Omens & Offshore Sailing

Midnight sun as we sailed close by Bjornoya en route to Svalbard.

“Maybe it’s the eagle feathers?”

James mentioned that to me while I was congratulating myself on the incredible weather window we got on leaving Tromso. That aforementioned low, which was forecast to form off east Greenland, did precisely what the GRIBs said it would do and gave us near-perfect wind angles for the duration of the passage to Spitsbergen. 

I’ve been terrified of this trip. Genuinely scared. It’s the unknown up here, it’s cold wet and foggy, and the Arctic’s reputation as being a gnarly place is obviously well-established. Crossing the Barents Sea represented the single biggest challenge Mia & I have ever set for ourselves. I’m not superstitious generally. I’m not a religious person in the slightest, and I tend towards rational, logical thought and try not to read too much meaning into situations.

Nervous smile as I sipped my last coffee on anchor as we prepared for departure in Norway.

Except when it comes to certain sailing superstitions, and when it relates to my late mom, omens. My mom was an intensely ‘spiritual’ person, in the universal (as in, not ‘religious’) sense, and had an aura about her personality that enhanced that spirituality. She was close to nature and took signs from the natural world ‘seriously,’ but in a sort of wondrous way. Hawks were always good omens for her. Eagles even more so. Dolphins offshore.

The morning she died, my sister and I were home. Mia was offshore, sailing from the BVI to Bermuda. KT’s boyfriend (now husband) Kevin was solo thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Almost appropriately it was just the four of us in the house, plus Oatmeal and Lewis, the dogs. The week prior had been brutal for all of us - we knew the end was near, and those final moments of her transformation were excruciating. She slept in a hospital bed in the living room, while dad camped on the sofa giving her doses of morphine to ease the pain. KT and I slept upstairs in my parents bed that last night, and in the morning, dad came upstairs to give us the news we knew, at that point hoping, was coming any minute, but were dreading to hear. She died with her hand on my dog Oatmeal’s head, who sat with my dad by her side.

It was overcast that morning, a grey late April day, but curiously, moments after, the sun came out. I remember talking to my friend Dane on the phone outside on the deck and giving him the news - he immediately started bawling on the phone - and watching the sun poke through the clouds as the weather cleared. THAT was a good omen, and I knew it at the time, despite the sadness. I saw what she’d have seen in that clearing sky, and held onto the meaning. Everything would be okay.

A few days later, after her funeral, we had a big cookout at my dad’s house with close family and friends. We’d put up a tent in the driveway and sat outside late into the night, getting drunk on drinks and memories, reminiscing. By then, Mia was offshore somewhere en route to Bermuda. There was a full moon in the clear sky that evening that I took a few extra moments to gaze at, make sure I was conscious of it. Another good omen.

The day we sailed from Tromso, I lost this traditional reindeer-leather Sami bracelet I’d only just gotten two days prior at the Polar Museum (‘Sami’ are the indigenous peoples of Arctic Scandinavia). I’d always wanted one, and finally found a cool place to buy it. I took it off to clean the head, and swore I’d put it on the nav station. When the dust settled and we had prepared Isbjorn for sea with the new crew, it was gone.

This was a BAD omen. I’d already been on edge about this passage, have been since we first announced it on the website back in 2016. I LOVE the leadership aspect of what we do, but as a very empathetic and emotional person, my highs are HIGH, and my lows are LOW. I’ve learned how to manage it for the most part, but still have my triggers. Losing that silly bracelet was a BIG trigger, at the worst possible time. I almost couldn’t take it. I read so much into that bad omen that I just KNEW something bad was going to happen. I walked back to the Polar Museum and bought another one, but it did little to ease the bad feeling that stayed with me as we left the dock.

The shore mission in Finnkroken where Mia found the feathers on that little island.

The day we departed our anchorage in Finnkroken, Mia, James, Steve & Jordan took the dinghy ashore to the little island we had tucked in behind to prep Isbjorn for the offshore passage in earnest into the High Arctic. They returned a few hours later with some incredible photos. And four eagle feathers Mia had found on the beach. Mia, the opposite of me in terms of empathy and emotion, knows how much I read into things, and knew how much my mom would have read into those eagle feathers herself, so she brought them back for me. I tied them up with some seizing twine and hung them over the iPad at the nav station, where they remain. I took it as an incredibly GOOD omen, and suddenly felt better about the bracelet thing, and more confident than ever about the upcoming passage.

We moved up our departure to midnight that night - the plan had been to get a good night’s sleep and leave in the morning, when it looked liked the wind would swing to the west. But the latest GRIBs were showing an earlier shift, and a chance for us to get out in a good westerly breeze and ahead of that developing low. Two days into the passage, when it became apparent that our weather window was playing out as we’d hoped, James made that comment above. “Maybe it was the eagle feathers.” 

Gul matching Isbjorn's windvane offshore en route to Svalbard.

I like to think about my mom’s ‘energy’ out there in the universe (she didn’t, and I don’t, believe in heaven) just giving that little low off Greenland a ‘nudge’. I picture her universal finger just twirling the atmosphere ever so slightly over the waters north of Iceland and setting in motion the weather that would safely - and quickly - see us across the Barents Sea. There would be no ‘givens’ - I still had to recognize the weather pattern and be decisive enough to change the plans and take it, which we did. My logical brain knows this is all silly, but I don’t care. I like reading omens into things, just like my mom did, and I feel closer to her when I think like that, and that’s probably all that matters really.


Speaking of omens, two of the three passages we’ve completed this year had us leaving port on a Friday, perhaps the WORST omen of all, in sailing superstitions anyway. We’ve actually arranged our schedule to avoid a Friday departure whenever possible. Only once did we actually leave on a Friday - from Ft. Lauderdale to Annapolis back in 2016 - and it was one of the most miserable passages of our tenure with Isbjorn.

I made the excuse that this time we’d actually already ‘departed’ our initial port on a different day, only ‘pausing’ the passage and re-starting again on a Friday, but that’s stretching it I think. In any case, I’ve also learned that in the Arctic, you’ve got to take the weather you can, and IMMEDIATELY. No messing around.

I still like to think of those eagle feathers as a stronger omen than the Friday departure. I’ll take solace anywhere I can get it.

Until next time, HOLD FAST

// Andy