Many practicing and aspiring cruisers are familiar with the crew of the Delos; they have gained internet stardom via their Youtube video chronicles of the cruising lifestyle. This past summer, the Delos team—Brian, Karin, Brady, Alex and Kiril—joined my wife, Mia, photographer James Austrums and me aboard our Swan 48, Isbjörn, in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago for three weeks of adventure, filming and merriment in the High Arctic. Mia and I had long had a dream to sail to this lonely, rugged Norwegian archipelago only 600 miles from the North Pole, where the polar bears outnumber the humans, the water is sometimes choked with ice, and the mountains fall from 3,000ft straight into the sea. It would be the biggest challenge of our careers to date, and we wanted to properly document it.
To get this out of the way right at the top, because everyone is wondering: yes, the Delos crew are as enthusiastic as they appear in their videos. No, they’re not actually filming 24/7. Yes, we went swimming (at almost 80 degrees north latitude) and no, there was no nudity. No, they’re not drunk all the time. And boy, do they work harder than anybody realizes.
I take it for granted nowadays that most sailors know about Delos. In a nutshell, the Delos crew is Brian and Brady Trautman, two brothers who left Seattle nine years ago in Brian’s 54ft Amel Super Maramu Delos (hence the name) on an open-ended voyage, after Brian quit his job as an engineer. Pretty standard sailing story, except that they were much younger (in their 20s and 30s) than your typical cruiser.
Brian met Karin Syren early on in their travels in New Zealand, and they’ve been inseparable ever since, getting engaged earlier this summer. Brady also met Alex Blue a little over a year ago, and today, the four of them make up the core crew. Throw in “Killa Kiril” Dobrev, who works full-time for them from his home-base in Vietnam (and is occasionally on the boat), and you’ve got the core Delos team.
Six years ago, the Delos crew were at the forefront of the YouTube sailing channel phenomenon, initially making videos of their adventures simply to share with family and friends. By accident, they discovered that those videos appealed to a much wider audience, and they began to take them more and more seriously, eventually figuring out how to monetize them through donation sites like patreon.com. Their model relies on critical mass—today, their YouTube channel has over 300,000 subscribers, and a tiny percentage of them, some 2,000 or so, donate enough money to the show to support five people working full-time and producing and editing their sailing videos. Their success has spawned dozens of copycats, but Delos remains by far the best, most professional, and the most lucrative.
I’ve followed the Delos crew for a long time now, not so much as a fan but more as a contemporary. We’ve followed a similar career path—pursuing our passions in sailing, and through hard work and clever ideas, figuring out how to make a living from doing what we love. Through their hugely popular YouTube series, they’ve successfully removed the gatekeepers and are able to make the videos they want to make and have a heck of a fun time doing it while making their own rules—and a living—along the way.
Mia and I met Brian and Karin in Stockholm right before Christmas in 2016. Like us, they are a Swedish-American couple who first met in New Zealand. We interviewed them for my On the Wind podcast, and we instantly hit it off.
Fast forward to late summer 2017: Mia and I had sailed Isbjörn across the Atlantic and could now start thinking in earnest about our ambitious 2018 schedule to sail up to Svalbard in the High Arctic. On a whim, I e-mailed Brian to see if he and the Delos crew would be interested in joining us, having a cool adventure and filming our three weeks in Svalbard. Brian immediately replied “yes.” For the first time, Delos would be making their iconic videos on somebody else’s boat. It was a chance for us to have an awesome adventure with like-minded people, not to mention a pretty cool PR opportunity for our business at 59 North Sailing.
The Delos Crew
In their YouTube videos, each of the Delos crew has adopted distinct personas, and they each have nicknames. Brian—aka “Breeyawn”—is the oldest member of the crew and unquestionably the leader. After all, it was his idea in the first place to quit his life ashore, buy a boat and sail around the world. He’s a natural, quiet but funny, never stressed and super knowledgeable. Mia joked after we recorded the podcast with him and Karin that he’s got such a nice, soothing voice he should start his own podcast called “Bedtime with Brian,” where he just tells bedtime stories. “It would put me straight to sleep,” she said.
“Kazza,” as Karin is known, is Brian’s fiancée. For lack of a better description, Karin is typically Swedish. She and Mia spoke Swedish to each other for much of the trip up north. Despite the reputation Delos has for being big partiers, Karin doesn’t drink at all.
“Señor Brady” is Brian’s younger brother, and I’d say the enthusiasm leader of the group. Brady is always up for an adventure. He’s also the prankster. (One time he sent a hard drive full of footage back to Kiril for editing, with a top-level folder called “Brazilian Bikini Girls.” Naturally, this caught Kiril’s attention, and he opened that folder first. Let’s just say that the video clips he found inside were NOT what the title implied.)
Alex, aka “Blue,” is Brady’s girlfriend. She is the newest member of the Delos crew, having been aboard for a little over a year. She was the gang’s still-photography specialist and did a lot of really cool time-lapses while we were up north.
