The State of 'Isbjorn' Sailing in 2018 // Essay Podcast

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Note: Today's LONG blog post is also today's podcast episode/essay. Tune in and hear Andy narrate all of what follows in episode #221 of On the Wind. Subscribe to the show via iTunes or your favorite podcast app. Or, click the player below to stream from the website or download to your desktop. The text, with lots of photos, is below.


It’s been a LONG time since I talked much about the business on here, and, now three years in (almost) and at the dawn of a new year, I feel like this is as good a time as any. I’m writing and recording this in real-time, by the way - as I write this, it’s just before 1000 SWE time on Tuesday January 2, the day this will release.

Mia & I spent a lot of yesterday afternoon, January 1, reflecting on 2017 and planning ahead for 2018, across the business. The big question that we kept reminding ourselves of was the overall mission statement of 59 North. What, exactly, do we do, what do we WANT to do, and HOW do we accomplish that without getting sidetracked.


We started the conversation by returning to the original mission statement that I’d come across before we even bought Isbjorn, our S&S Swan 48. Sharing the wisdom of the high seas with those wise enough to seek it out. It was a slight modification of a similar slogan I’d heard on the Dirtbag Diaries podcast while riding the bus. They were speaking to a backcountry skiing lodge up in Canada I think, and their mission statement was along those same lines, but referring to the backcountry wilderness as it related to skiing. I adapted it to sailing, and it’s stuck.

  High seas en route across the Atlantic in 2017!

High seas en route across the Atlantic in 2017!

High seas. That’s what we’re about. Offshore sailing. Long-distance, high-level, crossing-oceans-sailing. Venturing to new lands under our own steam. We’d re-focus the business on that original mission statement, and each ‘arm’ of 59 North would directly point back to that mission of sharing deep-sea, offshore sailing, whether through actually sailing with us on Isbjorn, through our workshops, through my articles, or indeed through this podcast. 

There’s the added challenge of diversifying, creating multiple revenue streams so that if one dries up - or importantly, if my motivation dries up - we can still get by. You’ve heard me talk about kids on the podcast a lot lately - and indeed next week’s episode with Broadreach’s founder Carlton Goldthwaite touches a LOT on the kid subject. But regarding kids, I don’t know how I’m going to feel about continuing our long-distance sailing lifestyle if we have a young family. I think I will, and we’re planning on doing just that, and have some ideas in mind that I’ll keep to myself for the time being about what that might look like, how we make the schedule, etc. But having a few ‘fallbacks’ in multiple revenue streams also will hopefully allow us to take a year off the boat if we want to, and either hire someone like Paul Exner - also a family man, by the way - to skipper a season for us, or just put the boat up in storage and NOT sail for a year, though that scenario is much less likely ;).

Before I get into the specifics of all this, I thought I’d reflect a bit on the last three years and examine the state of Isbjorn Sailing at the dawn of 2018.


Three Years In…

We’re almost exactly three years into this crazy plan that I put in motion back in January 2015, when Mia & I were living in Lancaster. To recap, at the time we still owned Arcturus, our 1966 Allied Seabreeze yawl, and had spent the previous 3 years sailing her to Sweden and cruising around the Baltic in the summertime (not by accident by the way - we knew from the start that by completing a major ocean crossing on our own boat, we’d learn a LOT about sailing in general, and more importantly, create some credibility for ourselves once we decided to jump into this as a business). We were working almost full-time for World Cruising Club, managing the Caribbean 1500 and their other North-American-based rallies, seminars and events. I was doing a fair bit of yacht delivery and some writing, and the podcast was already a year old (though never consciously connected to the Isbjorn business). 

  Mia & I sailed Arcturus to the Finnish Åland archipelago in summer 2014.

Mia & I sailed Arcturus to the Finnish Åland archipelago in summer 2014.

We were making a decent living and living a really interesting and fulfilling lifestyle, traveling a lot, sailing a lot, and in general, making our own schedule. We’d managed to buy our first house, and besides that mortgage, didn’t have any debt to speak of, and better yet, about $30,000 in the bank that we’d been able to save by generally following the Mr Money Mustache principles I’ve talked about here before.

Once we bought Isbjorn, all that changed. Buying the boat was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream I had, but maybe didn’t really understand was making a reality. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to have my own boat, a bigger boat, to take people sailing on. I never thought it would happen so fast. Thanks to my grandfather co-signing on the loan, and for our friends, specifically Tom Herrington & Paul Exner, and my dad, we spent a few weekends in Connecticut visiting the boat, sea-trialling her, and ultimately sailing her south to Annapolis in the Spring of 2015 after completing the purchase.

