Walking the Plank: Skip Novak - Soundings Online

Walking the Plank: Skip Novak

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Skip Novak is a racing and adventure legend. He participated in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race four times, beginning in 1977, when he navigated the British cutter Kings Legend to a second-place finish at the age of 25. He skippered Independent Endeavour in 1979 to win the Parmelia Race from Plymouth, England, to Fremantle, Australia, and helmed Simon Le Bon’s Drum in the 1985/86 Whitbread, coming in third.

Photo by Jim Raycroft.

In 1997 Novak navigated the French catamaran Explorer to a record in the Transpac Race, and in 1998 he co-skippered Explorer with Bruno Peyron, breaking the sailing record from Yokohama, Japan, to San Francisco. Novak co-skippered the 33-meter French catamaran Innovation Explorer in 2001 to a second place finish in the non-stop, no-limits circumnavigation called The Race.

Novak embarked on a second career of high-latitude adventures in 1987, building the 54-foot expedition yacht Pelagic. He has spent every season since in Antarctic waters, where he combines his love of mountaineering and sailing by leading adventures from Pelagic and Pelagic Australis, a 74-foot sailing expedition vessel.

His voyaging to the high latitudes has been recognized by the Cruising Club of America, which awarded Novak its Blue Water Medal in 2015, and by the U.K.’s Royal Cruising Club, which presented Novak with the Bill Tilman medal in 2016.

First memory of being on a boat: My first memory of being afloat was on a fishing trip with my parents on a lake in Canada. First sail would have been on my dad’s 22 Square Meter in Chicago. My racing career started in Lehman 10 dinghies in Belmont Harbor [Chicago] and then Blue Jays, well before the days of planing hulls!

First boat you owned: It was a Mobjack dinghy that we kept on a mooring in Belmont Harbor at the Chicago Yacht Club. Sadly, while skipping a day at school, I capsized with a friend on board during a squall, and before we could right it we washed ashore on the rocks. The Mobjack was a write-off! My first and only shipwreck.

Last or current boat: The Pelagic fleet — my expedition friends call me the Commodore — consists of the 54-foot Pelagic, a home-built steel sloop, and the Pelagic Australis, a 74-foot aluminum sloop. Both boats are engaged in expedition charter in the far south. I also have a Laser and a fleet of kayaks.

Favorite boat you’ve owned: My trouble-free Laser. There is a lot to be said for single-handing!

Your dream boat: A new Pelagic design — a 56-foot family expedition cruiser. This is a work in progress. My retirement plan is to cruise the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

Most rewarding sailing experience: From a racing perspective it has to be my first Whitbread Round the World Race in 1977/78. I was the navigator at the age of 25, getting us around the world by sextant and timepiece. We came in second. Cruising, it is all about running the Pelagic business, taking many people over the years to experience high latitude adventure sailing.

Scariest adventure aboard: The capsize of Drum in the 1985 Fastnet Race, when the keel fell off, was certainly the most frightening. The panic only lasted a few seconds, when I realized I would survive, struggling out of the flooded companionway when the boat was at 90 degrees. By the time the hull had inverted I was in the water and clear. However, a deep anxiety followed for some time, until we verified that all 24 crew were either outside or still trapped inside. A head count was confused, and I was convinced we had lost at least one. But the guy doing the counting forgot to count himself! Those inside were swum out by a rescue diver, and we were all high-lined up by helicopter.

Most memorable experience aboard: Rounding Cape Horn in the 1977/78 Whitbread Race. After five days with no sights, I managed to grab a few sun lines the day before the rounding and adjusted our position, which was substantially out by dead reckoning. We rounded in a gale at night with a poled-out Yankee. Surprisingly, a light appeared astern, and a French competitor, 33 Export, overhauled us just east of the Horn. We were beam-to-beam and so close we could shout at each other. Arguably a reckless maneuver, we hoisted the “chicken chute” and left him in our wake. Hanging over my mantelpiece is the photo they took of us in the dawn light.

Longest time you’ve spent at sea without setting foot on land: In 2001 I sailed on a 110-foot maxi catamaran in The Race — a millennium event. We were 64 days nonstop from Barcelona [Spain] to Marseille [France]. Once in a routine you can pretty much sail on forever, but the freeze-dried food and supplements were getting a bit old.

Favorite destination so far: South Georgia. From a sailor’s and mountaineer’s perspective, it has all the elements of a grand adventure. I return almost annually in the late winter/early spring, which is our first charter of the season and usually involves a climbing project.

Favorite nautical book: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. I never get tired of rereading this adventure of friends navigating up the Thames River. I can relate to every mishap, and they have many.

Favorite nautical cause you support and why: Jubilee Sailing Trust in the U.K. owns two square-rigged ships that cater for half able-bodied and half disabled crew. I sailed with the Lord Nelson to the Antarctic in 2013 as the ice pilot and expedition leader. It was one of the most satisfying adventures I have had. I am helping them again in 2018 on Tenacious for a passage from the Falkland Islands to Cape Town [South Africa] with a week’s stop in South Georgia.

Favorite quote about the sea: “To be truly challenging, a voyage, like life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea — ‘cruising’ it is called.” — Sterling Hayden

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue.