First taste of Stockholm

Thursday 26 – Tuesday 31 July

Mindful that local time was now an hour behind that in the Åland Islands and Finland (Central European Summer Time, CEST: GMT+2), we decided to keep Ship’s Time as we would soon be heading back to Mariehamn. Meanwhile, we enjoyed a lazy day at anchor, with a cooling swim to the smooth rocks on the other side of the bay. Below the water surface, a fuzz of green weed coats the face of the rock, while the higher dry areas are equally difficult to clamber onto after being sanded by the glaciers of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. However, it was worth the scramble, as they are warmed by the sun and feel a little like a hot stone massage.

The sunset was very red, leading Mate to wonder if she should trust the old proverb
“red sky at night, sailor’s delight”
– recent experience has been of unsettled or stormy weather following such a sky.

On Friday we began to weave our way in earnest Southwest towards Stockholm. Winds are often light and variable in direction among the islands of the skärgård (Swedish archipelago), and we made several sail changes to accommodate this, sometimes motorsailing to help our progress. At best we goosewinged the two foresails, or flew the gennaker, while following a slalom course among yachts and speedboats. We enjoyed particularly the scenery of the Stämmarsund, especially the sea eagle and deer, the latter in somebody’s garden!

Once again, we found a comfortable anchorage tucked deep up an inlet of Värmöländet, and swam from the boat to cool off.

On Saturday morning, Mate rose early and was rewarded by a small herd of fallow deer grazing their way across the grassy bank behind the anchorage. By now it was very hot, close and sticky. We set off in a light Easterly, struggling to fly the genoa downwind across a lumpy sea. Just South of Vaxholm, a busy port with numerous ferries and tourists swarming like bees around a honey pot, we passed only the second British-flagged yacht we’ve seen all season, a Southerly 110 Wind Rose, and exchanged an enthusiastic wave.

As we entered the final channel approaching Stockholm, we were bemused at the apparent lack of application of the ColRegs, whereby vessels should pass port-to-port (ie keep the oncoming craft on your left), and leisure craft should keep well clear of big ship channels. Here, yachts and motorboats were zipping around apparently randomly; maybe because this is how they behave in the ‘highways’ out among the islands. The water was brown and churning, reminiscent of the Thames approaching London, and we were glad to pass the soaring towers of the funfair rides and turn into Wasahamnen on Djurgärden, where we were asked to raft alongside a resident ship, the Slaggifadar.

The following day we moved away from the turbulence caused by the constant river traffic passing our stern, into the relative shelter of an inner berth in Wasahamnen. This was extremely tight, but we squeezed in without incurring any damage. At least in here we had access to water and electricity. We found our way to a local supermarket, and enjoyed a ferry ride to Gamla Stan, the oldest part of the city that stands on an island of its own. While enjoying a cool beer on the outdoor terrace of a bar edging Stortorget, the oldest square, we were entertained by a local brass band playing a range of well-known pieces, rounded off with an Abba medley!

On Monday morning we followed local advice and were up early to visit Scandinavia’s most popular museum as it opened at 0830, before the cruise ship groups invaded. The Vasa wooden warship was built in 1628, ornately decorated with over 700 carved and painted wooden sculptures, illustrating the power and influence of the king she was to represent. On her maiden voyage on 10 August, a gust of wind caught the four sails that had been set, she heeled enough to allow water to flood into the open gunports of the lower decks, and she sank 32 metres to the bottom of Stockholm harbour, claiming 30 lives.

The mud and brackish waters of the Baltic preserved the timbers exceptionally well, until 333 years later, when a salvage operation began in 1956, with divers dressed in heavy, unwieldy suits, employing what now looks like incredibly primitive technology. The ship was eventually brought carefully to the surface, watched by thousands on the first national live television broadcast. It is housed, almost intact, in a huge building maintained at a carefully controlled temperature and humidity, amidst ongoing research into preservation and restoration. Replica masts are positioned on the roof at the height they would have stood above the ship’s decks.

