to Your Dreams'
How Andy Schell & Mia Karlsson Built 59º North
It’s minus 6 outside the night we got back from the west coast, our first visit to the boat since leaving her in September. Isbjorn is hauled out at Vindö Marin, inside the winter warm hall workshop getting a major refit. New engine, new tanks, new radar, diesel heater and a hot shower, among other projects. After more than 20,000 miles under our stewardship - from New England to as far south as Grenada; to Cuba, Bermuda and Newfoundland; and across the Atlantic to the Azores, Scotland and Sweden - Isbjorn is getting ready to head north in 2018, to Svalbard, on her most ambitious expedition yet. Mia & I are at once excited and scared, yet full of curiosity and the motivation to keep exploring.
Astronauts on the High Seas
Growing up, I really wanted to be an astronaut. And I kind of am one - I often say that offshore sailing is as close as us ‘normal’ humans will ever get to space travel. At sea, as in space, we cover long distances through harsh environments in fragile, self-sufficient vessels, entirely dependent on our own resources, planning, cunning and ingenuity to see us safely to new worlds. Seeking the unknown. That’s why we do it.
In concrete terms, Mia & I had always strived to find a way to get paid to do what we love and still have the flexibility to pursue our hobbies outside sailing and spend time with family and friends. I’ve always known I wanted to own a bigger boat and take people sailing.
I grew up sailing on cruising boats my parents’ owned on the Chesapeake Bay in the summertime, all named Sojourner, which means, basically, ‘traveler’. Not so different to archipelago cruising - protected, brackish water with thousands of miles of coastline - just much hotter. In 1993, my parents took my sister & I out of school for a year - I was 9, Kaitie 7 - and we spent the fall cruising down the east coast and crossing the Gulf Stream to spend the winter in the Bahamas. Those were my first memories of sailing, my first real memories as a human-being really.
My mom, who died of brain cancer in 2012 when she was just 62, was the philosopher in the family, and inspired both my sister and I to “do what you love, and the money will follow.” Dad, ever practical, drilled into us that “there is always room at the top.” Meaning, whatever you choose to do, be the best at it, and you’ll always have a job. Powerful motivation.
In 2006, Mia & I met backpacking in New Zealand, where she stepped on a sailboat for the first time in her life and hasn’t looked back.
The astronaut in me, now with a partner from the other side of the Atlantic, quickly outgrew the Chesapeake. I yearned for the open sea, wanted to experience a limitless horizon, a long ocean swell, the magical philosophy told by the heroes of the books I devoured. Moitessier’s Long Way, Sterling Hayden’s Wanderer. Mia, a traveler at heart, bought into it too.
We bought and outfitted a classic 35-foot yawl we christened Arcturus, and sailed her across the Atlantic from the Chesapeake to Sweden via the northern route, a week after we were married. The voyage was not only a test of our own mettle, but also a deliberate attempt to gain some experience and credibility, with the idea we’d be continuing in ocean sailing professionally.
Mia & I continued to find work in sailing, managing cruising rallies for World Cruising Club (who host the ARC), but were doing less and less actual sailing. When we got offshore, it was delivering other people’s boats, in various states of seaworthiness (or lack thereof), on tight schedules that weren’t our own.
59 North Evolves
We found an opportunity to test the concept of these paid offshore passages. The owner of a gorgeous Shannon 43 ketch, s/v Serentity, offered us the use of his boat for free, no questions asked. An entrepreneur himself, he wanted to help us start our business. We posted the passages on 59-north.com, which at the time was just our blog and podcast page. They sold out almost immediately.
Fast forward to Christmastime, 2014. We were living in a modest, historic house in Lancaster, PA, the heart of Amish country, our ‘base.’ Close enough to Annapolis - our sailing base - but far enough away to be affordable. The Serenity passages were sold out, but the trips hadn’t yet happened (they were scheduled for February, 2015). By then, I was sure the concept would work.
Between Christmas & New Year's I did a quick yachtworld.com search for Swan’s under $150k, and four 1970’s-era S&S 48’s popped up. I’m a sucker for pretty boats, and the S&S Swan’s are the prettiest of them all. I hastily put together a quick business plan spreadsheet.
Two months later, Mia & I were dockside in Connecticut with my dad, Dennis, and our friend Tom Herrington, applying Isbjorn’s new decals. We untied the dock lines the next day, and during a frigid April, sailed her three days south to Annapolis.
Challenges at the Start
Isbjorn was a bootstrapped endeavor. Mia & I were starting from scratch, with a 45-year-old boat and an unproven business plan. The whole thing was self-financed - we mortgaged Isbjorn, then sold the house in Amish Country, and eventually Arcturus. When you don’t have a Plan B, you simply figure out how to make Plan A work. You have to.
After a short but successful ‘mini-season’ in 2015, when we sailed from Annapolis up to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia and then down to the Caribbean, our first full season in 2016 was brutal.
The first passages in the Caribbean were hard. The trade winds were ripping, and our first planned trip from Tortola south to Grenada got off to a rough start. The weather deteriorated about halfway south, with very squally conditions kicking up a gnarly sea, Isbjorn slamming and crashing to windward, close-hauled and not even laying the course in the stiff south-easterly. Stuff kept breaking, stuff we hadn’t refit but in hindsight should have, like the mainsail and the genoa roller furling. Ultimately we had to turn back to Tortola, and right off the bat, our schedule was in shambles. Only weeks later, in our first Caribbean 600 race, the rudder bearings failed and we had to abandon the race.
