TRIAL BY SALT

THE VOLVO OCEAN RACE IS A MARINE ELEC­TRON­ICS TORTURE TEST

Yachting - - FRONT PAGE - By David Sch­midt

The image is iconic: a tightly teth­ered helms­man, white knuck­les on the wind­ward steer­ing wheel, as the bow of his car­bon-fiber Volvo Ocean 65 racing sail­boat pierces the back­side of a mas­sive South­ern Ocean wave. A wall of green wa­ter roars back at the on­watch crew, and the helms­man bat­tles to main­tain steer­age. He riv­ets his at­ten­tion on the elec­tronic dis­plays, never dar­ing to glance astern. Then, just as grav­ity re­turns to a wildly stress­ful sit­u­a­tion, the boat’s stern lifts and the sleigh ride com­mences anew, re­sub­merg­ing man, ma­chine and marine elec­tron­ics into a salt­wa­ter bath that’s barely above freez­ing. Sim­ply sur­viv­ing here is risky busi­ness, but to en­gage the South­ern Ocean as part of the in­fa­mous Volvo Ocean Race, where all skip­pers rou­tinely push their boats, crews and equip­ment to near break­ing points, is the marine world’s ul­ti­mate acid test. The Volvo Ocean Race (VOR; nee the Whit­bread Round the World Yacht Race) be­gan in 1973 as a fully crewed com­pe­ti­tion that cir­cum­nav­i­gated the globe in a series of marathon legs punc­tu­ated by pit stops. Teams could se­lect their warhorses and crews, but win­ning re­quired an elu­sive com­bi­na­tion of speed, drum-tight team­work and strong lead­er­ship, as well as a yacht ca­pa­ble of sus­tain­ing round-the­clock, weather-in­duced drub­bings.

As the VOR is a sail­boat race and B&G is a sail­ing-fo­cused brand, Nav­ico — B&G’s par­ent com­pany — has long sup­plied this some­times-boat-break­ing event with equip­ment as a way to torture-test prod­ucts. Nav­ico then shares the re­sults across its other brands, in­clud­ing Sim­rad, whose helm elec­tron­ics are in­stalled aboard many mo­to­ry­achts and sport-fish­er­men.

Much has changed since Ramón Car­lín, a novice sailor, mus­tered a green-but­loyal crew of friends and lever­aged his for­mi­da­ble lead­er­ship skills to skip­per Sayula II, his Swan 65, to a con­vinc­ing vic­tory in the in­au­gu­ral race. But the 45,000-mile VOR, whose 2017-18 edi­tion starts this month in Ali­cante, Spain, presents the same gru­el­ing chal­lenges as the 1973-74 race did, just with sig­nif­i­cantly higher speeds and less mar­gin for er­ror.

Today’s VOR still em­ploys legs and stopovers, but the sailors are now pro­fes­sion­als,

While higher num­bers usu­ally por­tend greater pro­tec­tion lev­els (think sun­screen), weath­er­proof rat­ings are dif­fer­ent. Sub­merg­ing a piece of equip­ment — to meet the IP67 stan­dard — may equal­ize pres­sure on all aper­tures, which can squish shut semi­porous seals. “Fire-hos­ing” some­thing (to meet the IP66 stan­dard) is a tougher test, but one that’s far more re­al­is­tic for marine con­di­tions. Thanks to Nav­ico’s Volvo Ocean Race re­la­tion­ship, the com­pany has learned that it’s some­times smarter to de­sign elec­tron­ics to IP66 stan­dards, and IP67, to en­sure the prod­uct’s sur­vival at sea.

and the boats are iden­ti­cal Farr-de­signed 65-foot­ers that carry match­ing equip­ment and B&G-sup­plied elec­tron­ics, cre­at­ing a level play­ing field.

B&G be­came in­volved in year one, when Car­lín used the com­pany’s elec­tron­ics aboard Sayula II. The brand has been uti­lized ever since. For the past 16 years, it has sup­plied ev­ery VOR en­trant and, since 2014, has sup­plied the race with iden­ti­cal elec­tron­ics for each yacht.

“The sys­tems that go on the boats, out­side of soft­ware tweaks, are noth­ing but pro­duc­tion mod­els,” says Alan Davis, B&G’s prod­uct line direc­tor. B&G was in­volved with the Volvo Ocean 65s from their de­sign-brief stage, he says, and helped de­fine the fleet’s iden­ti­cal schemat­ics. This high-level in­volve­ment lets B&G trou­bleshoot prob­lems from afar: The boats carry FleetBroad­band satel­lite-com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems that con­stantly upload tele­met­ric data to the VOR’s cloud servers, giv­ing B&G back­door ac­cess.

“We can tell if one sys­tem is be­hav­ing dif­fer­ently,” says Davis, adding that the com­pany can also sup­ply tar­geted tech sup­port, ir­re­spec­tive of lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude. “We haven’t done it in a race, but we’ve done it lots in train­ing.”

B&G sup­plies off-the-shelf Zeus3 mul­ti­func­tion dis­plays (MFDs), Broad­band 4G Radars, NAIS-400 Class B AIS trans­ceivers, 20/20 HV in­stru­ment dis­plays, Pre­ci­sion-9 solid-state com­passes and var­i­ous sen­sors (in­clud­ing wind, rud­der an­gle, keel an­gle, tem­per­a­ture, speed, depth, baro­met­ric pres­sure, ves­sel mo­tion and GPS po­si­tion).