Finally, “Killa” Kiril rounded out the five-person Delos crew. Originally a contest winner through YouTube that got him on the boat as an outsider, Kiril has melted into the group as an essential cog in the machine. Bolstered by his South African accent, Kiril is easily the funniest member of the team. I loved being around him. He lives in Vietnam now and does a lot of the behind-the-scenes editing remotely.
All five of the Delos crew are “sailor’s sailors.” Sometimes their fun-loving, booze-filled videos give folks the wrong impression. But make no mistake—these guys are the real deal. It was refreshing up north on the longer passages to let them do their thing. I slept more soundly than I did all summer knowing Isbjörn was in capable hands.
In total there were eight of us onboard Isbjörn, with Mia and myself and our own photographer James, who we’d hired to spend two full months with us in the Arctic. James is a climber and adventurer and fit in with the group perfectly. It was the biggest crew we’ve ever had on the boat for an extended period.
The Delos gang joined Isbjörn on June 18, the same afternoon our previous crew from the passage up from Tromsø departed. We had a whirlwind day of re-provisioning, doing laundry and cleaning the boat. We filmed some stuff on the beach in the snow and did pre-interviews of all the crew before the trip started in earnest. Until they got all their gear down to the boat—and it was a lot of stuff, between cold-weather clothing and gear plus all their camera gear, a second rifle, boots, beer and rum—it was late into the evening. In the Arctic, I’d adapted the “never waste a fair wind” adage to “never waste fair weather.” So in bright sunshine, and despite the hour, we departed. Thus started our upside-down time schedule in earnest.
On our way north, we anchored at Dahlbrebukta in the middle of a huge crescent-shaped bay fronted to the east by a massive glacier that was going OFF. Before we even got the anchor down, the ice dropping off the face and into the water was booming. We could hear it from a few miles away, echoing off the surrounding 3,000ft peaks.
After landing the dinghy on the old moraine between the boat and the glacier, we climbed the next hill, some 150ft high, and were greeted by an amphitheater-like view of the glacier face and the small bay just in front of it. A couple of fur seals were hauled out on glacial ice that had calved into the bay.
For several hours we sat on that hill sipping beers, watching and filming the glacier calving into the sea. When we got back to Isbjörn, the big flow of calved ice had started working its way out toward the boat on the receding tide. We weighed anchor and moved farther out of the bay, but not before James donned his drysuit and climbed in the water to get some sea-level views of Isbjörn in the ice.
Check out the shot above taken from the drone—you can see Isbjörn in the ice, James, in black, swimming behind her with his camera, Brian and Blue filming in the dinghy, Mia at the helm, me by the dodger in the yellow hat piloting the drone, and Brady and Kiril manning the “ice defender” poles to push the biggest pieces out of the way. It’s one of my favorite photos from the project and perfectly illustrates how much was going on at any one given time.
All the while the booming continued as the glacier kept dropping bombs into the sea.
So You Want to Start a YouTube Channel?
The Delos crew were one of the first sailing channels on YouTube, and they’ve spawned dozens of lesser copycats. From a distance, the laid-back, casual style of the Delos episodes make it look easy. “If they can do it, I can do this,” seems to be a common thought among like-minded sailors looking to finance a cruising lifestyle.
Having seen them in action, though, they don’t need to worry about competition. The amount of work that goes into their videos is enormous.
“It’ll be 60 hours of post-production to get a 30-minute finished episode,” Brady explains. “And that’s not counting the filming in the first place.”
Just from its three weeks with us, the team expects to produce two or three of their “standard” episodes, along with a feature-length documentary that will stand alone, separate from the online Delos universe.
The crew divides the work remarkably evenly, taking turns editing and narrating the finished videos. There’s almost always a camera within reach, and while they’re certainly not filming all the time, they’re quick enough to be able to get the shot when something cool starts happening. Our biggest challenge was keeping all the camera and drone batteries charged.
I think that Delos’s success has created this false idea that anybody can make a living out cruising and filming. Not to discourage people from trying, but man, seeing the work that goes into it, not to mention the social media skills these guys have honed to build their “tribe,” as they call their audience, it’s a daunting task if you think you’re going to compete with them. They are very good at what they do and work very hard at it.
One Long, Crazy, Incredible Day
Virgohamna is named after the ship Virgo. In the late 1800s, she anchored off a desolate stony beach at Danksoya in the beautiful “Northwest Corner” of Spitsbergen, with supplies for the Swedish explorer Andree’s planned balloon expedition over the North Pole. Isbjörn dropped anchor surely closer to shore than Virgo did back then, anchoring in about 30ft of water a few hundred feet off the beach. The scenery here is different than that of the west coast—small, tall islands, littered with black volcanic scree on their steep slopes and rugged terrain. A low layer of clouds hid the tops of the islands, there was an occasional sea-level fog and a light, almost nonexistent breeze from the northwest caused Isbjörn to lay stern-to the stony beach.
