A new course charted online


In olden times, say 1973, global yacht races made news only when the boats departed and reached each port of call. Between those endpoints were vast blackouts as wide as the Southern Ocean.

But now, skippers and crews of the yachts in the Volvo Ocean Race send e-mail, video and audio clips to an audience of hundreds of thousands via the Web at http://www.volvooceanrace.org/ homepage.html. In return, landlubbers with software called Virtual Spectator can look over the sailors' shoulders and kibitz about race tactics.

Sailing experts say there has never been a race as plugged-in as the Volvo, which began in England on Sept. 23 and will end in Germany around June 9. The picture of the lonely sailor, they say, may never be the same:

The crews have unofficial photo contests highlighted by online images of blazing sunsets and horrific storms. Amer Sports Too, which has an all-woman crew, sent riveting video of a waterspout bearing down on the fleet near Australia.

Medics confer with land-based doctors about the treatment for shipmates and whether to evacuate them.

Tacticians and meteorologists use high-resolution pictures of ocean currents and cloud cover to help decide course changes.

Skippers on the Atlantic Ocean field questions in online chat sessions.

The electronic replacement for the old-fashioned message in a bottle sits below the deck of each of the sleek 64-foot racing yachts. An electronics package smaller than the family barbecue grill and a dish mounted near the stern has made two-way communication at sea as normal as hollering over the back fence.

While not completely waterproof, the equipment has stood up to everything in King Neptune's arsenal. After some rough weather, the crew of the illbruck Challenge noticed that the dish had broken free of its brackets.

"They picked it up, hammered it out and set it back up," says Volvo equipment and race manager Andy Hindley, wincing at the memory. "And it worked."

Nera ASA, a Norwegian communications company specializing in maritime applications, is supplying the electronics. The system relies on four satellites 22,370 miles above the equator operated by Inmarsat that permit data transmission at 64 kbps - slightly faster than a dial-up phone connection to the Internet.

The company hopes to place similar setups in thousands of tankers and cargo ships, turning them into "offices at sea."

Michael Storey, the chief executive officer of Inmarsat, says the partnership with Nera is "significant" because 60 percent of his company's revenue comes from the maritime industry.

"Ships are profit centers, and contemporary communications is essential," Storey says. "Twenty years ago, with the launch of our first satellites, we gave [the maritime industry] the ability to communicate as normal human beings do. Nera has taken full advantage of that. It was a pioneer then and it's pioneering now."

Using the Nera equipment and Inmarsat, each ship can maintain permanent contact with its home office on matters that range from crew training and inventory to bookkeeping and port access. Companies pay only for data transmitted, not for the time connected. In an emergency, safety messages and distress calls override normal traffic.

The new technology has helped the Volvo race crews. Nick White, meteorologist aboard News Corp, the boat that won the Miami-to-Baltimore leg, addressed the differences in an e-mail message while at sea:

"I must admit the Internet experience from a tactical point of view is proving to be a revelation ... with our Inmarsat B system allowing a 64K ISDN link ashore, all sorts of opportunities arise. In many ways, it has made my job easier - I can go online when I want and get what I want instead of having to rely on ever diminishing radio fax transmissions. Because of this, I get a lot more time to sleep."

For a venture such as the race, in which keeping multimillion-dollar sponsorships demands interest from the public, Nera's system has been invaluable.

"What we're trying to do is feed the media machine. To capture the attention of people, you have to give them a way to follow the race," says race manager Hindley.

The crews have been up to the task. In one dispatch, Gunnar Krantz, skipper of the SEB, described losing the rudder - and almost losing the boat - while sailing at 17 knots on the way to Auckland, New Zealand: "Suddenly we heard a low thump/bang and we lost the steering. The boat tacked by itself and we heeled over to starboard with all the ballast, gear and sails on that side.

"Immediately we could hear a crushing sound ... at the same time we heard the sound of massive amounts of water filling the aft compartment and the rest of the boat. It happened very quickly. It did not take many seconds before the water was flooding from the aft to the middle of the boat. Priority one was to close the watertight doors to prevent sinking and damage to equipment."

The Web-based Virtual Spectator can't put fans in Krantz's sea boots, but it helps them understand the chess game that the Volvo race skippers are playing in their 32,700-mile contest.

The New Zealand-based company turns performance data transmitted from each of the eight boats into 3-D animation. With the company's $20 software, armchair skippers can watch the yachts dueling online just hours after it happens.

A "helicopter view" allows users to view boats from different angles and replay an entire leg of the race in 30 seconds. A weather overlay shows how the teams adjust tactics to conditions.

The program is so realistic and the data so valuable that some sailors peek at it during the race to see how competitors are doing.

Chris Larson of Annapolis, who was tactician aboard ASSA ABLOY for its two winning legs, has used Virtual Spectator at home to keep up with his team's progress on other legs.

"It's a great way to view the race in conjunction with the Volvo Web site. I follow along on it several times a day," he says. "There's just a tremendous amount of information on it, and it actually makes you feel like part of the race."

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