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Swedish sailing: Exploring archipelagos in a classic Norlin 34

With their bluewater adventures on pause, Andy Schell and family went back to basics and cruised the Swedish archipelagos on a classic Norlin 34

My first real memories — tangible memories that I know to be my own and not false memories born of old photos and stories — were formed as a nine-year-old boy on a boat.

In 1993 my mom and dad, Gail and Dennis, took my younger sister Kaitie and I out of school for a year. Along with two cats, Ketchie and Salty, we lived aboard our 36ft Allied Princess ketch Sojourner, cruising down the US east coast and spending the winter in the Bahamas. I was in 4th grade, my sister 2nd, our parents homeschooling us in the intervals between adventures.

I remember building a little cardboard house on the shelf in the quarterberth where I slept for our cat, Salty, who hated it despite my efforts. I remember Salty riding on the bow of Sojourner as we crossed the Gulf Stream, Bahamas bound, perched atop the inflated dinghy and balancing with the grace that only a cat can have on a boat.

I remember that first Bahamian anchorage in Chubb Cay, going snorkelling with my mom over the shallow reef, holding her hand while we swam because I was afraid of touching the coral, and seeing spotted eagle rays swim under the boat. I remember waking up at four in the morning in Nassau on Boxing Day and sitting in the back of an old jitney bus with torn brown vinyl seats to go watch the pre-dawn Junkanoo carnival celebrations.

I have memories of going spearfishing with my dad, when we’d tow the dinghy behind us while we swam and I’d point out the big grouper hiding in the coral heads because he couldn’t see without his glasses on. Then he’d dive down and spear them with the simple Bahamian pole spear, nothing more than a fibreglass rod with a sharp tip and a rubber band. And I remember my friends in school back in landlocked Pennsylvania asking us what it was like to live on a cruise ship for nine months, their idea of ‘cruising’ being quite different from our reality.

These memories are a fundamental part of me, and the reason that I have chosen a career in the specific brand of adventure sailing that we’ve pursued ever since starting 59° North. I’m just a big kid trying to make more of the memories that made me who I am.

A family affair

On March 8, 2020, right about when the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to hit headlines around the western world, my wife Mia gave birth to our son, Axel.

He arrived nine weeks premature, and we spent the next two months living by his side in the NICU department of the University Hospital in Uppsala, about 40 minutes from our farmhouse in Sweden. Initially healthy, Axel got a bad infection that turned into meningitis, and had to have two brain surgeries in the span of a few weeks, when he weighed only 4lb.

Simultaneously, the COVID-19 crisis ripped up our sailing schedule. Unbeknown to all the crew who had signed on to sail with us in 2020, I was managing 59° North’s response from the hospital room while Axel lay in his tiny bed hooked up to machines and monitors, with Mia by his side.

I made the difficult decision to postpone the entire sailing season until 2021 and, with the help of some very adventurous and determined friends, managed to have both boats sailed out of the Caribbean and up to our home port of Annapolis before hurricane season started.

Unlike me, Mia had not grown up around boats. She’s from the landlocked countryside, and while a former competitive swimmer and comfortable in the water, she’d never spent any meaningful time on it. That all changed when we met travelling in New Zealand in 2006.

Mia’s first experience on a sailboat was with me and three other friends in the Marlborough Sounds of the South Island, where we chartered a little 28-footer and spent five days anchorage hopping and falling in love.

I returned home to the Chesapeake where I worked as a deckhand on a 74ft schooner. Mia and I, despite only having spent six weeks together in New Zealand, became a committed couple, and she soon joined me in the USA.

After spending the summer living aboard my parent’s latest Sojourner, by then a 38ft Wauquiez sloop, we decided it was time to buy our own boat, and in 2008 became the proud owners of Arcturus, a 1966 35ft Allied Seabreeze yawl, built by the same company in Albany, New York, that had made the original Sojourner on which I spent that formative year in the Bahamas.

Branching out

Mia grew as a sailor, coming on offshore deliveries with me and getting down and dirty on the refit work on Arcturus. In 2011, two weeks after getting married in Sweden, we flew back to the USA and sailed Arcturus across the Atlantic on our first big ocean crossing, sailing north from the Chesapeake and taking the high road to Ireland via Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

My mom and dad joined us on the leg from Newport, RI, to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, on what would be my mother’s last sailing trip. She died nine months later, aged just 62, but having left us with the inspiration to hold fast to our dreams.

‘Never for Money, Always for Love’. David Byrne of Talking Heads wrote that line and it’s become my mantra. By 2015 we’d already started 59° North with my dream boat, a 1972 Swan 48 called Isbjorn, with the goal of fulfilling two of my parents’ most important lessons.

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From mom, to ‘do what you love and the money will follow’; and from dad, that ‘whatever you do, be the best, and you’ll always be in demand’. Both are powerful lessons on their own, but unstoppable when combined.

Standing on the dock at the Caribbean 1500 Rally in 2015, where Mia and I were the event managers, we watched Isbjorn glide out of her slip, my dad on board as co-skipper with a full crew of eager adventure sailors ready to point the bow south. Mia and I were left behind, responsible for running the shore support on the rally. “Never again,” I thought, with a heavy heart. I was meant to lead people from the deck, not the dock.

