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OC trackers for Fastnet entrants

6th August 2009
OC trackers for Fastnet entrants
A record entry of 300 boats will each carry an OC Tracker for the 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race, which starts from Cowes on Sunday, 9th August. The Fastnet Race is a 608 nautical mile offshore classic which sees boats ranging from 30ft cruisers to 100ft Maxis racing from Cowes on the Isle of Wight, to the Fastnet Rock, off the south coast of Ireland, before returning to the finish in Plymouth. Every yacht will carry an OC Tracker device, supplied jointly by OC Technology, part of the OC Group, and race organisers RORC. The OC Tracker is an Iridium-based GPS unit that automatically supplies position updates for the entire fleet, which can then be viewed online on a special race viewer.

This year's edition marks the 30th anniversary of the tragic 1979 Fastnet Race, when gale-force winds battered the fleet. Fifteen yachtsmen lost their lives, and a total of 23 yachts were sunk or abandoned. A massive search and rescue operation resulted in over 130 sailors being rescued at sea, however, the limited communications technology carried by yachts at the time meant that one of the greatest difficulties facing the rescue services was locating each boat.

Today, every yacht in the fleet can be pinpointed exactly throughout the race thanks to its OC Tracker. "Back in 1979 the only communications technology on board was VHF radios and pretty average direction finding equipment for the rescue services," explains Charles Darbyshire, Project Manager, Offshore Challenges Sailing Team. "Every boat has to have an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons) now, which also has a GPS in it so within minutes the Coastguard in Falmouth know if there's a problem and where that problem is occurring. Thirty years ago, they were flying over the fleet in search and rescue planes and just looking down to try to decide whether a boat was a casualty or not. Now with the OC Trackers they know the position of every yacht in the fleet, whether they've activated their EPIRB or not."

This is the second Rolex Fastnet Race which will see competitors carrying the OC Trackers. In the last edition of the race, in 2007, the fleet again faced strong winds, but fortunately there were no serious incidents as many yachts retired from racing to ports along the south coast of England. "Two years ago in the last Fastnet, when we first had the whole fleet being tracked, race organisers could mark off retirees because you can see them alongside the dock in Falmouth. Even though not every boat phoned in, you knew they were in a safe place," added Darbyshire.

The OC Trackers have been successfully used on professional ocean races such as the inaugural 2007 Barcelona World Race and The Artemis Transat in 2008, and have already demonstrated their benefits in emergency situations. "In the 2006 Velux 5 Oceans Race, Mike Golding went to the rescue of Alex Thomson on board Hugo Boss in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The OC Tracker system allows us to change the Trackers' reporting frequency and we ramped it up to every five minutes. The website management system also gives a range and bearing, so Alex was being told how far away Mike was, and Mike was basically being navigated into exactly the right place because we could tell him what direction to steer."

Of course, it's not just the safety element that has improved since 1979 – the OC Trackers make offshore racing a ‘virtual' spectator sport too. Back then, the yachts were waved off at the start and not seen again by the public until the first finishers arrived in Plymouth. Now, family, friends and race followers can watch all the action as it unfolds across the Irish Sea by viewing every boat in the fleet's position on the event website.

"This year we have record entry numbers of 310 - 300 yachts racing in the Fastnet and 10 IMOCA 60 yachts in their own class. We also have a new, improved race player and all the OC Trackers will be on the same race viewer," explained Clémentine d'Oiron, Manager, OC Technology. The OC Trackers are a self–contained unit that operate automatically. "The crews have to just put them on the boat and switch them on by simply removing a small magnet, and then just leave it be. It will be automatically reporting every half hour throughout the race.

"It's all self-contained, with no wires, and is really straightforward. The OC Tracker stays in sleep mode all the time, and only wakes up to send its message, which means it has a lot of battery life because it's only on for 3 minutes every hour. It's the most reliable system in the world and we've got the biggest fleet of trackers in the world."

However, d'Oiron warned that occasionally a boat may not show on the race viewer. "Sometimes if the boat is too heeled over the OC Tracker might not be able to send a signal, so it will keep trying again. But if a Tracker isn't working on the map, that doesn't mean the boat necessarily has a problem."

The first Trackers have already been fitted to Fastnet entries this week, with the remainder added and activated well before the start of the Rolex Fastnet Race at 12pm on Sunday, 9th August.

OC Trackers were used during yesterday's Artemis Challenge, the special charity race for IMOCA 60s which takes place during Cowes Week and an OC Tracker+ unit was on board the maxi-trimarans Groupama 3 and Banque Populaire V during their recent record-breaking transatlantic crossings. The OC Tracker+ is a hard-wired version of the OC Tracker system which takes a feed from navigation instruments' NMEA output, so the team meteorologists could use it as a crucial tool to help with routing the boats on a record-breaking course, while the crews can also use it to verify their polars while sailing. Plus of course the system enabled fans to follow the teams' progress on their high-speed record bids.

Follow the 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race online here

Published in Racing Team

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