Herb says he averages 20 to 30 life-or-death cases each year. He has been providing this service since 1987 -- for free. And he does it all from his home outside Toronto, Canada.

THE REASON HERB TOOK UP
this forecasting hobby is simple: The now-retired engineer was once there himself. In 1982, he and his wife and two children set sail from North Carolina to the Caribbean, comforted by a perfect weather forecast. Or so they thought. No more than five miles offshore, their boat and 14 others were hammered by extraordinary winds, and the next thing they knew, they were trapped in storm-force conditions in the Gulf Stream, tossing and churning for five very long days.

They finally arrived safely at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and were brave enough to continue cruising the Caribbean for six months before returning home. It was during this time that Herb became obsessed with weather and forecasts. After following a local amateur radio operator’s suggestion to get a ham (amateur) radio license, Herb started giving advice and assistance to other sailors in the area. Eventually, he moved to a marine sideband frequency.

“Basically, I provided a source of information that in those days was really not available to the average sailor,” Herb explains. “I was the only person. There were professional services, but nobody could afford one unless they were large shipping companies or unless you had very expensive equipment to download Navy facsimile charts.”

Herb was based in Bermuda at the time and began working together with the U.S. Naval Air Station (now closed) in Bermuda and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) High Seas NWS Service. These official agencies wanted to get the “ground truth” from Herb -- what were the winds, the sea conditions? He provided up to 14,000 reports a year to the NOAA. Herb got the data from scouring all available weather forecasts; there was no Internet then. His best sources for conditions were the sailors themselves.

  • Image about Herb Hilgenberg

Herb would provide the service seven days a week, often talking to 90 boats a day, guiding them through the Atlantic waters. Each time they checked in, he asked what the conditions were at their location and then included the data to update his forecasts.

Times have changed since then. Forecasts are now easily downloadable from the NOAA. E-mail and satellite phones allow boats to communicate directly with the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center and to receive data instantly. Several people now provide a similar service to the one Herb pioneered, but they often charge money for the information.

However, the computerized forecasts most sailors download are still very simplified, are often several hours old, and need to be interpreted with a trained, experienced eye. That’s why Herb is still on watch.

“There may be some convection activity around; there may be a trough in the area that’s not being picked up. And that is where I come in,” Herb says. “The people who talk to me are the ones who’ve talked to me for 20 years -- because they know I do not give them what they can already get.”

MOST 72-YEAR-OLDS WOULD
be content to relax and putter around the house. But Herb is definitely not like most septuagenarians. Incredibly, he customizes a weather forecast for each and every boater he talks to. He downloads raw data from the NOAA and other weather services throughout the world, interprets that information hour by hour, and then comes up with a detailed microanalysis for every sailor.