Ask Ullman: Skip Novak and the Expedition Series
Few sail in conditions fit for emperor penguins, killer whales, and polar bears – sailing thousands of miles to remote places, enduring negative temperatures, gale force winds, icebergs, and inhospitable environments. But sailing great and Ullman Sails Ambassador Skip Novak seeks out such places. In fact, he has been doing so every year for the past three decades. It’s a no-brainer that his experience laid the framework for the engineering and construction in the new Ullman Sails Expedition Series – essentially sails designed specifically for high-latitude offshore sails for explorers and adventurers of his ilk.
So we sat down to get an update from Skip (whose latest expedition included becoming the first to summit two peaks on the island of South Georgia), and get the low-down on the new Expedition Series sails and how they actually differ from the standard cruising fare.
Q: Where did the development of an ‘Expedition’ sail begin? How much trial and error have you gone through to get the sails to where they are today?
A: In the early days of our Pelagic Expeditions we got caught out in high latitude storm conditions very often due to the quality of the then state-of-the-art (now primitive) weather forecasting. We had to rub our noses in some pretty bad conditions during the first couple of seasons (spending countless hours hove-to) before realizing we needed a different approach for the sails if we were to continue operating in these extreme environments. I remember in the early 90s sailing the 54ft. ‘Pelagic’ when our mainsail blew out for no reason – we had to hand-stitch it back together in an abandoned hut in the Antarctic. It was a long, painful job in the cold and the failure should have never happened. The result of the experience was advocating beefed up construction, more detailing and de-powered shapes – all of which has been refined and incorporated into the Expedition Series. This was not easy to achieve at first as it is usually the sailmaker’s job to enhance performance. We just had to redefine what performance meant for my expeditions.
Luckily my long association with Jan Reuvers and the Ullman Sails South Africa team in Cape Town created a collaborative environment where they listened and took this philosophy onboard. I think it has something to do with Cape Town being a rough weather venue, so we had similar experiences and could speak the same language. After all, the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias had a different nickname for the Cape of Good Hope – he called it the ‘Cape of Storms’. Needless to say, we saw eye-to eye.
Q: What benefits or hindrances does the Expedition Series afford sailors like you or general world cruisers?
A: The Expedition Series represents a new way of thinking about sail performance. In one sense it has a positive aspect as the design, robust construction, and detailing will give longer life, lessen the need for loft service, and mitigate running repairs. These are ultimately the most important considerations for world cruisers, and especially for vessels going to high latitudes where rough weather is accepted as the norm. The Expedition Series is ideal for sailors who intend to encounter not only wear-and-tear issues, but also conditions where safety considerations come into the mix. If you sail in high latitudes over time, you will get caught out – storm-force winds and maybe a risk of ice accretion on the sails and the rigging. The sails have to stand up to it. The more reliable the sails (and this goes for any piece of equipment), the safer the passage will be. The negative aspect, but really it is a counterintuitive positive, is that because of the sails’ design and added reinforcements, they are somewhat depowered and heavier. Therefore some light-weather performance will be affected in order to achieve this, but that margin is so small it becomes irrelevant for a world cruiser or adventurer.
Q: What do you see as the future of high latitude sailing? What kind of unique projects are you and Pelagic Expeditions taking on?
A: High latitude sailing is certainly on the map for aficionados like me, but also for more and more cruisers from family boats right up to super yachts. High latitudes are now defined as “exotic locations” accessible with the right equipment, preparation and expertise on board. In fact I am also in the business in doing just that – prepping super and, in some cases, mega sailing yachts for high latitudes. Over the last three decades we have had the pleasure of taking many people north, but primarily south to experience a ‘high latitude’ cruise. We market this as an ‘expedition,’ which implies participants contribute to all facets of the voyage. We don’t engage charter guests, we engage crew.
On our logistic side we have supported too many sailing-to-climb expeditions to tally up (which are my favorite); many cold water dive charters, usually for a filming project or two every season; and now and again a sciencebased project. We consider ourselves a ‘vessel of fortune’ meaning we have a charter business that is open to suggestion from various clients. But there is a limit. Everything we do is well thought out, prepared and for good purpose. We don’t engage in stunts. This kaleidoscope of activities is what keeps me returning time and time again. It is true to say that a motor vessel might be a better alternative as a working or touring platform once you get to places like the Antarctic, or the various regions of the Arctic where you are navigating by and large inshore.
However, there is no doubt getting there by sail is a more comfortable ride. Cruising by sail is also more aesthetically pleasing and it gives some exercise! I am always keen on making sail even if it is more efficient to motor. After all, we are sailors.