By Agathe Armand
He sailed the Whitbread four times and is regularly returning to the Southern Ocean in his sixties. Offshore legend Skip Novak tells us all about a race that changed his life and one that still lingers in his blood.
“With the one-design, the focus is back on the crew, back on the people, back on the personalities involved” – Skip Novak
Raised in the Midwest, USA, Novak sailed dinghies on the Chicago lake as a child. The American sailor heard about the Whitbread Round the World Race (later the Volvo Ocean Race) by chance, a couple of months before the start of the second edition in 1977-78.
Named navigator after a couple of beers with the King’s Legend skippers Nick Ratcliffe and Mike Clumsy, Novak ended up sailing four editions of the race.
Now 61, he has been sailing all his life and is still chartering expedition boats in high latitudes. We met him at Race HQ in Alicante, Spain.
After sailing the Whitbread from 1977-78 to 1989-90, what do you think makes this race such a special event?
“The strength of the Whitbread/Volvo Ocean Race is the people involved. We’ve discovered that over the years as media evolved. In the very early days, it was concentrating on the boat and the results and it has evolved into a people story. That’s where all the action is.
You don’t think it has lost its adventurous core in 40 years of history?
“The foundation of this race, as different from the America’s Cup or the Olympics, is really about adventure. If you don’t have a sense of adventure, don’t do the Volvo Ocean Race today. Despite the fact that the media is now a fly on the wall story while we were really on our own for 30 to 35 days in the old days, it is still an adventure sail. No doubt about it.
“It’s very hard to be romantic now and think wide with all the onboard footage, but it’s a natural evolution. We didn’t really care about media in the beginning, but we started promoting it when we realised this was a lifestyle. We wrote books and made films in view of doing it the next time. It’s only natural.
Speaking of evolution, what is your view on our new one-design Volvo Ocean 65?
“The one-design is a natural conclusion to various dilemmas over the years. I remember, in 1981-82, it was very apparent after we started sailing three or four says down the Atlantic with Alaska Eagle that we had a dog. We were faced with going around the world for nine months with a slow boat. It was quite difficult to take psychologically.
“Of course, as the race evolved, the boats changed but there were still differences in performance. The one-design solves that problem. The focus is back on the crew, back on the people, back on the personalities involved. I think we’ll see more of these great stories in the media.
On a more personal level, tell us about your sailing journey. Where does your high-latitude addiction come from?
“After sailing through the Southern Ocean on the Whitbread legs, looking at the Sub-Antarctica islands fly by, rounding Cape Horn and seeing the mountains of Tierra del Fuego, I vowed to myself then that one day, I’d go and see that. After 1985, I did. We built a boat and sailed there. 25 years later, I’m still down there. We were one of the pioneers of expedition sailing in high latitudes.
“I’m a mountaineer as well so I was living these two passions, sailing and climbing, in very remote areas. The only way to get to the Antarctic peninsula, South Georgia or Patagonia is to sail there. So I’m still feeding the rat, as they call it in mountaineering. I’m living high risks and making a business out of that. It’s incredibly satisfying and I love it.
No more Volvo Ocean Race then?
“I think I would struggle physically now, my knee couldn’t take the boat’s heeling angle. But it’s great to be out on the ocean pushing a boat, that’s for sure!”
Skip Novak’s participations to the Whitbread Round the World Race:
1977-78: King’s Legend (2nd overall)
1981-82: Alaska Eagle (9th overall)
1985-86: Drum (8th overall)
1989-90: Fazisi (11th overall)