Across another Gulf

Saturday 30 June

Second Mate had joined us in expectation of a long-awaited lovely week’s cruising: a tourist day in Tallinn, a little light sailing to an attractive island anchorage to re-establish her sea legs – a little rusty after two years absence from the water – an easy day passage to one of Helsinki’s outlying isles, a gentle potter into one of the many marinas in easy reach of the city centre, and a tourist day in Helsinki to round off the visit, all bathed in the warm sunshine and blue skies we’ve been enjoying all season, and indeed that she’d left in the UK.

Dragging ourselves reluctantly back from this utopian idyll, the reality turned out to be: one wet day in Tallinn, one very tedious passage across the Gulf of Finland, and one brief walk around central Helsinki in the company of aches and pains brought on by the dramatic change in the weather. The consequence of the latter was a couple of quiet days relaxing on the boat – which, after all, is what a holiday should be all about.

Those weather god trainees really had a field day this week. We woke up to a brisk Nor’noreasterly, from the exact direction we wanted to sail. Technically, this is known as a no-go zone, and the boat has to be tacked in a zigzag line along the desired route. So that’s exactly what happened, against a lovely backdrop of the Tallinn skyline, for the first four hours of the day.

Eventually we came abreast of Aegna Island, on the Northeastern tip of Tallinn Bay, and could consider ourselves properly out into the Gulf of Finland. The ship’s log reminds us that we spent most of the next twelve hours motorsailing, to avoid tacking the entire distance and adding around an extra 50% to our distance. The best that can be noted about the passage was that it didn’t rain, but the sea was lumpy and the boat’s (lack of) rhythm uncomfortable. There was plenty of commercial shipping to keep an eye on: this is one of the busiest stretches of sea we have ever sailed across. At least the Mates could enjoy the luxury of long hours to chat together in the cockpit, while Skipper snoozed below. Around teatime we passed a yacht on a reciprocal course – called Escale?!

Thank goodness that this far North, the nights are not dark at this time of year, as we have a cardinal rule not to enter a strange port at night. Keeping out of the paths of a stream of huge ferries from Estonia and other Scandinavian cities, we finally wove through a few of Helsinki’s off-islands at sunset: 2230 local time, and were eventually snug in our box berth in the early hours of Sunday morning. We covered 59 Miles in nearly 15 hours, a pathetic average speed of only 2.5 knots.

Tourists in Tallinn?

Tuesday 26 – Friday 29 June

Lauri and his team looked after us extremely well, the facilities were lovely (free laundry and sauna!) and they even laid on a free safety demonstration for us, and a few others who bothered to turn out.  We had hands-on experience of setting off flares and putting out fire with powder extinguishers.  The only downside was that the wind was predominantly from the West or Northwest, which blows straight into the harbour mouth, raising a nasty chop and bounce. It rained, too.

My crew were kept busy giving me a thorough clean inside and out – long overdue if you ask me. Decks were scrubbed in places I’d forgotten existed, and cupboards were turned out, wiped and tidied. I felt like a new…boat, by the time they’d finished, and ready for our first visitor this season.

After the inevitable laundry session, another major task was to unearth and build the bikes, ready for the first of several forays into town to find some food shopping. Excited by the discovery of the same chain of supermarket that stocked the favourite wine in Latvia, they were disappointed not to find it here in Estonia…but managed to select one or two acceptable substitutes. Needs must, beggars can’t be choosers, etc etc.

Finally satisfied that I was properly shipshape by the end of Wednesday, they permitted themselves a little tourist time in Tallinn on Thursday, and discovered that the city is easily reached by bicycle, bus or on foot.  They cycled the (painfully) cobbled streets of this mediaeval and Hanseatic city in search of the tourist office – Mate’s favoured first stop in any new place. This one was disappointing for its lack of interesting leaflets, free information or friendly, helpful staff: her strongest hope is always for a small guide to local walks, the better to seek out the facts unique to the town.

She did pick up a street map, and resorted to the Internet for further details. They also sourced and purchased a travelcard, from an R-Kiosk if you’re interested: Tallinn has a cool system of public transport, and you can charge the same journey for several people on the same card, which saves buying several cards on which you pay a €2 Euro deposit. The cards are refundable within six months of purchase. Local residents travel free, but you risk a €100 fine if you’re caught trying to do like a local.

