Digital for All, Now is setting sail for the high seas. Skippers all over the world are fitting out their boats with state-of-the-art equipment: sensors, computers, tablets and hard drives are now as essential a part of a sailor’s on-board survival kit as sou’westers and dehydrated food.
La Route du Rhum, the famous transatlantic single-handed yacht race, began on 2 November. To find out more about how the digital age has affected sailing, we talked to Marc Thiercelin, a skipper who has been using digital tools for almost fifteen years now.
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES FOR SAILING?
Digital has revolutionised sailing, particularly in three key areas: medicine, meteorology and communication.
On the medical side, on-board technical assistance and security have dramatically improved. Weather forecasts, meanwhile, are significantly more accurate: forecasts of up to nine days ahead are now possible.
A number of advances have been made in communication technologies, particularly satellites. In 1993, there was Radiocom 2000 – a sort of CB-type system used to communicate with the coast. This has since been replaced by Iridium, a satellite constellation that provides voice and data coverage all over the world. In terms of hardware, equipment is increasingly rugged and resistant to moisture, salt and extreme temperatures.
All this technology is of course expensive, but the nature of the costs is changing: where maps are concerned, for example, we used to use software, which cost around $10 a minute, whereas we now have mobile apps like Navionics. What costs a lot nowadays, however, is the megabyte of multimedia information we send when we’re at sea: around $20.
WHAT SORT OF DIGITAL EQUIPMENT DO YOU HAVE ON BOARD?
In 1990, when I first started looking for partners for the mini-transatlantic race [transatlantic single-handed race of one-design sailboats of about 6.50 m, Ed], I used a PC, a bulky beige Macintosh – remember those?! Then in 1993, we had on-board mobile phones, thanks to Alcatel. But the real revolution as I see it was in 1996, during my first Vendée Globe [round-the-world single-handed yacht race, Ed]. I had two Mac laptops and a system whereby I could send and receive emails via a switchboard.
“On my tablet, I have direct access all my maps, weather reports, the navigation tactic chosen and all the troubleshooting information in case there’s a technical problem on the boat.”
Now when I’m sailing along the coast I use the network of a major mobile operator and the Iridium network to communicate. I have a fleet of laptops and a tablet with a waterproof sleeve to interface with the on-board equipment when I’m at the helm or on deck. On my tablet, I have direct access all my maps, weather reports, the navigation tactic chosen and all the troubleshooting information in case there’s a technical problem on the boat. This is another area where technology has made enormous progress.
SO EXACTLY HOW HAS DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY CHANGED THE WAY YOU SAIL?
It’s much easier and safer. AIS tracking, for example, gives us real-time ship position information (whilst allowing other boats to locate us). We can find out the speed they are travelling at, size, vessel type, etc.: it even displays the positions of collisions. In the old days we had nautical charts and fixed our position, so in terms of safety, this technology has become vital for sailors.
Digital technology can even help save lives from thousands of kilometres away!
“Digital technology can even help save lives from thousands of kilometres away! A sailor sailing single-handedly can now treat him/herself by sending images and receiving remote guidance.”
There is a major caveat though: all these algorithms and interfaces are all very well, but you mustn’t forget the importance of instinct for a sailor. After all, we spend most of our time on the least inhabited four-fifths of the planet: danger is omnipresent – and when you’re two weeks away from the nearest coastline, you’re potentially in mortal danger! Digital technology allows us to anticipate these difficulties, but only humans can avoid them, not machines.
HOW DO YOU STORE THE DATA YOU PRODUCE?
Data is stored on the laptops, tablet and a hard drive. All the on-board electronic control unit is linked to at least three computers: one for the route, weather and position; another for communications and video; and another for rescue. This control unit is now linked to the coast, so there’s a technical team who know the boat’s route and speed and can check that everything’s all right anytime.
COULD DIGITAL TOOLS HELP TO PUT SAILING ON THE MAP?
Video is a great medium for reaching a wider audience: anyone came be a user, director, script writer, editor, etc. Tanguy de Lamotte, for example, is planning to set up an on-board camera for the next Vendée Globe. There’s nothing new in that: Colas, Peyron and many other sailors – myself included – have already done this, but via other channels. But what’s great about what Tanguy de Lamotte’s doing is that he’ll be able to reach a young audience, people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in sailing otherwise.
“My watchword is passing on knowledge. Digital is vital for that”
What I find amazing is the power digital technology gives us to make news and put us in the media. All that used to be reported on a race was the beginning and the end. All that’s changed now: look at the Volvo Ocean Race [a round-the-world yacht race that lasts around nine months – Ed]: on each boat there’s one crew member who doesn’t go near the helm but who is exclusively in charge of producing multimedia content. That way people can follow the race from several different angles: they can no longer say they’re not interested in following a race because “there’s nothing to see!”
Digital doesn’t make things more popular, it just lends a new dimension to something we were already doing. But it does make sailing more accessible and easier to understand for the general public. It opens up more possibilities. But my watchword is still passing on knowledge, because sailing is a potentially dangerous business and you mustn’t forget that. And digital is vital for passing on knowledge.