Per­haps most im­por­tant, the com­pany also sup­plies B&G’s third-gen­er­a­tion WTP3 black-box pro­ces­sor, which re­moves ves­sel mo­tion from wind data and sup­ports mul­tidi­men­sional cal­i­bra­tion ta­bles to try and achieve the “holy grail” (as Davis puts it) of “per­fect” true wind data. WTP3 has an open-source op­er­at­ing sys­tem, al­low­ing nav­i­ga­tors to write their own JavaScript code to add cus­tom func­tion­al­ity, one of the race’s few cus­tomiz­able sys­tems.

While most power cruis­ers’ eyes might (rightly) glaze over at what appears to be a bou­tique-level sail­ing kit, Nav­ico sells most of this same hard­ware un­der its Sim­rad brand, in­clud­ing Nav­ico’s Broad­band 4G Radars, Class B AIS trans­ceivers, Pre­ci­sion-9 com­passes, var­i­ous sen­sors and the MFDs them­selves. Given that Volvo boats are ca­pa­ble of power­boat speeds (low 40 knots) in the right con­di­tions, the race closely mim­ics nor­mal run­ning

PROD­UCT DAR­WIN­ISM

PAINT-BY-NUM­BERS SAIL­ING

con­di­tions for power­boats, and for sig­nif­i­cantly longer pe­ri­ods (read: 12,500 nau­ti­cal miles in the South­ern Ocean).

“It helps [Nav­ico’s] other brands, with real-world ex­pe­ri­ence in ex­treme con­di­tions,” says Davis, adding that the race also fa­cil­i­tates a di­a­log be­tween B&G and world-class nav­i­ga­tors. “We learn their frus­tra­tions and their needs. We can fix some of it on the spot, but most of this is fed into fu­ture prod­ucts and soft­ware up­dates.”

This feed­back has led to prod­uct im­prove­ments, such as dur­ing the 2011-12 VOR, when radomes ex­pe­ri­enced wa­ter ingress in ex­treme con­di­tions. That prob­lem led Nav­ico to re­design the hous­ing across all of its brands.

An­other ex­am­ple of a de­sign up­grade is the elec­tronic dis­play at the base of a cock­pit-mounted grind­ing pedestal, which gets sub­merged each time the cock­pit fills. Ac­cord­ing to Davis, B&G

When vis­i­bil­ity plum­mets, helms­men rely on high-vis­i­bil­ity data screens to en­sure their boat is at its op­ti­mal per­for­mance.

ex­pe­ri­enced con­den­sa­tion prob­lems with its older-gen­er­a­tion dis­plays dur­ing the VOR, as com­pet­ing boats spend sig­nif­i­cant parcels of time wet, un­der­wa­ter or in swel­ter­ing trop­i­cal hu­mid­ity. The so­lu­tion, un­veiled in 2007, was op­ti­cally bonded dis­plays, which Nav­ico now em­ploys across all of its prod­uct lines.

Hard­ware isn’t the only thing pressed to its lim­its in the VOR. The amount of con­tin­u­ous hours teams spend ham­mer­ing their elec­tron­ics also tests the soft­ware’s sta­bil­ity and per­for­mance.

“When you do enough miles and use the soft­ware con­stantly, it will lead to the first fail­ure,” Davis ex­plains.

Volvo teams reg­u­larly sail 200 days a year, of­ten on a 24/7 ba­sis, gen­er­at­ing us­age hours that few other yach­st­men ever touch. “[VOR nav­i­ga­tors] will find po­ten­tial weak points be­fore any­one else,” he says.

The key for Nav­ico, of course, is to use the feed­back to cor­rect prob­lems be­fore they be­come is­sues for recre­ational level yachts­men. Af­ter all, if the equip­ment can sur­vive 45,000 nau­ti­cal miles of wal­lop­ings, in­clud­ing fre­quent South­ern Ocean bow stuff­ings, then the odds are ex­cel­lent that it will han­dle a big week of cruis­ing or sport fish­ing.

Garmin’s new­est gen­er­a­tion, openy radars have more power and range than r pre­de­ces­sors. These radars are com­patile with Garmin mul­ti­func­tion de­vices d come in two mod­els: the 4-foot GMR 2524 xHD2 ($8,199) and the 6-foot R 2526 xHD2 ($8,999). Each has 25 kW rans­mit power and de­liv­ers a max­i­mum ge of 96 nau­ti­cal miles. Ad­di­tion­ally, each r has a dual-range mode, al­low­ing users to eek nearby tar­gets on one screen while an­ning for far-off storms on an­other. For glers, there’s Auto Bird Gain, and for all ts­men, the units have Dy­namic Auto Gain Dy­namic Sea Fil­ter, both of which re­duce noise and clut­ter. Garmin, garmin.com

SEE FAR AND WIDE The xHD2 radar ar­rays have Pulse Expansion, in­creas­ing a sig­nal’s du­ra­tion and en­hanc­ing long-range im­agery.

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