We were invited one overcast day to the London Headquarters of Inmarsat on City Road. The offices themselves are a buzzing hub of activity, with employees and visitors alike entering in their droves. There is a distinct air of action about the place the reception that belied even what was behind the security door.
When I was invited to Inmarsat I thought I knew a fair amount about their operations having followed the 17/18 Volvo Ocean Race closely, however what I knew compared to what I know now, was only scraping the surface. I left that day understanding the importance of satellite communications, not only for locating boats and superyachts on a day to day basis, but for keeping the world entertained during international offshore races and most importantly for keeping the yachting world safe, be you a superyacht, cruise ship or humble day boat. What Inmarsat does is beyond incredible and I left impressed and more humbled than ever by the power of the oceans surrounding us.
We kicked the day off with a welcome presentation from Ronald Spithout, President Inmarsat Maritime. He talked us through the history from its inception in 1979 when it was founded as the International Maritime Satellite by IMO. They became a commercial company in 1999 and were listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2005. They currently operate 13 satellites and a network of earth stations, offering a full range of voice, data and communication services to over 160,000 vessels. Not only do they offer services to the maritime industry but also to aviation, land and governments worldwide and are the ONLY current provider of GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety at Sea) satellite services. It’s a big operation.
And why has it become so big and important? Because data shows that by 2022 there will be more internet traffic than all the previous years combined, being used by 60% of the Global population, with 28.5 billion fixed and mobile personal devices and connections. This connectivity explosion has driven Inmarsat to be innovators in everything communication. They now offer four verticals for the maritime industry: Operational efficiency including chart and navigation updates; weather and routing; Equipment monitoring covering planned maintenance; safety and compliance including Emissions monitoring; anti-piracy; telemedicine; remote surveillance. Crew & Passenger welfare featuring internet and social media; voice and data; current news and sports; TV, radio and gaming. Business IT & security: corporate email; voice and video chat; remote IT support; cybersecurity.
In order to offer such service they are constantly having to look 20 years ahead. As Ronald pointed out, just look back at the changes in technology in the last 20 years to even begin to imagine what the comms scene will resemble in 2039. In order to keep advancing they have introduced a new higher band width, the KA frequency, to complement the L Band which works at a much lower frequency. They have cell towers at 36,000 kms. This allows Inmarsat to have 99.9% global coverage via three main satellites, ensuring the safety and security of the fleet.
All well and good, but it’s when you hear about it put into action, when the real value of the relatively low cost to entry of the various products on offer, becomes apparent. Brian Carlin, Manager of OBRs (On Board Reporter) for the Volvo Ocean Race 17/18 and an OBR for the 14/15 race, talked us through his experience when he was on the infamous Danish Vestas Wind’s second leg, when she ran aground on a reef off Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, and broke both of the vessel’s rudders. Brian talks now with animation and humour about the event, even running through a few of the jokes that typically came out immediately after the event was reported. Apparently there’s now a Danish drink called Vestas on the Rocks, though this may need some verification. He also describes the slightly unfortunate position he was in as the boat hit – on the loo. However on the night in question itself, it was no laughing matter. Watching the footage of the moment the boat hits the reef is a stark reminder of the dangers of the sea, even for experienced crew such as Team Vestas. After spending most of the night aboard the damaged $6 million 65-foot yacht, being pounded against the reef in two metre seas, the nine sailors eventually climbed into two life rafts, after all systems eventually and unsurprisingly failed, with only a grab bag and an Inmarsat satellite phone. This literally saved their lives as it allowed the local coast guard to pinpoint their exact location and pick them up early in the morning to take them to safety. Miraculously none were injured.
Of course safety is not the only function of the Inmarsat system on board the Volvo Ocean Race fleet. It also allows for such dramatic footage to be relayed for the viewing pleasure of the world. In fact the 4 kms of cable, plus cameras on the bow and stern as well as handheld ones and drones, have allowed for images of the race to be viewed 23 trillion times. As Brian points out, that puts the race in the realm of Red Bull…and cats… Joking aside though, this footage, relayed back to Race Headquarters via Inmarsat’s satellites has catapulted the race’s popularity, quite literally, into the stratosphere, enabling lovers of sailing to truly appreciate the gruelling nature of the race.
Asked of the future of OBR reporting onboard, Brian thinks that it will move to the addition of 24 hour live onboard streaming. Though who knows what leaps in technology and satellite communications will happen over the next two years alone. Brian was questioned as to whether the technology will ever replace OBRs, but answering a question with a question, he simply asks “has a camera ever made a sailor cry?” We think not!
