HERB HILGENBERG: Is His Advice Too Conservative?

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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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20 Responses
  1. Great observations and I couldn’t agree more. I consistently listen to Herb and Chris and do not ask for advice.

    Given that I have an SSB and Pactor modem I have access to weatherfaxes, written forecasts and GRIB files. After studying these, Herb or Chris occasionally mention “features” I missed.

    I confess that I haven’t listened to Herb in a few years, thinking he retired. Guess I will tune him in again.

  2. Great post, Charlie. While I have every respect for Herb, we stopped using him about 15 years ago for the same reasons that Carter did: We were getting stuck in the high latitudes and missing opportunities.

    I also agree whole heartedly with the idea that voyagers are relying on weather routers far too much. In fact I have written about this several times: http://www.morganscloud.com/2008/05/01/weather-routing-and-the-skippers-responsibility/ and http://www.morganscloud.com/2009/10/18/heavy-weather-in-the-gulfstream/

    This summer, during out 10,000 mile voyage to the Arctic and back, I

  3. Charlie

    Response to John below: Good to see you here! Thanks for coming by. And thanks for sharing those great links. Check ’em out, people! John knows what he’s talking about.

  4. Re SNORRi Facts

    Snorri made their first attempt to cross
    the David’s Straight in August of 1997
    I responded to their Mayday call, when the rudder damaged the stern structure and they took on water.I contacted JRCC Halifax who dispatched an ice braker while I kept the Coast Guard updated re Snorri’s position, until rescued at midnight.

    I declined to continue to offer my service in 1998 while they were at anchor, after Snorri broke communications for two consecutive days, as it is crucial to be updated with conditions changing in less than 24 hours, in these northern latitudes.
    Snorri did maintain contact with me for dailyupdates until they arrive in Labrador.
    —————————————–

    RE: SEA MIST and your quote in Cruising
    World’s blog of Nov.11 to follow

  5. RE: SEA MIST and your quote in Cruising
    World’s blog of Nov.11

    In reference to the SEA MIST leaving last
    Sunday as stated above, that would be Sunday October Oct 30. At that time a developing gale center rapidly tracked from the Abacos, Bahamas, in a northeast direction passing Cape Hatteras and hitting the starting NARC Rally early Tuesday morning, November 1st.A new gale moved off the North Carolina Coast late Novemver 4th and headed in a southeast
    direction to near 29N,69W became sub-tropical and then Tropical Storm SEAN on November 8th.
    Two different systems 4 days apart

  6. Charlie

    Response to Herb below: Thanks for stopping by and sharing that information about Snorri. I’m afraid I don’t understand the Sea Mist reference and wonder whether you’ve confused my Nov. 11 blog post with something else posted by Cruising World.

  7. John MacDougall

    Charles, et al,
    Although I am NOT new to offshore sailing & weather, grown-up cruising as a kid in the 60’s, making many offshore passages over the years, incl. many
    Atlantic crossings (first Atl cros was well before the days of GPS, etc. 30+
    years ago, and my latest few Atl. crossings were just 4 yrs ago, skippering my current 47′ sloop), but I AM new to blogs, etc. & while I’ve contributed much on SSCA disc boards, & on our own Catalina C470 disc list, this is my FIRST ever comment on a blog, so please excuse any mistakes on my part.

  8. John MacDougall

    Charles, et al,

    I’ve chck’d-in to Herb’s Net & used his weather frcst and guidance, while
    making Atl. cross, and maybe some sailors may have forgotten one of the
    first rules of being a master of their vessel, “everything on-board is THEIR
    responsibility & no one elses”, not to mention both good seamanship & advice
    plainly displayed by Herb on his website & repeated by him on the air to “make your own choices” and use other wx sources.
    John,
    s/v Annie Laurie

  9. John MacDougall

    Charles,
    To be clear, in my opinion, Herb is not a “weather God”, and I’ve never heard anyone refer to him as one! He’s just a very experienced amateur ocean weather forecaster, with a great nack/talent for small-scale fscts!

    I do not understand why some ignore Herb’s plainly displayed (on his website) and often repeated on-air advice to “make your own choices” and use other wx sources, but that is no fault of his.

    He clearly states (in BOLD type) on his website the following:
    “NOTE: It is recommended that mariners on the High Seas regularly monitor
    marine text and voice forecasts as issued by the U.S. National Weather
    Service, the NHC and CFH Halifax for the Atlantic areas via Coast Guard or
    public broadcast stations. Computer generated facsimile charts and grib
    files downloaded via HF e-mail or satellite should be used with caution as
    they are unedited and based usually on only one model.”
    John
    s/v Annie Laurie

  10. John MacDougall

    Charles, et al,
    Again, please forgive me if I rambled on too long!
    It’s just that the subject of responsibility (especially of a vessel’s captain, on the high seas), is one that seems to important to gloss over with mere “internet chatter”.