Having established the timings for the airport, Mate set off in the sunset to catch the Number 73 bus from the road at the top of the marina into the city centre, changing to a Number 4 tram which stops at the main entrance to the terminal building. After some confusion around the arrival time of the plane, which in fact was delayed only a few minutes, there was an emotional reunion when Second Mate appeared through the sliding doors of Arrivals, complete with gorgeous new haircut, and surprisingly little luggage.

Another short tram journey brought them back into the city, but unfortunately the last bus 73 had already left, so a brief taxi ride brought them right down to the quayside, where Skipper was waiting to welcome our guest. A late supper was enjoyed as news was exchanged and plans discussed.

Friday morning was cool and windy. Mate went off early for a much-needed haircut, leaving Skipper and Second Mate to a more leisurely breakfast and bus ride into town. They finally met up and decided an early lunch was the order of the day. Mate dipped randomly into the adverts bordering the map, and led them to ‘Von Krahli Aed’, described as offering clean, modern Estonian cuisine with a menu including something for everyone. WOW – by complete chance, they discovered possibly the best restaurant in town – a beautiful building over several floors, with an intimate courtyard at the back, from which they were sadly rained out, and absolutely stunning food, elegantly served by a friendly, efficient American/Estonian waitress. Highly recommended, reasonably priced and excellent value, in spite of being in the heart of the touristic old town.

Tallinn has been described as a mediaeval theme park, and in the season is overrun by hordes of daytrippers from the huge cruise liners that dock here every day. It is built on a hill, making wet cobblestones even more challenging to walk on, and is probably at its best out of season and early in the day. Much of the city’s walls and towers remain and can be walked, the architecture is attractive and the market square vibrant and colourful. The old city centre is almost traffic-free, as a busy ring road parallels the perimeter walls, so pedestrians spill into the roadways off the narrow pavements.

After the restaurant, our highlight was the discovery of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church in the Laboratooriumi, just inside the old city walls. Used as a records store by the KGB, after Independence the building was restored by the German caretaker who now welcomes visitors, and is keen to discuss its history for as long as you wish to chat with him. Beautiful dark oak panelling displays stunning icons commissioned by a local artist, and the atmosphere is one of peaceful spirituality. Around 120 parishioners worship here regularly.

When we felt we really couldn’t monopolise the place any longer, we braved the rain in our unsuitable choices of clothing and footwear, to hurry home and put the heating on – in late June. Sadly, that was almost the last we saw of Tallinn, as Skipper’s study of the weather forecast indicated that if we didn’t depart the following day for Helsinki, we were unlikely to make the crossing in time for flight and ferry bookings.

We’re going on a boar hunt

Monday 25 June

Another beautiful morning, and the knowledge of a very short passage ahead of us, encouraged us to don walking boots and explore the island. We followed a (mostly) well-marked trail around the Southeastern quadrant, which begins through the pine trees that fringe the sandy shore we sailed along yesterday, leading to the lighthouse on the Southern point of the island. Deep pink rock rose is fragrantly abundant, layering headily over soft sun-warmed pine resin – surely a perfumier’s dream.

We saw many fresh tracks and some scat evidencing the recent presence of wild pigs, but sadly none in the flesh to even attempt to stroke, and no snakes either – thank goodness. The trail swung inland along a dirt track, winding through the former mine factory, and past a hotel/restaurant rather incongruously placed amidst abandoned and rusting army vehicles, and crumbling ruins. Overshadowed by tall pines, the atmosphere was derelict, creepy and sad.

Further on we came across a tiny hamlet on the edge of a bay, with elegant homes and a huge barn used for musical festivals during the season. Back in the forest, we followed for a time the old railway track that carried mines to the harbour; this is being renovated as a tourist attraction. Inevitably, we were plagued with flies while amongst the trees, and in spite of being well covered, any exposed skin proved irresistible. Eventually we came back out onto the shoreline at the campsite on the edge of the harbour, completing a grand total of nearly 14 kilometres!

Back on board, we were soon ready to begin our eleven-Mile crossing of Tallinn Bay, motoring in the lightest of zephyrs for a couple of hours, weaving between ferries and cruise ships plying in and out of this popular tourist destination at the rate of 40 a day. We made our way safely into Lennu Sadam, the Seaplane Marina, and found our pre-booked berth, for once nearest to the harbour office and amenities.

Dirhami to Naissaar Island

Sunday 24 June

An early start took us out into a steady Northerly F4, with the sea a little lumpy with swell. Optimistically setting full main and genoa, we soon had to change down to the staysail as the wind picked up, and we tacked along the coast, staying clear of a seal sanctuary and identifying Arthur Ransome’s ‘Baltic Port’, now known as Paldiski. The shoreline here is formed of low cliffs, sheer to the sea and absolutely horizontal in strata: the Ice Age must have prevented any volcanic activity or Tectonic Plate movement!

At the North edge of Tallinn Bay lies the ex-military island of Naissaar, or Terra Feminarum, the ‘Island of Women’. The island was once inhabited by Swedish fisherman, and also has a long military history. The Russian army manufactured mines here, before abandoning the place at the end of the Communist era. The island was reopened to the public as a nature reserve in 1995. We were warned not to touch the wild pigs or snakes we may spot on a walk.

The small harbour lies about halfway along the Eastern shore of this forested retreat, fringed with white sand beaches. We managed to sneak in between two arms of pontoon to tie up on the quay wall once again, suitably distant from the ferry dock. Trip boats bring city residents over for weekend breaks, and service boats visit regularly to deliver supplies to the eight permanent residents, and take away their refuse. The only child of school age receives his education via Internet link, supplemented by monthly visits to his teacher in Tallinn.

For visiting boats, water is available to order, as it is ‘made’ ie desalinated, and the quality depends on the current pollution levels of the surrounding sea. Electricity is supplied by solar, during daylight hours only. Fortunately, we were well stocked on both counts, and managed to remain all but independent. However, this does make ‘spending a penny’ ashore very expensive!

Haapsalu to Dirhami

Saturday 23 June

Confident that we are now near enough to Tallinn to be able to enjoy shortish daysails, we departed Haapsalu late morning in a very light breeze. The Estonian Air Force (both jets) were kind enough to give us a flypast, as we enjoyed the scenery from the channel between islands. It was a day of windshifts and frequent sail changes.

We were delighted with the first visit by any marine wildlife in nearly three months’ cruising, when a curious seal popped its head up to check us out.
Having been warned of the absence of the red/white clear water buoy marking the beginning of the channel into Dirhami, a tiny former fishing harbour on the Northwest corner of mainland Estonia, our excellent electronic charts guided us safely into the tricky approach of this rock-strewn shore. Additional guidance was provided by a seagull on each sea-washed boulder.

Ignoring the waving harbourmaster, who was offering us a berth on a potentially short and flimsy pontoon, we tied up instead to the substantial quay wall, against huge rubber fender strips that required barge boards over our fenders to avoid skid marks on my (once) shiny hull. An unidentified building on the far side of the yacht pontoons is the only permanent sign of life here, augmented in the season by the harbour office and a small restaurant. However, as a convenient passage stop to and from Finland, the harbour soon filled up with yachts of various nationalities.

The harbourmaster pointed out to Skipper the Midsummer bonfire that he had prepared on the beach just the other (windward) side of the harbour wall from our berth, but Skipper dissuaded him from lighting it that night, mindful of the potential for sparks and ash to be carried on the wind towards my decks.

Too lazy to brave

Friday 22 June

Wind and rain kept my reluctant crew aboard and below decks all day, except for an occasional and brief foray ashore to avail themselves of Grand Holm Marina’s facilities, carefully timed between showers. The wind was strong enough for long enough to blow large quantities of Baltic Sea into the harbour, almost submerging the port-hand marks of the entry channel, and drowning the stern buoys to which boats were attached.

We enjoyed meeting a British family who are living an even more nomadic lifestyle than us. They spend their holidays from the Far East sailing incognito under an Estonian flag, dreaming of bigger boats, full headroom and real heads (bathroom).

It’s Midsummer’s Day

Thursday 21 June

…so it’s raining, of course. However, today’s weather forecast offered a window in the wall of windy days, so we took advantage of it and left our wet berth for a passage through Moon Sound, even though we could see neither shore for foggy mist – or misty fog, if you prefer. By lunchtime we were able to fly the genoa, and with a little rocking and rolling, we surfed downwind as the mist gradually lifted and the air dried.

For a while Mate took over the steering from Jeanny, just for the fun of it, keeping a close eye on the chart for nearby hidden rocks, and narrowly avoiding a local ferry whose channel we were silly enough to try to share. Towards the North of the Estonian mainland, there seemed to be something of a convoy approaching Haapsalu harbour, and sure enough, most of the yachts that left Kuivastu on Moon ahead of us turned up here. In addition, a Canadian-flagged yacht joined the throng, and we discovered we’d traversed the Caledonian Canal, back in Scotland last Summer, in her company. It really is a small world.

