Our (way too) brief experiences with a legend

Magnus Olsson passed away yesterday. The legendary Swedish sailor was beloved by the sailing community the world over. Like many others I'm sure, he was one of my heroes. As a sailor for sure, but also just as a person. What follows are some of my experiences with him since we met in 2011 at the ARC, my simple way of remembering someone who is impossible to forget.

Mia and I first met Magnus and his partner Vica in 2011 at the ARC in St. Lucia. He'd been sailing aboard Triumph, the big Baltic that took the Invitation Cruising Division that year. Swedes have a particular affinity for one another when they're abroad (a big reason that Mia has kept her Karlsson name, which instantly identifies her as a Swede outside the country), and we formed an instant connection with Mange on the dock in St. Lucia because of that.

I was thrilled to be able to speak some Swedish with him on the dock. We first chatted about their crossing while he and Vica were on the dock repairing one of Triumph's headsails. Magnus is as legendary for his gregarious attitude as he is for his sailing skills (he's done 6 Whitebread/Volvo races), and he was genuinely enthusiastic talking to us that day on the dock. He had a spark in his eye, that little twinkle, and always a smile on his face (on the radio as Triumph was coming into the marina that day, he announced, "This is Triumph! We're coming in to the dock to drink beer, chase women and behave badly!").

We mingled with he and Vica throughout the finish of that year's ARC, that Swedish connection providing the icebreaker. The crew of Triumph couldn't have been more thrilled to be there. A group of ten guys had contacted Magnus out of the blue to do this Atlantic crossing - they'd previously sailed with Magnus and Skip Novak to Antarctica - and they were super excited to tick off another of their bucket lists with Magnus in the lead. Magnus told us how some of these guys, very experienced sailors in Sweden, had trouble steering by the compass at night - in Sweden in the summertime, even night sailing is by the light of the midnight sun, so nobody had ever really sailed in the dark!

Following that ARC, I kept loosely in touch with Magnus over the next 8 months. I got a phone call out of the blue one day home in PA from a strange number. The voicemail said "Hey Andy! This is Magnus Olssson! I had a job opportunity that might be perfect for you and Mia, so give me a call when you can." I was stunned - here's one of my sailing heroes, a virtual mythical figure that had actually called me on my cell phone, and somehow had actually kept my contact info handy when we parted in St. Lucia. The job was to skipper a Swan out of Seattle, which we interviewed for (in the end it didn't work out, but it was pretty sweet having a recommendation from Magnus Olsson!). 

When we took Arcturus to Sweden last August, the final leg of our trans-Atlantic journey 'home', we met Magnus and Vica again in their hometown of Stockholm. I was working on an article about code sails for cruising boats, and thought Magnus would make a good interview and be able to talk on the subject from both a racing and cruising perspective. So when we got to the dock next to the Wasa museum in central Stockholm, I called him.

"This is Magnus," he said. "Ah, Andy, so nice to hear from you! Of course I will help you with your article! Vica and I will cycle down to your boat and we can do the interview."

Half an hour later, he and Vica showed up on their bicycles. Mia had a friend over to the boat that morning (our visit to Stockholm was basically an open house for all of our friends to come see the boat), and Mange and Vica joined us for coffee in the cockpit, complimenting the boat and enjoying the company. A while later, he, Vica and I went up to the cafe in the Sprit Museet, had some coffee and started chatting about code sails (the conversation is a bonus episode of my podcast, and the Yachting World article that came of it - my proudest achievement as a writer, in fact, is in the archive). Little did I know, but Magnus actually had a hand in inventing the Code 0 while sailing on EF Language in the 1993 Whitbread. I accidentally found the perfect interview based solely on that. And not to mention the enthusiasm with which he explained how it all worked. It was fascinating.

We parted ways that day, and it was very cool to know that while the relationship was professional in a way, it was also based loosely on simple friendship. The thing about Swedes in general is that they are usually very distant as strangers - nobody says hello on the subway - but once you get to know them, you've got a genuine friend for life.

A few days later, with Arcturus still in Stockholm, Mia and I were out for a 30 kilometer run, our weekly long run as we trained for the Baltimore Marathon coming up that fall. We stopped at Nautiska Magisinet, the local chandlery in Gamla Stan (Old Town), as I wanted to get a sweatshirt and something for my dad. We'd planned to run the last few kilometers home with the bags in our arms, as it wasn't too far back to the boat. After 25 km of running, Mia and I were sweaty and dressed like runners, an odd look in what is a very fancy and upscale store in the center of Stockholm. 

When we paid, Magnus walked in. "Tjena!" he said to the clerk behind the counter, giving him a big fist bump as he does. Then he saw us, and did the same, that huge smile on his face just lighting up our day. We chatted with him in Swedish for a few moments, and I like to think that the clerk behind the counter was slightly taken aback when we left, thinking How in the world did these two sweaty people know Magnus, and why were they so friendly!? It put a permanent smile on my face for the rest of that day.

In Sweden, a country of just under 10 million, people generally take their sports stars very seriously, holding them very close to their hearts. The Olympics, particularly in winter, are way bigger than we could ever imagine in the US - with so few people, the athletes are almost like family. Magnus was probably at the top of that list. Sailing is huge in Sweden, both racing and cruising, and being able to root for your countryman in international competitions is a major source of pride. The country usually has an entry or two in the Volvo Ocean Race (and Volvo, of course, is a Swedish company itself), and they've got a contender in the upcoming America's Cup. Magnus was in fact helping to train Team SCA, the all-women's entry in the upcoming Volvo down in Lanzarote when he passed.

The last time I saw him was again at the ARC last December, again sailing on Triumph, this time with Vica aboard for the crossing. They arrived early in the fleet despite a broken boom, and Magnus was his usual excitable self. We didn't get to spend as much time with them then as we would have liked, as they jetted home shortly after the finish, but it was a pleasure as usual making his acquaintance. 

So it's with great sadness and yet great pride that I'm now writing about my brief experiences with Magnus and his wonderful partner Vica, whom Mia and I feel absolutely heartbroken for. We're seeing firsthand at home what it's like for someone to lose a partner (my dad lost his wife, my mom, almost exactly a year ago), and it's gut-wrenching. Mange was a shining light in the sailing world to be certain, but even more so in the eyes of the people that he's affected personally. His legend only grew in my mind after having met him.

So thanks, Mange, for the memories.