To explain what is required of a tough boat for storm sailing, Skip Novak talks through his two Pelagic yachts – the original go-anywhere 54-footer and a newer 74ft pilothouse

It doesn’t require a sailor’s tutored eye to realise that Pelagic and Pelagic Australis are vastly different platforms, both in size and sophistication. However, as storm sailing expedition vessels, they fulfill essentially the same function.

To call them yachts in the classic sense would stretch the use of the word. I prefer to think of them as vehicles – a means to voyage in remote areas rather than objects in themselves. Once you accept this philosophy, things like style for style’s sake, an innovative appearance, maintenance to resolve wear and tear issues that are purely cosmestic – all of these things become somewhat irrelevant.

The Pelagics are workboats, pure and simple; built robustly for storm sailing and with complicated systems kept to a minimum. This is as much about our philosophy as it is about sailing integrity. I am continually amazed by cruisers who say they want to get away from it all, then load up the boat with the same (or more) conveniences as they would have at home.



I like to describe the original Pelagic as a boat with a history. Three partners, Phil Wade, Chuck Gates and me, all crew members from the maxi Drum in the 1985-86 Whitbread Race, hatched the idea of building an expedition cruising boat for what was essentially a time-share schedule year on year. Patrick Banfield, also on Drum, sketched his ideas in a notebook on the last leg coming up the Atlantic and agreed to design the boat gratis.

After a painful, underfunded DIY construction and a somewhat traumatic maiden delivery south for her first Antarctic expedition in autumn 1987, she was put into service and to this day remains the tried and tested junior member of the two-strong Pelagic Expeditions fleet.

Quarter century of service

She has never failed us in over 25 years of high latitude sailing. The cast of characters that have sailed with us is legion, well documented in print and in dozens of expedition films for broadcast from many countries around the world – some watchable, many embarrassing.

The fundamentals of Pelagic are her steel construction, a swing, lifting-ballast keel, swing rudder and a cutter rig. The inspiration was a string of French boats of the 1980s with swing keels, but with an unbalanced fixed rudder on a full skeg.


Jerome Poncet, who opened up the concept of habitual voyaging as a lifestyle in high southern latitudes, made these Michel Joubert designs famous with his schooner Damien II. A Damien became a generic term for any lifting-keel metal yacht around the 55ft mark.

For Pelagic we designed a more efficient hull shape with a sloop rig and a deeper balanced rudder that swung to skeg depth, always important when going shallow to escape volatile winds in anchorages and avoid drift ice in the Antarctic, not to mention to let you dry out on the tide.

Fuel is always an issue for extended projects, so we maximised the capacity by filling the bilge with fuel (in tanks, mind you). We carry 2,800lt. A crude doghouse in glassfibre was added just before launching (an afterthought, admittedly) and this was extended in Cape Town in 1992.

Flush deck with spools of polypropylene ropes for tying to shore

Flush deck with spools of polypropylene ropes for tying to shore

This was in the era well before the present trend to design a proper deckhouse first as the main living area, then plan the rest of the boat underneath it.

Up close and personal

The interior was dictated by the substantial slice of boat taken out amidships by the lifting keel, which forces the main saloon/day area/galley aft to the transom. Two double cabins are located either side of the keel case, with two singles to port forward.

Circulation is a loop around the keel case – if there is a traffic jam to port, make for the starboard side. Two sea-going pilot berths are outboard of the saloon area. She can take eight people all-up, nice and cosy, five to six in more comfort.

To be frank, this layout is in the old style of cruising where privacy is an illusion and noises and smells from the galley (and more to the point from the single head) are evident. I’ll never forget the American lady who took the walk-through tour before her trip to Tierra del Fuego. “Whaddya mean, you’ve only got one toilet?!” she demanded.

The saloon and two pilotberths are in the stern, owing to the lifting keelbox forward

The saloon and two pilotberths are in the stern, owing to the lifting keelbox forward

From the start we knew accommodation space would be compromised by expedition equipment. In any case, the tendency to push cabins well forward to increase the numbers aboard for extra income was not in our interests. It certainly wouldn’t have been in the interests of the unlucky sod who would have had to sleep there at sea. Consequently, a spacious walk-in forepeak begins just forward of the mast base and easily accommodates a workbench, our two inflatable boats, two outboards, spare ground tackle, expedition gear (dive or mountaineering equipment), plus room for fruit and veg in heavy-duty plastic boxes.

When I look at most modern yacht designs with virtually no forepeak and an excuse for a lazarette, I imagine hours of struggle, bruised fingers and endless frustration when trying to fit in all the equipment required for high latitudes. Consigning gear to the deck while passagemaking, however well lashed, is a no-no. At least it is where we sail.