She is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, and this is an excellent museum, including exhibitions detailing life on board, and the role of women in this period of Swedish history. We learned that it was not uncommon for widows to take over their late husbands’ businesses, in which they had already been actively involved. Outside the museum is an attractive garden, showcasing contemporary plants that would have been common in medicine and kitchens. We spotted a small black/chestnut squirrel in one of the beds. Fika (a Swedish coffee and cake break) in the excellent café overlooking the harbour was an unexpected bonus.

There is only so much culture, civilisation and citizens we can take before being overwhelmed, so in the late afternoon we slipped out of our berth, as always more easily than we’d entered it, and out of Stockholm. The contrast between the islands of the Swedish archipelago and the Åland Islands is as marked as that of the Ålands to the Finnish archipelago: in Sweden, the islands are higher and more densely wooded, the trees are taller and the rocks much less prominent. The small cottages of Finnish islands, often partly hidden among the trees, become large, colourful houses, often decorated with ornate carved gables like a gingerbread house, or turrets and towers resembling a French chateau. Most have a private dock and mooring, furnished to sit, enjoy the sunshine and watch the world go by, in between sessions in the waterside sauna and dips in the sea from the swim ladder on the end of the pontoon.

Fortunately, there are still spots of perfect solitude to be found, and we’re becoming better at spotting them on the electronic charts. Just 14M out of town, we found ourselves in a quiet inlet. Once the local water- and jet-skiers had buzzed off for the day, complete peace descended, small fish were jumping all around us, we were thrilled to spot an osprey, and a beaver swam by the stern.

The last day of July marks the end of the Finnish holiday season, while in Sweden it extends a couple more weeks. Apparently the weather gods are aware of this, as it remained hot and sultry. The only problem with being so well sheltered was a complete lack of cooling breeze. Ah well, just need to dip around once an hour…if only the local fishermen would leave us in peace. At dusk, the beaver repeated his swim-past for our benefit.

Second innings – Sweden

Wednesday 25 July

We set off in a leisurely way mid-morning in a light Southerly breeze, motored for two hours and were then able to sail a lovely close reach under mainsail and gennaker, our beautiful statement red sail in a sea of white. Crossing the shipping lane between the Western Åland Islands and the East coast of Sweden, we noticed once again ‘Escale’ on our AIS monitor – an even stranger coincidence the second time around. This time we were close enough to see her through our very powerful binoculars, and identify her as a catamaran. AIS told us she’s 11 metres in length – and 6m wide! Unsure of her nationality, we weren’t quite confident enough to call her over VHF, but wondered if she’d noticed us?

As the afternoon breeze backed to the Southeast, we swapped the gennaker for both foresails, and performed the courtesy flag changing ceremony at the border. With the coast of Sweden gradually improving in definition, we called a cargo ship to be sure they knew we were in front of them; they confirmed they would pass astern of us and we exchanged polite wishes for a “Good Watch”.

Covering 35 Miles in a comfortable less-than-seven hours, we tucked into a cosy anchorage just North of Arholma marina, just into the Northern end of the Swedish archipelago. As dusk fell, we spotted two otters bounding along the rocks at the water’s edge.

The Åland Islands

Wednesday 18 – Tuesday 24 July

At the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia, the section of the Baltic Sea that separates Sweden from Finland and stretches right up North towards the Arctic Circle, lies a cluster of islands, of which the largest, Åland, gives this archipelago its name. The Islands have their own distinctive flag, and are autonomous in such matters as the postal service, vehicle registration, health and education. They belong nominally to Finland, but Swedish is the dominant language (as it is in much of Western Finland).

The ‘border’ between the Finnish Archipelago and the Ålands is the Kihti, or Skiftet, a channel that meanders somewhat in a roughly North-South direction. However, it is noticeable how suddenly the scenery changes: the Finnish islands are relatively bleak, with smaller pine trees, larger expanses of bare granite, and sparse population, while in the Ålands, trees grow taller and include birch and other deciduous species, often under-carpeted by coarse grass and low-growing scrubby bilberry bushes. Because it has been very hot and dry all summer, much ‘greenery’ is struggling to survive, resulting in early displays of stunning Autumn colours. It is somehow a softer land (sea) scape.

