The Amateur Sailor’s Guardian Angel
'Every year Herb's words of advice help save dozens of boats from disaster'
About 150 miles off New York City, in rising seas, we made the scheduled mid-afternoon radio call to Herb Hilgenberg, ace weather advisor and human lifeline to many North Atlantic sailors. Through static, Herb offered greetings, and then our skipper sheepishly provided our co-ordinates, knowing what was to come-admonishment.
We had ignored Herb's recommended entry point for the Gulf Stream, and Herb was ticked. After all, he had more than 50 other boats at sea awaiting his directions and more than happy to follow them.
"A gale is coming, and you're going to hit it," Herb said, irritated, and he was right.
Herb almost always is right, which is precisely why, during the past two decades, thousands of North Atlantic sailors have taken advantage of the customized, daily weather reports of this amazing Canadian. His advice, free of charge, has been a godsend for many small crafts. He lives outside Toronto, but is known to sailing enthusiasts across the Atlantic provinces-particularly those who head out into the North Atlantic for long cruises. Every year, Coast Guard officials say, Herb's words of advice help save dozens of boats from disaster.
When we contacted Herb that summer afternoon two years ago, we were traveling from Maine to the Azores in a 36-foot yawl, and were receiving guidance from a forecasting business in New England and from downloaded weather maps. We had been using Herb's cautious advice but not exactly following it. Herb had suggested two days earlier that we head farther south before entering the Gulf Stream to avoid the full force of harsh weather from the southwest.
Herb is a legend in sailing circles. His respect for storms at sea comes from ocean racing, cruising and his own brush with disaster in 1982. In November of that year, he and his family had set sail from North Carolina on South Bound II, their 39-foot cutter. They left with reports of fair weather and 15-knot winds. But within a day of departure, winds reached 35 knots and storm clouds appeared; and within two days, they were battling 60-knot winds and 35-foot seas. For five days the family endured the gale (Herb fracturing an arm during the ordeal) before finally limping into the Virgin Islands.
The weather reports Herb was receiving 27 years ago on his short-wave AM radio were sketchy at best and misleading at worst, and Herb was troubled enough by the experience to begin his own study of ocean weather patterns and to broadcast his findings gratis to fellow sailors. He practised this hobby from his home in Bermuda, where he was, by day, a corporate executive, and then in Ontario, where the family moved in 1994.
"I know what it is like when the weather is bad," says Herb.
At 72, Herb Hilgenberg has retired from the business world but is still going strong with his forecasts, spending full days in summer in his tiny home office with computers, marine radios, printers, fax machines, microphones, a telephone and two large back-up batteries under his desk.
With data from weather satellites and other sources, he considers currents, wind patterns and frontal systems, and offers his analyses to small craft far out at sea. "The final decision is always the skipper's," he says. "All I can do is provide guidance as to what I think is a safe course." But, he admits, "I can become frustrated if I develop a forecast, and the boat heads in a totally different direction putting it into possibly dangerous weather."
At sea, sailors eagerly await his forecasts. When it's their turn, Herb asks boats for their positions and for weather observations, such as wave height and wind direction and velocity. "I use this information to verify my own calculations," he explains.
My interview with Herb took place on a late January day this year, during what Herb termed the "slow season," but there was nothing 'slow' about that day. Herb was working with the Coast Guard in Barbados, hoping to locate a 37-foot craft, whose skipper apparently had suffered a heart attack. Herb had lost radio contact with the boat, and he and the Coast Guard were trying to determine the direction the lone sailor might have been heading, so a search could be conducted.
Herb was advising another sailor, whose 43-foot boat was stranded 800 miles from Bermuda thanks to a jammed rudder and a bum alternator. Herb said the vessel would likely lose power and run short of water. He was working with the U.K and U.S. Coast Guard, hoping to find another vessel in the area to provide assistance.
Our own ordeal at sea paled by comparison to these two crises. But the gale did arrive, and it delivered 40-plus knot winds and 15-foot seas. We were knocked around in cockpit and cabin, and were splashed enough by a few rogue waves that we cursed the sea, and then ourselves-for not heeding Herb's prudent advice.