The Ghostly Crewmember
    Patrick A. Dixon

     (April, 2000) 
 " The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
     and a wave broke over the railing.
     And ev'ry man knew, as the captain did too
     'twas the witch of November come stealin'.
     The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
     when the Gales of November came slashin'.
     When afternoon came it was freezin' rain
     in the face of a hurricane west wind."

          Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

 Every person who sails the world's oceans understands the importance of weather, its unpredictability and the necessity for good long-range weather forecasts. Nothing is more demoralizing than encountering severe, unforecast weather while at sea, but until one personally stumbles into a life or death experience, one never really appreciates the limitations on weather and sea state information available to the modern mariner.  

Meet Herb Hilgenberg, sailing enthusiast.  His close call with fate led him to establish a no-charge weather forecasting and routing service to help fill this void. Every night, he comes up on the short-wave radio  (marine High Frequency (HF) Single Side Band (SSB)) to broadcast highly accurate marine weather forecasts to sailors making offshore passages in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Spending up to twelve hours per day tracking and forecasting for 40 to 50 vessels is a laborious way to spend your retirement, but Herb loves his hobby and enjoys a great deal of satisfaction when helping mariners safely navigate the high seas. 

In April, Herb visited the Naval Atlantic Meteorology and Oceanography Center in Norfolk, Virginia to discuss ship tracking procedures, software upgrades and exchange of weather forecasting techniques.  

Herb's brush with fate came in November 1982, when he, his wife, Brigitte, and their two daughters departed Beaufort, North Carolina on a sloop called the South Bound II , in route to the Virgin Islands. After battling a series of unforecast storms and seas greater than 30 feet, he and his family survived, arriving in the Virgin Islands on the 10th day of their trip. Frustrated by the lack of reliable weather data available for small-time cruisers making ocean passages, Herb started a "spare-time" forecasting operation in 1987 while living in Bermuda. Hilgenberg, a professional engineer by trade, earned his Master's of Business Administration degree from the University of Toronto and was employed as an operations manager of a glass company with a plant in Bermuda. The memory of the November 1982 storm lingered, so Hilgenberg began using a SSB radio to give weather briefs to mariners crossing the Atlantic. He would contact one or two boats per day, briefing them on weather conditions and forecasts, and also assist the local community. "Herb became chairman of the ham radio community (in Bermuda), working with the police in case of emergencies, like hurricanes," Brigitte Hilgenberg said. During hurricanes, the National Hurricane Center in Miami, through the Hurricane Watch Network, an organization comprised of ham radio operators, maintained radio contact with the Hilgenbergs, and they would pass updated information to the community.

It was also in Bermuda that two significant events occurred: Herb met Andrew Bass, then Fleet Navigator for the U.S. Naval Academy, who, as part of the Naval Academy delegation participating in the 1992 Newport-Bermuda Race, suggesting that he share his forecasting and collective data  - and, through the Navy at NAS Bermuda, Herb gained access to the Navy's NOGAPS numerical weather forecasting model data. Herb Hilgenberg's small operation turned into a full time job, as he would spend five to six hours a day broadcasting his predictions to 40 to 50 boats. Herb left Bermuda in 1994 and retired to Ontario, Canada. Since then, he has devoted half of each day, almost 365 days per year to his forecasting hobby. "It can peak to 80 boats in prime season," he said.He routinely exchanges weather and sea state information with the National Hurricane Center and NOAA. In the sailing community, he is a legend and an ever-present, vital asset to the U.S. Coast Guard. 

Over the years, Herb has assisted with numerous Search and Rescue (SAR) missions, often providing detailed communications records and position reports to SAR mission controllers.  "We know him simply as Herb," said a Coast Guard Atlantic Area Search and Rescue controller in Portsmouth, Virginia. "He has been able to establish communications with vessels when we could not. Many mariners know of him and rely on him for weather broadcasts. He is extremely valuable to us."On May 30, 1997, Hilgenberg was recognized in a letter from Lt. Cmdr. Melissa Wall, Seventh Coast Guard District Chief of Search and Rescue in Miami, Florida, for his efforts in rescuing the sailing vessel Osprey off the coast of South Carolina. He was able to gather information on the distressed Osprey's location from radio communications relayed through the sailing vessel Ariel. The information assisted RCC Miami to dispatch a Coast Guard C-130 to the location of the Osprey in severe weather conditions. Hilgenberg also established a radio frequency for Coast Guard Group Charleston, South Carolina, SAR coordinators to stay in contact with the Ariel. The Osprey was eventually towed to safe harbor in the Cape Fear River May 29, 1997, according to Wall. "The professionalism (Hilgenberg) demonstrated is commendable and demonstrates the finest traditions of assisting mariners in distress," said Wall.  

Herb's daily routine, forecast methods and ship tracking procedures differ very little from those employed at NAVLANTMETOCCEN, including the use of Joint METOC Viewer (JMV) software to display weather data and ship routing information. The main difference is the number of personnel NLMOC details to provide marine weather forecasts, weather surveillance and routing services and the amount of information NLMOC affords to its Department of Defense and Government-contract customers. Similarly, Herb displays the same professionalism and devotion to duty that the Ship Routers and Fleet Forecasters maintain at NAVLANTMETOCCEN.  He has often been called the Ghostly Crewmember by many skippers, due to his extensive tours "aboard" their boats. "What makes my day is if, at the end of the day, I know that my forecast was reasonably accurate." Herb stated.  Often, NAVLANTMETOCCEN's marine meteorologists will spend 12 to 16 hours a day ensuring the safety of the fleet -- many times reaching out and contacting vessels days before the ships realize there is potential trouble. The reward is the satisfaction of helping a mariner by providing an accurate forecast and prudent routing recommendation.   What advice does Herb give to any sailor contemplating an open ocean transit? "Don't leave a safe port without having a reliable five-day forecast," said Hilgenberg. This is a sentiment we whole-heartedly endorse. The tricky part is finding that forecast! 

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Patrick Dixon is Senior Meteorologist, Optimum Track Ship Router at Naval Atlantic Meteorological Center, Norfolk.