That summer we sold everything else - the house in Lancaster (which we made a very small profit on, banking maybe $5,000 net in the process), and Arcturus, to a Californian-based Brit, Neil, who still keeps the boat in Sweden. After paying off the balance of that loan, we netted another $15,000 or so from that sale which went into the bank.

So at the start of the Isbjorn Sailing business in the spring of 2015, we had round about $20-$30,000 in the bank, which we kept in savings and sent to Sweden in the hopes we could use it to buy our next house, as ultimately we wanted to move our personal home base there. The boat needed a BIG refit (which is still ongoing - we’ll get to that soon), but almost immediately, and thanks largely in part to this podcast, we started selling bunks, and taking people sailing…


The Rocky Road to Antigua

Most of you who have followed us know the story from there, but I’ll do a quick summary anyway. 2015’s inaugural season was a ‘mini-season’. We sailed up to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in the summertime with our first paying crew, completed the first big refit that fall in Annapolis, then had Paul Exner & my dad sail her south in the Caribbean 1500, which Mia & I managed that year from ashore. As I watched Paul & my dad drive Isbjorn out of her slip in Portsmouth without us, I vowed never again to let that happen unless I chose to - I’d be on that boat as her skipper come hell or high water. It marked the beginning of the end of my rally-management career, which in truth I never really wanted in the first place. But that’s another story.

  Re-naming Isbjorn (ex-Patriot) up in Connecticut before her delivery south in spring 2015.

Re-naming Isbjorn (ex-Patriot) up in Connecticut before her delivery south in spring 2015.

We had a brutal start to 2016 - the first passages in the Caribbean were hard on me emotionally, sailing without Mia, who had stayed back in Sweden, and really hard on the boat. The trade winds were ripping in the Caribbean, and our first planned passage from Tortola south to Grenada got off to a rough start, despite heading offshore by celebrating my 32rd birthday. 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 wind. Stuff kept breaking, stuff we hadn’t refit but in hindsight should have, like the mainsail and the roller furling specifically. Ultimately we had to turn back to Tortola. Eventually we did get the boat to Antigua, but then had another major setback in our first Caribbean 600 race, when the rudder bearings failed and we had 3 weeks of hot, dusty, expensive work in the boatyard in Antigua to fix it. I was discouraged, but determined.

But then something very cool happened, that I hadn’t counted on. For whatever reason - and I know part of it was because of this podcast, and the honesty and openness I’ve had on here sharing exactly these kinds of stories - but our crew understood. Not a single person canceled on those first 3 trips of 2016 when they easily could have. I even gave them the opportunity. Instead, they ALL changed their travel plans, endured a slight delay to leg 2 as Ryan, Clint & I built Isbjorn’s new roller furler on the grass in Nanny Cay Marina in Tortola, and actually seemed to enjoy the experience. Likewise when we had to abandon the Caribbean 600 race, one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make as a captain. I was sick with regret when I had to tell the crew that after slogging around this racecourse for 400 miles, we’d have to bail out and run home with our tail between our legs. But it was all part of the experience, and out of those few trips, we’ve made some of our best friends, and best returning crewmembers.

  Race crew Dan Shea in the 2016 RORC Caribbean 600.

Race crew Dan Shea in the 2016 RORC Caribbean 600.

To top it off - and I ever forgot this story for the first draft of this piece - I got appendicitis offshore on our first leg north to Canada in 2016! That was probably the toughest of all the setbacks, but Dad came to the rescue again as relief captain, I recovered without any setbacks to my health, and we ultimately barely missed a beat that summer. Indeed I nearly forgot about the incident altogether!


Blasting Across the Atlantic

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!

With all that behind us, and the boat in much better shape than it was at the start of the 2016 season, 2017 got off to a MUCH better start. 

We flew from Sweden to Tortola on February 1 to start the year by sailing to windward to Antigua where we’d stage for our second try at the Caribbean 600 race. This time around the Trades were still blowing hard, but Isbjorn, and my confidence, was up to the task. It helped having arguably one of Isbjorn’s most enthusiastic helmsman along for the passage in Vlado, a Canadian transplant originally from Serbia, who was along with his wife, Irena, was from Croatia. With Isbjorn crashing and bashing upwind towards our first landfall in St Barth’s, Vlado joked that we could all go below, he’d take it from here, and that if it were up to him, he’d keep sailing right on to Africa. 

  Vlado driving Isbjorn hard to windward en route to Antigua on Leg 1 of 2017.

Vlado driving Isbjorn hard to windward en route to Antigua on Leg 1 of 2017.

Confidence in Isbjorn and our business in general was given another boost as we crossed the finish line of the Caribbean 600 in the darkness of the middle of the night, a few weeks later. 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! Our result was nothing to write home about, but we finished! I had taken for granted the year before that we’d finish, and was really and truly disappointed when we didn’t. It took a full year to redeem that failure, and MAN did it feel good!

