‘Safety is our top priority’: how satellite technology kicks into action in Volvo Ocean Race emergencies
Vestas boat, which was involved in a fatal collision with a fishing boat off the coast of Hong Kong, is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment
The Volvo Ocean Race boat involved in the fatal collision off the coast of Hong Kong on January 20 was equipped with state-of-the-art safety services, according to the official satellite communications partner overseeing the fleet’s safety.
“This is a safety service – it’s our top priority,” said Rupert Pearce, chief executive of Inmarsat, developer of the FleetBroadband safety service installed in each of the competing 65-foot vessels.
“We are regulated and we run 99.9 per cent reliability – if we have two hours of network down time a year, that would be a bad year for us.”
American-Danish yacht Vestas 11th Hour Racing was involved in a collision with a Chinese fishing boat 30 miles from the finish of the around-the-world race’s fourth leg in Hong Kong, resulting in the death of a mainland fisherman.
According to VOR Race Control, Vestas issued a mayday distress call on behalf of the other vessel immediately after the accident, alerting the Hong Kong Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (HKMRCC) and assisting in the search and rescue operations.
One man was airlifted to hospital but died hours later. The nine remaining fishermen were rescued by a nearby commercial vessel. No Vestas crew member was injured in the collision.
“Vestas will send out an emergency alert, which they can supplement with an alert which sends a GPS fix,” said Pearce.
“[Crew members] can communicate via voice or text to describe the nature of the alert, which goes up to the Inmarsat coordination centre instantly. We send it out to [HKMRCC], which then initiates a rescue within 60 minutes.
“The initiation of the rescue is coordinated by Inmarsat but once we know the search and rescue centre, we will send details back to the team telling them who is on the way along with their contact details. They can then communicate directly.”
All competing boats are equipped with three FleetBroadband domes – a larger FleetBroadband 500 used to beam broadband and video footage to the surrounding satellites; and two FleetBroadband 250s, one for crew members to send and receive information to Race Control and their loved ones, and one “purely used for safety and distress calls”.
Race headquarters in Alicante, Spain, receives updates from boats every 10 seconds. The data packets contain safety information such as position, speed, heading and boat sensor information.
Inmarsat also provides a Telemedicine service, in which crew and onshore professionals can conduct a live video conference call to assess injuries or conduct consultations.
“There was never a break in communications and all the VOR teams are incredibly highly trained,” said Pearce, adding that two members of each team are fully qualified paramedics.
“We’ve had to conduct operations on board such as emergency dental work or setting broken bones ... the crew are trained in that and their level of professionalism is second to none.”
There are also crash buttons and ‘grab bags’ on board for crew members to record any significant moment during the race.
“Often it’s when something goes wrong like when boats collide or capsize. The crew is trying to save their own lives, each other and the ship,” said Pearce.
“If worst comes to worst and they must abandon ship, then they have a grab bag along with life rafts and other provisions. The bag contains a self-satellite phone which means they have communication even from a raft, where they can press a button which sends out immediate GPS fixes and search and rescue alerts.
“It can be very emotional for our people; we’ve had men on sinking yachts, ringing us up and have dictated their wills and goodbyes to their families.”
In 2014, team Vestas Wind – a different Vestas team – was forced to abandon ship after hitting a coral reef off the coast of Mauritius in the VOR’s second leg from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi. The crew successfully put out a distress call and fortunately there were no casualties.
Although this revolutionary satellite technology may act as the crew’s lifeline at sea, Pearce said the praise should go to those on board.
“These guys have been to places normal people haven’t, both geographically and in their spirit,” he said. “They will encounter many things over the horizon such as gear failure, breakages of some kind, moments where they think they could die.
“We’re part of the race, but we’re not sailing these boats. We’re not putting ourselves in harm’s way, pushing ourselves to the limits of our endurance, existing on three to four hours of sleep a day for weeks. We’re not the heroes, but we want to support them in any way we can.”