To top it off, I got appendicitis offshore later that summer en route from Annapolis to Lunenburg. After three days of trying to ignore the symptoms, I finally could no longer stay on my feet. We diverted to Newport. The pain & discomfort in my belly was exaggerated by the demoralized feeling I felt at yet another major setback that looked like it might scuttle our entire summer in the Canadian Maritimes.
The Turning Point
Mia was the hero, stepping in as captain. She assigned Bruce, the most experienced of that crew, as watch leader and helmsman. Mia simultaneously navigated, communicated with the US Coast Guard via sat phone and took care of me down below.
Mia and the crew got me to a hospital for emergency surgery without outside assistance, with Bruce piloting Isbjorn expertly onto the ferry dock in the pre-dawn, rainy darkness where an ambulance was waiting. My dad, also a captain, came to the rescue too, driving up to Newport, as soon as he heard I was sick. He jumped onboard Isbjorn and less than 24-hours after pulling into Newport, continued the passage with Mia and the crew to Lunenburg while I recovered ashore at my cousin’s house in Boston.
Isbjorn’s diversion to Newport would prove to be the low point in 2016, and the tide quickly turned. Seven days after my surgery, I was back aboard in Lunenburg, leading the next expedition to Newfoundland. Our summer was saved, and we were stoked with confidence having managed a real emergency at sea with professional aplomb.
And through it all, our crew understood. Not a single person canceled on those first trips of 2016 when they easily could have. I even gave them the opportunity to. And the emergency-at-sea turned out to be a highlight for the Lunenburg crew. What a learning experience!
Fast forward to 2017, and what a different year it has been. Mia & I are much freer now, least of all with time. 2016 was ridiculous in hindsight - we were still working almost full-time for World Cruising Club, AND had a full calendar of passages on Isbjorn, which kept breaking on us early in the year, AND Mia was in the midst of getting her American citizenship AND my sister was getting married in Key West AND I was the one officiating the wedding!
Our second shot at the Caribbean 600 race got 2017 off to a flying start. I was at the helm as we rounded the last mark at the little rock spire Redonda, north of Montserrat, and started the final beat upwind and east towards Antigua. After the horn sounded announcing our finish, I turned to Dan Shea, who had raced with us the year before during our big failure, high-fived and hugged him, then did the same to Paul Exner, our racing skipper and such an important part of the boat and the business. Man we were pumped!
Once anchored in Falmouth Harbour we spent the rest of that early dawn drinking rum and singing songs and generally reveling in the accomplishment we’d all worked so hard for. Isbjorn performed flawlessly and our crew was outstanding, both as sailors and as people.
2017 kept getting bigger and better. With 100% of our time now devoted to Isbjorn and 59 North, we started added more projects and events to the calendar and published our 2019 calendar. The bookings started coming in immediately, and the whole thing felt like it might actually be working.
Mia & I spent a wonderful two weeks unwinding and preparing for our Atlantic crossing in St. Croix in the USVI. We spent the days swimming off the boat and exploring the island by scooter, slowly doing the small boat projects that Isbjorn needed before embarking across the open ocean again. We enjoyed the slower pace of a backpacker’s life there in St. Croix, taking time to experience that landfall instead of rushing on to the next.
We experienced our first real gale a few days into the crossing from Bermuda to the Azores, with westerly winds sustained over 40 knots, 12-15 foot seas rolling in from behind us. With her new sails nicely reefed and snugged down, Isbjorn proved her mettle as an all-time oceangoing boat. We were fast and comfortable, knocking off double-digit surfing runs regularly and ticking off the miles. After the initial calm when we motored out of Bermuda for the first 15 hours, I didn’t start the engine again until we pulled into the dock in Horta some 1900 miles and 11 full days later.
2017 ended with perhaps the best trip we’ve ever had on any boat with our Scotland-Sweden expedition. The combination of an amazing crew in Karl, Will, Steve & Rhea, the extraordinarily adventurous & positive personality of our photographer James, the scenery and the fact that the longest ocean legs were now behind us made it special. The sailing was great, the company was great, the whisky was great, the weather was gnarly at times, and we ended the whole thing by sailing from mystical Fair Isle, a Shangri La of sorts for us, and a place that has been on our radar for years, to Shetland and then on to Mia’s home waters in Sweden across a rather friendly North Sea.
The World Awaits
While we’re stoked to be heading into the wilderness up north in the Arctic, it will be sad to sail away from Sweden in May. We’ve only just scratched the surface here, particularly on the west coast, where Marstrand has been the center of our world. We haven’t even sailed into Smogen yet, let alone the rest of Bohuslan.
That might be the biggest downside of our business with the boat - we offer offshore sailing passages to people who might otherwise never get the chance to cross an ocean on a well-found boat. We often miss out on many of the destinations we sail to, getting only a glimpse of our landfalls in the short stopovers. Most of the three or four days between passages are spent doing laundry and re-provisioning.
But it’s worth it. We publish our passage calendar out two years or more in advance, and sitting down at the computer to plan with Google Earth and a copy of ‘World Sailing Routes,’ I have to pinch myself that this is what I get to do for a living. After our season in the Arctic, we’ll return to the Caribbean in the winter of 2019 and re-trace our passages from 2016, sailing north first to Newfoundland via Cuba, Key West, Bermuda & Annapolis, then right back south to the Caribbean in the fall. By the end of 2019 we’ll be at a crossroads - do we go east, returning for another loop in the North Atlantic? Or west, which has captured my imagination of late, through the Panama Canal and into the South Pacific, ultimately aiming for New Zealand where Mia & I first met?
Therein lies the beauty of what we do. We get to decide. And we get to share it with the amazing crew who sign on to sail aboard Isbjorn and put their trust in us.
For Isbjorn and her crew, the world awaits.