  Finishing the 2017 RORC Caribbean 600!

Finishing the 2017 RORC Caribbean 600!

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, our crew was outstanding, both as sailors and as people, and Paul & I continued to forge a bond between us as friends and sailors that seems to grow stronger all the time (and especially mores after his ordeal with Irma in Tortola).

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 already in April of 2017. 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, about 40 miles south of Tortola and St Thomas. 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.

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There’s not much to say about the actual crossing really. Again, Isbjorn performed flawlessly, our confidence in the boat, and importantly in our handling of her, just kept going up and up and up. 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. ‘Wattsson’, our hydrogenerator, seemed to have his 2016 kinks worked out and he made our electricity the whole way across the pond.

  Landfall in the Azores!

Landfall in the Azores!

2017 ended with perhaps the best trip I’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 for some seriously good times. 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. An summer sailing in Sweden followed, unexpectedly (for some reason Mia & I hadn’t accounted for the fact that we’d actually BE in Sweden for the summertime). And all of a sudden our season was over. The boat was in one piece, we had money in the bank, 2018 was nearly fully booked, 2019 was already over halfway booked, and we were set to have our longest stint yet OFF the boat since we bought her, spending time ashore in our new home base at the farm Mia’s dad grew up on.


Back to the Future

Which kind of brings us to the present. Isbjorn is on the west coast, at Vindö Marin on the legendary boatbuilding island of Orust, where boats have been built for over 10,000 years. Hallberg-Rassy, Najad, Malo, all the famous Swedish builders have their factories on this small, out of the way island, and Isbjorn will spend the winter in a heated shed getting her second major refit.

Currently all her tanks are out, her old engine is out, her old windlass is out, the keelbolts have been inspected and she’s more or less ready to be put back together again. Mia & I are heading back to the boat on Monday Jan. 8th to see her for the first time since September. When we left, we’d stripped all the sails off and done as much as we could to put her away for the winter. Mia’s dad brought a trailer down and we unloaded EVERYTHING, cushions and all, anticipating the major refit this winter. After we’d left, the yard hauled her out, pulled her rig, and put her in her winter berth inside their big workshop. When we launch her in April, she will have undergone the following:

  • A new Beta 60 engine, painted ‘Kubota Blue’ specially for us.
  • Rebuilt and insulated engine room.
  • A new high-output, custom alternator from Mark Grasser, via a referral from our friend and former Vendee Globe sailor Bruce Schwab up in Maine.
  • All new tanks - 2 fuel and 3 water, with new tank gauges and all new plumping on the water system.
  • A new-old-stock Simpson Lawrence 555 ‘Seatiger’ manual windlass on the foredeck.
  • A refitted inner forestay fitting - the old ‘slot’ was removed and glassed over, and a Wichard double-padeye installed in it’s place, tied into the chain locker bulkhead belowdecks.
  • New Furuno 1835 standalone radar with full ARPA installed at the nav station below (and the old chart plotter removed, in favor of a dual iPad system for electronic navigation).
  • A new Webasto forced-air diesel furnace heater for the Arctic!
  • Plus a host of smaller, fiddly projects that are basic maintenance more than refit items.

Finances

All of this costs, of course, which brings us to the financial state of Isbjorn Sailing in 2018. Thanks to our amazing crew who have put their faith in coming sailing with us, we have not had to take ANY debt to finance all these refit projects. We’re staring down a total bill this winter, including storage, launch, mast stepping, etc, of close to $80,000, and amazingly we’re able to pay for it. Mia & I couldn’t take a salary in 2017 and have indeed sacrificed a lot of ‘normal’ lifestyle items in order to make this work, but it’s so worth it! That brings the total refit costs now, from the time we bought Isbjorn, close to $150,000, which is more actually that we paid for the boat! There’s a whole other essay here on buying and refitting old boats. But bottom line, once this is all done, we should be set for the next 10 years or so, only having to do standard maintenance on the boat rather than keep pouring all this refit money into her. I could eat my words of course, but my hope is that 2018 will be the first year Mia & I can take a salary from the business and start building in earnest our personal lives.

Arctic & Beyond!

As for 2018, we’ve got our most ambitious year yet coming up on the boat, and ALMOST a full crew to share it with. In case you’re wondering, we’ve got 2 crew spaces left for all of 2018 - one on the year’s first passage from Sweden to Scotland starting May 1; and another in the year’s final passage, from Dublin to Portugal in September. Besides going up to the Arctic for the first time, we’ve got big plans with SV Delos, which I hope you heard about on last week’s special show! They’ll be joining Isbjorn in Svalbard, along with our own ship’s photographer James Austrums, for an expedition where we’ll attempt to sail around the big island of Spitsbergen, about 800 miles or so, and only recently possible thanks to climate change and diminishing sea ice on the eastern side of the Svalbard archipelago, filming all the way.

