The Volvo Ocean Race has started in explosive style, with the seven teams battling 24/7 for every inch as they head south through the Atlantic Ocean on Leg 2 from Lisbon to Cape Town.
But these boats are doing more than just racing around the planet – they’re facilitating the collection of valuable scientific data which will be used by experts around the planet to better understand the oceans and what’s happening in some of the world’s most isolated places.
The U.S-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses free-floating buoys, known as ‘drifters’, which are dropped in specific locations to collect ocean and weather data to provide meteorologists with accurate sea forecasts, as well as coastal forecasts and regional climate predictions.
These floating sensors are equipped with satellite communications equipment to transmit information on ocean composition and currents.
The hard part? Getting them into position. Because the most scientifically interesting areas are usually the most remote and isolated, very few boats actually travel along the routes.
That’s where Volvo Ocean Racers come in. They’re the world-class sailors lucky (or some might argue unlucky) enough to head offshore every leg of the 45,000 nautical mile journey – and their assistance is invaluable to NOAA being able to maintain their observations on a global scale.
“This is the drifter buoy that we’ve been assigned to deploy, and today’s the day,” explains Dee Caffari, skipper on Turn the Tide on Plastic. “We’ve been carrying it onboard for NOAA, and it’s going to collect all sorts of data that will go back to them including the oceanographic trends.
“That will give them more information to make more accurate weather forecasts, so will benefit us in the long run, but also have a general trend of how the weather is shaping up and the changes that are occurring. We have a number of these throughout the race and this is the first one, which will start working from today.”
If you’ve ever sailed onboard a ship, or checked the weather forecast before heading to the beach, then you’re one of millions of people who benefits from ocean observations – and the accuracy of those ocean current and marine weather predictions is key to the race fleet, too.
The operations centre of the Global Drifter Programme, housed at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, continuously seeks opportunities for deployments in remote locations – and these partnerships are key to creating a network of buoys the success of the project.
All seven of the Volvo Ocean Race teams deployed a drifter at 3°N of the Equator on Leg 2 – and will continue to do so at specific places along the remainder of the route, with a specific focus on the mysterious Southern Ocean – a region oceanographers don't get to visit regularly, but one that is critically important to observe.
Anyone can access the drifter data at http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/phod/dac
Each of the seven racing teams will deploy their drifter at the same predetermined coordinates.
As soon as they are in the water, they will drift with ocean currents and transmit data on surface pressure, temperature and ocean currents through a global satellite network.