Outside Online Archives

Titanic Nights

By Skip Novak

American Skip Novak, 48, has sailed four Whitbread Round The World Races, survived 300,000 bluewater miles and helped set two ocean crossing records. For The Race, Novak is co-skipper aboard the 110-foot maxi-cat Innovation Explorer. While he and the crew of Innovation Explorer (which includes his wife, Helena) race one of the fastest boats ever built through the sticky calms of the equator and the howling storms of the Southern Ocean, Novak will post regular updates to Outside Online.

Aboard Innovation Explorer, January 22, 2001

We are firmly stuck into the Southern Ocean alright. It is grey, wet, cold, and miserable enough both above deck and below to satisfy the curiosity of those on board who have never been. For me it is all so familiar.

Although we have moved into second place with Team Adventure's decision to repair in Cape Town, we are so far behind Club Med that we have decided to just disregard them for the moment and sail against the ocean. Our minds are focused on keeping our boat in one piece and getting through this section, and it is proving to be no mean feat. Almost daily something or other breaks: mainsail battens and padeyes are routine, the Solent Jib halyard has been jumping the sheave, this morning the bomb bay door on the main beam for the liferaft locker fell off after impact with a wave, various creaks, groans and bangs are investigated and noted. I have this vision of arriving in Marseilles patched up and in tatters like Kevin Costner's trimaran in Waterworld.

We have been sailing fast for the last five days in a northwesterly flow that has brought the warm air from the South Atlantic face to face with the cold sea of the Southern Ocean drift. Bad visibility is the consequence, which doesn't mean much when you are barreling along at 25 to 30 knots in the open ocean. But now, at latitude 46 degrees south, it has at once become precarious sailing. When we passed below 43 degrees south, we had started the system of the stand-by watch being responsible for monitoring the radar. But two nights ago navigator Roger Nilson realized they were playing hooky. When he switched the radar on to transmit, low and behold, four miles dead ahead was a large echo - which could only have been an iceberg. Four miles at 25 knots was about 10 minutes for a bull's-eye. We managed to haul up wind of it and then gybed when we were only a half mile away. We never saw it in the dead of night and fog.

Even though you can see these monster bergs on radar, or on a clear night (although even on a moonless, pitch black night they glow sufficiently strong to give good warning) it is still paramount-because of our boat speed--that there are enough hands on deck ready to react in double quick time. This doesn't solve the problems of the bergy bits (house size) and the growlers (car size). Both of these icy manifestations are by and large submerged objects, and even when they break the surface-it could be in broad daylight--they look very much like any old breaking wave crest.

This is where the craziness comes into play—it's a crap shoot down here. There is no way you can spot these bergy bits--and you know they are out there—so in effect it's like shutting your eyes when running a red light. The only thing to say in our defense is that in the all the years of around the world racing, I believe one boat in the last Volvo Ocean Race touched a bit of ice and did some minor damage.  So the risk is probably akin to air travel or some other meaningless analogy!  But suffice to say that on a dark and stormy night, sailing at high speed, just in control, it is an unnerving experience.

Wish us luck!

More Adventure