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Last Updated: Friday, 4 August 2006, 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK
The secrets of televised yachting
BBC Click's Dan Simmons
By Dan Simmons
Reporter, BBC Click Online

Yachts racing in the Volvo Ocean Race (Photo: Chris Ison/PA)
Cameras add a hint of Big Brother to yacht racing

Big yacht racing is seen by many as the pinnacle of the sport. The America's Cup attracts a global audience of around half a billion, and the round the world ocean races are some of the toughest events sport has to offer.

But because the action often takes place thousands of miles from land, the huge boats are also some of the toughest to follow.

Anyone wanting to keep up with the first solo round the world race back in the 1960s had to rely on newspaper reports.

In the 1980s and 1990s we had to wait till the end of a race leg to watch shaky onboard footage.

But in the 21st Century, all of that has changed. Now some of the loneliest races on the planet can now be delivered to your TV or desktop.

Action shots

Each yacht in the Volvo Ocean Race has seven onboard cameras, including one in the first spreader bar on the main mast, which can be rotated remotely.

There is one in the mast looking back at the helm, and a special camera with its own Light Emitting Diode (LED) light that is always watching from the stern.

We have the technology to film and transmit live TV pictures, or store and forward pictures, emails, still images and even do radio interviews, from the middle of the sea.
Andy Hindley, Volvo Ocean Race

"The camera behind the helm runs 24 hours a day, so when we push the little yellow button on our console it will save the last two minutes of footage so that we can get all the great shots that we've missed while we've been sailing the boat," said Andy Meiklejohn of the Brasil 1 team.

Even below decks, where the crew sleep, there are cameras.

Magnus Woxen is one of two crew members on the Ericsson yacht who are media trained.

At sea he will spend a few hours of his downtime each day at the yacht's digital media station, putting together the footage while the boat speeds ahead at up to 40 knots.

"When we are out at sea it can be very hard doing this editing; it can be very wet inside the boat, or very rough weather, so it's very hard to work on a computer," he said.

"But we have to send a couple of minutes every leg, so you have to try to get it away."

Live TV

The pictures are sent back by an antenna unit at the back of the boat. It tracks one of four satellites, allowing data speeds of up to twice that of a dial-up connection anywhere along the boat's 30,000 mile (48,280 km) long route.

ABN Amro One
ABN Amro One won the 2006 Volvo Ocean Race

The clever bit is the automatic rotation and stabilising of the antenna unit, which ensures that even in rough conditions a data connection is usually possible.

Streaming video direct from the boat is also possible, and the pictures are of broadcast quality, so a store and forward system is used to get the footage of these mid-ocean battles back to broadcasters and the watching fans.

"Technology brings it to the people. If you just go back even a few years, the boats would leave the port and everybody would come down and wave goodbye," said Andy Hindley, Volvo Ocean Race's director.

"Then they'd arrive at the next port and you wouldn't know anything in between; you might get an odd radio call, but nothing else.

"Now we have the technology to film and transmit live TV pictures, or store and forward pictures, emails, still images and even do radio interviews, from the middle of the sea."

For some time racing yachts have automatically relayed information to shore, but in the last few years all this data has been interpreted on-the-fly to enable PC users to watch the action virtually.

Virtual Spectator allows anyone to watch the race from almost any vantage point; viewers can even place themselves at the wheel.

Because race legs can last weeks the latest version of the program allows users to speed up the action, giving an overview in just a few minutes and making it easier to appreciate the tactics involved.

It is so accurate that the fear is that race teams will use their onboard internet connections to find out what their competitors are up to, so the organisers only add the latest data every six hours.

Technical tips

In the Global Challenge race all the yachts are identical, which makes the performance of the amateur teams, and the tactics they use, all the more crucial.

The fastest way to the finish is not always in a straight line. You have to tack or jibe the yacht in order to max out your speed. But which course might be quicker than another?

When should you turn the bow of the boat around away from where you want to go, in order to get there more quickly?

A new onboard application, produced by performance management firm Applix, crushes data and spits out what it thinks the team should do.

It calculates how good each helmsman is and in which conditions, and just when you thought you were doing quite well, it reminds you of how fast the yacht could be going based on past performance. It is the skippers' back seat driver.

"If you know what your target boat speed is, and you're standing at the helm trying to get the best performance out of the boat, if you're not achieving the best speed that the boat can get for that wind speed then you know you've got to do something about it," said Dave Albury, the 2005 winner of the BT Global Challenge.

"So you're continuously looking at and it analysing: are we under performing? Can we perform better?"

Regardless of the technologies on hand, which have become part of almost every ocean race, it is the sheer skill, and bravery of the crew that any skipper will tell you is their number one asset.

And spectators can now get a better view of that than ever before.

ABN Amro One seals home success
11 Jun 06 |  Sailing

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