Jun 3, 2024 - Energy & Environment

A round-the-world sailing race will collect valuable ocean data

Illustration of a ship's steering wheel in the form of a magnifying glass over water

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This coming winter, up to 40 sailors will set off from western France on a daring solo round-the-world race — several armed with sensors meant to collect valuable ocean data.

Why it matters: The planned course will take the competitors into parts of the open ocean rarely visited or analyzed, making the race a prime opportunity to collect information useful for studying climate change and more.

Driving the news: The Vendée Globe is a solo, unassisted, nonstop sailing race held every four years using monohull boats about 60 feet long, capable of top speeds of up to 40 knots.

  • The course takes racers from western France down past Africa's western coast, around Antarctica through the Indian and Pacific Oceans, then back to France off eastern South America and the Atlantic.
  • The race takes about three months to finish — for those who make it that far, that is, without bowing out due to technical troubles or other issues.
  • For this running — and through a longstanding partnership with UNESCO — several boats will be equipped with sensors gathering data such as atmospheric pressure, ocean temperature and carbon levels.

The latest: The last qualifying race for the global contest is currently underway, with sailors on a transatlantic dash from New York to Les Sables-d'Olonne, France.

What they're saying: "The objective is to provide a precise forecast and to make better prediction of extreme weather systems, and also to provide input for climate forecasting models in general," Alain Leboeuf, president of the Vendée Globe and France's Vendée department, tells Axios through an interpreter.

  • "For me, it's very important to have the sensors on board to give sense to my project, because I have been working as a journalist for 11 years before being a professional sailor, and just a sailing competition is not enough for me," adds Fabrice Amedeo, a racer whose boat is equipped to measure carbon dioxide, temperature, salinity, microplastics and even marine diversity.

Friction point: Amedeo says his sensors increase his power consumption by about 15% — but adds that there's also a "positive impact" in carrying them because if a problem arises while he's racing, he has "another motivation" to keep going.

  • "This research project will give me the energy to go to the end of the race," he says.

Between the lines: The Vendée Globe's data-collection efforts are part of a broader aim to race across the world's oceans in an environmentally responsible way, Leboeuf says.

Case in point: While long-distance racing sailboats typically use fossil fuels for power needs other than propulsion, the Vendée sailors are moving toward solar power and hydrogenerators (which generate electricity from flowing water) for cleaner power.

What's next: While participation in the data-collection effort is optional for the 2024 Vendée Globe, it'll become mandatory during the next running, in 2028.

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