Following in a famous wake

Sunday 17 June

Early this morning, we slipped the lines and glided out of Riga’s City Marina, back down the Daugava River and out once again into the Baltic Sea. It struck me for the first time, that when leaving a port you look back and can name the landmarks and dominant buildings; the skyline already looks familiar, whilst only a few days ago you watched a new landscape sharpen into focus, enticing and waiting to be explored. Travelling by sea is always exciting, a privilege and humbling: I am aware of the thousands of sailors, merchants and explorers that have preceded us to each new landfall, at a slow and sedate pace, while the scene opens in front of our eyes. ‘Conventional’ forms of travel rarely afford this opportunity to really see the bigger picture of your destination as you arrive at the enclosed railway station or airport, or trying to navigate amidst busy traffic and baffling road signs.

In the early years of the 20th Century, English novelist Arthur Ransome was based in Latvia. Perhaps best known for his ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series of novels for young people, he worked as a foreign correspondent and journalist for the British press, reporting on Russian news, the First World War and the aftermath of the October Revolution. During this time, he commissioned the building of Racundra, and when she was finally launched, he sailed her from Riga to Tallinn, then known as Reval.

When we began our new cruising life in the summer of 2016, we explored the East Coast of England, bringing vividly to life the settings of some of Ransome’s children’s stories. By chance, I came across an edited republication of his record of his Estonian experiences in Racundra’s First Cruise. This week we are following his track.

It was a hot, calm day but we were able to motorsail with the mainsail and gennaker set during the afternoon. At 1600 we crossed the border into Estonia, and changed the courtesy flag again. As the wind filled in by early evening, we enjoyed a lovely sail for the last few miles, and arrived smoothly into Ringsu harbour on the island of Ruhnu.

Ransome’s passage from Riga to Runö, as it was then known in Swedish, took him around 24 hours, without the benefit of our wonderful, powerful engine. He described it as “the most romantic island in Northern Europe”, and it certainly had a lovely feel about it. The warm scent of sun-drenched pine trees wafted across the calm water, and we were flattered that the harbourmaster raised a Union Jack in our honour, among the collection of flags of visiting nations flying from his flagpoles.

In Ransome’s time, Runö was home to Swedish seal hunters, living “a life of medieval communism”, and numbering 270. The harbourmaster told us that nowadays the permanent community is around 50, which swells to 150 for the summer tourist season. The island is closer to Latvian mainland than Estonian, but nonetheless is counted among the 2222 islands of that nation, only 19 of which are inhabited.

Happy Fathers’ Day (at least in the UK)!

Seeing the sights

Saturday 16 June

At last it was time to visit Riga for its culture and history. Once again the bikes conveyed the crew across the river, where they enjoyed attractive architecture, from mediaeval through Art Nouveau to starkly modern. They treated themselves to a traditional lunch of salmon with potato cakes, and pork with baked potatoes, washed down with the local beer, and were delighted to come across Festival Baltica 2018 – Estonians dressed in traditional costume, entertaining crowds with folk songs and music on a variety of instruments.

As in so many other cities, they marvelled at the interiors of churches of a number of religions and denominations, from the ornately gilded Russian Orthodox Cathedral to the simple wooden pews and white walls of the West Chapel of St James’s Cathedral.

Twin tub time again

Friday 15 June

After two years languishing in the stern stowage area, a lack of laundry facilities at this marina necessitated a return of the twin tub washing machine system on the back step, for a day of handwashing for Mate. It’s actually a very practical arrangement, as there is a hot water shower on the port side (doubtless included by the thoughtful designer for post-open water swim sessions), and the matching purple buckets fit snugly side by side on the middle step, so Mate doesn’t tire her back too quickly, bending to the task in hand.

The day was again warm enough that a quick squeeze and drip dry did not leave items so wet for lack of a spin dryer that they took much longer than normal to dry. Skipper supervised from a safe distance, under the pretext of sourcing suitable lengths of rope with which to weight pieces of mosquito netting for all my opening hatches – Mate’s next job…

The biggest food market in Europe?

Thursday 14 June

The bikes came out this hot and sticky morning, and off went the crew across the bridge to weave their way through the old town in search of five zeppelin hangars that have been converted into a huge market. One hall is dedicated to fish, fresh and every kind of smoked, but sadly very little shellfish; one contains fresh meat and poultry; you can also find seasonally luscious fruit and vegetables, clothing, fresh flowers and all sorts of miscellaneous items. Between two of the halls is a bakery offering local specialities, so lunch was a selection of delicious savoury pastries.

Once this haul was stowed, a second trip was made to the much closer enormous Rimi hypermarket for a recce and top-up of a few essential groceries, including a modest supply of the elusive favourite red wine. Eventually it was time to lie down in a darkened room to recover.

Our second Baltic capital

Wednesday 13 June

Skipper took command at 0100, managing to goosewing the main and staysail (one sail out to each side) as we slipped downwind into the Gulf, even gybing once to absorb a wind shift.

As the new day strengthened, the pattern of watch and sail changes continued, and at 1400 we were finally closing the coast under full mainsail and genoa – very respectable. We sailed right to the entrance to the Daugava river, before furling the genoa and turning into the wind to drop the mainsail. We then motored about eight Miles up this attractive river, with the usual evidence of industry on the East (port) side, but reedbanks and trees to starboard (West). The wharves and dock areas here are in better condition than we’ve seen elsewhere, although there wasn’t much more activity.

