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The Ocean Race and IOC/UNESCO: contributing towards the science we need for the ocean we want

by The Ocean Race 9 Apr 10:11 PDT
The Ocean Race and IOC-UNESCO co-organised a satellite event called ‘Sailing into the Future for the Ocean Decade' ahead of the UN Ocean Decade Conference in Barcelona. April 9 2024 © Austin Wong / The Ocean Race

In the lead up to the 2024 Ocean Decade Conference, The Ocean Race - the round-the-world race often described as the toughest test of a team in sport and now an ongoing platform for making a meaningful difference to ocean health - today shared the impact of the data collected by teams and sailors through the race's science on board programme.

This vital data is shared with scientists striving to understand the complexities of the ocean and improving climate and ocean science and helping to inform policy and meteorological reports.

The Ocean Race team brought the spirit of ocean racing to over 100 participants in a satellite event co-organised with UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC/UNESCO), the only UN body responsible for supporting global ocean science and services. The event gathered representatives from the world of science, research, sailing and policy at the Barcelona Maritime Museum and included panels entitled: 'Offshore Racing and Science' and 'Understanding our Ocean'.

"These days The Ocean Race undertakes sophisticated scientific observations as it circumnavigates the planet," said the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean, Peter Thomson, who called for collaboration and support from the private sector while noting partnerships and teamwork will be key to halting and reversing the decline in ocean health. "Collecting more than 4 million data points to date, and using innovative equipment to sample things like oceanic microplastics and eDNA, we are talking about what may be the most comprehensive science programme of any sporting event."

"The Ocean Race is not just a race; it's a human achievement, pushing teams to their limits as they race across the ocean. Amidst fierce competition, every team and crew member works as citizen scientists on the high seas, gathering crucial data about the ocean's health," said Richard Brisius, the Race Chairman of The Ocean Race.

"With a global audience of millions, The Ocean Race has evolved from being merely a test of speed between boats across the ocean, to a powerful force for ocean advocacy. Our fleet, which arguably includes some of the fastest vessels involved in research worldwide, covers large ocean areas in short times, providing accurate and near real-time data from the edges of the world. Science gives me hope. When I think of science I think of a bright future: using science to solve problems, and make right what we have done wrong; using science to help us understand the ocean better, but also, using science and innovation to go beyond what we imagine is possible," he added.

Focused on 'delivering the science we need for the ocean we want,' over three days the 2024 UN Ocean Decade Conference (10-12 April), will bring together the Ocean Decade community and partners to celebrate achievements, take stock of progress and set joint priorities to strengthen the sustainable management of the ocean and drive science-based innovation.

"The collaboration between the IOC UNESCO and the sailing community is deeply rooted in our shared commitment to ocean conservation and exploration. Sailing events like The Ocean Race and others like the Barcelona World Race, with which we started our collaboration, serve as unique platforms to raise awareness about the importance of marine ecosystems and the urgent need for their preservation. Through these races, sailors have become ambassadors for the ocean, inspiring millions around the world to take action to safeguard our blue planet," said Yutaka Michida, IOC UNESCO Chairperson.

"We cannot manage what we cannot measure. The ocean is vast and critically important for the planet. It is changing and we need to observe how. This is where The Ocean Race makes an important contribution," said Toste Tanhua, Senior Scientist at GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel and Co-Chair of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). "For example, the data that comes from The Ocean Race boats is used to calculate the ocean uptake of carbon dioxide. The ocean takes up more than a quarter of fossil fuel emissions which prevents climate change. Data gathered by sailors also helps us to understand the distribution of microplastic pollution. The Ocean Race is also taking meteorological observations which improve weather forecasts. If you fill a data gap in the Southern Ocean, it will make the 10-day weather forecast for places like Barcelona better. This is how interconnected everything is."

Addressing the participants, Alexandra Rickham, Head of Sustainability at World Sailing, the international federation for the sport of sailing, said: "The science programme of The Ocean Race represents a unique opportunity for sailing and sport to contribute to the big picture. This event highlights the interconnectedness of humanity and our blue planet and inspires us to do more to keep working to strengthen the robustness of data through collaboration and shared responsibility."

"When you get hands on with science, there is a click. We see ourselves as part of the system and we know we need to understand it and protect it," said Damian Foxall, a professional sailor who has participated in 10 around-the-world races - including six previous editions of The Ocean Race. Foxall is also the coordinator of the Marine Mammal Advisory Group (MMAG): "With the "hazard button" we innovated to protect marine megafauna and conduct live reporting about the hazards we saw while sailing, automatically sending that alert to the rest of the fleet. The objective now is to integrate hazard reporting systems into global reporting systems as we change our role from ocean users to ocean stewards and put in place mitigation measures," he added.

"The data gathered in offshore sailing races allows us to validate satellite data and analyse interannual variability of temperature and salinity of remote and challenging areas like the Southern Ocean, which are undersampled areas and key to assess the effects of climate change," said Marta Umbert, Post-Doctoral Marie-Curie Sklodowska Researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM-CSIC) in Barcelona. "Since 2010, our institute has been installing temperature and salinity sensors in racing boats of Spanish and French skippers to gather crucial information to analyse ocean dynamics," she added.

"In the last edition of The Ocean Race, I sailed with Team Malizia and we collected valuable ocean data 24/7 as we sailed through some of the most remote parts of the ocean. In fact, over the last year, I spent over 150 days on the ocean and I feel very grateful: it is a remarkable place, so powerful but at the same time so fragile," said Rosalin Kuiper, the skipper of Team Holcim-PRB. "Being out on the ocean and changing the water filters every day yourself, it also changes you and makes you realise how important this work is. I'm very motivated to continue this work with Team Holcim-PRB to make a difference in ocean preservation."

Cornelius Eich, Board Member German Ocean Decade Committee and Head of sustainability and partnerships at Team Malizia, said: "As Team Malizia we are driven by our 'A Race We Must Win - Climate Action Now!' mission, which has led us to being a front-running team in terms of combining sailing, science, education and projects on innovative solutions with our partners. We were one of the first teams to install an OceanPack to measure sea-surface CO2 data and have deployed many instruments from onboard our Malizia - Seaexplorer race yacht. It is great to see that within the IMOCA class and particularly amongst The Ocean Race teams, we are all becoming more and more 'sea explorers'," he added.

Speaking about the importance of scientific data from racing boats, Antje Boetius, Director of the Alfred Wegener Institute, stressed: "Knowledge connects us to the ocean and thus our future: understanding the ocean's role in climate change, where pollution comes from, what lives in the sea around us is critical for policy making, for economy, for health. Partnerships with sailing teams is a great way to fill the many gaps we have. This is the time to work together for more knowledge....and sail into the future."

Among the participants were also Haakon Vatle, Director of the Statsraad Lehmkuhl Foundation & Expedition Leader for One Ocean Expedition and Claire Vayer, Sustainability & Partnerships, IMOCA.

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