No one knows more about storm sailing than Skip Novak, the pioneer of high-latitudes charters in Pelagic. In the first of an exclusive 12-month series of articles and videos he shares the ethos behind every trip he makes

Let’s put to one side my previous life as an ocean racer. As a pioneer of the high-latitude charter in Pelagic, I have been ‘cruising’ (excuse the oxymoron) offshore south of 50°S for the last 25 years. The Southern Ocean dishes out high winds and big seas, and passages there are followed by seat-of-the-pants inshore navigation, mainly in unsounded waters along hostile shorelines; the Antarctic Peninsula, Tierra del Fuego and the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.

Combine all this and you naturally develop tried and tested methods and approaches to storm sailing systems and equipment to stay safe and stay comfortable – in two words, to stay ‘down there’. There is no need for dramas and epics, although we’ve certainly had some, now filed as learning experiences the hard way. Over time, however, what began as conservative habits eventually evolves into something more than just procedures.

I call it the Pelagic philosophy.

From demanding to doable

This philosophy makes what appears to be a horrendously difficult, physically demanding and psychologically wearing lifestyle perfectly doable. And the years roll by, with the happy revelation that you never tire of it all. This is hard to imagine from an armchair. But if you seek out open space, true wilderness and a sense of accomplishment that sets you apart – and I admit to that indulgence – then high-latitude sailing is for you.

I have been accused of many things. A dissatisfied client once told his friends I was running a boot camp instead of a charter business – something to do with force-marching the guests up the nearest mountain before dinner in every anchorage.

Also, I know well that I have been considered a Luddite of sorts, who is immune to the gadget trade; possibly some kind of primitive throwback simply because I still enjoy wailing away on manual winches and pulling on ropes – exerting myself for the hell of it, when I could be pushing buttons like so many do these days.

The beauty of simplicity

However, there is method in my apparent madness. The Pelagic philosophy has always been one of simplicity of systems and a belt-and-braces approach to all things on board. OK, so it might be a little less so now, but it certainly was when it evolved two decades ago, when we were based from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego and lived and worked in an environment with no marine services let alone spares readily available.

The nearest yachting centre was Buenos Aires 1,000 miles away. Communication was by telex and a tenuous and expensive phone link to the mainland. I didn’t see the first fax machine in Ushuaia until 1993 (and that was owned by a predatory shipping agent who tried to charge US$100 a page). Courier services were unreliable and Customs in places like Argentina was so draconian that if any shipment did reach you, it was best to cross your chest as it was almost divine intervention. Basically, we were on our own.

Some crews call it Luddite, but gear on Pelagic is there for necessity not for convenience

Some crews call it Luddite, but gear on Pelagic is there for necessity not for convenience

Aside from the ability to communicate via email on- and offshore, this situation has not changed much today, so the following observations remain valid for anyone embarking on a remote cruise, at least in that southern South American sector. I would also add that some of these frustrations and inconveniences had their charming side too!

Every cruising sailor should ask themselves two things before they embark on a long-term voyage. Am I cruising to see places and have experiences? Or am I cruising to fiddle around with my over-elaborated boat? Be honest.

There’s no harm in the latter – it can be a hobby turned into lifestyle. But if you take this tack it’s best to sail close to the marine service centres of the world – unless, that is, you happen to be either an ex-Royal Navy engineer or a tech geek who is happy to remain dockside for extended periods in the middle of nowhere fixing things.

Of course, the genre of larger yachts of the superyacht category operate within entirely different circumstances. (Similarly, a distinction must be made between them and the couple on a 40- to 100-footer or those on professionally crewed family cruisers.) Because of their size and unwieldy sail plans, superyachts can only be managed by sophisticated systems supported by maintenance contracts.

The crunch question: are you cruising to see the world or to fiddle on the boat?

The crunch question: are you cruising to see the world or to fiddle on the boat?

As an example, most captains and crews are not trusted (nor allowed) to tune their own rigs because they usually come under a maintenance contract with the mastmaker. Therefore, superyachts and their particular tribulations are not within the scope of this series.

A cruising ethos

But if seeing the world is your mission, with your boat merely a means to an end (and especially if you want to go remote, whether in the tropics or high latitudes), you need to think your modi operandi out clearly. The climber/surfer/entrepreneur Yvonne Chounaird, who founded and still owns Patagonia, has a great take on this: “Consider every piece of technology that comes your way. Take what is absolutely necessary and discard the rest.” He was talking about a certain quality of life, but the mindset can apply to any application.

It’s an attitude at once anathema to designers, builders, equipment suppliers – many of whom who have done little or no cruising – and most of the people who read and support this magazine. It is a brave editor even to publish the heresy in these pages. But there is a place for gadgets, innovation, experimentation and pushing the limits – it is the Mediterranean, northern Europe, US and the city centres of Australasia. Because this approach costs in money as much as lost cruising time.

Time and time again I witnessed yachts dock-bound, behind schedule or missing a window completely because the mainsail wouldn’t disappear into the boom or mast (or come back out). Or they were waiting for parts for a system that wasn’t fundamental to the cruise, more a convenience.

Boots and buckets

Naturally, if you have a garbage compacter or washing machine you expect it to work and it is frustrating when it doesn’t. Yet I am always incredulous when I see departures delayed or scrubbed when, to use the examples above, a booted foot in a plastic bag and a bucket will do the jobs nicely.

In this series my crew and I on Pelagic will demonstrate some manoeuvres that many of you have done ad infinitum. We will also look at some equipping issues. You may consider some of these comments and observations somewhat oversimplified and retro. So be it. I find at sea I am continually learning, but also continually unlearning what doesn’t work.

To get from A to B in one piece and be able to enjoy what B has to offer is the thing. Sticking to first principles works every time. My advice: simplify your boat, its systems and your mindset. It can be a liberating experience.

Part 2: expedition yacht design

Skip Novak gives us a tour of Pelagic and Pelagic Australis to show what makes them special for high-latitudes sailing.


12-part series in association with Pantaenius


You can subscribe to the whole series for the year.