The Comms Bubble: Unique to the Volvo Ocean Race

Published on May 4th, 2015

Mark Turner, whose company OC Sport manages the Dongfeng Race Team, has observed how the Volvo Ocean Race is being presented. Here are his musings

Before Dongfeng Race Team, since competing in it in 1989, I’ve only watched the Volvo Ocean Race just like any other fan from afar. One aspect of this race that I had some difficulty getting my head around at the beginning, has become a defining element for me, and for the communications strategy of Dongfeng Race Team. And that is the total comms lockdown onboard the boats.

I’m not sure if everyone understands this, and the impact it has. Basically, while the boats receive lots of weather data from VOR HQ, they have no access to the Internet per say – only this data – plus personal email that goes through a VOR server and a bunch of checks by both team and event to ensure there is no illegal assistance passing to the sailors.

Unlike any other professional race in the sport today, the teams have absolutely no idea what is going on in the outside world unless VOR race management decide to share something with them. And that is pretty rare, only really happening if there is a significant safety issue. Other than when the boats are inside AIS range, when they are getting real time performance feeds from the other boats around them, they know a whole lot less than we do on land.

Firstly on positions where on land we get 3 hourly feed with all the data points filled in, and onboard they just get one position every 6 and without the data fill so they don’t have the detail tracks in between (apart from when in AIS range) – and secondly on general information about what has happened to the other boats. Overall, this has one big positive – there is NO reason to keep what happens to yourself onboard – because whatever you share, will still NOT go to the other boats during the leg.

So when you break something, traditionally most campaigns would keep it to themselves – for two reasons – a) in case it gives some kind of advantage to the other teams to know why you are slower or sailing lower etc, and b) so that they don’t learn about your mechanical failure and check their own equivalent technical solution. The combination of strict One Design rules, and an open and transparent Boatyard Shared Services setup, means that (b) is now irrelevant, and (a) is dealt with because the other teams will only find out once the leg is over.

It means also that many wrong conclusions are in fact made by the teams on the water – they might mistake less wind for a different wind angle on a competitor between two positions. They might assume they are sailing better than another boat that in fact has broken a sail. They might wrongly interpret the wind data for another routing. And they will never know during the leg how a team got in front of them sometimes. Replaying the tracks back afterwards can be quite a surprise for the navigators sometimes!

Not every Skipper or team has embraced this liberating fact that you can say what you like and the other teams won’t hear about it – but on Dongfeng, with Charles (skipper Charles Caudrelier) full support, we’ve been able to do something that probably no other VOR team ever did before. And that is share everything, and in almost every case, immediately.

Of course things like a dismasting need a few more steps before going public, like sharing the news with and reassuring family and sponsors. But apart from that, we’ve been able to just share it live and direct – and with social media, that means sometimes within minutes. I pushed before the start for the boat twitter feed to be able to go direct from the boat too, rather than via a VOR HQ ‘approval’ process – and got agreement on this, which has been excellent as we get a feed of news from the boat in between official report times, or outside of the processing timeline of the VOR Comms Machine.

We are also lucky to not have a sponsor that is all over us on this detail either – instead our Chinese partners have been confident that we will manage the communications side well and respecting the sponsor’s image etc. This is not always the case, sponsors often want to micro-manage or control every message. It’s understandable from a corporate viewpoint, however rarely successful as a strategy in the long term.

At the end of the day, we are in a mechanical sport, in a tough environment, and things will go wrong. Better to take the audience down with us when things are not perfect, and allow them to share the emotion of the team when things go better again. Not just pretend that everything is fine all the time – since it’s never the case!

Back to sharing the news directly from the boat – we had a few moments when there were breakages, and I had the Onboard Reporter (OBR) on the phone asking if we should publish or not. In one instance, Charles had actually said to the OBR please don’t film this. Then, after a quick chat and reflection, he reversed that after remembering that actually no other team would know that we’d broken that particularly sail or fitting anyway, so why keep it a secret.

One downside (easily outweighed by the upsides) is that we have perhaps given the impression that we are breaking more stuff than the other teams, and in some people’s eyes therefore been a bit more reckless than the others. I think the truth couldn’t be more different; we have just shared every time we have broken stuff.

Remember the Cape Town start to Leg 2? Which boat chose to do a long tack around rather than a crash gybe? Do you know which team is the only one to have not snapped the outrigger tube at all in the race yet? Which team had boat number one, complete with some elements that hadn’t been finished off properly like the padeye that broke on leg 1 – and then again on leg 2 because it wasn’t given the backing plate we suggested it should.

At the end of the day, we’ve just been the ones telling the whole story. Yes, Dongfeng broke the mast/rigging – but there isn’t a shred of evidence that it was because of pushing the boat harder. What certainly was the case is that we had problems with the mast track since the beginning.

In the one design format you have to just step up and take these issues on the chin – but it’s not fair at all to leap to a convenient conclusion that somehow the boat had been pushed harder. You only have to look at the pictures of Brunel and the rest of the teams pushing hard around Cape Horn to be assured that everyone pushes hard, and Dongfeng no more than others.

One other interesting fact shared by VOR HQ before the comparison became impossible, is that in the first half of this race, Dongfeng sailed 300 miles less than the next boat…so maybe sailing more efficiently in the right direction helps not have to push a boat so hard!

Anyway, back to the main theme I wanted to share. The VOR unique system of total comms lockdown does work, and does help this race which has always been plagued by ‘secrecy’ on the technical side, and ‘macho’ behaviour on the crew sharing their story side. Along with an OBR onboard (as long as that doesn’t mean that the sailors think it’s no longer their job to communicate!), we are seeing and reading more than ever about life onboard. Let’s just remember the OBRs are there to facilitate sharing the story, not to be the story themselves.

Justin from the ADOR comms team had a good point too – we should encourage the OBRs to speak in the third person – ie not to talk as one of the crew, but to be there commenting on the action. Maybe in the next race there should be 2 OBRs, one of the invited just for the leg, and not needing to be ‘mates’ with the crew in the same way the OBR today needs to (along with cooking!). And let’s not forgot the best words are those direct from the Skipper and crew, unedited, raw, as they come out in an unguarded and unprepared moment. We’re probably only really seeing 20% of what is happening onboard, and there is plenty of room for improvement for us all in that respect!

But it works this comms lockdown – and yet can probably not be transferred to other ocean races like the Vendée Globe. Because to do it you have to fully own all the comms systems onboard, and the internet connections too – plus have a load more resource on land to do things that seem rather unnecessary at times like read all the email that goes to the boat, restrict families from emailing directly, cut off all news of the outside world, prepare full weather packages as the only data the navigators get, etc etc.. And none of that is going to work in the less structured IMOCA world for example. Not that they do badly – somehow being alone on a boat helps people open up, when their only friend nearby is the camera lens!

But for the Volvo Ocean Race, my initial feeling was wrong, and I’m sold. It’s the key to sharing more of the story.

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