After that 3-week project we’ll get our ‘normal’ crew back and sail SOUTH to Iceland (I never thought I’d say that!), finishing the season in Portugal after a brief stopover in Dublin, where we’re hoping to do a talk at one of the local sailing clubs in the city. 

To bring this back to our mission statement, we’re trying hard this year to build on what we have, stay focused on offshore sailing, and importantly say NO to some of the projects that sound interesting to me but ultimately don’t get anywhere. There is a fine line there too on the creative side. Even stuff like fiddling with photo editing, making video clips, writing for three hours something that never gets published - that’s all ‘productive’ stuff, even though it doesn’t directly ‘produce’ anything. The creative process requires that kind of thing that on the surface feels like wasting time, but is really just stretching the muscles, warming up for the stuff that doesn’t eventually produce. Where I personally want to start saying NO is to the sideways stuff, the stuff that doesn’t produce but ALSO doesn’t even flex the creative muscles, in the right direction. 

To further that mission of ‘sharing the high seas,’ we’ve got some new workshops on the calendar for 2018, including our first-ever official event in Sweden. While it’s not published yet, we’re planning on a full-day workshop on all things offshore sailing in Stockholm sometime in late March, with Mia & I and a few special guests. We’re expanding on that in Annapolis in October and hosting a two-day offshore sailing workshop in late September, the weekend before the Sailboat Show. The weekend after, Brion Toss will return to Annapolis to host another weekend workshop focused on Rigging & Sailmaking.

I’m hoping to write more for some of the major magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, keep doing this podcast that I love so much, and keep planning new and exciting adventures of future sailing passages on Isbjorn! I read a neat quote yesterday that said something like ‘if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.’ That’s an apt reminder for us as we move into the future with Isbjorn.

  Bonfire at the farm in the offseason with friends.

Bonfire at the farm in the offseason with friends.

And also, we ultimately want to create more time for personal stuff. When I first sat down to write the business plan for this way back in December 2014, before we even bought the boat, the goal was always “how do we make enough money to comfortably live a simple lifestyle doing what we love while NOT having to work all the time!” I did it in reverse - how little did we need to work to reach a target of $70,000 profit in the business? 

In reality, once this refit is over, and if we plan right and make good decisions, we should be closer to $100,000 profit given the sailing schedules we’ve created, and taking into account the articles, podcast sponsorship, donations and other revenue streams we’ve built, and still have a lot of time for ourselves. By this time next year we hope to be homeowners again, on the farm here in Sweden that’s been in Mia’s family for four generations now.

My friend Tom, also an entrepreneur, taught me that PLANNING downtime is critical to actually having any of it to use. I’m going to sound spoiled when I say this, but to that end I’ve got 3 ski trips planned this winter - first to the Alps, then a ski & sail trip in Iceland with the guys on Aurora Arktika, and finally re-uniting with my friends I grew up with on our annual father-son ski trip in Aspen in March, a trip that has happened at a different location every year since I was 11, but which I’ve missed out on for the past 3 years cause we’ve been too busy with the business. (I should say that besides the travel, I’m only really paying for one of these trips. There is a certain benefit in having a business in the outdoor industry - you get to meet a lot of very generous people with houses and businesses in very cool places!)


Hold Fast

So it’s feast or famine here at 59 North. As 2018 dawns, Mia & I have the luxury of having enough money in the business to pay for this major refit, that is basically happening in our off season, and affording us that time off we wanted so badly back at the start of this whole thing in 2015 to do some things for ourselves. We will never get rich financially from this business, but we already are rich in experience and rich in friends we’ve met along the way. 

  The best of 2017...

The best of 2017...

I asked Mia what some of her takeaways from the last three years were, and she responded immediately that it’s the crew we’ve had on the boat who have made this all worthwhile. We’ve sailed with over 100 people now aboard Isbjorn and ALL of them are friends, on some level. We’ve formed deeper relationships with some than with others, but then that’s the nature of personalities. But for those who sail with us, I think, I hope, it’s obvious that we put our heart and souls into this thing which really and truly is our passion, our calling, and it’s wonderful to get that energy in return from the people with whom we share these adventures with.

So Happy New Year to everyone out there listening or reading. Have a great start to 2018, and like my mom wrote to me in a note eleven years ago now ahead of my first big trip abroad (and which I’ve since had tattooed on my wrist) “hold fast to your dreams.”