An interview with Mia & Andy from 59 degrees north about their yacht, life and future plans

Andy Schell and Mia Karlsson. Photo by:   59º North

Andy Schell and Mia Karlsson. Photo by: 59º North

Along the 59th Parallel North you will not only find places like Norway, Alaska, parts of Russia but also a beautiful S&S Nautor`s Swan 48 with owners, charter captains, podcasters and fellow adventurers Mia Karlsson & Andy Schell.

They are now in Sweden where their 1972 S&S Swan 48 is undergoing a refit at Vindö Marin prior to the seasons coming passages to Norway and the Arctic. We found the entrepreneurial and hard working couple willing to share and talk passionately about sailing, the high latitudes, boat maintenance and the upcoming plans for 2018.

Swan 48 Isbjørn. Photo:   59º North

Swan 48 Isbjørn. Photo: 59º North

Interview by Daniel Novello, editor of Scandinavian Mariner Magazine

1. Please take us back to the start. How did you two meet?

Mia & I met backpacking in New Zealand in 2006 actually. I had just graduated university from Penn State in the US. I initially majored in Professional Golf Management - studying to be a golf professional at like a training facility or country club, not a touring pro - then ended up with a degree in Tourism Management instead. I did a summer internship in Annapolis, MD, working as crew on 74-foot schooner called ‘Woodwind’, and working in their business office part of the week to learn that side of it. They offered me a job at the end of that season after I graduated. I asked to have it delayed so I could go travel for a bit - two months in Fiji and NZ. Long story short, I met Mia on that trip - she was between high school and college at the time, though we’re only a year apart in age - and moved to Sweden for the first time in December 2007.

2. Why sailing and how did the charter business come about?

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.

The well read editors copy of The Long Way by Bernard Moitessier. Photo by: Daniel Novello

The well read editors copy of The Long Way by Bernard Moitessier. Photo by: Daniel Novello

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. 

3. Tell us more about ISBJÖRN and why the Sparkman & Stephens Swan 48 is so perfect for your kind of cruising?

We learn more about the boat’s history all the time. In fact, just recently I learned that she was in the movie Jaws II in 1977, and that the crew at the time - Naval Academy midshipman - we’re paid for it in lobsters & beer!

The boat was built as an offshore ocean racer. When I give lectures and the like on offshore sailing, I tell people you can sail across an ocean on ANY boat, properly outfitted, but when choosing a boat, it’s smart to get in the head of the designer & builder, look at what that initial brief was when the concept was developed. In Isbjorn’s case, she was originally intended to sail hard and fast across oceans with a large crew - pretty much exactly what we do with her now.

The utter beauty of Olin Stephens lines combined with craftsmanship from Nautor. The Swan 48 Isbjörn. Photo:   59º North

The utter beauty of Olin Stephens lines combined with craftsmanship from Nautor. The Swan 48 Isbjörn. Photo: 59º North

She was built in 1972, and offshore racing was a much different sport than it is now - only 4 years earlier Moitessier and Sir Robin we’re racing around the world in full-keeled cruisers in the original Golden Globe, and the first Whitbread Race was still years away. Specifically, she was aggressive for her time, modern in her hull shape and meant to be fast & weatherly. She’s perfect for ocean sailing - a deep keel (8-feet), relatively narrow beam (so very stable, even if capsized), and built like a tank. We recently had the keel bolts inspected just to be safe, and they were good as new.

Most importantly to me, she’s the kind of boat where I can’t help but turn around and admire her as we dinghy away or walk down the dock. She’s stunning from every angle, and strong and sexy looking, and I just love that. If you don’t have that in your boat, you bought the wrong one.

4. Did you do a refit and what upgrades and modifications have you done?

Ha, what didn’t we do! By the time her current refit is complete on the west coast of Sweden, we will have replaced basically everything that has ever been bolted to her - chainplates, water & fuel tanks, engine, plumbing, hot water, windlass, etc. etc. She’s an old boat with a solid hull, but even so we’ve had to reinforce the bow section and rebuild the rudder bearings to the tune of $25,000. The mast & boom were replaced by a previous owner in 1997, and we got all new sails in 2015. We added all the necessary safety equipment (liferaft, PFDs, etc).

Vindö's project manager Henrik and Mia discussing the refit at Vindö Marin.  Photo:   59º North

Vindö's project manager Henrik and Mia discussing the refit at Vindö Marin. Photo: 59º North

I’ve refitted three oceangoing boats now - our first boat Arcturus, a 1966 yawl; my dad’s 38-foot boat ‘Sojourner,’ which he’s sailed back and forth to the Caribbean 3 times from the US; and Isbjorn. I always prioritize fundamentals first - keep the rig up, the water out, and the rudder attached. The rest is just a matter of comfort. As the business has grown, we’ve been able to add to some of the comfort items - hot water and heat for the upcoming Arctic passages, for example.

5. Passages during a year must run in to the thousands of miles for you guys. How does your maintenance schedule look like?

10,000 miles per year to be precise! We have to be extra careful with maintenance because we can’t afford breakdowns in-season - our schedule is simply too tight to allow us any time to stop for repairs.

