Going high tech on the high seas

HCL Technologies and the organisers of the Volvo Ocean Race come together to take the event to the next level.

Volvo Ocean Race - men at work inside the Race Control centre in Alicante, Spain.

It eventually comes down to the battle for survival. Sailing the high seas, the nights are scary and difficult for the sailors with the temperatures coming down to zero and absolutely no visibility. The evenings are windy, while the mornings are extremely warm and often humid.

Covering 45,000 nautical miles during the Volvo Ocean Race, the sailors know that apart from their team, the high seas are all they will have for company for the next nine months. Far away from the city, miles away from their family, they sail on in quest of adventure.

“There was a time when all we had were answering machines as a communication tool. Once the sailors were in the sea there was no way of getting through to them,” says Jordi Neves, the Volvo Ocean Race’s Chief Digital Officer.

However, this time around, there has been a major change. The Indian tech giant, HCL, has come in as the IT sponsor for the event, providing technical support to the race. And both the groups — the race organisers and the tech company — feel that this association will take the race forward. “We are looking at areas where technology is making its mark, and sailing is one of the most dynamic of sports,” says Ashish Gupta, Corporate Vice President, ITO and Infrastructure Services Sales (EMEA), HCL Technologies. He believes that the association will also help them better their technological objectives. “Our association with VOR is another example of our Mode 1-2-3 strategy which meets customers’ business objectives using gen-next technologies,” Gupta adds.

To ensure that the technology is better used in developing the race, a Race Control monitoring station has been set up in Alicante that receives all the crucial inputs. As the sailors navigate the sea routes, the Race Control receives all the information through drones. Developed by HCL Technologies, every team yacht has two drones that beam back the information to the Race Control. “The drones help us understand the situation better. Be it transmitting weather-related information or broadcasting the race on the social platforms, the drones give the control room a clearer picture,” Neves says.

That’s not all. Seven fixed cameras and a couple of wireless cameras have also been installed in each yacht so that the weather can be monitored while the sailors travel from Alicante to The Hague in the next nine months. “Life is very uncertain in the sea, so this fool-proof monitoring will avoid any untoward incidents,” Neves says.

Gupta, too, is of the view that the advanced technology will reduce errors. “The drones can reduce errors by around 30 per cent. Along with statistical data models, they help in understanding things caused by climate change,” he adds.

But then, how is the parity maintained?

To ensure that all the yachts are uniform, their designs are the same. The yachts have a mobile production facility that is complete with a media station below the deck, with well-equipped HD cameras, microphones and night vision 360-degree cameras.

In the stiff battle between man and sea, the sailors, however, are not allowed to have any direct access to the internet. Everything related to information is operated by the on-board reporter, and the entire process is monitored by the Race Control, based in Alicante.

“All communications are done through the Race Control. The sailors are only allowed to use the social media for a fixed time, that too from official accounts. This is an engagement process. But to make sure that no team misuses technology, the internet access is restricted,” Neves points out.

Gupta says that all the yachts are given access to the same amount of data (about the weather and sea conditions). “The sailors need to use their experience and technology together. That’s how it is,” he adds.

Having handled the race operations for years, an experienced Neves informs that every day, all the teams are given a certain amount of information from the central Race Control station. “That’s common for all. With the climate change, racing has become tougher, and our aim is to use the technological partnership (with HCL) to develop the racing conditions,” Neves adds.

Even the participating teams believe that the use of technology will give the sailors and the navigators a fair idea of the course. “That’s a positive sign. It will help the teams,” says Dee Caffari, one of the team skippers.

Each yacht has a team of 8-11 sailors, and as they sail on from one port to another in different climatic conditions, the men at the Race Control in Alicante keep a close eye on the competitors.

The purists may have a different tale to tell, but for the sailors and the race organisers, the partnership with the Indian IT giant is a big boost. After all, it is because of technology that the battle between man and sea can be tracked. Even a few years back, who would have thought that the movements in the high seas could be tracked on the laptop!

(The writer was in Alicante, Spain, on an invitation from HCL Technologies)