Sitting down with Skip Novak

Published on December 4th, 2020

Shirley Robertson

The worlds of offshore sailing and unbridled adventure meet head to head in this month’s edition of Shirley Robertson’s Sailing Podcast, as the two time Olympic gold medalist talks face to face with legendary American Whitbread skipper and off-the-grid sailing expedition pioneer Skip Novak.

Today, Novak is known throughout the sailing world as the go-to man for sailing-led polar exploration. For over three decades he has been running his famous ‘Pelagic’ exploration yachts and is a man with much to say about his career exploring at high latitude, a passion that first came to him while racing around the planet in his first of four Whitbread Round the World Yacht Races.

“Not many people know this but as navigator I used to ‘tweak’ the course every now and again, saying ‘we need to head up ten’ only to see these places and come a little bit closer to get a view, something you wouldn’t do today, but I loved to see these mountainous places coming up out of the mist and fog, and blowing like hell, and there was wildlife, seals jumping all over the place, and penguins, and I thought ‘I have to go there one day, I have to see these places, and step on shore’.”

That first Whitbread adventure took place in 1977, as the navigator onboard second place finisher ‘King’s Legend’, but perhaps his most famous Whitbread entry was also one of the race’s more unusual.

By 1985, British pop sensation Duran Duran was widely acknowledged as one of the decade’s biggest super groups. With a platinum album, worldwide tours, Rolling Stone magazine covers, Grammy Awards, number ones either side of the Atlantic, the band had become a global phenomenon.

However, their meteoric rise to stardom had totally passed by a busy Skip Novak, but the global success of Simon Le Bon and his band were about to impact heavily on Novak’s sailing career.

Having unsuccessfully trawled the boardrooms of corporate America for sponsorship, Novak’s Whitbread future looked uncertain, but a phone call from the eighties pop ensemble very quickly changed everything. It’s an amusing tale, a story of how Novak was soon skippering the most famous band of the eighties around the world in a 75-foot maxi the band christened ‘Drum’.

“We stuck (the hull) in the water and towed it across to Cowes, and we were all down below, Simon (Le Bon) came down for this of course, and we were all down below and somebody said ‘Simon, what are we gonna call this thing, what are we gonna name it Simon’, and he banged on the hull, and the whole hull reverberated like this and he said ‘Let’s call it Drum’ and that’s how that happened.”

Skip Novak

Duran Duran front man Simon Le Bon makes a guest appearance in Part 1 of this podcast, talking to Robertson about the band’s exploits onboard ‘Drum’. Before the Whitbread itself had even started, Novak, Le Bon, and the crew had already taken an unwelcome visit to the front pages of the world’s tabloid press, following a catastrophic capsize in the 1985 edition of the Fastnet Race.

Novak’s eloquent and dramatic account of the incident is typical of his laid back but descriptive style. “I got out as the water was pouring in through the hatch, I was like a salmon trying to swim upstream, the deck was coming down on top of me, I grabbed the rail and it went ‘bang’, like a coffin had shut!”.

The tales that follow are as amusing as they are compelling, and leave the listener pondering on whether such an oddball pairing of financial backing and sporting endeavor could ever possibly be beaten.

Part Two of the podcast sees the pair pick up with more Whitbread revelations, including Novak’s telling of the tragedy surrounding his 1989 Whitbread campaign as skipper of ‘Fazisi’, the first ever Soviet team entry into the iconic round the world race, that happened to see the crew racing around the planet while at home, the collapse of the Iron Curtain was bringing in wide sweeping changes to Gorbachev’s Soviet Union.

Throughout this edition of the podcast, Novak’s accounts of his time spent racing around the planet make for compulsive listening. He’s a man that’s written many a book about his ocean adventures, and his impressive story telling is on show for all to see here, as he dips into a vast memory bank of over four decades of ocean adventure.

The final segment in this edition sees the pair turn to Novak’s love of exploration, as he reveals his love of the polar regions, the growth of his expedition operation ‘Pelagic’ and how he has turned the endeavor into a successful global business. He discusses what makes the perfect exploration vessel, and reveals how his love of climbing and life in the mountains has dove tailed perfectly with his thirst for polar adventure.

This edition of the podcast is in two parts:

Part 1

Part 2

Shirley Robertson OBE made history by becoming the first British woman to win Olympic Gold Medals at two consecutive Olympic Games. Shirley Robertson’s Sailing Podcast, produced and edited by Tim Butt of Vertigo Films, is available to listen on her website or via most popular podcast outlets, including iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcast, and aCast.

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