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Profile: Herb Hilgenberg and the Southbound II Net

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“Southbound II, Southbound II, Sea Whisper, Sea Whisper”.  I’m calling Herb, our weather router on ssb frequency 12.3590. We’re in the mid-Atlantic and Herb warned us yesterday about increasing winds. In the last twenty-four hours, we covered 187 nautical miles – our best daily mileage to date! 

Herb’s alarmed response of “You have to stop, you have to stop!  Slow down!” surprises us.  “There is an approaching storm with winds up to 50 knots,” Herb continues.  “If you keep up that speed and direction, you’ll run right into it.”  Yikes!  We alter course towards the waypoint Herb gives us, thus avoiding the storm.

Herb Hilgenberg is, among other things, a sailor.  From 1967 to 1982, he raced in and won various North American championships.  In 1982, Herb and his family, aboard their boat, Southbound II, experienced a terrible storm.  From this turning point in his life, he began a part time hobby in Bermuda; using his single sideband radio to provide weather briefs to mariners crossing the Atlantic, providing weather data to the National Weather Service and passing on updated information to the boating community at large.

In 1994, Herb and his wife, Brigitte, also an advanced amateur radio operator, retired to Burlington, Ontario, their home town, and restarted the Southbound II net. When Southbound II’s daily net opens at 20:00 UTC, a cacophony of radio noise erupts as vessels call in from the Caribbean, along the eastern seaboard and throughout the Atlantic.

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Herb provides his interpretation of weather data relevant to each boat, summarizing his opinions so mariners can make educated decisions.  For long passages, “Always have a five-day plan” Herb says.  If your plan changes, advise Herb as he often worries about those who don’t heed his warnings and waypoints. “If I give a warning and they choose not to go to the waypoint….tell me… then I can give a forecast for where ever you choose to go.”

Herb remembers advising a group of boats between Florida and Bermuda to stay put due to an incoming storm.  All but one stopped.  Later that night, Herb received a call from the Coast Guard advising that the on-going boat sank, with no survivors.  Herb tells me that it was agonizing to talk to relatives who couldn’t contact the boat; it was a tragedy that needn’t have happened had the boat left its radio on.
Herb updates his powerful equipment at his own cost while providing this free service to all interested mariners, every day, 51 weeks a year.  Updated equipment includes one X-B antenna, a horizontal dipole designed in the form of an ‘X’ that is directional for better reception and a vertical antenna, used for a lower frequency or transmitting to the north where he communicates with tugs in Hudson Bay and the Arctic.  He can use both via a switch that goes to a second ssb radio and uses two computers; one for satellite through the internet and the other for collecting weather charts and downloads from the internet.  But it isn’t just his equipment that gives his information importance – it’s also his 20+ years of experience interpreting that data.

Some of his most rewarding moments come when he receives a call at night from the Coast Guard who’ve received a mayday but can’t get the boat’s position.  Herb searches for the mayday on his frequency, makes contact with the boat, co-ordinates transmissions and activities amongst the Coast Guard and commercial boats in the area, and helps to set up a successful rescue.

Herb says that at the end of the day, he and Brigitte, who takes care of all correspondence and occasionally monitors check-ins and responds if need be, are happy to have simply helped people and kept them safe through another day at sea.  Thanks for a good watch, Herb.

Editor’s note:  After sending in this article, the author commented:
“After our successful crossing, I asked my brother, Brian, who also lives in Burlington to take a bottle of something to Herb with our thanks.  Herb showed Brian around his ‘weather control center’ and Brian, a 767 Captain, said it was set up just like an airport control center; he uses about five different weather layers.  Herb really is quite a wonder.  When we crossed, he was ‘babysitting’ about 50 boats doing the crossing in each direction as well as those travelling within the Caribbean.”

Laurie McDonald wrote a column for a western Canada health-related magazine before leaving on a three year journey by sea aboard Sea Whisper. Her travel adventures are published in Canadian magazines and newspapers.

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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