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Nautical Series: Skip Novak

Skip Novak, builder, owner and sailor of the Pelagic. Novak is based in South Africa and has competed in four Round the World Yacht Races. [Photo] Skip Novak Collection – Pelagic Expeditions

Prior to the 1950s, climbing expeditions to remote peaks started with days, or weeks, spent at sea. When the French flew to Annapurna in 1950, the era of nautical travel practically ended. But some individuals still choose to combine open water and the climbing life. Recently, Alpinist interviewed three nautical-mountaineers to create the Nautical Series.

Based in South Africa, Skip Novak is a seasoned yacht-racer and author of several books. Combining his mountaineering passions with his sailing skills, he constructed the Pelagic in 1987. Since then, Novak has spent every season since in Antarctic waters.

Get a glimpse of Novak’s life in the following interview. –Ed.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did you begin sailing?

I’m from Chicago and my dad sailed, so I grew up on Lake Michigan and sort of started as a freshwater pirate. I started out on small sailboats and dinghies. Then I went to school in Florida and worked at a shipyard doing deliveries in the Caribbean, as well as doing more and more yacht races.

When I was twenty-four, I delivered a boat from Bermuda to Spain. The Round the World race in ’77-’78 (the “world’s longest yacht race,” starting and finishing in the U.K. every year) was my first of four Round the World races. That’s when I left the States and never really came back. I’ve been based in the U.K. for a number of years, and for the last eight years I’ve been in South Africa after we built a new boat.

Pelagic [Photo] Skip Novak Collection – Pelagic Expeditions

In 1987 you built the Pelagic. Did you build this boat with mountaineering goals in mind?

Three of us (who competed in the ’85-’86 Whitbread Race together) decided to build a fifty-four-foot expedition boat with the idea that each of us would get to spend a year on the boat, and when that year was up we’d hand it over to the next guy. My whole focus was southern South America, Antarctica and Southern Georgia for mountaineering. The other guys headed to the Pacific with their two years.

In the early days it wasn’t just chartering, it was private expeditions with sponsors and films attached to it, and all the classic stuff back in the Eighties. After doing that for a while I saw a niche in that sort of thing and realized I had just scratched the surface. The rest is history.

How has the world of sailing/climbing changed since you started?

When we started doing this in the late Eighties it was just a simple equation of trying to go out and find an unclimbed mountain in the Antarctic Peninsula. Back then that was exciting enough for a sponsor to get involved with. In the Eighties, especially in Europe, money was quite easy to come by for films because that was sort of a new thing then. Then in the Nineties, just climbing wasn’t exciting enough. You had to create a circus around an expedition to get noticed.

[Photo] Skip Novak Collection – Pelagic Expeditions

The projects were getting crazier and crazier, and that sort of thing doesn’t really lend itself to the places we go. We’re too remote to do things people would do in the Alps, for example. At the end of the day, if I was going to stay in the region, I couldn’t depend on the fly-by-night ways of funding an expedition. Sometimes the sponsorship money comes in at the very last minute. In order to stay down there on a consistent basis I became the facilitator for other expeditions. But I was always invited along on the climbs, so in a sense, I was getting paid to go climbing.

Are the standards of safety going down as more and more people begin to head to Antarctica, or is it just the law of averages?

I think its just the law of averages. If you look at the whole history of it, the yachts have a good history down there. People are safer because of all these permitting requirements (you’ve got to go through all sorts of hoops and ladders for environmental assessments and to verify that your search and rescue procedures are in order). It makes people think a lot harder about putting the procedures in place that maybe they wouldn’t have thought of in the past. But of course when there is more traffic there are more safety issues.

We’ve had very few accidents on the Antarctic Peninsula, actually, with the exception of a Norwegian boat called the Berserk. It was sailing in the Roth Sea in February and went down. Three guys were lost and they never found the boat.

[Photo] Skip Novak Collection – Pelagic Expeditions

So the permits are doing their job by keeping the waters and the mountains safer?

Yeah, but that’s not entirely true because of the way the Antarctic Treaty works (which is something that was discussed heavily at the last Antarctic Treaty meeting). This whole thing about permitting is not apples-for-apples when it comes to international permits. The Australians, the Brits, the Americans are quite rigorous with permitting. For other countries, like France, it’s hardly in existence. A lot of these countries haven’t figured out how to do the permits, or what they’re supposed to be asking and requiring of people. So we’re trying to get a generic permitting model together that everyone can sort of agree on and use.

