All at sea: Challenge race asks tough IT questions

A round-the-world yacht race sponsored by BT, with boats sponsored by companies like Toshiba, 3Com, Concert (BT plus MCI) and BT Global Teamwork -- yes, and even a Web site to match -- you can tell what's coming next, can't you? Satellite comms, GPS wizardry, and a truly global-span network, right?

A round-the-world yacht race sponsored by BT, with boats sponsored by companies like Toshiba, 3Com, Concert (BT plus MCI) and BT Global Teamwork -- yes, and even a Web site to match -- you can tell what's coming next, can't you? Satellite comms, GPS wizardry, and a truly global-span network, right?

Wrong: the best we can expect from this "toughest race in the world" is going to be a simulator (a sort of "fantasy yacht crew" scheme, where you can win a trip to Cape Town) because the boats are immune to Inmarsat.

The original plan was to send these boats the "wrong way" around the world with TV cameras on each of the 14 racing craft. Pictures of 30 metre waves in the Southern Ocean would be transmitted automatically into the sky, where geo-stationary satellites would forward them to BT's studios, ready for posting to the Web site as movie clips.

It turns out that the Challenge was made possible by building these 60-feet yachts out of steel. Indeed, British Steel was the first sponsor of the race, and BT took over for this, the second, which starts in September.

But to reach Inmarsat, you need a dish; and a quite big dish. You can send ASCII characters, slowly, with an ordinary aerial; but for high bandwidth, you need a dish. And on an ordinary yacht, made out of wood or glass-reinforced plastic, you just stuff this in the space under the deck. On a steel boat, forget it.

The next idea was to cut a hole in the deck, and build the dome that covers the dish, there. Enter Chay Blyth, first man to sail around the world the wrong way (against prevailing wind and tide) and owner of The Challenge Business, and therefore owner of the boats. "Cut a hole in my decks? I would rather you didn't," he said in his delicate nautical way.

BT had the idea of putting its dish on the back of the boat, on a framework. "It'll blow off in the Southern Ocean," said Blyth. Surely not? "Trust me. I've been there." He has, you know.

So you will be able to look for wonderful pictures of yachts on www.btchallenge.com/, and follow the progress of the race (because the GPS will be updated to show where the boats actually are, at least every six hours). But you won't get video unless they reach a part of the sea where a cameraman can fly in an aircraft.

The boats themselves are in St. Katherine's Dock, behind Tower Bridge, London; they're worth popping down for a look. And if you can afford the price of a ticket, you can join in and sail one around the world -- not this time, because all berths are sold. But in four years' time, all you need is £18,000 and a year with nothing else in particular to do.

Best, I think, to watch from the Web.

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