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Vendée Globe Race Skippers sail for science!

Date: 4 February 2021

A new era of sailing for science is beginning with  IMOCA skippers during the Vendée Globe supporting the Global Ocean Observing System, within the framework of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), and under the leadership of OceanOPS.

If it was not already enough to race across all the world's oceans, braving equipment failure and stormy conditions, these brave Vendée Globe skippers have also been taking vital ocean observations, proof of their engagement for the ocean!

“The Vendée Globe is a race that I would like to win, but the challenge we have to overcome is the one that will allow us to find solutions to climate change. We cannot stress enough the importance of the oceans, without them there would be no life on earth. As major players in our climate system, they store over 90% of the excess heat from radiative forcing and absorb about a quarter of the human-produced CO2 emitted annually. This is why we are continuing our ocean research mission to protect this incredible wilderness”, says Boris Herrmann, Team Malizia/IMOCA skipper during the race.

Despite the extra weight and the responsibility for observing equipment, this link-up between the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) and ten of the IMOCA skippers in the Vendée Globe race has been wildly successful. These observations are from some of the least-visited regions of our global ocean - this is what makes the race so exciting, and also the data so valuable.

“I have deployed a profiler float leaving the Pot-au-Noir, a shipping route which is usually sparsely navigated. Though the float weighs 20 Kg and keeping extra weight to a minimum is crucial for the race, it is worthwhile. This is my choice. The future of the planet is seriously in danger”, says Louis Burton, Bureau Vallée 2/IMOCA skipper.  

Thanks to OceanOPS (a IOC/UNESCO and WMO joint centre supporting GOOS), who internationally coordinates and monitors the sustained in situ components of the global observing system, 7 meteorological buoys and 3 profiling floats, operated respectively by Météo-France and Argo France, were deployed by the IMOCA skippers at agreed positions in the Atlantic Ocean. Four skippers also carried onboard equipment to measure essential ocean variables such as sea surface salinity, temperature, CO2, and atmospheric pressure, as well as measuring the microplastics pollution at sea. The data collected by these sampling efforts during the Vendée Globe were shared in real time in an international open-source database.

“The Ocean is our playground, it is our working environment. Over the years, I have seen the ocean changing in various ways. As a child, I have experienced the ocean in my home town of Kamakura that was polluted with heavy oil. We would go in the ocean to swim and sometimes come back with lots of heavy oil all over our body. This was a very serious problem that the Japanese government worked on very hard to make the oceans clean. Since then, the ocean in Japan has become very clean but there is now a bigger problem. A problem that we cannot see directly because it is so small. This problem is called micro-plastic. Looking at the water, we feel the water being very clean but in fact it could be polluted. The problem is very serious and we need to find better solutions to counter this. The ocean is the lungs of the planet earth. We need to treat it better to be able to live a better life”, says Kojiro Shiraish, DMG Mori/IMOCA skipper.

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“We are several Vendée Globe sailors to have boats equipped with sensors and to collect oceanic data that we will transmit daily to scientists. Considering the number of days we spend on the water and the remote places we travel through on a round-the-world trip, we provide a legitimate source of information”, says Alexia Barrier, 4myplanet/IMOCA skipper, who deployed an Argo float near the Kerguelen Islands.

Alexia, Boris and Luis are also involved in educational programs for students to raise awareness about the oceans with children. Before the race, Emanuela Rusciano, oceanographer and Coordinator of communication at OceanOPS, and Maud Tournery, scientific mediator at Ifremer, met 3 classrooms in Brest and Plouzané, France, for a special session on ocean observations. During the session, students explored an Argo float and how it helps scientists studying global warming, collecting data inaccessible to satellites, right down to the ocean’s depths. After the instrument’s deployment, educators and students will follow the trajectory of the float they have signed, and access resources about the data acquired from the Adopt-a-Float program portal.

The deployment of ocean observing instruments at sea is fundamental for the continuous measurement of oceanographic and atmospheric parameters of the ocean. Observations are crucial for delivering marine weather and ocean services to support safety of life and property at sea, maritime commerce and the well-being of coastal communities. Observations also provide insights into the global weather and climate system and the impacts of long-term climate change, as well information on the increasing stress on the ocean from human activities.

“Observations from racing yachts, especially those acquired in remote areas of the ocean, are going to be vital for gaining a more complete knowledge of the ocean and the atmosphere above it, and for a more effective prediction of how the ocean may change in coming years”, says Albert Fischer Director, GOOS Project Office at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO.

