Skip Novak was just 25 when he navigated the Kings’ Legend to second place in the 1977-78 Whitbread. Back then there was no psychological testing or physical examination. He got the job after a few beers with the skipper Hans Savimaki in Cowes.
“That’s how it was done in those days,” he recalled. Back then, navigation was slightly different too. “It was all done by celestial navigation.” It was also less about trying to stay one step ahead. “Ninety per cent of navigating in those days was finding out where in the hell you were!” he told Yachts & Yachting.
In the 1981-82 Whitbread, he returned this time as skipper of Alaska Eagle (previously the 1977-78 winner Flyer), but it was not a success and they came ninth. But Novak’s performance in the 1985-86 edition, where they came third in the maxi class, is the stuff of legend – and not just because this was the boat put together by Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon.
A month before the start the keel fell off during the Fastnet race. The boat capsized trapping six crew, Le Bon among them, beneath the hull. That Drum made it to the startline of The Whitbread at all was a heroic achievement.
“There is something singular about having shared a life-threatening experience the day we found ourselves upside-down in the English Channel. The refit against all the odds strengthened that bond and stood us in good stead for the protracted challenge of The Whitbread race itself, which was no mere outing,” Novak wrote in a column.
More than 10,000 spectator boats turned out to welcome Drum back into British waters and Novak wrote a book, ’One Watch at a Time’ about the experience. In 1989 he skippered Fazisi, the first Soviet entry in The Whitbread Race, and he chronicled this watershed event in his book ‘Fazisi - The Joint Venture’ which was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in Britain.
For the last 30 years Novak has pioneered sailing expeditions in the polar regions, from the North West Passage to Antarctica. “The strength of the Whitbread/Volvo Ocean Race is the people involved,” he told us recently. “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.”