Team Vestas is not the only story of danger and safety on the high seas that we heard that afternoon, though sadly the second one did not have such a happy ending. However I feel that it really highlights the importance of satellite communications and has certainly prompted Inmarsat’s vehemence regarding safety. John Dodd, Director of Safety Services, tells of the Friday night he and his team were about to head home when they received a call from a fifteen year old girl saying that her dad was supposed to have arrived in Morocco but she hadn’t heard from him. Asked what safety equipment he had on board she said that he had a satellite phone, though it wasn’t an Inmarsat one. However, moved by the girl’s distress, the team mobilised and managed to trace where he had bought it, along with $200 of credit. However he had never loaded the credit onto the phone. Search and Rescue were unable to help and none of the Moroccan ports had any record of his arrival. Eventually by liaising with the Network Operation Centre they were able to put a ping on the phone, and whilst he had been unable to speak to anyone they could see that two days earlier he had tried to place a call. They now had a location and using a drift model system they were able to approximate his location and notify local vessels. Eventually his life raft was located, however by the time they reached him they discovered that he hadn’t survived. It is an awful end to the story, however the young girl called back a few days later to thank John and the team for at least finding her father and giving them closure. Had he had a functioning satellite communication system there would have been no need for such a tragedy.
It seems crazy in this day and age that it is not mandatory for all vessels regardless of size, style or purpose to have some form of life saving satellite equipment on board, but that is simply not the case. In fact the only boats mandated by the IMO in 1988 in an amendment to the 1974 SOLAS Convention and fully implemented 1 February 1999 are ships on International voyage and passenger ships with twelve or more passengers. It is not a requirement for sailors such as the father in the above story, even though they are perhaps the most in need. Although Inmarsat are now working closely with several boat manufacturers such as Beneteau, to have the satellite equipment installed at manufacture. It seem like this should be the rule rather than the exception.
Events such as that described above have really pushed the safety team at Inmarsat to up their game and they are now the only current provider of GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety at Sea) satellite services. We were treated to a tour of the Network Operations Centre to show us where all the action takes place. I think it is safe to say that we were all blown away by the complexity of the operation, as we viewed a wall of flashing lights, number and ever-changing shapes. It was like something out of a science fiction film. We slowly began to comprehend that each section represented a constellation produced by each of the three satellites covering three different sections of the globe, and that the seemingly hexagonal shapes were actually overlapping circular beams pinging down to the earth every few seconds. The overlap allows for boats in several quadrants to be alerted to a distress signal of a vessel, via Inmarsat’s distress alert relay, enabling the chosen RCC (Rescue Control Centre) to contact the closest boats to instruct them come to the rescue. As I say, impressive stuff!
We were then taken into the simulator, where I had the pleasure of captaining a vessel that was at first merrily motoring along minding its own business. That was until we received a distress signal near our location. Turning quickly to head to the rescue, a storm front, which we had been warned about through the satellite comms equipment, rapidly rolled in and we had to abandon the rescue attempt as we had to ensure the safety of our own vessel first, rather than doubling the issue for the coastguard. The seas quickly became bigger and bigger and seriously dangerous. Added to this there was a cruise ship a little too close for comfort. All the while we are being instructed on how to communicate using the very simple Inmarsat system, until eventually catastrophe hit and we lost our engines. It is a powerful and effective demonstration of the importance of such equipment on board and is entirely the reason they have the simulator. As John says, you can give someone a 20 slide PowerPoint presentation on the importance of safety at sea, but there is no substitute for living it, albeit in the safety of Inmarsat’s headquarters.
The interesting thing is, that these systems do not need to break the bank, and when weighed up against the general cost of a boat or superyacht, versus the potential cost of a loss of life, it seems like a complete no brainer. There are several different levels and versions, from Fleet One, perfect for smaller boats, which can cost as little as $70 per month, plus the initial cost of the equipment, to Fleet Xpress where the sky’s the limit. But, no matter how big or small each and everyone has the most basic and important function of all – the 505 dial. No matter where you are you can send out this SOS signal and the Network Operations Centre will swing into action to get you to safety.
Often, multinational multi-billion dollar companies are portrayed in a bad light, and there were certainly questions calling them out on the cost of their equipment, however when you need to keep and maintain three main satellites (and a spare fourth backup) with new ones being launched imminently, run a Network Operations Centre fielding on average 9 distress calls a day, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for free, over-seeing the safety of over 2 million seafarers and sailors, I simply raise my hat!
Photos Credit: Stuart Pearce – Yacht Shot