So we need to be prepared to live without. For example, in St John’s Newfoundland in 2016, the starter motor quit on us two days before the new crew was set to arrive for the 700-mile passage south to Nova Scotia. I scrambled and found a car-repair shop who said they could look at it, but no promises. So we briefed the crew on what it would take to sail out of the harbor - perhaps with a tow from the pilot boat - and go under sail all the way down, old- school. We have a hydrogenerator, so electric would be no problem, and I’m confident handling the boat under sail only.

Furthermore, we’ve opted to simply replace anything questionable before it has a chance to breakdown. To that end, we’re installing a new engine this winter, manual (as opposed to electric) windlass for the anchor, new tanks, foot pumps for the water system, etc.

To sum up; we simplify wherever possible, start fresh if we can afford it, and learn to rely on fundamental seamanship when some of that comfort stuff breaks down, which we know it will.

6. What sort of equipment brakes and what lasts?

It depends on how you use it. Sails, for example. We replaced them in 2015 with Hydranet cloth on the mainsail, and two genoas (135% and 105%). That should last 50,000 miles. But in ocean sailing, there’s very specific ways to make them last much longer. Never letting them flog, for example. Setting up the reefing system so you can reef off the wind, for example. Not crash gybing. Managing chafe, all the time. So the way we think about stuff like that prolongs the usage of most critical equipment.

So there is a difference between ‘maintenance’ items and ‘consumables,’ like oil filters, belts, etc. Stuff that needs to be changed on a regular basis BEFORE it wears out or causes problems.

The biggest maintenance item on Isbjorn is probably the head! With 6 crew on the boat all the time, that toilet gets flushed a LOT! We change the pump yearly just to keep it going properly, so that’s one of our biggest maintenance items. Same with the watermaker, changing filters.

7. Any particular piece of kit you cannot live without onboard?

Well, we quite literally cannot live without the watermaker, but not by choice. isbjorn only carries 400L of water, so with 6 people on board, any passage longer than a week and we run out of water. So the watermaker is great for that, to keep people drinking fresh water and have an occasional shower.

But it comes at a cost - you’re layering technology. We need more electricity to run the watermaker. So we added a Watt & Sea hydrogenerator that makes all our power offshore. It’s awesome, but already we’ve had to send it back to France once for a warranty repair. It goes against my philosophy of ‘fundamentally’ simple. It’d be much easier to just add tankage, or save on water, but we can’t do that given the nature of the business and the limitations of the boat.

Downwind sailing. Photo:   59º North

Downwind sailing. Photo: 59º North

Otherwise, and this is more relevant to your question, I wouldn’t go offshore without a downwind pole. Fixed specifically (as opposed to a telescoping whisker pole). Whether or not you have a spinnaker. Our favorite downwind rig in heavy air is the small jib on the pole and double-reefed main goose-winged out each side. We can sail much deeper angles and save on chafe, as the pole stabilizes everything.

8. During passages, how do you manage weather reports and planning?

All our electronics are iPad-based. The only built-in electronics we have onboard are a dedicated radar (Furuno 1835 to be specific), plus standard wind/depth/speed.

Offshore, we download GRIB files over Iridium satellite, via a 9555 handset connected to the iPad via wifi from a little ‘Optimizer’ router that plugs into the phone. The 9555 has an external antenna so it can be used belowdecks. We use xGate email software and Weather 4D 2.0 GRIB software.

There is a big difference between GRIBs - which are raw, computer data, NOT analyzed by a human forecaster - and synoptic charts, which ARE analyzed by a human. So to that end, we analyze the GRIBs ourselves, based on our own experience, then use WRI (Weather Routing Inc, in New York), to send up text-based synopses and outlooks for how they see the weather developing, when we need them. In a stable weather pattern, I’m comfortable analyzing the raw GRIBs myself. But in the shoulder seasons, spring and fall, when the weather is less stable, I like having a professional looking at my work and giving me their opinion. Then I can choose the best option. (Full disclosure - WRI sponsors our forecasts).

Andy practising celestial navigation. Photo:   59º North

Andy practising celestial navigation. Photo: 59º North

Planning-wise, as in the maintenance stuff above, we have little time to wait for the perfect windows, and basically break the cardinal rule of cruising, which is to never sail to a schedule. So we pick our seasons appropriately, never sailing in hurricane season, for example, and have the boat outfitted to handle real gales. We had the strongest weather yet coming across the Atlantic last summer, with sustained winds over 40 knots for 2 days, but Isbjorn handled it wonderfully, it was from astern, and we cranked along under triple-reefed mainsail and tiny genoa making 8 knots, and surfing up to 14! Goes back to having the right boat for the job too!

9. We are exited to read about your 2018 itinerary. Tell us more and are there any vacancies?

We are also excited! This will be the most ambitious schedule yet, the most hard-core sailing we’ve ever done, with the business or not. We’ll leave Sweden May 1, sailing from Marstrand to Orkney, in Scotland. Then nonstop to Bodo, up through Lofoten and Tromso, before venturing all the way to Svalbard. In Longyearbyen, the crew from [the popular sailing series on YouTube]  S/V Delos will join us for three weeks and we’ll attempt to circumnavigate Spitsbergen, filiming the whole way!

