Insight | Inmarsat and the Volvo Ocean Race story


Inmarsat and the Volvo Ocean Race story


As the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 gets underway, Chris McLaughlin, Inmarsat SVP External Affairs & Marcoms, looks back at our nine-year relationship with one of the world’s toughest sporting events.

My first Volvo Ocean Race was in 2005, having joined Inmarsat in 2004 and just months after our successful float on the London Stock Exchange.

Taking on the global communications for the world’s premier yacht race was a delicate consideration. Could we do it? Should we do it and what would it do for us? I asked Admiral James Ellis, then a non-exec board member, what he thought. And I still use his answer today:

“Chris, if it works on a seventy foot carbon fibre soap dish, then I believe it will work on a battleship.”

We partnered with Thrane and with Stratos in a three way model that continues to serve well, even as Stratos became Inmarsat and Thrane morphed into Cobham.

Along the way we invented the Inmarsat Media Crew Member (MCM) prize – originally as a €1k leg prize, imagined to allow the winning reporter to buy drinks for their crew. We thought it might help break down the barriers between stoic and quiet race sailors and the reporter looking to open a race to the world. It did – and created a new layer of competition.

When Rick Deppe on Puma Ocean Racing won the first overall prize at the 2008-9 race, I found myself pinned against a wall by irate Scandinavian PRs from Ericsson, who felt their man should have won. Gustav was great, but Rick had supplied many more classic moments including: “Ken, tell us how it feels to have cut the top of your finger off”!

“Not now Rick, not ……. now.”

For the 2014-15 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race the MCMs are now “On Board Reporters” (OBRs), equipment-trained by us, and all are professional digital media reporters. The name changed, competition got tougher but the Inmarsat Trophy, the leg cash prizes and the €10k overall prize are the second most important target after the Race-win itself.

The first fleet, a mixed bunch of designs, carried Inmarsat C, Fleet 77 and Fleet 33. The race was a success and by the close of 2006, we had an appetite to commit to the next race in 2008-9.

The technology evolved to Inmarsat C; FleetBroadband 500, backed up with Fleet 33. During that race, the third Inmarsat-4 (I-4) satellite came on stream and for 24 hours the fleet leaving China had no communications. Racers suffered withdrawal symptoms.

The 2011-12 Race became an I-4 affair. Inmarsat C, with FleetBroadband 500 and FleetBroadband 150. And the baby terminal had a secret. Crews didn’t know it was left on permanently and its resilience proved legendary. The IsatPhone Pro replaced another satphone carried in the rescue bags.

This year the Volvo Ocean Race has remained loyal to I-4 and they have selected Inmarsat C and FleetBroadband 500 once again but also opted for FleetBroadband 250 as back-up. The rescue grab bags now also contain our latest handheld satellite phone, IsatPhone 2. And at last all the boats and sails are a single design with all competitors equally equipped. If you watch the tracker, you will see the seven boats, each costing a minimum €14m to get on the race course, within just a few miles of each other.

Inmarsat has saved lives, with Movistar’s Atlantic sinking requiring the crew to be picked up from a life raft; multiple rig collapses, and hulls shattering in huge waves and when hitting sunken objects. We have supplied essential medical advice and driven the race up the global media agenda as our 24/7 connectivity has made it ever more available. We even gave crew members first contact with children born while they were at sea. So far we haven’t delivered any ultimate long-distance “Would Like To Meet” requests, but if called-upon…

And what have we learned as the fleet sets out for Cape Town on its latest 40,000 nautical mile journey to Gothenberg from Alicante?

First, we have demonstrated that Inmarsat’s global network service is the gold standard where the need for mobile comms in remote and harsh environments exists.

Second, that our evolving technology is market-leading in resilience, simplicity and delivery.

And third? Simple: if the guy or girl racing dislocates a shoulder, smashes a hand or just breaks down, then today its global digital news and Inmarsat will deliver it. And when we do, the OBR had better win our prize because eight fit, 100kg sailors can drink an awful lot.

About the author

Chris McLaughlin joined Inmarsat in 2004 and is Senior Vice President, External Affairs and Marcoms, operating both an in-house team and a global network of communications agencies. Chris has been an industry representative on two government committees and is very active in presenting space industry issues to Government and to the public. Chris began his PR career with Sony Europe’s PR agency and has since worked on numerous technology and business-related communications issues. His broadcast experience includes roles at British Satellite Broadcasting, Carlton Television; the ITV Network Centre and BBC Worldwide. Chris has enjoyed an international career, working for Visa Europe and Philip Morris International, Switzerland, for youth anti-smoking initiatives, regulatory issue responses and attitudinal research in 33 countries. A graduate of The London School of Economics, he was awarded a Research Fellowship by the United Nations University. Chris represented Great Britain in the Olympic 470 dinghy class for 12 years and has won multiple National and International sailing titles. Currently campaigning in the J24 One-Design class, he is a seven-time European champion and has placed top three in the Worlds. He promises to hang up his boots if he wins the J24 Worlds in Germany in 2015.