Mariners ride new waves

So sophisticated is marine technology that for even the most amateur sailor there is no such thing as being all at sea, says Michael Evamy. And long gone are the days when transatlantic crossings meant no communication for months on end

So, let’s get this straight. In October, two dozen small wooden boats will set off from Tenerife. They will be rowed competitively by two-man crews to a finish on another island. OK so far. Where things begin to lose meaning is when you learn the name of this other island. We’re not talking about Lanzarote or one of the lesser-known Canaries. It’s not even Madeira, almost an hour’s flight north. The finishing line for this lunatic caper is Barbados, almost 5000km away on the other side of the Atlantic.

It isn’t the kind of exercise you can program into the rowing machine at the local gym. It is, arguably, the longest, most arduous man-powered race ever undertaken.

Rearrange “saline” and you almost get “insane”. Prolonged exposure to saltwater seems to affect the balance of the mind. Who, in full possession of their senses and with the memory of Tony Bullimore’s southern ocean nightmare still fresh, would set out to sea for up to 80 days in such an exposed craft? “It’s a very serious business,” responds adventurer Jock Wishart, one of the competitors. “When I go out I want to make sure that everything I’ve got has been tried and tested and is the best possible.”

Wishart is leaving as little as he can to chance when his boat sets off for this marathon challenge, which has been organised by yachtsman pioneer Chay Blyth. His boat will be built from 6mm plywood panels, and the equipment will be totally up to date. The boat is to be a floating test-bed where the very latest, most powerful and compact electronic pathfinding and communications equipment will be subjected to treatment of the rudest kind, from man and elements.

The contrast between the primitivism of their endeavour and the sophistication of the attendant gadgetry highlights just how far marine technology has travelled. Although there is no escaping the Herculean task of completing 5000km under their own steam, Wishart and the others will be accompanied by an array of devices which are far more sophisticated than the bleepers that poignantly pinpointed Tony Bullimore’s upturned craft.

Leading this digitalisation of the waves are British companies and designers. For Wishart and his rivals, but also for ordinary sea-faring types, disappearing into the great blue yonder is a thing of the past.

High-tech trousers

For someone whose experience of water-borne strife is limited to running aground on a weir in the middle of Chester, the realities of this autumn’s pan-world paddle are hard to grasp. All contestants are in the same boat, so to speak: a specially developed, seven metre epoxy-impregnated plywood dinghy, with an “accommodation-cum-safety-pod” at the rear. Once out of Tenerife, it’s solid rowing for two months, broken only by sleep and just the occasional shark for company.

The last thing you’d call Jock Wishart is a jessie. But even this intrepid Scot who, among many exploits, has walked unsupported to the North Pole, is working flat-out with British manufacturers and sponsors to make life in the mid-Atlantic bearable.

Of critical importance is the clothing. Competitors will be unable to resort to the Olympian ideal of John Fairfax and Sylvia Cook, who once rowed the Indian Ocean stark naked but who, without the pressure of competition, were able to rest and shelter from the sun whenever they needed. Temperatures for Wishart and co will be around 80F. Rowers need protection from sun and salt, as well as bed sores – the hazard of sitting in the same position for too long. With Wishart, Henri Lloyd has been developing clothing that does all this and “spreads the weight of your backside over as wide an area as possible”. Whatever the result, it is likely to offer improvements down the line to more standard marine clothing. Different foams and gels are also being tested for the seat covering.

In Wishart’s kit will be some of the most powerful instruments ever assembled on a small craft. Racal is providing a Syncal 2000 HF tactical radio, the kind of high-frequency, semi-indestructible radio used by armies worldwide in extreme climates. Taking the place of a sextant will be Navico’s latest GPS (global positioning system) device.

The Navico hand-held Axis VHF radio telephone, a hugely successful product designed by PDD, will also be on-board. Navico, founded in 1984 in two rooms above Margate harbour, is now the UK’s largest independent manufacturer of marine electronics. “Their equipment is very easy, almost intuitive, to use; essential ingredients for a tired oarsman in the mid-Atlantic,” says Wishart.

The Scotsman will also carry a revolutionary new personal communicator produced by Magellan. This is the same size as the Axis radio, but can communicate anywhere in the world via short e-mail and text messages. “I can send messages to media, friends and rescue services,” says Wishart. “It is a real comfort factor, and enables me to service sponsors better.” Sponsors have to be fed daily bulletins: trips like these are now media events, promising yards of newspaper coverage over several weeks.

This is the nature of derring-do in the information age. Hotlines to the press tend to dull the spirit of glorious isolation that lit up the exploits of Edmund Hillary, Francis Chichester and the like. But they do make the whole escapade a lot safer. They also mean we won’t see the likes again of Donald Crowhurst. Not so long ago, Crowhurst was able to pretend he’d circled the globe when all he’d done was a couple of laps of the North Atlantic.

All the boats in the BT Global Challenge, for example, carry satellite antennae, GPS systems and laptop computers, which allow race HQ in Southampton to track competitors by the hour. Anyone who wants to can call a faxback service and receive page after page of news, quotes and charts giving the latest updates.

There is nowhere left to hide, which is bad news for solitary adventurers, but good news for the safety-conscious. Mariners now know better than ever where they are, who is nearby, what the weather is doing, and how best to reach their destination. Their decisions are much better-informed. The development of machines for the consumer market that can take measurements, process the data and present the information in an intelligible way, is helping remove many of the old hazards of sailing.

One leading example is the ST80 system, designed for Autohelm of Portsmouth by product design consultancy Bell Wickham Associates. A computer network, it processes a variety of data and helps a boat “feel” its way through water and weather. It was designed so that any sailor, skilled or novice, can easily transfer control of the information, and of the boat, to and from the computer.

Coastlines to highways

Devices like the ST80, whose design was influenced by car dashboard instruments, are opening the sport up to a wider audience. “Over the past few years,” says Webster Wickham, “a lot of different kinds of people have begun sailing. It’s still a rich man’s sport, but for less experienced rich men. The really big growth area is motorboating. These instruments are more predictable on them because wind isn’t a problem. And often the people in those boats are not interested in navigation, just speed and drinking gin and tonics.” Wickham speculates that head-up displays or VR systems could be next; added to the price of top speedboats and cruisers, 200 000 of gadgets would go unnoticed.

The thought of Tim-Nice-But-Dim types tanked up on gin and tottering around deck in a VR headset must make serious sailors shudder. A more inviting thought is that these advances in marine technology will lead to all forms of sailing becoming popular as a mode of transport, with coastlines as the main highways.

At sea, I’m as green as the next person. You won’t catch me rowing across anywhere except the Serpentine, but I could be tempted to sea by an intelligent boat, some safety training, well-policed “roads” and a guarantee of sunshine. There aren’t any weirs at sea, are there?

Latest articles