We’ll sail SOUTH to Iceland (never thought I’d say that!), then on through Faroe an eventually to Dublin, finally finishing the season in Portugal. We’ve crammed as much as possible into the Arctic summer, so have even less time between passages than normal, but have allowed a lot MORE time on the actual trips to do some more local cruising in the islands and along the coast, as the passage lengths are actually shorter than normal for us.

The only vacancies as of Jan 24 are on the very first leg of the year, from Sweden to Orkney May 1-11, and actual our shortest passage at only 10 days. After that, we have no openings, amazingly, June of 2019! So can’t complain there!

S&S Swan 48 Isbjörn stretching her legs in blue water. Photo:   59º North

S&S Swan 48 Isbjörn stretching her legs in blue water. Photo: 59º North

10. A number of readers of the magazine have taken part in a survey and over 40% of the respondents dream of sailing in the higher latitudes, but feel they lack both experience and the ability to navigate in those waters. What can you learn on a cruise onboard ISBJÖRN and what are the requirements for joining a leg?

Well, I have to say that I lack the experience up there too, but you gotta start somewhere! It’s all about preparation. Whether on my podcast, in my lectures, or on the boat itself, I preach preparation and simplicity. Offshore sailing anywhere is serious business - but it’s not rocket science. The greater sailing industry does an excellent job of ‘complicating to profit’ - everything from ‘have to have’ gadgets that do nothing but make you more comfortable (if that), to certification schemes that don’t even give you a useable license, but make you feel good about yourself.

On Isbjorn, we use pure experience. Our crew do everything onboard the boat, from driving her through gales to hoisting and dousing the chute to washing the dishes down below (harder than it sounds when you’re seasick!). I take a director’s role on the boat and have very soft hands - “captain’s hands” as we call them! - meaning I rarely pull on the ropes ;) So folks who sail with us learn by default, and they learn that it doesn’t have to be complicated, but things do have to be done ‘Right’ with a capital R.

2018 Passages onboard Isbjörn. Photo:   59º North

2018 Passages onboard Isbjörn. Photo: 59º North

11. Our readers and the magazine are concerned with the climate and sustainability. The North Atlantic and the Arctic are in the international spotlight, both because of geopolitical interests but also because of potential enormous reserves of oil and gas. The region is also particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Tourism is growing rapidly in the region. This development sets new demands to the tourist industry regarding sustainability and diversification in the industry, and calls for prioritising the principle of value creation in the local communities. How can small cruising operators in the region, such as yourself, contribute positively?

By setting the right example. We try not to preach to people about environmental stuff, but instead do things the right way and set good examples, AND enjoy the places we visit without making too big a deal about it. Stupidly, environmentalism has become politicized, particularly in the USA, so if you talk too loudly about it, you just end up getting into arguments over it. So instead of talking, we act, and make sure that in anything we put out in the media - from photos to podcasts to articles to crew newsletters - we’re doing things absolutely the right way.

The sailing industry especially is INCREDIBLY hypocritical when it comes stuff stuff like plastic in the ocean - boats are ARC rally, for example carry enormous amounts of bottled water with them to drink, despite having huge tankage, AND for more than half the fleet WATERMAKERS! It’s insanity.

So we do our best to set the best example and take people to these far flung places on earth they wouldn’t otherwise get to visit. We partner with like-minded companies too, most recently Karun, who make sunglasses and eyeglasses from recycled plastic fishing nets they collect in the ocean, and reclaimed wood from Patagonia.

Specifically, we use NO disposable paper or plastic onboard Isbjorn at sea or otherwise. Even at lectures we host, we go the local ‘loppis’ and pickup used ceramic coffee mugs we give out so people don’t have to use paper cups for the coffee we serve.

But most important to me is going to these places with new people, and bringing back the stories and photos to the masses that might make people change their minds about how they do things in their daily life. So I’m having a hard time putting this in words, but we’re trying to me MORE effective by being LESS loud about this sort of thing - the trip to Svalbard is less about climate change for us and more about simply enjoying this fabulous nature that mother earth has provided us. I want to see it! 

Mia Karlsson at the helm. Photo:   59º North

Mia Karlsson at the helm. Photo: 59º North

12. A question to Mia; can you tell us more about the #shesailing project?

I was looking around on Instagram for a group or # and I couldn't find one, so I thought I might as well start a collection, and #shesailing was born. I got sick of just seeing girls in bikinis and wanted to show that there are women out there doing really cool stuff on the ocean, both in all- female crews and in mixed crews. It was never about 'women-only' stuff for me. I wanted to feature women following their dreams on the ocean and set an example that it can be in bikinis or not, with men or not, and just try to normalize EVERYONE out there pursuing what they love.

Mia & Andy, thank you so much for taking the time off your very busy schedule to talk to us. We look forward to follow your adventures moving forward. Fair winds!

  • Read more about the adventures of Mia & Andy onboard Isbjörn here
  • Listen to the excellent podcast they are producing here
  • Read more about the coming Arctic Passages here

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