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HERB HILGENBERG: Is His Advice Too Conservative?

Herb Hilgenberg

For some sailors this is simply a rhetorical question, but to many others it may seem like heresy. It is, however, a question worth discussing given recent events in this year's NARC rally. It should also help put some comments made by NARC rally organizer Hank Schmitt, which I published earlier here on WaveTrain, into a larger, more useful context.

Let's start by noting that Herb is, without doubt, one of the more reliable weather forecasters working the North Atlantic. Though he is a self-taught amateur, his forecasts often prove more accurate than those generated by NOAA and are certainly more detailed. This is due in part to the fact that he has access to more real-time data than other forecasters, thanks to his oceanwide SSB radio net, in which many different boats provide him with reliable observation information in exchange for forecasts and routing advice. He is also knowledgable and expert at analyzing weather data from the perspective of a cruising sailor.

It should go without saying that Herb is also very dedicated. He has worked tirelessly on a volunteer basis since 1987 to provide forecasts and routing advice to anyone who asks for it. He has earned--and certainly deserves--the gratitude of the bluewater sailing community.

Because of his enormous reputation, many neophyte ocean sailors who decide to tackle the North Atlantic believe that advice from Herb is an essential commodity. Many such sailors are very dependent on him and will not consider making any move he has not sanctioned. These people all confab amongst themselves in popular harbors and anchorages in what amounts to a continuous feedback loop, perpetually reinforcing the notion that Herb is some kind of weather god, and are generally oblivious to the fact that many other more experienced sailors have an entirely different opinion of him.

It is no big secret among those who sail the North Atlantic on a routine basis that Herb's weather forecasts are considerably more valuable than his routing advice. Some delivery skippers I've sailed with join his net so as to receive the forecasts, but always reject the routing advice. Others prefer not to join the net, but do listen to forecasts for other participating boats that are in their vicinity. Many ignore Herb altogether.

For a fairly objective view of what it can be like working with Herb, I urge you to take a look at Hodding Carter's very entertaining book, A Viking Voyage, which describes Hodding's recreation of Leif Ericsson's voyage from Greenland to Newfoundland aboard a replica Viking ship.

A Viking Voyage cover

Hodding, who initially relied solely on Herb for routing advice, spent many days in Greenland waiting for a weather window to cross the Davis Strait to Labrador. Eventually, he realized he might have to ignore Herb in order to complete the voyage:

Personally, I was most irritated by this guy Herb. Our reliance on him was troubling me. We were going nowhere because of his warnings. Was he right? Suddenly I realized that we were being dictated to by him--not by our wits or our guts or even our whims. How had this come about? This was just the kind of thing I had never wanted to have happen.

That night Herb told us we could not leave for several days--a low was building to the south and gale-force winds would interrupt our crossing.

The gale never materialized where we were and was not even evident on the weather charts. A few days later Herb told us we might be able to go in a day, but when the next day came and we were taking down the tarp and readying ourselves to begin the crossing, he advised us not to go. I could see every last one of the crew sink into despair.

Finally, after several more days passed, things came to a head for Hodding and company:

That evening Herb told us once again we could not go. He was also mad that we had not stayed in constant radio or e-mail contact. Herb had a history of taking things personally with us, but what did he expect? We were, after all, on a Viking ship. This time, though, he suggested we should consult the services of a professional weather advisor, saying he was too frustrated with us. Either way, it appeared we had more waiting to do.

The next morning, Michael Carr, a professional weather advisor, sent us an unsolicited e-mail, essentially asking what the hell we were doing sitting on our butts when we had great crossing conditions right in front of us.

"Huh?" we responded.

He explained that we might get slightly hammered in about a week but even that looked doubtful.

I instantly wanted to go with Michael's advice. Terry was a little more hesitant but seemed to be leaning that way as well. It was August 4, and we had been waiting for thirteen days since leaving Sisimiut. We had more than twelve hundred miles to go.

We took off at three-twenty that afternoon, rowing in a soupy fog. It was a liberating feeling to shed restraint and go simply because we were willing to take a chance. We all knew that Michael's report could easily be as incorrect as Herb's, but Carr's query shook us from our fear-induced torpor.

Snorri arrives in Labrador

This sort of experience is not unusual. Granted, crossing the Davis Strait in an open vessel powered only by a square sail and oars is a bit ambitious. But it's fair to say that Herb's advice to more pedestrian voyagers sometimes leads to passages being delayed and/or taking much longer than is necessary. Just yesterday, for example, Andy Schell, a member of the World Cruising Club staff, mentioned to me in an e-mail exchange that there were two boats advised by Herb in last year's ARC Europe rally that sailed over 1,000 miles between Chesapeake Bay and Bermuda to avoid a weather system that never generated more than 30 knots of wind.

Is this in itself a bad thing?

It most certainly is not. Herb probably is more conservative than most other weather-routers, but all weather-routers are--and should be--inherently conservative. Whether they're getting paid or not, they can't help but feel responsible for their clients, and a big part of their job, as they see it, is making sure those clients understand just how bad things might get on any given passage.

Such knowledge, of course, tends to inspire fear. I remember the first time I took advice from a router for a fall passage from New England to Bermuda, a trip I'd made several times before, I ended up behaving much more cautiously than I would have interpreting weather on my own. My router did an excellent job of describing to me (in almost pornographic detail, it seemed) the potential downside of any aggressive course of action I proposed to take.

Routers do provide a useful service, but it is not good when sailors become too dependent on them. This, I'm afraid, is increasingly common. Too many sailors these days believe that hiring a weather-router or joining a rally or bringing some professional crew aboard provides some kind of insurance, as though the risk they are taking can be hedged or transferred to others.

These people are deluding themselves. If you are acting as the skipper of your boat, you have to understand that you are solely responsible for its fate and cannot transfer that burden to anyone else. That is, you are the god. If you are unwilling to bear the responsibility and feel you must ask someone like Herb to be god for you, then you should not be out there.

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