Page last updated at 10:23 GMT, Sunday, 9 November 2008

Vendee Globe yachts get under way

By Daniel Emery
Technology reporter, BBC News


British competitor Mike Golding: 'Nothing compares'

The Vendee Globe - the single handed round-the-world yacht race - has got under way.

About 300,000 people waved off 30 yachts as they crossed the start line at Les Sables d'Olonne in France.

The Vendee Globe is a non-stop event, covering an average of 27,000 miles.

Seven British yachts have entered the race, including one skippered by Dee Caffari - the first woman to sail single-handed the "wrong way" round the world (i.e. against the prevailing winds).

Unlike the Velux Oceans Race - which breaks the event up into three legs - the Vendee Globe is a non-stop race across some very inhospitable stretches of ocean.

The most important thing for me is to finish
Sam Davies
The event is the ultimate test of both skipper and equipment.

More than a third of the boats that entered the 2004/05 race were forced to retire, and there were fatalities in the 1992/93 and 1996/97 events.

Sam Davies - one of the two female British entrants in the race - is sailing on a yacht with a serious pedigree. It won the last two Vendee Globes under other skippers and a different name.

Map showing route

"I'm really excited and relieved the race is finally here. I've been preparing for nearly two years and everything is pretty much ready. I now really just want to get started.

"The most important thing for me is to finish. There are 20 new yachts in this race and Roxy - my boat - is quite an old lady."

She added: "Realistically it will be really hard to win and I'm very humble about being in this race."

Although the skipper is alone on their boat, they do have considerable assistance from many different gadgets.

This technology makes sailing the yacht easier; it also means that the skipper can be in contact with their team round the clock.

Demands to update blogs, video diaries, and calls to do live interviews with the media (including the BBC) mean that some of the equipment has to be pretty advanced.

It also has to be robust. Boats are frequently battered by the waves and salt spray will wreck any exposed electrical equipment.

Mike Golding allowed BBC News to look around his yacht Ecover to get a glimpse of the technology a solo round-the-world yachtsman requires.

Radar and camerasCommunications equipmentNavigation and radio stationBatteries


Garmain radar

Invented during World War II , radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging) - emits radio waves that are reflected off objects and then detected by a receiver. During the 1940s, sets consumed lots of power and it took trained operators to make sense of the data. These days, the radar set can be run off a boat's batteries.

Not only does radar let a skipper "see" at night or when visibility is poor (such as fog and rain) but it can also be set with an alarm that warns if an object comes too close; ideal if the skipper needs to grab some much needed sleep.


Imarsat Ecover

This covers many different devices, ranging from portable VHF radios through to the Inmarsat Sat C dome that sits on the stern of the boat, and is used to uplink information to one of 12 geosynchronous telecommunications satellites. The yacht also uses a Fleet 77 maritime satellite communications service that provides voice, fax and high-speed data at up to 128kbps.

In addition to communications equipment, the boat is equipped with various cameras so the skipper can record the ups and downs of the voyage, ranging from fixed cameras in the mast and stern to a HDV Sony Handheld Camcorder.

Navigation Station

Yacht ecover navstation

This is the nerve centre of the entire yacht where the skipper will spend most of his time when not helming the craft. In addition to being the interface for all the communications equipment, and displaying the radar output, it is also where the skipper will navigate, locating his position via GPS and then using an electronic chart plotter to put the GPS fix on to the map.

This is also where the skipper will get weather reports. Close to land, these are usually given out by the local coastguard. Further out in British waters, the ever reliable UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency shipping forecast on Radio 4 comes into its own. But once in the deep ocean, reports via NAVTEX (Navigational Telex) and websites are the only way a skipper can keep an eye on the weather.

The yacht can also be steered from this position, via the autopilot. And the whole system - Radar, GPS, autopilot, and weather - can be interlinked, giving the skipper a powerful tool for helping choose the best route, following tidal streams and keeping the wind at his back.



Without power, all the tech in the world is useless. And, given the electrical equipment on board, the demands on the humble battery will be high. The best marine batteries can hold a considerable charge but it is not infinite. Solar cells, wind and water generators can trickle charge a battery, although it is more usual for them to be charged up either from an alternator attached to the engine or a dedicated generator.

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