What common ground have you found between sailing and climbing over the years?

Well there are very few sailors that climb to any level. Bill Tillman was, of course, our hero, but he still did one first and then the other second. He really just sailed when he was older. Not many people come to mind that do what I do.

I sort of consider my boat a vehicle or taxi. My passion is the mountains now, sort of like Tillman in reverse, and my expertise is with sailing.

Skip Novak [Photo] Skip Novak Collection – Pelagic Expeditions

It seems like very few Americans are involved in pushing the envelope in Antarctica. Why is that?

In the last few years it has really turned into sort of a mini explosion with mountaineering in Antarctica, especially on the peninsula and around South Georgia. I spoke with Damien Gildea, who wrote Mountaineering in Antarctica, and he told me that he’s selling the books much better in France than anywhere else in the world. We’ve had quite a few French teams down there that are really blitzing some things, and there are a lot of expectations for them to do much more. So I think we’re on the cusp of a lot more activity in the next few years, whereas in the last fifteen or twenty years it was just me and a few others down there.

But the French have a strong sailing tradition especially in going to the far corners of the world; the French always gravitate to places like this. Last year on the peninsula there were about fifty boats doing expeditions, and roughly thirty of them were French. I think it’s because we, as Americans, didn’t have the same kind of heroes out there in the Seventies and Eighties.

What would you consider you’re most notable climbing or sailing achievement?

I still view my first Whitbred Round The World race in 1977 as my most memorable sailing achievement. I was going out into the unknown. We were out of touch the whole time. Radios didn’t work and we had no GPS; I was navigating with a sexton. I just disappeared after the start, and arrived thirty days later in New Zealand.

As for climbing, the accomplishment that gave me the most pleasure was getting the fourth ascent of Mt. Paget on South Georgia. It had defeated so many people for so many years. We got great weather and were able to sit on the summit in windless conditions.

[Photo] Skip Novak Collection – Pelagic Expeditions

Even though it has become easier to get to Antarctica, is it still only a destination for professional mountaineers?

Yes, most certainly. You run into this problem where you drop people off on a glacier, and the boat goes back out to sea and waits for a radio call. You’re surrounded by broken ice fields and glaciers, and there’s no way to actually get anywhere.

It’s not like the Himalaya, where you go down to the valley and eventually meet somebody. You’re there by yourself relying on that boat to come back, and things do go wrong with boats. So psychologically that is a challenge.

We have taken some people down there who were decent amateurs, but didn’t have the experience of a professional. As soon as they got off the boat, they were overawed by the scale of the place. Because of that, we’ve had a couple of teams crap out and just decide to climb by the day.

[Photo] Skip Novak Collection – Pelagic Expeditions

What evidence over the years have you seen of climate change and glacial recession?

Wow, a lot. The glaciers have receded, and you’ve got a lot more bare rock everywhere. Let’s say it’s been, on average, a degree warmer over the last thirty years. Well, when you’re hovering just around freezing, that single degree represents such an enormous shift of climate. One degree in North America and nobody really notices. Down there it’s the difference between freezing and thawing.

Who would you most like to join you on an adventure?

If he were alive today, definitely Alex Lowe. Before he died we were planning a trip to South Georgia together. That was a tragedy to lose such an amazing guy. But really I have my core group of mates that I do my trips with and that would always have to be my priority.

Skip Novak [Photo] Skip Novak Collection – Pelagic Expeditions

Do ever feel like you’ve pushed the boundaries of safety too far in the pursuit of success?

I would say that we did some things in the early days that I wouldn’t repeat now. Maybe because of my age, and maybe because I’ve simply already done it. Things like climbing icebergs, we did a lot of that. After spending so many years down there you see so many icebergs that look stable, and then all of a sudden turn over ninety degrees right in front of your eyes.

A lot of what we did was for filming. Like sailing through ice arches only to come back a short while later and the arch is down. You think, “oh jeez.” So we try not to do things like that anymore, because you learn that you’re not in the Alps where you can rely on a rescue. You’re really on your own out there.

[Photo] Skip Novak Collection – Pelagic Expeditions

Click here to read the first installment in Alpinist’s Nautical Series. Click here to read the third installment in Alpinist’s Nautical Series.