Round-the-World Racers Lend a Hand to Science

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 26, 2002

The Volvo Ocean Race is ultimately about speed and competition on the seas. But the competing boats also team with NASA and research institutions to aid oceanic science and environmental education.

In the course of the sailing marathon, which extends across four oceans, the contestants regularly record data that helps scientists assess oceanic conditions.

The effort is a collaboration with more than two dozen scientific institutions around the world, including NASA and the UK's Southampton Oceanography Centre.

A key aim of the program, known as the Volvo Ocean Adventure, is to capitalize on the excitement of the race to stimulate public interest in oceans and the need to preserve their resources for generations to come.

The initiative is "a very interesting way of involving the public, especially the kids," said marine biologist Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence.

"By following these teams," she added, "people are becoming more interested in the ocean and how it works. We've got lots to learn by looking over the shoulders of these racers."

Live and Virtual Oceanic Research

Each yacht in the Volvo Ocean Race is equipped with instruments that measure sea-surface temperatures and ocean color.

Ocean color is an important indicator of the presence of phytoplankton—tiny plants crucial to the health of not only ocean ecosystems but of the entire planet, according to NASA oceanographer David Adamec. "Despite all the attention focused on rain forests, these [ocean] plants produce the majority of the oxygen that we breathe on Earth. So it's very important," he said.

The scientific data acquired by the racers is posted on the Web site of the education program, Volvo Ocean Adventure, where students, teachers, and others can monitor the progress of the race in environmental terms.

As people who spend much of their time at sea, the competitors in the race highly value the ocean and are eager to encourage greater awareness of its environmental importance.

Mark Rudigar, the co-skipper of second-place boat ASSA ABLOY, told an audience at the Maryland Science Center: "When you are sailing and racing around the world, you don't always see the changes we've caused to the ocean environment, the pollution."

"But it's there," he added. "That's why this kind of scientific effort is so important. After 40 years of sailing, I still get just as excited every time I see a dolphin following the boat. I want that to be protected for my children and grandchildren."

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