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Satellites ensure safe passage through treacherous waters in Volvo Ocean Race


The Volvo Ocean Race yachts have safely rounded Cape Horn on the fourth leg of their round-the-world adventure thanks to the help of radar satellites steering them away from dangerous icebergs.

While all the legs of the race have their unique dangers, Volvo Ocean Race Meteorologist Chris Bedford said leg four is arguably the most dangerous. "The boats have to face 50-knot storms, massive seas and possible ice, and if something happens on the leg, help is many hours and, more likely, days away."

C-CORE, a Canadian company providing Earth observation based geo-information services, supplied ‘pre-leg’ reconnaissance of the areas in the Southern Ocean notorious for harbouring icebergs by using data acquired by the ESA’s Envisat and the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) RADARSAT-1 satellites.

Within a few hours of the satellites collecting the data with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), C-CORE received and processed it using a specialised Iceberg Detection Software. The results, which included iceberg targets, their size and shape and longitude and latitude information, were then forwarded to Bedford, who provided it to the crews.

"The C-CORE service has been a huge help in allowing us to set the course in such a manner as to keep the team away from potential ice," Bedford said. "In addition, the crews were able to leave the dock with a reasonable idea of where the ice was most likely to be."

Knowing where the ice was most likely to be was helpful to sailors who still had to be vigilant and weary of ‘growlers’ – smaller bits of ice that break away from main icebergs and do not show up on radar. Growlers can be the size of a small car and are extremely dangerous and difficult to spot by eye, especially when travelling at full speed during rough seas at night.

"I’m relieved that I got through another amazing Southern Ocean trip in one piece, but also somewhat sad. Every time I get to this part of a round-the-world trip I look over my shoulder at Cape Horn and just wonder: will I be coming down here again? If not, thank you Southern Ocean for letting me cross you safely and for those unforgettable experiences," Ericsson skipper Neal McDonald wrote to race headquarters via email.

The Volvo Ocean Race, which takes place every four years, is a 31 250 nautical mile round-the-world race comprised of nine legs. The fourth leg covers 6 700 miles from Wellington, New Zealand, to Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, via Cape Horn.

C-CORE is funded under The Polar View initiative and is part of Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), a joint initiative by the ESA and the European Commission to establish an independent global monitoring capacity in support of European policy goals.

Mariangela D’Acunto | alfa
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