Mia, James and I hiked up the steep slope overlooking the site for a bird’s-eye view of the place in its entirety before heading back to the anchored boat. There were walrus sprawled on a sandy point to the east that we’d have to motor by on the way out of the anchorage, so James, Alex, Brian and Brady took the dinghy over on a mission out ahead of us, while Karin, Mia, Kiril and I stayed back. We planned to bring Isbjörn over to pick them up on the way out. I took a 30-minute nap while the others made tea.
As I was waking up, I heard Mia on the radio with Brian. Chris, an expedition guide from a nearby ship had informed our gang that they’d spotted a polar bear mother and a cub to the south. A new mission.
I scurried on deck and hauled up the anchor while the dinghy crew launched off the beach, filled the engine with gas and began a long, slow motorboat ride several miles to the south, where James had spotted the bears through his 400mm camera lens. The shoreline was foul, so we had to make a long looping course out into deeper water on Isbjörn.
Eventually, the bears stopped at a long-dead seal carcass on the beach on the south end of a wide, shallow bay. With little information on the chart, we gingerly nosed in, Mia and Karin on the bow looking for rocks, Kiril filming. With 16ft still under the keel, but no information on the chart, we crept ahead, letting the light northerly zephyr push us forward at half a knot.
We managed to get Isbjörn almost all the way into the beach, dropping the anchor on a very short scope in 13ft of water and letting the stern swing around toward the shoreline for a better view of the bears. With my 200mm camera lens we could get great photos right from the cockpit. Despite all the commotion, the bears paid us no attention. They were too busy “surviving,” as my mom would have said.
After that, the bears ambled along the shoreline looking for their next meal. They found it not much later in the form of an old whale carcass that was mostly skeleton. Next to it, though, was a large patch of blubber that must have survived the winter under the snowpack. Mama bear found it, directed her cub toward it, and together they feasted while we watched. To say it was an emotional experience would be an understatement. Just look at the photos. To be that close to nature, to the symbol of the Arctic itself...there are no words.
“Man we’ve seen everything today! Walrus, polar bears, the Virgohamna site. All we need now is a whale,” Brady said afterward as he steered Isbjörn northward.
Sure enough, not 30 seconds later, we spotted a spout off to starboard. Then another. And another.
“I thought it was ice on the water at first,” Brady recalls. “Then I saw the spouts and saw it was swimming, and just shouted Beluga!”
In fact, we’d sailed right into an enormous pod of them, the iconic white whales of the north. The Delos crew scrambled on deck with its camera gear. There were literally dozens of whales, all swimming into the fjord in unison, spouts covering the horizon, the distinctive white, dorsal-fin-less backs arching out of the water. James had brought along a hydrophone, and from the dinghy, Brady, Kiril and I recorded several minutes of the belugas talking to each other with their echo-locating, a chorus of beautiful, otherworldly sounds. As we passed the headphones around, our faces lit up in surprise and delight at the whale’s songs.
After that, we continued on to Holmiabukta, my favorite anchorage in all of Svalbard, and ate dinner at 2330 while we watched a slideshow of photos from this one incredible day and drank a few glasses of wine. I think we got to bed around 0200.
One Final Midnight Mission
“James…if I put the spinnaker up, will you fly the drone?”
It was somehow the middle of the night (again), the midnight sun lighting up the snow-capped peaks on either side of Forlandsundet. Isbjörn was cranking along at 7 knots in an 18-knot northerly, a slight swell from behind occasionally sending her surfing. The entrance to Isfjorden was in sight in the distance, and we knew that just around the corner lay Longyearbyen, where this whole Delos adventure had started and where it was about to end. After an incredible few weeks, seeing whales and bears, walrus and ruins, swimming amongst the ice and sailing all the way to 80 degrees north, the only thing we hadn’t yet accomplished was flying the chute.
James was sound asleep in the forepeak when I woke him. We wouldn’t get any better conditions than this, I said, and at any rate, it was our last chance, with Delos set to leave the boat two days later.
“Where do you store the spinnaker?” James asked.
“Right under your bunk, mate!” I replied.
With that, James began preparing the drone while Kiril prepped the on-deck camera, and Mia and I rigged the big white spinnaker on the foredeck. It’s impossible to do any sort of line handling with gloves on, so we’d gotten used to letting our fingers go numb while doing deck work, then wearing big warm mittens for helming.
The Delos crew came alive for one last night mission. The drone was in the air circling the boat as we pulled up the ATN sleeve and set the chute, while Kiril got our reaction shots on deck. Karin, who had also been asleep, clambered up for a final crew selfie that we shot from the drone, and for the next two hours, we blasted south in the magic light of the midnight sun.
Andy Schell and Mia Karlsson run 59 North, an open-ocean adventure sailing and training program that takes paying crew to destinations around the Atlantic Ocean. This year their Swan 48, Isbjörn, will be joined by a Swan 59 called Ice Bear.
Find out more at 59-north.com