Published: Monday, 17 October 2016

Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) sailors will be able to send social media updates directly from the oceans for the first time in 2017-18, following a rule change and technical development that opens up a race that has always prevented onboard internet access.

Volvo Ocean Race Sailors To Be Able To Update Social Media

(Photos: Sam Greenfield / Dongfeng Race Team, Ainhoa Sanchez, Rick Deppe, Marc Bow / Volvo Ocean Race)

It might seem a very normal thing to do today – but historically, the Volvo Ocean Race has strictly prohibited onboard internet access in order to ensure sporting equality and rule out any potential outside assistance from shore.

But, using a new bespoke platform currently being developed in-house, the Race will provide sailors with a ‘crew communicator’ that will allow them to transmit one-way updates on either their own or their team’s social channels. 

“This is exciting news for fans of the race, who can look forward to more direct and raw multimedia content from the boats than ever before,” says Race CEO Mark Turner. “The Volvo Ocean Race is unique in ocean racing in that there’s an internet lock-down – the boats only have access to monitored emails and weather data supplied by Race HQ.

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“The rules around accessing the internet onboard are there in order to ensure that there’s no way for a crew to receive outside assistance – and whilst it has raised the bar in terms of sporting credibility, the downside is that, in the past, it has blocked some sailors from sharing their story.”

Due to the unique scale of the race, which visits some of the most remote areas on the planet, designing a device capable of withstanding the conditions has proved a challenging task.

“We have to develop both the devices and implement some gateways to enable our sailors to circumvent the existing firewalls onboard, but only for this one purpose, in order to share directly from a handheld device,” explains Turner.

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The communication is one-way, meaning that sailors using the ‘crew communicator’ won’t be able to receive replies whilst at sea, but they will be sent an email digest featuring engagement stats at the end of each day.

“This is fantastic news. All athletes have their own network, so it is a good way of making the race more personal. Fans will be able to read what the sailors want to say – and not just what they are asked about in an interview. It is going to be great for fans," comments three-time VOR racer Gerd-Jan Poortman

“The stories that go on in this race are amazing, and so far, we haven’t been able to get much of it off the boats,” adds four-time VOR sailor and Event Operations Director Richard Mason. “The ‘crew communicator’ will be a fantastic way for fans to follow individuals, and learn more about the characters in the race – not just the Skipper, but the bowman, trimmer and each of the crew.”

Mason, who was also Shore Manager for Team SCA during the 2014-15 edition, believes that the public will be captivated by the daily life onboard the Volvo Ocean 65s.

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“Look at shows like ‘The Deadliest Catch’ – people are mesmerised by a bunch of guys fishing in the Barents Sea, hauling out crab pots,” he continues. “Everyone watches it, including myself, and I know that the stories that go on in the VOR are at least as compelling.”

Race Director Phil Lawrence comments on the need to innovate and tell the story of the teams, whilst also ensuring that the racing isn’t compromised.

“We’re keen to get raw content off the boats and into the public domain as fast as possible, and this technology allows us to manage that process in the right way,” he explains. “It’s important not to just throw it open – the crew are racing their boat around the planet, and the last thing we would want is to make it possible for a group of meteorologists sat in an office in central Europe somewhere making decisions which should be made on board.

“It’s a fine balance to protect that sporting integrity, whilst making sure that everyone can join us for what promises to be an amazing adventure in 2017-18. I believe that the ‘crew communicator’ concept is a big step towards finding that balance.”

Volvo Ocean Race has also confirmed that, in an unexpected boost to the next edition of the race, an eighth boat is being built at Persico Marine, Italy.

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As a One Design class, it will be identical to the existing fleet of seven Volvo Ocean 65s in every way, and will be launched in May next year – five months before the start of the next edition. The team behind this new build will be announced early in 2017.

"It’s exciting to welcome an addition to the fleet ahead of the next edition, as this was not necessarily expected,” says VOR Director of Boats and Maintenance Nick Bice. “We now have a real prospect of starting the next race with more boats than in the last edition. There will be absolutely no advantage in terms of physical performance or reliability. The new boat will be identical to the existing fleet in every respect. All of the Volvo Ocean 65s were built with at least two editions in mind, possibly even a third – and the seven that finished the 2014-15 edition are still in fantastic condition."

Persico Marine is the lead contractor for the new boat, and will use the same moulds, materials and process of building the original fleet of Volvo Ocean 65s. After completion, the boat will be delivered to the Boatyard facility in Lisbon, where it will undergo rigorous measurement tests.

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"When it comes to measuring, we run a fully transparent process. Anyone from any team can come and witness the boats being measured in our refit facility in Lisbon, to ensure they fit the bill," says Bice. "Our tests on the existing boats have shown they have not lost any of their rigidity or performance, so whilst the team building a new boat will have ‘no excuses’ from a mental perspective perhaps, there will be no real advantage in physical terms."

An extensive refit process is currently underway on the original Volvo Ocean 65s. That process is designed to ensure that the components make another 45,000 nautical miles around the world, but also includes significant upgrades in communication equipment, safety, energy generation, and performance electronics as well as new designs of sails which will level the playing field again to some extent.

The Volvo Ocean Race starts from Alicante, Spain in October 2017 and finishes in The Hague, Holland over eight months later, taking in a total of 11 landmark cities.