As is so often the case, there were a few hairy moments as we made our way into the new City Marina on the West side of the river and just South of the attractive Vansu bridge into the centre of Riga. A fleet of Optimists, sailed by children around the age of ten, was in the middle of race training right across the entrance, and obviously haven’t yet learnt i) to keep a good watch all round at all times, ii) the ColRegs, or even iii) a yacht under power is likely to hurt if you make contact with its hull. A few new grey hairs later, Skipper had as always successfully weaved through these additional hazards, rejected the suggested berth as we were twice the width available, and slipped into a comfortably large space alongside a finger pontoon.

In 28 hours we’d sailed 127 Miles, an unremarkable average of 4.5 knots, but it had been a lovely sail, and Mate felt vindicated in her decision to give up yesterday. A good day was rounded off by meeting the lovely French crew of Saltimbanque, an aluminium Brise de Mer 28, a smaller distant cousin of the Allures sisters. The two girls have sailed many thousands of adventurous miles, and have retained a wonderful sense of humour along with their passion for travelling under canvas. There may have been just a little green-eye at the sight of my pump-handled WC…

Sunset over Saaremaa

Tuesday 12 June

After a long enough sleep to recover tempers and equilibrium, we took the opportunity to fill our water tanks before setting off at lunchtime, to find the wind had already filled in and we began sailing straight away. We soon changed down from the genoa to the staysail, enjoying the sunshine and good visibility.
A coaster, Elena, was converging on our course from astern as we entered the Irbenskiy Strait around the Northern coast of Latvia, and after a radio conversation with Mate, her Watch Captain agreed to alter his course to clear us. We could see the lighthouse on the Southernmost tip of Saaremaa, 15M North of us. This is the ‘first’ of the 2222 Estonian islands.

Mate continued her Watch between 2100-0100 and enjoyed a beautiful show of Nature, as the huge orange sun melted into the sea, leaving the sky never darker than a deep sunset. Two large passenger ferries and a freighter, all heading out of the Gulf of Riga Westwards, provided further entertainment as they, we and a second ship all converged on the light at the NW corner of the Gulf of Riga.

Fortunately, there was plenty of sea room for all of us to continue unimpeded.
It was a night of continuous alterations to our sail combinations in order to accommodate changes in our course and the strength and direction of the wind. At times the iron sail was deployed.

The best-laid plans

Monday 11 June

Today’s plan was to sail overnight to Roja, well on the way to Latvia’s capital, Riga. However, we left later than we intended, into a flat calm morning. Mate took advantage of my ‘flatness’ to clean the heads and enjoy some sewing in the cabin, out of the heat on deck.

Eventually, by 1500 there was enough wind to set the genoa and give Trevver a rest, but the Southwesterly direction of it set us on a port tack (leaning to the right), which is less comfortable below. We changed to the staysail and altered course slightly to ease the rolling motion, but Mate didn’t feel like we were making much progress.

As the wind eased towards evening we entered a dense fog bank for an hour or so, and as it cleared we were only abeam of Ventspils, the Northern-most port on the West coast of Latvia, it was 2230 and Mate decided enough was enough and we’d turn in here for the night. Inevitably it turned out to be our most difficult berthing this season, requiring us to thread a mooring line through the ring on a stern buoy as we slid into a line of moored yachts in a crosswind. Even with the patient assistance of the harbourmaster and our friend from Olles Wonder (who’d seen our approach on AIS and kindly waited for us, in spite of his intended early start the following morning), it was midnight and five attempts later before we were finally secured bows to the quay.

Day 2 – same country!

Sunday 10 June

After motoring the whole 56M passage yesterday, we paused to catch our breath in Liepaja and took the opportunity to follow a well-marked walking trail around the town centre, taking in the ancient timbered buildings and cobblestoned roads and pavements. Tsar Nicholas II once stayed in a small guesthouse in a quiet side road. There are some good examples of original Art Nouveau architecture, and probably the first elegant Communist building we have seen, now the university, and stark Modernism in the Amber theatre.

Our overall impression on this warm, sleepy Sunday afternoon was of peeling run-down faded grandeur, not improved by large areas of roadworks disrupting the smooth running of the trams. We didn’t spot a single food shop, or ATM.

Another change of flag

Saturday 9 June

Today we (motor)sailed North again, into a light Northerly breeze, on a bright, sunny, warm day with good visibility of the coastline a mile or so on our starboard beam. It is still similar to that in Poland – white sand beaches and pine forests. At lunchtime we crossed the border into Latvia, and changed to the next courtesy flag in the stack.

During the afternoon we detoured slightly to avoid an exclusion zone, and tried to fly the genoa, but without success. The mainsail was up, but just for show. We travelled for much of the passage in company with a German singlehander on Olles Wonder, that we first saw on our AIS display back in Stralsund, before the German/Polish border. Skipper made his acquaintance in Łeba, but Mate has yet to meet him.

A new country – for 24 hours

Friday 8 June

The courtesy flag was changed once again, and ship’s time was advanced one hour as we entered the new time zone of Eastern European Time: GMT + 3 hours. Skipper called port control for clearance to enter the approach channel, and received instructions to slot in between a cargo vessel and a French warship. The local coastguard called to check our status and intentions – a first in this cruise. We had a look at the recommended berthing option in the former cruise liner terminal, but all spaces were filled.

After 180 miles, at 0545 local time we were tied up to the quay wall outside a pub, around the corner from Klaipeda Castle Marina which is in its moat, and looked too small for us. This is the only Baltic Sea port in Lithuania. After breakfast, a shower and a rest, we walked into town and treated ourselves to a traditional lunch of filled potato dumplings with beetroot salad and local beer – very good. In the evening we found ourselves in the heart of the local jazz festival. Apart from large numbers of people wandering along the quayside above us, it was not too noisy or late.