Weather

Calling all sailors

A hobbyist’s broadcasts save lives at sea

DIANE TURBIDE March 2 1998
Weather

Calling all sailors

A hobbyist’s broadcasts save lives at sea

DIANE TURBIDE March 2 1998

Calling all sailors

A hobbyist’s broadcasts save lives at sea

DIANE TURBIDE

Weather

When D’Arcey Hilgenberg is planning a weekend barbecue at her home in Hamilton, Bermuda, she’ll often make a quick call to her father, Herb, to ask him what kind of weather she can expect. Herb Hilgenberg, grumbling good-naturedly that he is not in the business of planning social events, will provide her with a reliable forecast for the next few days. Oddly enough, Hilgenberg is based not in the Caribbean but in Burlington, Ont., 50 km west of Toronto. In fact, Hilgenberg is not in the business of weather predictions at all. The daily forecasts that he provides for sailors cruising the Caribbean or crossing the Atlantic are his hobby—albeit an all-consuming one. From his 2.5-by-threemetre windowless basement office, Hilgenberg uses satellite dishes, two computers and radio equipment to capture and analyze meteorological data from around the world, then broadcasts his conclusions to a loyal following at sea. “There is nobody better at analyzing satellite imagery and determining real weather conditions,” says Capt. Andrew Bass of the U.S. Naval Academy Sailing Squadron in Annapolis, Md. “Without him, life at sea would be a lot more dangerous.” An amateur operating out of his old laundry room (“My wife prefers the washing machine upstairs, anyway,” Hilgenberg shrugs) gives better high-seas reports than official weather sources? According to thousands of

pleasure sailors and commercial boaters, the answer is yes. Using high-frequency single sideband radio, Hilgenberg makes contact with 40 to 70 boats a day, advising on conditions and suggesting safe routes. Hundreds of other boaters listen in. One testimonial from Joe Bass, skipper of the U.S.-based Sea Bass, was unequivocal: “I’ve sailed 100,000 sea miles, but if Herb told me to jump up and down and bark like a dog, I would.”

The man who inspires such loyalty is a 60-yearold retired engineer, a trim, meticulous figure who recently gave up a 25-year-old pipe-smoking habit but still downs about 10 cups of coffee a day. German-born, he learned to sail in St. John’s, Nfld., where he lived until he was 19. After graduating in engineering from the University of Toronto, he married his Swiss wife, Brigitte, in 1963, earned an MBA and settled in Burlington. Hilgenberg worked for computer companies while sailing in races in his spare time. In 1982, the couple and their two daughters, D’Arcey, then 14, and Cathleen, then 6, embarked on a trip to the Virgin Islands aboard their 12-m sailboat Southbound II. Leaving Beaufort, N.C., they soon found themselves in gale conditions, 60-knot winds and nine-metre waves. They avoided disaster, but the experience spurred Hilgenberg to a deeper study of weather. “I thought, how can a sane man take his family out on the high seas and risk everything?” he says. ‘There simply wasn’t enough information available.”

When the family moved to Bermuda in 1984, Hilgenberg started his marine forecasting on a part-time basis. It was there that the U.S. navy’s Bass first started listening to what everybody called ‘The Herb Show.” “The Ü.S. government was spending millions of dollars on oceanographic and meteorological data,” recalls Bass with a laugh, “and here was this part-time hobbyist beating them hands down.” It was the start of a fruitful relationship: in April, Hilgenberg will give his third annual lecture at the U.S. Naval Academy Sailing Squadron. This year, he will focus on unusual weather, including the infamous El Niño factor, which Hilgenberg dismisses as a “vast oversimplification of a complex set of patterns.”

Since his return to Burlington in 1994, Hilgenberg’s “hobby” takes up about eight hours a day, seven days a week. He begins analyzing various sources of weather data—including restricted files he is allowed to get from the U.S. navy’s database—at 11 a.m. Then at 3 p.m., he begins a three-hour broadcast. “I help people understand what they’re going to experience,” Hilgenberg says. “I tell them that if you do this, you might face six hours of bad weather instead of 18. If, at the end of the day, they tell me ‘Herb, you called that one exactly,’ that’s my reward.”

Almost his only reward, it appears. Hilgenberg offers his service free, although grateful sailors send unsolicited donations that cover most of his $10,000 annual costs. His home is filled with plaques, awards, gifts and mementoes. Weather widow Brigitte, herself a ham operator, serves coffee to boaters who turn up unannounced on the doorstep.

She also handles the voluminous mail, some from people whom Hilgenberg has had a direct hand in rescuing. Last May, the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami sent a letter of commendation for his assistance in locating a disabled boat and guiding it through a 36-hour ordeal—one of many such stories. Another case involved a British man in U.S. waters whose wife of 30 years died of an aneurysm on board. After a nearby ship removed the body, the coast guard, worried that the distraught man might commit suicide, asked Hilgenberg to maintain steady contact with him on the three-week trip back to Britain. Says Hilgenberg: “I feel a commitment to all these people.”

So much commitment, in fact, that he has had only one day off since last June. After much persuasion, Hilgenberg’s wife recently dragged him off to a Sunday matinée. The movie? Titanic.