How rugged Dell PCs help Clipper Race ships sail rough seas

Our day-to-day gadgets would never survive the Clipper Race, an 11-month race around the world, following the routes Clipper ships took for trade between countries. That is 11 months where the crew is subjected to ridiculous temperatures on both ends of the scale, winds capable of sending folks tumbling out of their bunk beds (and into the sea), and of course more than a little bit of water and salt and debris. It's an intense environment, to say the least, and having reliable hardware onboard is critical.

Technology is important for accurate navigation, capturing video of intense moments on deck, and staying in contact with the rest of the world, so Dell offered its Rugged Extreme line to the ships in the race, in part to show off just how capable its rugged laptops and tablets can be. I was invited to take a look inside the Qingdao, which at the time of this writing occupies second place in the Clipper Race, to see how this rugged tech has survived the journey so far.

More than 20 people living on a 70-foot yacht

Living on a Clipper 70, for either a single leg of the race or for the entire trip around the globe, is a commitment. You work constantly with your crew, sharing impossibly small living, dining and bathroom spaces below deck when you aren't working above. Some of these ships include fresh water showers, while others like the Qingdao choose to not spend the power needed to convert the salt water so you bathe bucket-style. Crawling around inside this ship today with fewer than 10 people, the concept of living for weeks at a time in these spaces seems impossible.

A big part of what mentally anchors these people, most of whom are not professional sailors but instead doctors and teachers and "ordinary" people with a few weeks of training, is access to the rest of the world. Some of the legs of this race are crossing an ocean, where you are thousands of miles from assistance if you need it, and access to the internet between these 20 or more people is limited to the time when a satellite is overhead.

With a connection barely fast enough to send a few emails, most of the people share a laptop. On many of these ships, that laptop is a Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme (7214). The ability to use this 2-in-1 as a laptop or a tablet makes taking photos to share with family much easier, and it is built to survive the environments this ship is subjected to.

See Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme at Dell

Some crew members also have access to personal laptops, which frequently end up being either the 12-inch version of the Rugged Extreme (7214) or the Surface-like Latitude Rugged Extreme Tablet (7212).

These PCs are designed to take abuse, and everyone we spoke to on the crew said they are holding up even better than expected. According to Dell, that has a lot to do with the way its rugged computers are tested. While they are tested to the MIL-810g military durability spec and promise an IP85 rating for dust and water resitance, Dell pushes its hardware much further in its own testing. Dell calls it "testing to failure" and its internal process includes continuously upping the stakes in damage testing, well beyond the minimum requirements for any one spec, until the computer eventually fails in some spectacular fashion. This kind of testing gives the Qingdao crew members some peace of mind.

The tech of modern sailing

As impressive and important as it is to offer these people the ability to stay in touch with friends and family, or in some cases even continue to conduct business while on a yacht for weeks, rugged computers also help power vital systems on the ship. Chris Kobusch, Skipper of the Qingdao and one of the only actual professional sailors among the crew, offered a tour of how much of that tech works. The bay right next to his bunk houses an impressive collection of monitors, sensors, and tools for keeping the ship on course.

To the left, the team laptop sits ready to be used by whoever is ready to take their turn. To the right, Chris has access to an above-deck camera system and GPS-powered navigation tools to plot a course and communicate when necessary. These systems are powered by a separate Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme (7414) laptop, which is tucked away behind the monitor in an enclosed space. That means however hot it is on the rest of the ship, it is likely to be way hotter in that box. A pair of desktop PC-sized fans sit on either side of the door to help with ventilation, but even with that little bit of air flow, the computer is subjected to some extreme temperatures during parts of the race.

The ability to access the above-deck cameras is particularly interesting, as it helps more with the social awareness aspect of the race than day-to-day operations. When the weather is extreme, like during a storm where all hands are needed to keep everything going according to plan, these systems can automatically record crew activity above deck and transmit it to the Clipper Race management team when it is next appropriate. This gives the race lots of footage to share of how truly dangerous the whole thing can be, which allows the ability to offer feedback for ways to better handle the next crisis and give people watching the race something to get excited about.

While it is clear the days of relying on a sextant, a traditional navigation tool, for plotting a course are long gone, that hasn't stopped Chris from keeping one right next to this room at all times. Everything that can have a form of redundancy on the ship does, and everything else is included in the training. There are people with medical training for when the worst happens, for example, and of course, people to diagnose technical problems in case any of the PC-based critical systems fail.

An endurance trial for man and machine

As cool as it is to see a real-world use for rugged computing up close and personal, the people involved in the Clipper Race are beyond inspirational. If someone walked up to you and asked if you would be interested in paying $70,000 to 80,000 to take nearly a full year off from your job so you can share a bunk on a 70-foot yacht aimed at circumnavigating the globe, I think most people would laugh. There are very few ways to describe this race that do not sound completely insane, and yet these 12 ships are full of people eager to see this journey to the end.

However, it is noteworthy just how much safer and faster these ships are when using tech, like Dell's rugged PCs, that can keep up with these environments. And in many cases, the occasional access to a computer that can send even a single email when you're so far from home must make a massive difference.

Russell Holly

Russell is a tech nerd who chases the best of everything, from phones to game consoles to laptops and everything glowing or beeping. He's the Managing Editor of gaming content for Mobile Nations and can be found contributing to all of the Mobile Nations sites. Reach out on Twitter!