Inventor finds icy environment plain sailing
At the age of 50, Werb decided to invent and build his own “snow sailor”, a vehicle that could sail like a yacht over snow and ice, while keeping the sailor protected in an enclosed cockpit. The vehicle, which he named Swoosh, was such a success, that he sailed most of Antarctica before competing in Russia and Iceland, aiming to cross a glacier in record time.
Born and raised in Cape Town, Werb says he was “a bit of a climate-change sceptic” before he suddenly fell through the Iceland glacier into the icy water below. “That glacier was supposed to be solid ice. It was terrifying,” he recalls.
Thankfully, his crew pulled him out of the water, but it was a sobering moment for this adventurer, who lives in Brisbane, Australia. Besides falling through the ice, his snow sailing has been such a success, he is looking to turn it into a commercial venture, and Red Bull has expressed interest in working with him.
So, what exactly is snow sailing, and how did Werb come to be a trailblazer in the sport?
In snow sailing, competitors race across the ice on boards attached to kites or sails. Werb’s contraption is the only one in the world. He describes it as “a sail joined to a cockpit, attached to three snowboards”.
His story begins in Cape Town, where he grew up enjoying wind sports, from riding hobie cats to flying kites. His father joined the Israeli paratroopers, and fought in the Sinai Campaign, so the adventurous spirit has been passed down from father to son. When Werb emigrated to Australia, he got into publishing, and now publishes extreme sports magazines online.
“When I turned 50, I decided I wanted to do something really different. I realised no one had ever snow sailed across Antarctica,” he says. In addition, just before his father, Henry, passed away from lymphoma, he encouraged him to do it. His trip to Antarctica was in his father’s honour, and he raised A$10 000 (R98 503)for leukaemia and lymphoma research.
Werb had never undertaken such an adventure before, but that didn’t stop him. He had a crew to help him build his dream machine, which took five years to perfect. He then had to find sponsors, and many of them came on board because the Swoosh snow sailor is completely environmentally friendly, all it leaves are tracks. Werb views this as a revolutionary way for future explorers to travel in Antarctica, particularly in light of the fact that many previous methods have been damaging to the environment.
Werb eventually left for Antarctica from his former hometown of Cape Town in 2016 with a crew of two people on the ground in Antarctica. His aim was to reach the South Pole within four weeks, but because of bad weather, he ran out of time. However he did travel up to 1 000km across the icy continent. He sees every trip or competition as a success, even if he doesn’t reach his goal. “You live and learn … the only time you fail, is if you don’t try,” he says.
Surviving in Antarctica is a harrowing challenge in and of itself. “Boiling water every morning is key, as you use this boiled water to drink and cook. You need fire to melt enough water to survive. You also need to eat thousands of calories, but you still lose weight,” says Werb. In addition, “the weather can be really scary, and the remoteness is frightening”.
He went on to compete in the World Ice and Snow Sailing Championships in Russia, where he set the world record for crossing a glacier using wind transport, and a year later, he set a personal goal of crossing the glacier in Iceland, which is when he fell into the icy water below. In spite of many hurdles, he eventually accomplished this goal.
Werb has also snow sailed in Switzerland, Germany, Norway, and Finland, and will be competing in Estonia in three weeks’ time, where he aims to set the world record for the greatest distance in snow sailing in 24 hours.
No matter where his adventures take him, Cape Town will always hold a special place in his heart. “I always come back to my roots. I’ve never forgotten my schooling at Herzlia, and the values that my grandparents and great grandparents taught me. Brisbane is a very assimilated society – people don’t always acknowledge that they’re Jewish. But I know my identity.”
The highlights of his adventures include, “Working with an amazing group and learning from mentors, surviving in ridiculous environments, playing in amazing parts of the world, and seeing so many remote places. It has left me with an insatiable appetite to explore.”