• Image about Herb Hilgenberg


One bad storm turned Herb Hilgenberg into a one-man international forecasting service and a guardian angel for sailors.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY NADIA MOLINARI

Down inside a yacht anchored off an island in the Caribbean, skipper Jason White shows off a state-of-the-art computerized control center. He points out a marine single sideband (SSB) radio, somewhat of a sailing-instrument anachronism amid modern technology like satellite phones and weather faxes.

And then he tells me about Herb. Somewhere out there, on the frequency 12359 kilohertz, is a man named Herb who will give any boat a personalized weather forecast upon request. He’s more accurate than any weather service, say the mariners who rely upon his expertise. But very few sailors even know he exists.

“He only says it once, and he talks so fast, you have to record it and listen to it later,” says White, holding up a small digital recorder. “I use him all the time. But if you bug him too much, he’ll just ignore you.”

  • Image about Herb Hilgenberg

In November 1999, Hurricane Lenny developed south of Cuba and then moved west to east, the first Caribbean tropical storm in recorded history to do so. It would eventually smash through several islands, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Herb was in contact with a number of boats in the danger zone and immediately directed them around the Category 4 storm. Except one.

“There was one guy just sitting north of Puerto Rico,” Herb Hilgenberg recalls. “A Swiss couple and their dog. I talked to him and said, ‘You’re gonna have a hurricane in front of you, and it’s gonna approach you in the next six hours.’ “

The sailor radioed back, saying, “I need to get off the boat; I can’t make it. My engine’s not working.” In six hours, he, his wife, and their dog were going to get ravaged by a hurricane with wind speeds of 150 miles per hour and be pounded to pieces. And they couldn’t move.

Herb called the U.S. Coast Guard based in Puerto Rico, but they had already lashed down all their helicopters for the storm. They managed to establish contact with a nearby commercial vessel, and it was able to approach the boat and rescue the couple and their dog.