Bringing High Tech to the High Seas: Offshore Racing Gets a Digital Makeover

The Volvo Ocean Race has been described as the “Everest of sailing” — it takes place every three years, sending seven teams around the world for eight months. The 2017-18 race just ended: It covered 45,000 nautical miles, crossed four oceans and stopped in 12 cities before finishing in The Hague.

Since each boat is identical, the only difference between teams are the individual athletes and their collective performance. To bolster their chances, team AkzoNobel turned to SAP to develop software capable of tracking a sailor’s individual performance using biometric data measured by wearable devices.

Ryan West, team AkzoNobel’s performance manager, wanted a system that could track athletes’ vitals (like heart rate) 24 hours a day, analyze their physical condition and correlate it with sailing results. “It’s not just the mental fatigue that gets them,” he says, “it’s the physical decline.” Seasickness, skin infections, poor sleep patterns, wasting muscles and a lack of proper food – offshore racing takes its toll on the body.

In the autumn of 2017, SAP conducted a design thinking workshop with West and Simeon Tienpont, the team AkzoNobel skipper, to figure out exactly what would work for crew members as they navigated all kinds of weather and ocean conditions. They had to consider some extreme challenges. For example, crews are on the water for up to 21 days, sailing through some of the most remote areas in the world. They needed a way to collect data offline, then synch and analyze that information once sailors returned to shore.

After the initial workshop, SAP and team AkzoNobel developed a formal project proposal that included the high-level plan and technical architecture. They also conducted validation sessions with the sailors to refine their plan and get team members’ buy-in, which West believes was critical to the project’s success.

After trying various wearables, the team agreed that they would wear Garmin smart watches 24×7 to measure their heart rate. This data would be captured by SAP Leonardo IoT Edge, part of the SAP Leonardo set of technologies and solutions that help enterprises become more intelligent. IoT-edge computing processes, stores and analyzes sensor data in remote locations without an Internet or other data connection. Once the boats arrived ashore at one of the 12 stopovers, the AkzoNobel performance team analyzed the biometric data on the SAP Cloud Platform – along with data from boat sensors.

West says, “We’re able to marry biometric and yacht data, analyze it and feed it back into the system so we could look at the relationship between them. The next step is to include weather data so we can see how weather effects the crew, and look at whether we should reroute the boat to optimize performance.”

So far, the solution has helped West understand how the team’s sleeping patterns impact performance. “Our goal has been to get data on aggregate sleep patterns,” says West.” Crew members get a maximum of 4 – 6 hours of sleep a night. Now we can chart how much they get and when – is it in a longer break or tiny breaks? Do they meet their sleep goals?”

West says that they’re already seeing some trends based on data collection and analysis. For example, some people are negatively impacted by time-zones changes or sleep during daylight hours, so the team has made schedule adjustments accordingly.

The race recently concluded and AkzoNobel placed fourth in the seven-boat fleet. West is optimistic about the technology moving forward and believes he will eventually be able to do predictive analytics utilizing near-live heart rate and yacht data. “As we add in more data added over time, we’ll incrementally increase our understanding and that will help improve the performance,” he says.