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Sound adds extra dimension to Volvo Ocean Race

Round-the-world yacht racing is not wholly a spectator sport, but enthusiasts are able to keep up with all the action thanks to modern communications and audio technology

Dramatic pictures are all well and good, but sound is always needed to not only put them in context but give them a human aspect as well – which is why the boats taking part in the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) are as fitted out with microphones as they are cameras. These help capture not just the many and changing moods of the seas – from raging storms to idyllic, almost eerie calm – but also life aboard cramped vessels where everyone has to work and live together.

It is these personal aspects that the media team behind the 2014–15 VOR are highlighting. Over its 42-year history, the spotlight of the competition, which was known as the Whitbread Round the World Race until Volvo became the primary sponsor in 2001, has swung from the yachts and the sea to the people who pit their sailing skills and endurance against both. “When Volvo took over the race we made the focus more about the people taking part than the boats and the water,” says VOR technology director Jordi Neves. “There are 66 sailors spending 140 days at sea and we want to reflect that using the technology available to us: video, audio, satellite phones and email.”

This technology is a mixture of hardware, software and communication circuits, provided variously by Livewire Digital; Inmarsat; and Cobham group companies Tactical Communications and Surveillance (TCS) and SATCOM. This forms a platform for both keeping the crews in touch with race headquarters in Alicante, Spain – and, by extension, home – and producing broadcast and online programmes that document the progress of the racers and their lives afloat.

A key figure in producing this record is the onboard reporter (OBR). This non-sailing member of the crew contributes to daily life on board by preparing meals – from freeze-dried ingredients – as well as writing a daily blog and compiling reports that are sent over IP and satellite links to the VOR broadcast centre, also in Alicante. These form part of a weekly TV programme, Life at the Extreme. This is produced by Sunset+Vine and, as well as onboard footage, features material shot at each port stop, including pictures from chase boats and helicopters.

The 2014–15 VOR marks a departure from previous races in having a single design of boat. The seven Volvo Ocean (VO) 65s have been built to the same blueprint, with same hull, keel and sail configurations. This means that the richest teams can now longer gain an advantage by building the highest-spec vessel possible. As part of this, each yacht features the same communications and video production set-up.

One of the starting points for acquiring material is the array of waterproof microphones (pictured right) and cameras built into the hull. These were designed and produced by Livewire Digital to, as managing director Tristan Wood explains, withstand the often-extreme environment on board the VO 65s. The mics are designed to be used for interviews, usually in the cockpit area, as well as for capturing the voices of the crew as they work and general ambience. They can also be part of a an intercom system between the helms and the navigation area below deck, plus sailors using iPhones fitted with wireless capability and the CrewComm app.

A pair of mics is positioned either side of each of the two helms, with another between the hatchways to pick up crewmembers working on the winches and one on the mast below the camera on the radar covering the foredeck. Wood comments that these can be used for both live broadcast and recording, with feeds run down to the audio mixer at the media desk. He adds that external mics can also be plugged into the system through XLR connectors.

The media desk is not an ideal workspace – located as it is at the stern of the boats next to the navigator’s area – but it does provide the OBR somewhere to compile and edit reports on a laptop running Apple’s Final Cut Pro. The reporter selects camera and mic feeds through a control panel and combines these with footage shot on camcorders. Video is then sent to the media centre using the Livewire M-Link Newscaster software application through the Cobham SATCOM FleetBroadband 500 or 250 antennas. Cobham TCS’s NETNode Mesh IP radio provides IP connectivity for email and internet access, with COFDM modulation to integrate video, audio and GPS information.

Brian Carlin, OBR with Team Vestas Wind (pictured above right), uses both a Canon 5D MkIII digital SLR and a GoPro camera for shooting more specific material. The Canon is fitted with a Røde VideoMic Pro in “a fluffy”, but Carlin thinks the manufacturer’s ordinary shotgun and a windshield are better for dealing with wind.

Team Vestas Wind is currently out of the race after the yacht ran aground on an isolated reef in the Indian Ocean on the evening of 29 November 2014 (pictured right). While his crewmates worked to secure the damaged vessel, Carlin got on with the job of recording the action and then saving as much footage and equipment as possible before the crew abandoned ship. He also had to decide which camera to take off the boat: “I decided on the GoPro because it is waterproof but also because I wanted audio quality over image quality. The GoPro has an onboard mic and although it’s not great it’s what I needed to do. I could get away with poorer quality imagery for the crash coverage but not poor audio. Getting clean sound was what made that footage.”

Everyone got off the Vestas Wind safely and they ensured there was as little environmental impact as possible to the shoals. The boat is being rebuilt and the aim is for Carlin and his crewmates to rejoin the race at the Lisbon stop in June. Meanwhile, the other six VO 65s left Auckland in New Zealand on 17 March and are expected to arrive at Itajaí, Brazil during the early part of this month.