Rudi Steiness. Photo: Rick Tomlinson/Team SCA

Cool Person: Rudi Steiness, Volvo Ocean Race Technician

Interview

The teams of the Volvo Ocean Race are both tired and busy when they’ve finally reach Gothenburg after the last leg, but we’ve managed to get hold of Rudi Steiness – the man in charge of all the technology onboard at the Team SCA, and ask him some tech-nerdy questions.

Hello Rudi! As an ordinary amateur sailor I’m familiar with a GPS… but I guess you use more advanced navigation systems than I do..?

Hello! We use GPS as well, the boat has four different independent GPS receivers, and we also have an antenna at 15Hz that updates the boats position fifteen times per second. The GPS-systems are connected to the two laptops on board where the sailors see an icon at the exact right position on the electronic charts.

I’ve read that you have sensors onboard that can tell you the height of waves. How does that work, can you see on a screen that a huge wave is coming along and does that make the wave easier to maneuver?

Well, we have a ‘simple’ wave height sensor but it is used only to send information about ‘life on board’, the system can not really see or scan the waves the boat is entering and there is no information on wave height for the sailors – only for ‘us’ ashore.

In what other ways can you optimize the sailing with the help of technology? Are the sensors ‘smart’ (meaning they can communicate in-between and suggest proper trimming of the sails for example)?

VO65 (the new one-design boat we sail) must be sailed ‘manual’, by hand at all times. What we have are several sensors placed on the mast, halyards and rudder measuring forces and pressure. That data is displayed on deck and is helping the sailors to keep control over the boat and make choices how to adjust it accordingly.

Sam Greenfield/Dongfeng Race Team/Volvo Ocean Race

Photo: Sam Greenfield/Dongfeng Race Team/Volvo Ocean Race

That brings me to the next question: if you have learned to sail in the ”good old way”, are you then prepared to trust technical devices? Does modern race boats require a new way to sail? 

The best sailors are still very much sailing in ‘the good old way’. Sailing is very much about feeling. All this new technology is helping and supporting that feeling if you’re a really good sailor. Obviously the new technology can provide faster sailing, for example by helping you find the way back to the optimal trimming of the sails after big maneuvers.

Modern cars are like computers and if something breaks it’s not so easy to fix yourself. What happens if technology onboard shuts down?

Sure, also marine electronics is getting more and more complex, but these boats are sailed over big oceans and need multiple backup systems; two laptops, charts district plotters, handheld GPS receivers. We have different methods for power supply to these systems such as a wind generator. And – if everything really ’goes black’ – we also carry a good old paper chart and sextant for manual navigation.

The new one-design boats have made the competition more equal. Do you think we can expect a technological arms race instead?

The one-design rule also covers all the hardware and software onboard – it is the exact same on all boats. We are allowed to use three different navigation programs. We have all three of them installed and we have of course tried to analyze which one is best in each situation. We are also allowed to calibrate each system in order to find the most suitable for different sailing styles.

Is there any invention that you would dream to have on the boat – what about robots that take care of the sailing while you get some sleep?

Auto pilots for sailing do exist (and are very skilled sailors!). However, they are not allowed in Volvo Ocean Race. Something that would help us a lot would be under-water radar that could warn for objects in front of the boat such as icebergs or whales.

You are away from family and friends for long periods of time. How do you communicate? How did you do it before you had internet connection?

Thats right. Today we have internet and can have email correspondence. There’s also a text-based ’sms’ system that is satellite connected and have reception all around the world. Before the Internet we had marine radio and long distance radio but theses systems were quite complicated to operate and therefore not used much – mostly the communication with family and friends had to wait until the boat reached land.

Rudi’s answers leave the old-fashioned sailor in me relieved; the ‘feeling’ for the boat still seems important. However, technology has obviously helped in making these extreme races a lot safer and also easier for us on shore to enjoy. We are certainly looking forward to keep following the evolution of the race boat technology.

Photo: Anna-Lena Elled / Team SCA / Volvo Ocean Race

Photo: Anna-Lena Elled / Team SCA / Volvo Ocean Race

Also read our previous article about the Technology behind Volvo Ocean Race .