    Fair winds and sunny skies to all!

    John
    s/v Annie Laurie

  11. John MacDougall

    Charles,
    I did leave out one VERY important
    point….

    That is, I AGREE with you that Herb’s advice IS usually too conservative!!
    But, if the vessel’s captain tells him so, and informs him that they (the
    vessel’s crew) are indeed looking for higher winds, etc. then Herb DOES
    respond in-kind.
    I KNOW this first-hand, as that has been what I have done, and have heard
    others on the air, do as well….

    And, I’m left wondering if those being overly critical are not giving enough
    (any) info to Herb??? and/or are those “listening in” but not
    “checking-in”??
    I’m not sure, you tell me.

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

    John
    s/v Annie Laurie

  12. Charlie

    @John: Responding to your last comment (#11), that’s an important point. But only more experienced sailors will be inclined to ask to sail in stronger wind. Inexperienced sailors need to know Herb’s opinion is just that… an opinion. Too many think it is gospel. And I don’t mean to criticize Herb. I just think people, particularly the inexperienced ones, need to know there is bias in what he says.

  13. Jim Gregory

    Why is it that in all of the reading that I have done on this site and others, nobody is talking about why the NARC was advised to leave Newport when they did?? Who was providing weather advice at that time?? It seams to me that if the fleet had been talking to Herb while sitting in Newport, then his “conservative advice” would have been a lifesaver and he’d be getting nothing but positive press at this point. I arrived in Bermuda (from Newport) a few days before the NARC boats. The weather info was freely available, those boats should hot have been sent when they were.

  14. HL DeVore

    I have just stumbled upon the fact that Herb Hilgenberg is (or has at least stated) that he is no longer supporting yachts in part due to your articles and “our” lack of support for him… Why do I see no writing on your behalf directly addressing this? Obviously Herb could not continue on forever but… I’m reading on to discover more…

  15. Charlie Doane

    Hi HL: (in response to #14)

    Just visited Herb’s site and I don’t see where it says he’s not supporting yachts anymore. Previously his site stated he wouldn’t support yachts in rallies anymore, but now that’s gone.

    I see he’s not working his net for much of August, but I assume he’s going on vacation.

    charlie

  16. HL DeVore

    As far as I’m concerned you and Hank Schmitt owe Herb Helgenberg one very large apology. Quoting Hank as saying “Herb really blew it” and he was “a fount of bad advice”… is just very hard to comprehend and diminishes you, your websites and organizations in my eyes.

  17. Jim Gregory

    I was disappointed to read today that Herb Hildenberg has officially retired.

    Sadly, it seems that the events/press surrounding the 2011 NARC rally greatly influenced his decision.

    In 2011 as half the NARC boats were still struggling offshore, I sat in the Bermuda Yacht Services Crew Lounge listening to the NARC organizers throwing Herb under the bus. It was wrong then and seems more so now.

    It appears they succeeded in shifting the focus away from the Rally’s decision to leave Newport when it did.

    The NARC Rally had its own forecaster. Why target Herb who was only trying to help after the boats were already in the wrong place??

    Where were the blog posts and articles questioning the NARC’s decisions to depart??

    Was there a schedule influencing decisions?

    “The most dangerous thing to have on a cruising boat is a calendar!”

  18. Charlie

    @Jim: Of course there was a schedule that influenced the NARC’s departure from Newport! It’s a rally, and every rally sails to a schedule. I saw the forecast the NARC organizers decided to depart on. Not great, but it wasn’t a no-go forecast. They basically had to go then or wait maybe two weeks, which isn’t realistic in a rally. Perfect WX windows to Bermuda in the fall are very rare. If you re-read my post about Herb, you’ll see it is not overly harsh or critical. I did think it was time that someone wrote publicly what many experienced skippers had been saying privately about Herb for years–his routing advice is often too conservative to be useful. Inexperienced people need to understand that.

    As for Herb retiring, he was getting set to do that anyway, as he had announced on his site prior to the Triple Stars incident. That he has now chosen to blame it all on me, suggests to me his motivations have not been entirely altruistic.

  19. eric Freedman

    I am very saddened to hear of Herbs retiring. I have used his services for over 20 years and I have always found him to be my guardian angel, including getting me through hurricane conditions of over 36 hours. He has routed me flawlessly from the coast of Africa to the Caribbean and about another 45,000 sea miles.
    I happened to be in contact with Triple Stars before they crossed the gulf stream and they seemed a little confused about sailing in general.

    During the Narc Rally which had nothing to do with Herb, I followed his instructions to the letter and sailed quite east and arrived flawlessly in St Martin a week ahead of the NARC rally.

    I would much rather have been at sea than facing 40-50 knots in St Georges Bermuda.

    How can one even think of attributing Herbs advice to someone being lost due to a novice error of not clipping in.

    I will miss you my guardian angel.
    Thank you for all the years tireless help and service
    Eric

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