“For 10 years now, I have been pledging for the ocean sustainability and protection, and I have been trying to help scientists to better understand the ocean. I have realized that, due to the long period I spent at sea, in very remote oceanic areas, where only a few ships go, I can be really useful for ocean study and preservation. The oceanographic data I have acquired during this Vendée Globe are very rare and precious for the scientists,” says Alexia Barrier.

“The global ocean observing system is under growing pressure to meet the demand for weather and ocean services and forecast products, multi-hazard early warning systems, and climate and ocean health applications,” says WMO Director of Infrastructure Anthony Rea. “The current global Covid-19 pandemic has impacted ocean observing systems and ocean monitoring operations. WMO therefore extends its appreciation and congratulations to the Vendée Globe skippers for their valuable contribution to weather and ocean observations and for Sailing for Science.”

Martin Kramp, the Ship Coordinator at OceanOPS, says the Vendée Globe skippers have made an important contribution both to weather forecasts and understanding the health of the ocean. “These instruments help us in areas where we have little means to gather met-ocean data. Observations, such as the atmospheric pressure data acquired by the drifting buoys and transmitted in real-time to the operational centres, help to improve weather forecasting and protect safety of lives at sea, while the high-quality temperature data from profiling floats will enable scientists, throughout the world, to significantly improve the estimates of ocean heat storage” he says. 

In the long run, “we would like the carrying of weather and sea water instrumentation to be part of the IMOCA class rules for ocean races, so that every skipper, whether racing for the podium or not, takes part to the observation and preservation of the ocean”, Kramp says. 

“As a skipper, I am very aware of the importance of protecting the environment and particularly the oceans. In my opinion, France has a particular responsibility because it governs the second largest maritime space in the world, this includes the maritime areas of its overseas departments and territories. The sustainable development initiatives of the IMOCA Class make it possible to take ownership of targeted actions and become a real ambassador of the program”, says Manu Cousin.

The science initiative carried out during the Vendée Globe supports a GOOS made up of many thousands of buoys, profiling floats, underwater robots, ship-based sensors and marine mammals, supplying scientists and marine and weather forecasters with essential data about the conditions at sea for climate studies, forecasts and early warnings, and ocean health monitoring.

“About 2,000 autonomous instruments (such as profiling floats and drifting buoys) must be deployed every year to sustain the GOOS. We are calling today, through a specific UN Ocean Decade project, on civil society to support the GOOS implementation and we wish to unlock the potential of the citizens, NGOs, private sphere and of the world class sailors and mariners, some of our best ocean ambassadors”, says Mathieu Belbéoch, OceanOPS Lead.

vendee globe ioc unesco ocean

The UN Ocean Decade is a unique opportunity to change the way we care about the ocean and effectively support ocean science and oceanography for its protection and sustainable development. The Decade is the chance we all have to contribute actively towards putting in place a more sustainable and complete ocean observing system that delivers timely data and information accessible to all users on the state of the ocean across all basins.

The involvement of the IMOCA skippers in this science project is part of a partnership that was signed in January 2020 between UNESCO and IMOCA to support ocean science and protection of the ocean. For 2 years, these organisations will carry out various joint projects including met-ocean observations.

The important Vendée Globe/IMOCA science project is part of a growing global awareness in the racing community of the necessity to take action to preserve the ocean, as well as the result of a resilient work carried out, since several years, by OceanOPS to team up with “sailing ships of opportunity” to gather meteorological data and deploy oceanographic instruments at sea. This project follows similar initiatives by sailors coordinated by OceanOPS in the Volvo Ocean Race (and this will again be the case on The Ocean Race 2022-23), the Barcelona World Race, the Clipper Race, the Rallies organized by Jimmy Cornell and the recent IMOCA-organised Arctique-Les Sables D’Olonne Race.

“Our skippers benefit from a unique experience. They navigate in the most isolated places on the globe and are the first to witnesses the impact of human activity on the oceans. The IMOCA Class is aware of the urgent need to protect and preserve our seas, which makes the partnership with OceanOPS and UNESCO's IOC even more valuable. In the next IMOCA cycle (2021-2024), we want to go further in involving more teams in the scientific contribution process”, says Antoine Mermod IMOCA Director.

“On behalf of the ocean observing community, I wish to congratulate and thank all IMOCA skippers for their commitment to the ocean protection and their invaluable contribution to weather and ocean observations”, says Belbéoch.

For further information about the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO and the Ocean Decade, please contact v.lindoso@unesco.org

For further information on how to participate in the UN Ocean Decade ocean observation project, please contact Emanuela Rusciano, erusciano@ocean-ops.org