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The tragic loss of the Berserk - an analysis

by Nancy Knudsen on 2 Mar 2011
Skip Novak, experienced Antarctic sailor, speaks about the loss of the Berserk and three of the five crew .. .
Skip Novak, renowned round world racing sailor and with 24 years of experience sailing in Antarctica, has questioned the wisdom of the yacht Berserk entering the Ross Sea. (See http://www.sail-world.com/CruisingAus/Yacht-Berserk-lost-in-Antarctica---safety-measures-questioned/80815!Sail-World_story) He says he advised skipper Jarle Andhoy strongly against sailing there, saying, 'It was not safe for small yachts at any time of year.'

...and Novak should know. He has done four Whitbread Round the World Yacht Races since 1977, and he took home a second place in his first race at the age of 25. As skipper of Simon Le Bon’s Drum he secured a third.

Later on he wanted to combine his sailing and mountaineering interest and built the expedition yacht Pelagic in 1987. Since then he has spent every season in Antarctic waters.

Andhoy, himself safe as he was on the mainland of Antarctica when the yacht foundered last month, contacted him last year for advice about his proposed voyage to the Antarctic.

Novak has told www.Explorersweb.com!Explorers_Web that he asked for his opinion about 'landing on the continent to make a bid for the pole', but had not mentioned the use of quad bikes. Andhoy is a well-known Norwegian television presenter, filming his adventures for a keen viewing public in Norway.

Novak went on, 'I get many of these ‘dreamers,’ who are largely ill informed of the basics of the geography and climate. I usually put them in the picture and that’s the last I hear from them. I remember all this because of the name of the boat – Berserk! In this case, I pointed out it would be almost impossible to get a small vessel safely near the coast or the ice shelf to deploy a polar party.

'The only place you can guarantee a landing is on the Antarctic Peninsula (South American sector), which is ice free to some extent in summer, and with plenty of shelter for small craft. But the problem is it is not a good place to start for the pole in other respects, not to mention that you can’t make a landing in the southern part of the peninsula (Marguerite Bay) where you can access the plateau until late January or February – too late in the season for a polar bid. Well, I never heard from the guy again.'

Novak went on to explain to Explorers Web how dangerous the Antarctic can be when the wind is up. To put his view in context, the winds during the loss of the Berserk were estimated to be as high as 80 knots.

'On Pelagic we sail habitually in 40 knots and above, but when it gets to 50 things become very dicey very quickly as the sea condition becomes dangerous. We make it a point with good weather forecasting not to get ‘caught out’ in the Southern Ocean if this is at all likely. If the temperature is sub zero, a blow above 25 to 30 knots will create wind driven sea spray that will quickly accumulate on the rigging and deck of a small yacht, which compounds the problem. Coupled with breaking waves and you run a real risk of capsize.

'This scenario within the pack ice – well . . . . My theory is either they capsized for the reasons stated above, or they were nipped by ice in the storm and the hull was breached. If the boat did not have watertight bulkheads she would sink within minutes – time enough to deploy an EPIRB, and maybe a raft, but no time for little else.'

As it is known that the yacht was already heavily overloaded, the evidence would lead the thoughtful sailor to conclude that the three sailors left on board the Berserk never stood a chance in the conditions that prevailed.

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