Pelagic Australis at anchor in the Beagle Channel

Pelagic Australis at anchor in the Beagle Channel

Pelagic Australis

Created after 14 years of expeditions on Pelagic and with an established charter business based out of the Beagle Channel, Pelagic Australis was the culmination of all that we had learned. I came up with the concept, but she was designed by Tony Castro and I have to give him huge credit as a professional of client/designer relations; he designed what I wanted in spite of several conflicts about aesthetic considerations.

Built in a commercial shipyard in Durban, South Africa, in 2002-03, she is certified by DNV (Det Norske Veritas), is CE-marked and licensed to carry passengers for all oceans, Category 0. No expense was spared in getting the paperwork correct, as painful as it was. She is aluminium rather than steel, largely unpainted purely for cost reasons.

The main requirement to grow the charter business was more volume, but without a significant increase in numbers aboard. We can take eight charter guests in comfort plus three crew, which can be stretched under her MCA 24m rule to 12 guests and three crew, which we have had on occasion while providing logistical support. Two heads were deemed adequate.

Skip Pelagic Australis GA

State-of-the-art satellite communications were a must, especially for media projects. Just as important is a powerful propulsion system: a 250hp Cummins with a four-bladed fixed prop that we freewheel under sail. Getting from A to B efficiently is what the game is all about down south, not least to be able to dodge the weather. We seldom sail below six knots, so have sacrificed a substantial amount of light-air performance with a shorter rig and minimally cut sails.

Raise the temperature

Only by being bolshy and knowing exactly the boat I wanted in order to achieve the same Pelagic-style of expedition cruising was I able to mitigate the added complications that go with a bigger vessel and are always encouraged by suppliers – no surprise there. When you have sorted out your propulsion unit, drive train, steering system, rig and reliable instruments (ours are from Raymarine) you can cast off – everything else is superfluous to the voyage.

An exception for high latitudes is a good heating system. We run a Danish Refleks fishing boat diesel heater that runs 24/7 and doubles as a hob. Most people are surprised that we have no watermaker. We prefer to take it from the waterfalls of Tierra del Fuego and the run-off from the glaciers of Antarctica. The former is better for your whisky, the latter is everywhere, so why not?

Though at the limits for a sloop rig on a 74-footer, we are still fully manual for winches and furlers and they’ve worked for ten years. I wanted a relatively flat working deck with minimum camber throughout and no sunken cockpits. This concept begins when you step out of the watertight door and continues aft, then forward to include the areas around the mast and for reefing.

A safe working area near the mast protected by coamings, also gives room to stow a 4m Zodiac on deck

A safe working area near the mast protected by coamings, also gives room to stow a 4m Zodiac on deck

Both the mast area and cockpit are enclosed inside open-ended raised fingers that give one a sense of security. The cockpit is exceptional from a working point of view; it is uncluttered and safe when handling the winches at a comfortable waist height. A sliding hatch spans the pilothouse roof aft, so people can sit outside under cover without having to get fully kitted up. It was a consideration for queasy guests – pass them a bucket and let them get on with it.

The interior follows the same concepts as Pelagic in view of the ballast keel layout, with three double cabins either side of the keel case and the saloon area aft, which can seat 12 around the table, backed by a full beam-width library (facing forward, so the books don’t fall out). The floor level is the same from stem to stern barring a lift to the pilothouse level, with more than adequate headroom throughout – no ducking and diving except when passing through three watertight bulkheads. The massive walk-in forepeak takes all the heavy gear.

Room with a view

The heart of the boat, though, is the pilothouse. Under way or at anchor it is a focal point with a 360˚ view from settees. While crossing the Drake Passage, it is a popular gathering point to watch the sea and weather conditions in perfect comfort.

The heart of the ship – a Refleks diesel stove and a calorifier supply all the cabin radiators forward

The heart of the ship – a Refleks diesel stove and a calorifier supply all the cabin radiators forward

The idea of a cruising boat where you are either below and visually unaware of conditions outside, or are outside on a flush deck facing the weather now seems absurd. But I only realised this when I reached 50.

Bragging rights? Well, I once crossed the Drake Passage (granted, while reaching in a steady 30-35 knots) without ever putting on foulweather gear nor seaboots; furling and unfurling headsails and tweaking mainsheet trim dressed only in my mid-layer and slippers. Well, at least we did on my watch!


Part 3: storm sails

Skip Novak demonstrates storm sail configurations, plus we test a trysail against a mainsail with a fourth reef in some very windy conditions and show why the latter is the best solution.


12-part series in association with Pantaenius