While racing in one of the toughest and longest professional sporting events in the world, The Ocean Race crews manage to squeeze in time to take vital ocean observations that help study climate, improve weather forecasts and monitor ocean health.
Malizia – Seaexplorer flying over the waves in the Southern Ocean on a beautiful day. Credit: Antoine Auriol
Aboard the Malizia sailing yacht, while two crew members take their turn to get some sleep, co-skippers Boris Herrmann and Rosalin Kuiper are on watch as the team sails the ocean during one of the legs of The Ocean Race – the prestigious international around the world sailing race.
“When lunch time comes, we just quickly gulp some water and take a few spoons every 15 minutes until the bowl of astronaut food is finished, since we just don’t have enough time to sit and eat,” says Herrmann. “There’s zero comfort when you’re focused on making the boat go as fast as possible.” Nevertheless, the crew still manages to give some of their time and precious energy to take vital ocean observations.
A race with a mission
The Ocean Race is often hailed as the longest and most challenging professional sporting event. It features a fleet of high-performance racing yachts crewed by skilled sailors who embark on a series of legs spanning multiple continents, covering a staggering distance of more than 31,000 nautical miles. But while outrunning opponents remains the primary goal for competing teams, the event encompasses far more than a mere race: it is also acknowledged for its contribution to the global ocean observing efforts.
The ocean controls our weather patterns, provides us with oxygen, food and livelihoods, and also serves as one of the most important carbon sinks on our planet – by absorbing and storing CO2 from the atmosphere, it helps mitigate climate change. However, its services cannot be taken for granted – human impact is already altering the ocean, and we must observe it carefully to understand how these changes will affect us and how we can adapt to change.
“The ocean is our racetrack, but, as sailors, we have witnessed its decline over the 50 years that we’ve been racing around the world,” says Stefan Raimund, Ocean Science Advisor for The Ocean Race. “We are in a unique position to help to raise awareness and drive action to support healthy seas.”
This edition of the Race features the most ambitious and comprehensive science programme created by a sporting event. “Teams will have collected around four million measurements during the Race, many from remote parts of the planet where data is lacking. Using the platform that the Race provides to help the scientific community has become a core part of what we do,” says Raimund.
This year, two of the participating yachts, Team Malizia and 11th Hour Racing Team, are equipped with an ‘OceanPack’ that continuously monitors variables such as carbon dioxide (CO2), water temperature and oxygen, crucial for understanding and managing the health of the ocean and the overall Earth system. Two other yachts, GUYOT environnement – Team Europe and Team Holcim – PRB, collect samples for monitoring microplastic pollution. A fifth team, Biotherm, are gathering information on ocean biodiversity.
Moreover, each of these five IMOCA yachts boast an on-board weather station and ready to deploy oceanographic instruments that will collect marine data and contribute to the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), a programme led by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO and co-sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and the International Science Council (ISC).
“During the race, we always have some ocean observing device to drop into the sea, such as Argo floats or drifting buoys,” says Herrmann. The Argo floats move up and down the water column, collecting pressure, temperature, and salinity data from the upper 2 kilometers of the ocean, while drifting buoys remain at the surface and measure atmospheric pressure and surface temperature following the ocean currents.
“So, Martin Kramp, ship coordinator at OceanOPS – the operational monitoring and support center for GOOS – is always on the other end of the phone, informing us about when and where to deploy these, so that the data would be most useful to science and various other sectors that use ocean information,” adds Herrmann.
Boris Herrmann deploying a drifting buoy in the Southern Ocean during Leg 3. Credit: Antoine Auriol
All of the valuable data collected during the race are openly shared with The Ocean Race’s science partners and fed into global databases, providing a glimpse into the important ocean processes in locations that few vessels dare to reach. To make the information accessible to all audiences, The Ocean Race has just launched an interactive tool where the data can be explored.
In addition, the meteorological data, such as atmospheric pressure, are transmitted in real-time to the WMO Global Telecommunication System and used by operational centers for delivering accurate weather forecasts and improving the prediction of extreme events, such as hurricanes or heatwaves.
“It is a win-win situation, as sailors can directly benefit from their contribution”, says Claire Vayer, coordinator of science projects for IMOCA, enthusiastic of this long standing and successful collaboration between sailing races and GOOS experts. “For example, as they deploy weather buoys, they improve their own weather forecasts that they download a few hours later while racing,” she adds. And while every month, more than 1500 vessels support the GOOS by taking observations and transmitting their data, only a few of them venture into the remote areas crossed by racing yachts.
OceanOPS map showing met-ocean data collected by Voluntary Observing Ships (VOS) in March. Data from The Ocean Race collected in this period (leg 3) are highlighted in red. In addition, every 25 degrees a surface drifting buoy was launched in the Southern Ocean. Credit: OceanOPS
Racing yachts – a valuable ally for ocean observers
As global temperatures rise, the state of the ocean’s ecosystems and their capacity to store carbon is rapidly changing. Keeping a watchful eye on these changes is now crucial in our quest to tackle global challenges, and racing yachts have the potential to provide a significant boost to the ocean observing system.
