Skip Novak was just 25 when he navigated the British Cutter Kings Legend to 2nd place in the 1977-1978 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.
Two years later he skippered the Independent Endeavour to victory in the Parmelia Race from Plymouth to Freemantle Australia. His next outing at Whitbread in the 1981-1982 race as skipper of Alaska Eagle (previously the 1978-79 winner Flyer) was unremarkable and they came ninth.
But Novak’s performance in the 1985-86 edition, where they came 3rd in the maxi class, is the stuff of legend – and not just this was the boat put together by Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon. A month before the start the hull sheared off during the Fastnet, trapping six crew, Le Bon among them, underneath. That Drum got to the startline 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 recently in a column. More than 10,000 spectator boats would turn out to welcome Drum back into British waters and Novak would write a book, ’One Watch at a Time’ about the experience.
In 1989 he skippered the 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.”