When I was invited to the London Headquarters of Inmarsat, I thought I knew a fair amount about their operations having followed the 17/18 Volvo Ocean Race closely. However, what I knew was only scraping the surface.
I left that day understanding the importance of satellite communications, not only for locating boats and superyachts day to day, but for keeping the world entertained during international offshore races and, most importantly, for keeping vessels safe, whether a superyacht, a cruise ship or a 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 company's history from its inception in 1979 when it was founded as the International Maritime Satellite by IMO. It became a commercial company in 1999 and was listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2005.
Inmarsat currently operates 13 satellites and a network of earth stations, offering a full range of voice, data and communication services to over 160,000 vessels worldwide. As well as maritime, they also provide services in aviation, on land and for governments worldwide, and currently they are the only provider of GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety at Sea) satellite services. It’s a big operation.
Keeping ahead of the communications explosion
And why has Inmarsat become so big and important? Because by 2022 there will be more internet traffic than in all 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 become innovators in every aspect of 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 and passenger welfare featuring internet and social media; voice and data; current news and sports; TV, radio and gaming.
Business IT and security; corporate email; voice and video chat; remote IT support; cybersecurity.
In order to offer such services, they constantly have to look 20 years ahead. As Ronald pointed out, just look back at the changes in technology in the past 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 bandwidth, 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 global fleet.
All well and good, but it’s when you hear about it in action that you understand the real value of the various products on offer. Brian Carlin, Manager of OBRs (On Board Reporters) for the Volvo Ocean Race 17/18, and an OBR for the 14/15 race, talked us through his experience 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 her rudders.
Brian talks now with animation and humour about the event, even running through a few of the jokes that 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. However, on the night in question 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 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.
The great blue sea on small screens
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 km of cable, plus cameras on the bow and stern and handheld cameras 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 about the future of OBR reporting, Brian thinks 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!
Tragedy at sea
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 it really highlights the importance of satellite communications and has certainly fuelled Inmarsat’s vehemence regards 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 15 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 which he had never loaded 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. When they reached him they discovered that he hadn’t survived. 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.
Superyacht Ganesha showing scale of domes
Regulations lagging behind
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, fully implemented on 1 February 1999, are ships on international voyage and passenger vessels with 12 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.
Inmarsat is now working closely with several boat manufacturers, such as Beneteau, to have this satellite equipment installed at manufacture. It seems this should be the rule rather than the exception.
The global picture
Events such as the one described above have really pushed the safety team at Inmarsat to up their game and they are currently the only provider of GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety at Sea) satellite services. We were treated to a tour of the Network Operations Centre where all the action takes place and I think it's safe to say that we were all blown away by the complexity of the operation, as we viewed a wall of flashing lights, numbers 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 the seemingly hexagonal shapes were actually overlapping circular beams pinging down to earth every few seconds. The overlap allows for boats in several quadrants to be alerted to a vessel's distress signal, via Inmarsat’s distress alert relay, enabling the chosen RCC (Rescue Control Centre) to contact the closest boats and instruct them to come to the rescue. It's truly impressive.
Inmarsat Network Operations Centre
Close shaves in the simulator
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 to ensure the safety of our own vessel first, to avoid doubling the issue for the coastguard.
The waves grew wilder, larger, and increasingly 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 precisely 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 value of safety
The interesting thing is that these systems do not need to break the bank, and when weighing up the cost of a boat or a superyacht against potential loss of life, it's a 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 every one 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 maintain three satellites (and a spare fourth backup) with new ones being launched imminently, run a Network Operations Centre fielding on average nine distress calls a day, 24/7 and 365 days a year, for free, to oversee the safety of over 2 million seafarers and sailors, I simply raise my hat!
First published in The Islander Magazine