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AIS – Bane or Benefit?



Bane or benefit - there’s an added intense struggle in the new-look world of the one-design Volvo Ocean Race around the world.


The Automatic Identification System (AIS) mandated by race management for use this time as a safety feature to avoid collisions is also a precise and compelling feature for tracking every tactical move of the competition.


Developed in the ‘90s as a high intensity automatic short-range identification and tracking tool, it now comes in two flavours, one for commercial ships and the other for smaller craft. Its use on big ships is mandatory for collision avoidance and for vessel control in crowded harbours or waterways.


Skippers cite two factors for the closeness of the racing with boats now grouped tightly together over thousands of miles, often within sight of each other. One was the decision to adopt matched one-design boats. The other is the use of AIS.

Satellite GPS positional data from boats is rebroadcast over short-range radio, identifying all boats in a 20-kilometre range and showing their course and speed.


In previous Whitbread and Volvo races with less sophisticated tracking and individual boat designs there were often gaps between boats stretching to hundreds of miles.


Now all boats are bunched together in a small patch of ocean, sailing in the same weather conditions, watching each other like hawks and straining to identify that one little weather anomaly that will give them a chance to break away.


“On the last leg, everyone was just watching AIS waiting for someone to move and take the northern course option,” said race veteran Bouwe Bekking, skipper of the Dutch entry Brunel. “In the end we left it too late.


“Sometimes you are making decisions just based on looking at the AIS. It is good for the spectators because everyone stays together, and we have close racing because it is scary to break away, and that is why the racing is so close.”


Forget the old days when unique weather information or superior boat design played a major role. Now, everyone has a chance of winning.


“If you sail well you are going to win, and if you don’t sail well you are going to lose”, said Abu Dhabi’s three-time repeat skipper Ian Walker. “That is great, and that is what we are enjoying.”