Polar Race 2005

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Communications and Website - Polar Race 2003

Gary Walker writes:

This is my fourth adventure with Jock, it all started when I was a crew member on the world record breaking circumnavigation of the world in a powerboat - the Cable and Wireless Adventurer. Having caught the "adventure bug", I then became the lead skipper on the boats supporting a record-breaking row by top British oarsmen from Westminster Bridge to the Eiffel Tower. My last trip was going out to South Georgia in Antarctica and doing the communications when a group, including Jock, retraced Shackleton's footsteps across South Georgia. My background is computer software where I founded with six other people the British software company Data Connection.

Gary Walker - Polar Race 2003 communications expert

The Control Centre is based in South Camp Inn in Resolute Bay and the owner, who is also the Mayor of Resolute, Mr Aziz "Ossie" Kheraj has provided tremendous support and given us excellent accommodation. In the Control Centre, we have two laptops connected via an Ethernet LAN to each other and the Internet. In addition we have a printer and a large capacity backup drive (2Gb Jaz drive).

We have the ability to load digital pictures from a variety of different cameras onto the laptops for editing, processing and sending back to the UK. We can also process digital video. There are landlines to our desk plus a satellite phone. Each team has an Iridium satellite phone and this is the main means of communicating between the teams and the Control Centre. At each checkpoint there is a team, which also has a satellite phone and an HF radio system. The satellite phones have worked well but the HF has been less reliable being very weather and location dependent.

As well as organising and managing this set of facilities, safety for the teams is very important and I have trained the teams on the use of GPS (Global Positioning System) where each racer has a Garmin eTrex GPS. Each racer has a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) which is registered with the authorities and, in an emergency, can locate them via signals sent to orbiting satellites. By connecting their GPS to the PLBs, the position of the racers in an emergency can be identified to within metres. The local Search and Rescue facilities are located at Trenton and we have liaised with them on this aspect of safety for the race.

Before coming out here, many people found it difficult to believe that managing the communications and maintaining the website would be a busy job. I had no such reservations; my previous experience led me to believe that I would struggle to find time to do anything else and I have been proved correct.

An idea of a day at the control desk is as follows:

I start about 6am fitting in breakfast around seven and usually half an hour on the exercise bike. Back in the UK, I usually play both tennis and squash at least once a week and so the lack of exercise here is a real issue for me.

However, the morning typically has the following pattern.

  • We are getting about twenty emails a day and this takes the first couple of hours. They include feedback from Paul Theobald who is maintaining our website in the UK, press enquiries which I endeavour to pass to Jock, messages for the racers from friends.
  • I then try to discipline myself to keep up to date with housekeeping (e.g. backups, etc.)
  • We usually have an organiser session about 10am to ensure we all know what needs to be done today or over the next few days. This covers
    • logistics re-supply etc
    • re evaluate arrival time at checkpoints of the teams
    • when we will need flights to go out to the checkpoint teams.
  • When a flight goes to a checkpoint, I usually try to go as well as it is great fun. I may not be walking to the Mag. Pole but I will have been to a few places on the way. Also it is planned that I go to the finish, so I will be able to say that I have been to the Magnetic North Pole. Jock told me this morning that a thousand people have climbed Everest, I wonder how many have been to the pole.

Lunch is at 12 noon, the food here is excellent and meal times seem to come around every few minutes. Having had some sustenance, I get down to the afternoon's jobs.

  • A vital element is to prepare for the scheduled calls with the racers and the checkpoint team, this involves listing all questions and instructions that we have for them.
  • I try to cajole someone, usually Jock, to do some text for the daily web update.
  • Editing and processing any video clips and pictures to send to the web is done in between other tasks. This is one of the most time consuming tasks imaginable.
  • During the afternoon I will also get the latest weather forecast, so far we have been very fortunate with the weather. Jock and I assess the implications for
    • the racers and the miles per day that we think they will cover,
    • getting the plane in/out for re-supply and moving the checkpoint team from one position to another.
  • A major task is preparing material to go back to the UK to update the website the following day. Although the final work cannot be done until after the calls in the evening, the structure and content can be sorted out in advance.

Gary Walker in the Polar Race Control Centre

I try and find an hour or two in the afternoon to read a book (I am on my fourth one since we left the UK) or have a "siesta" before the evening's activities start.

  • The scheduled calls run from 2030 until 2145 and in each call we get their latest position (this is always first for safety reasons), how they are, we give them a weather update, any messages from them, any messages from us, then there is an opportunity for any messages to/from family.
  • After the calls we mark the latest positions on the chart on the back wall of the Control Centre. This gives us a constant "visual" of where all the teams are.
  • Then starts a couple of hours of activity when I need to
    • update the daily team status (miles covered today, miles to next checkpoint, miles to finish); I use my navigation software to do the calculations for me
    • finish the text for the web update and add any extra pictures
    • collate high quality pictures for the press download area
    • transmit all the above to the UK.

I usually close down the control desk for the night typically around 11:30pm and take the Iridium phone up to my room in case there is an emergency during the night.

Given the time difference to the UK, all the material for the website arrives in the UK about 6am. Paul Theobald uploads the material to the website so that it is available for the start of the UK day. It has to be said here that Paul has done an outstanding job with the website. It is kept up to date on a daily basis and I can rely on Paul to check all the material I send. We have received many compliments about the quality of the website and this is due in large measure to Paul's efforts.

Paul Theobald

The above is the normal day, however no day is actually normal and the above schedule is totally flexible as we react to circumstances such as the emergency medical flight for Richard Dunwoody or the PLB alert with the local Mounties. One of the great things here in Resolute is the interest and help shown by everyone. There is a constant stream of people who come into South Camp Inn and ask about the race; they always have helpful advice and stories to tell from their own experiences. There are some real characters out here.

Gary Walker, Polar Race 2003
30 April 2022

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