“The Argo floats and drifting buoys form part of an array of 9,000 meteorological and oceanographic instruments currently deployed at sea by 84 countries, through an international effort to contribute to GOOS,” says Martin Kramp. “But the instruments need to be deployed in various locations, and ships outside of regular shipping lines play an essential role in this.”
Remote, under-sampled areas like the Southern Ocean around Antarctica are critical for climate, yet still very little is known about them. “That’s why a few years ago we reached out to the race community – the only community that circumnavigates Antarctica on a regular basis,” says Kramp.
The close collaboration between ocean races and GOOS started during the Barcelona World Race in 2014, when 8 crews deployed Argo floats during the race for the first time. The Ocean Race deployed the first instruments just a few weeks later, and ever since has continued to strengthen its engagement with ocean observers.
Argo float deployment in the South Atlantic from Malizia – Seaexplorer. The instrument was signed by a school class in Alicante and in Cape Verde, with the idea to unite and excite the younger generation around science and ocean data. Credit: Antoine Auriol
Now, The Ocean Race contributes to the UN Ocean Decade-endorsed Odyssey project, coordinated by OceanOPS and GOOS. The project aims to unlock the potential of citizens and the private sector to support the Global Ocean Observing System implementation through involving sailors, mariners, divers, fishing and shipping companies, as well as other businesses and citizens in observing the ocean.
“With the help of citizens and the private sector, we can ensure a more complete knowledge of the ocean and the atmosphere above it,” says Mathieu Belbéoch, OceanOPS Manager. “By delivering more accurate ocean data, we enable more effective prediction of how the ocean and climate may change in coming years. So come on board and join the Odyssey!”
Grand Finale of The Ocean Race in Genoa
The culmination of this edition of The Ocean Race is right around the corner, with the Grand Finale taking place in Genova, Italy on 24 June – 1 July. The event will feature an entire week of talks and workshops organized by GOOS partners to actively contribute to the global debate on ocean observations, conservation and sustainable development.
“There is a pressing need to observe the ocean systematically and build on the observational efforts of all citizens and governments in order to build a robust global ocean observing system,” says Emanuela Rusciano, OceanOPS Science and Communication Coordinator who will take part in the Panel on “Restoring Our Ocean & Waters” in The Ocean Race Summit Genova.
Undoubtedly, the racers are already making a great contribution – and they seem to enjoy it. “I have spent so much time in the ocean, it has become my home, workplace and playground,” says Herrmann. “And as sailors, contributing to ocean observations and trying to understand what happens underneath us makes us feel even more connected to it.”
“Both, ocean observers and The Ocean Race team are united by a passion for the ocean,” says Emma Heslop, GOOS Acting Office Director. “Working together not only delivers data from remote parts of our ocean, but also helps society see the need for increased ocean data. That is why we are very grateful to the crews and The Ocean Race team!”
Malizia during the sunset of the last night of racing in Leg 6. Credit: AntoineAuriol
The operational activities of The Ocean Race are coordinated by OceanOPS in the framework of the partnership agreements signed between IMOCA and The Ocean Race with IOC-UNESCO. The deployed drifting buoys are provided by Météo-France and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), while the Argo float, launched in the Atlantic Ocean by Malizia, is provided by the UK MetOffice. Real-time data are processed by Coriolis data center, with Ifremer having an additional role in the quality-control of sea surface temperature and salinity data.
The Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) is the global home of ocean observing expertise. We lead and support a community of international, regional and national ocean observing programmes, governments, UN agencies, research organizations and individual scientists. Our Core Team of expert panels, networks, alliances and projects, supported by the GOOS Office, is in touch with ocean observing and forecasting around the world. We are a programme led by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, with UN and science co-sponsors: World Meteorological Organization (WMO), UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the International Science Council (ISC).
OceanOPS is the international hub that provides vital services in monitoring, integrating and supporting the operations and data flows of the GOOS networks. OceanOPS, joint centre of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, monitors and reports on the status of the global ocean observing networks. It occupies a unique role as the focal point for improving the global ocean observing system performance, leading metadata standardization and integration across the global networks and supporting the operations and data flows of the oceanographic and marine meteorological communities.
The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC-UNESCO) promotes international cooperation in marine sciences to improve management of the ocean, coasts and marine resources. The IOC enables its 150 Member States to work together by coordinating programmes in capacity development, ocean observations and services, ocean science and tsunami warning. The work of the IOC contributes to the mission of UNESCO to promote the advancement of science and its applications to develop knowledge and capacity, key to economic and social progress, the basis of peace and sustainable development.