Alicante.

After arriving in Lisbon, the boats will take part in the In-Port Race on Saturday Oct 28 before the start of Leg 2 on Sunday, Nov 5.

That will see them battle it out over 7,000 nautical miles of the Atlantic Ocean to Cape Town, South Africa. The racing will take over three weeks to complete, and will mark the 11th occasion in 13 editions that the Volvo Ocean Race has visited the city.

The Cape Town In-Port Race will take place on Friday Dec 8 and Leg 3 will begin two days later on Sunday Dec 10.

The decision to tweak the format of race weekends at many of the stopovers by moving the In-Port Race from the Saturday to the Friday gives teams an extra 24 hours to prepare for the rigours of ocean racing to come.

“With just a year to go, the countdown to the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18 has begun,” says Race CEO, Mark Turner. “The sailors can look forward to an unforgettable send-off from Alicante, our Home Port, and the fact that they’ll be thrown into a high-intensity sprint to Lisbon straight off will make Leg 1 especially exciting. Our Boatyard facility is based in Lisbon, and it will be very well known to teams who will use it as an Atlantic training base in the lead-up to the start.

“Cape Town also has a special connection with the Race – our boats have been heading there since the very first edition, back in 1973 – so there will be a lot that is very familiar before the teams head towards the Southern Ocean, which is such an important focus for the Race.”