Since then Mia and I have sailed Isbjorn almost 40,000 miles, twice across the Atlantic and from as far south as Grenada to beyond 80° north in Svalbard. In 2019 we expanded the fleet and bought Icebear, our Swan 59, as a way to share the wisdom of the high seas with more crew each year, and to provide opportunities for a handful of sailors like us to make a living delivering these experiences. So far, despite COVID, it’s been mission accomplished.

Speed to Spica

Still, I can’t help but browse boat listings. As our business has grown, so has the size of our yachts. But I’ve always wanted to go back to my roots, and find a small, simple boat we could sail as a family here in the Swedish archipelago, but that could also take us to distant landfalls if we so desired.

With Axel growing stronger by the day, a 1977 Norlin 34 ‘Special’ caught my eye. Swedish designer Peter Norlin’s designs had always stood out, identifiable by their clean lines, pleasing shapes, and that iconic ’N’ imprinted on their bows.

The 34 became a bit of a legend in Sweden for her wins in the Gotland Runt offshore race in the Baltic, and strong finishes in the Fastnet and other classic offshore races of the 1970s IOR era.

This particular 34 was unique: she was a one-off, built to the standard 34 hull, but with flush foredeck, racing cockpit layout and some interior modifications specifically for the 1977 edition of the Gotland Runt race.

She was an offshore thoroughbred built during an era when racing boats still had warm interiors and were meant for fun family cruising as well. After meeting with her loving owner and negotiating a deal, we bought her. We didn’t need to look at any other boats.

There’s an old adage for identifying stars used in celestial navigation: ‘Follow the arc to Arcturus, then speed on to Spica!’ Find the big dipper constellation, then trace the curve of the dipper’s handle and continue on through dark space until you come to a bright star. That’s Arcturus.

From Arcturus, keep travelling through the sky in the same direction, and the next bright star you come to is Spica. Both stars are part of the canon of 57 stars used in celestial navigation. Without much debate, we connected the dots from our first boat Arcturus to our new Norlin 34 and called her Spica.

We went sailing almost immediately. We carried Axel in his car seat down the long floating dock, filled up the water tank and cast off, aiming into the myriad islands that make up the spectacular Stockholm archipelago.

Spica is a refreshingly simple boat; one battery powers the tiny fridge and cabin lights, another starts the engine and a single 50W solar panel on a pole aft charges them both.

There’s no electronics (not even a depth sounder), no pressure water, no autopilot, no chartplotter, no shower, no frills. Just like in my early days on Sojourner, we’d spend our time sailing and exploring rather than fixing and maintaining.

I was in my element tacking and gybing through the maze of islands, rocks and skerries as we made our way out into the Baltic, Axel snug in his car seat on the cockpit sole, Mia keeping one eye on him and another on the paper chart as we piloted through the islands.

Having got used to sailing our Swan 59 over some 8,000 miles in the previous year, tacking her 30-tons between anchored boats with a full crew, handling Spica’s 6 tons basically solo was an absolute joy. Everything felt so light! It’s hard to imagine that Mia and I ever complained about flaking the mainsail on Arcturus back when she felt like a big boat to us.

We’d bought Spica up north, beyond the inshore confines of the Stockholm archipelago. Thus our summer sailing had a purpose: to get her back to our home waters, reacquainting ourselves with the cruising ground we’d come to love on Arcturus, and ultimately to get Spica home to her winter berth before we headed back to the 59° North fleet in Annapolis.

We were lucky to have nice weather for the passage south, but it was upwind the entire way. Peter Norlin summarised his design philosophy as ‘clean lines, clean sailing,’ and close-hauled, despite her old, tired sails, Spica performed. The helm was light with full sail and on the wind I could lock the wheel and let her steer herself, so long as I kept a lookout.

We’d cover however many miles we felt like from day to day, but always with the mission of getting closer to home. At night we’d anchor Swedish-style, bow tied to a pine tree in the rocks with a stern anchor out.

Our only marina night was in Sandhamn, the sailing centre on the east coast of Sweden, a delightful and busy island in normal times, but quiet and subdued last summer thanks to COVID.

Mia and I slept in sleeping bags in the big quarterberth aft while Axel had his own mini sleeping bag tucked into the nest we made him in the starboard pilot bunk.

Since I was a kid, I’ve always slept better on a boat. Mia was even more enthusiastic than me about the new boat, and had no qualms at all about taking Axel. Having lived eight weeks with him in the hospital and watching how resilient he was, it felt comparatively easy taking him sailing.

Ultimately we sailed a couple of hundred miles last summer, just Axel, Mia and I before hauling out Spica for the long Swedish winter. It has set us up perfectly for the future as a sailing family.

I’m hopeful that when he’s old enough, Axel can join me or Mia on Isbjorn or Icebear as mate and we can cross oceans together. But that day is a long way off, and I don’t want to just wait for it to come before we take him sailing.

If there is anything that my mom taught me, it’s that nobody owns tomorrow. Life is meant to be lived, but you’ve got to actively live it. Looking at it one way, we bought Spica at the worst possible time, in the midst of a global pandemic and right after having a premature newborn. Nothing in our life feels certain anymore.

But from our perspective, we bought Spica at the perfect time. We bought the boat for us and we bought it for Axel, with those lessons my mom taught us at the forefront of our minds. In an era of uncertainty, if you take care of the present, the future will take care of itself.


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