Our boats will always be boats – they will always have sails and they will always be propelled by the wind – but in many other respects, the Volvo Ocean Race is evolving very quickly.
Over the last two decades, almost every aspect of the race has been transformed by digital technology. From the ability of fans to follow the race now in near-real time to boat design to sailing strategies, almost nothing has been unchanged by IT.
In my first Volvo Ocean Race in 2001, for example, we had a satellite dish in front of the boat, which was extremely fragile. We could send one photograph from the boat to the land in 15 minutes. Now, we can have live Skype calls at sea, and our crews at sea can communicate in real time directly to people on shore. Not only that, but we have multiple cameras on board now, and are even testing a live, mid-ocean drone shot.
Faster, better boats
Boat design has advanced a lot too. In the old days, you couldn’t do anything with a simulator – you had to build a physical model and put it in a tank. Today, you build a virtual model and test it in a simulator, and get results back right away that would have taken months and months to collect. Designers can make adjustments too, and test their theories right on the monitor. You can even steer the models!
The simulators themselves are also getting more reliable. The progress in technology is keeping up with that of the boats and vice versa: if you design something and it performs properly on the simulator, that’s generally what will happen on the water, whereas in the earlier days this used to be a bit of a hit or a miss.
Materials science has advanced as well. Our understanding of the strengths of different materials is advanced enough now that we actually know when something will hold together and when it will break. Computer simulations help us identify weak spots on the boat, and show the designers where they need reinforcement.
For Volvo Ocean Race sailors, this means that the boats are faster now, and there is good and bad in that: generally, a fast boat is an uncomfortable boat – it’s a bit like a racecar; they’re built for speed, not passenger comfort.
Sailing a sea of data
Once the boat is in the water too, the technology continues to change the dynamics of the ocean race.
Technology has also given us more of an edge on the weather: the weather data is now extremely accurate: the navigator knows pretty much on an hourly basis what the weather is going to be. At the same time, every boat has a program that shows the crew what sail shapes they should choose given the current weather conditions.
This has had an interesting consequence for the Volvo Ocean Race: The fact that the boats are one design, get the same weather information, and use the same sail-shape programs means that they are also more likely to set the same course and maintain more or less the same speed. As a result, we expect to see the fleet stick together most of the time. The more advanced the technology gets, the tighter and more exciting we expect the race will become.
In the end, however, one thing won’t change: the team with the guts to push its boat closest to the edge, without falling over, will still win. The difference is that now that team will include a crewmember who can calculate their odds in a couple of nanoseconds.
Nick Bice is the Chief Technical Development Officer for the Volvo Ocean Race. Volvo Ocean Race is the world's toughest race covering 45,000 nautical miles across four oceans, six continents and 12 landmark host cities. HCL Tech is the Official IT Services Provider to Volvo Ocean Race supporting the 2017-18 edition of the race. To know more about the HCL-Volvo Ocean Race partnership, click here.