Strawberry day

Wednesday 20 June

With L’escale safely tied up on the harbour wall, we set off on our bikes to explore a little of the interior of this fascinating island. The first 10km was uphill, a very shallow incline but into a strong headwind, so it was a relief to reach the central village of Liiva, and rest our legs while we enjoyed a very special lunch of traditional Estonian fare.

Seated outside on the vine-twined terrace of Koost, we nibbled delicious local black bread while we waited almost no time for our main dishes of four-fish cutlets with potato purée and cucumber salad, and stewed boar with potato wedges and lingonberry jam. Local cider and beer rounded things off very smoothly, our lovely waitress spoke fluent English, and two adorable little girls waved and giggled coquettishly from inside the window.

After a brief look around the adjoining crafts cooperative, where we purchased a still-warm loaf of that wonderful black bread and a kilo of sun-sweet strawberries, Mate checked out the brand new Co-op supermarket: clean, bright and well stocked; while Skipper chatted with the locals about our bikes and theirs. We were a little disappointed to only be able to see the outside of 13th Century St Catherine’s Church, but we were soon heading off the beaten track, cycling pretty lanes through lush countryside between tiny hamlets. Sadly no photo can convey the scents of orange blossom and pine forest, the sounds of birdsong and the breeze through the trees, the silence of nature uninterrupted by industry or traffic, or the flavour of the wild strawberries we found on the edges of the forest.

Fortunately, the last 10km was more or less downhill, on quiet roads that were tarmacked, rather than the stony, rutted forest tracks of the middle section of the ride. Nonetheless, we were glad to be home for a relaxing sauna and supper.
In the height of summer, the lifestyle of the residents of the island appears idyllic: the houses are small, sturdy and well built with stone bases and wooden walls under a thatched or tiled roof; gardens are immaculate and many homesteads include small plots where potatoes, a variety of vegetables, strawberries and currant bushes were growing. Modern vehicles are much in evidence, and the ferry to the mainland runs at least once every hour to and from the mainland. The small communities appear tightly-knit, with many Midsummer bonfires built in readiness for the coming weekend’s festivities, and they have much of historical interest of which to be proud.

However, in the winter months, when the holiday homes stand bleak and empty, the visitors have gone and the nights are very long, it is hard to imagine the isolation and remoteness of these resilient, friendly, simple people.

Kuivastu Harbour, Muhu, Estonia

Tuesday 19 June

For the first time in two months, we sat in harbour on a wet and windy day – suddenly felt like home! However, it is good to have an enforced rest day once in a while, and Mate felt we made the right decision to reach this escale while we could, as we had only around 100M still to sail in the next week, to reach Tallinn in time for a very important rendezvous.

As always, the crew made good use of the day, planning, catching up with the blog (!), and ticking the odd item off the never-ending list of repairs.

Fly me to the Moon

Monday 18 June

Due to pending doom and gloom in the weather forecast, we decided reluctantly not to stay a day to explore this fascinating island, but to press onward in our quest to reach Tallinn within the next ten days – while we could. After a convivial supper with a German skipper whom we have encountered regularly since Stralsund, and trying to avoid the local mosquitos having supper on us, we thus departed a little sadly this morning, in weather more reminiscent of a British summer: grey skies, showers and a fickle breeze.

As usual, we set the mainsail and gennaker ready for the anticipated wind, and by lunchtime it was too much for the gennaker. It became a day of sail hokey-cokey: the gennaker went in and was swapped for the genoa, the staysail was added, the genoa went in and the gennaker came back out, and we were still only touching 4.5 knots; the wind increased so the gennaker went in again, the first reef was put in the mainsail and the staysail was added. After all this exercise, Skipper took a nap in the warm cockpit under skies of lighter cloud, while Mate enjoyed a spell of helming for a sleigh ride of 6-8 knots.

We closed Moon Sound and had a brief battle to bring all sails down in a good F5, and were soon snug against the harbour wall in Kuivastu harbour, on our second Estonian island of Muhu (Moon) – ‘the island where time rests’. The colourful map leaflet kindly provided by the local tourist office suggests there’s plenty to see and do here while we wait for the depression to work its way through and on to Russia.