It is also extremely popular, as the Summer holidays are now in full swing, and the main routes are very busy with every size and type of yacht, and the ubiquitous motor boats, which tear around in all and unpredictable directions, tossing the rest of us around mercilessly in their wake. A particular sport seems to be to charge through narrow gaps between a pair of yachts – two for the price of one, I guess – double the fun.

Our first stop was Jurmo, a little West of Kustavi, where we managed to pick up a stern buoy and tie up bows to the high quay without too much drama and with help from those already in. We enjoyed a delicious lunch of local specialities on a comfortably shaded terrace, and walked it off gently on a short stroll into the hinterland.

The following day our departure was less straightforward: our friends on Olles Wonder came into the harbour looking for a berth, and although my crew hadn’t made our usual preparations, we dropped everything and slid out to let them have our slot. We probably would have got away with it, except that the gennaker furler had been loosened to allow them to step off the bow without tripping over it, so it started to unfurl around Mate’s ears as she was trying to collect and stow lines and fenders. This is a huge, lightweight sail that has a mind of its own at the best of times, and obviously thought it was time to come out and play. Olles Wonder later told us they were very impressed that we’d “sailed out of our berth”… but I think they were just being kind, judging by the twinkle in her Skipper’s eye.

It was one of those days, as it then took us five attempts to settle the anchor firmly for the night, off Lökholm.

On Friday we pottered a mere 12M, motorsailing with just the genoa in a pleasant Northerly breeze. A little after lunch we came alongside the shiny new high pine quay in Lappo, to find Olles Wonder just the other side. We enjoyed their company once again over afternoon tea, before departing, fee free, to a cosy anchorage just around the corner in Halsviken.

Saturday brought another pleasant Nor’westerly, which we enjoyed under a genoa reach, alternating with goosewinging both foresails and reaching speeds of 6+ knots. That night proved to be one of our favourite anchorages, Söderön, and even though we had to share it with half a dozen other yachts, one was a potential recruit to the Alu Club – only the third such yacht we’ve seen here.
It was such a pretty place, we stayed put for a lazy Sunday. On Monday it was time to seek civilisation once again, and we gambled our centreboard depth along a channel marked as extremely channel – following any number of yachts with much greater draft than ours. In the end, we were never in less than 2.8 metres of water, and enjoyed spectacular scenery. We were able to sail across a wide open rocky ‘lake’, before taking a second channel, with the genoa providing varying levels of help, into Lumpern Lake. Here we flew across the stretch of open water under full sails, enjoying a warm, sunny afternoon.

At teatime we doused the sails and started the engine, as we approached the channel into Lemstrom’s Canal. We hovered briefly to await the 1800 opening of the bridge across the canal, then ticking off the marks until we reached Mariehamn East Harbour. We did an excellent impression of Bumbling Brits as it took us two attempts to pick up the stern buoy, low in the water as a Finnish yacht was already secured on its top-ring, and in a not inconsiderable crosswind, and we eventually came to rest bows-to the pontoon – a long step down from our dolphin.

Tuesday was spent taking on water, filling up the fridge and dealing with four loads of laundry, before we escaped gratefully – enough of civilisation, already – to anchor in Kapellinken Bay on Söderby, within sight of and just two miles South of Mariehamn. All on our own again…once the four motorboats had all beat a speedy retreat homewards.

Sun, sea and …rocks

Sunday 8 – Tuesday 17 July

The sun shines – almost all day and night – it is still never darker than dusk, with a sunset glow in the Northern sky that fades only as the new day dawns. The wind…is mere zephyrs: when it’s in the right direction, we drift along under genoa, blissfully peaceful after the hours spent chugging along under motor.

The scenery is spectacular: small, isolated boulders make ideal perches for any number of seabirds; granite rocks in pink and cream, as well as grey, smoothed by ancient glaciers, somehow support and sustain substantial growth of conifer and birch trees, with occasional splashes of brightly coloured wild flowers at their feet; some islands are edged with several species of reeds, their feathery heads whispering in the breeze. We weave a careful track along well-marked channels, some wide like a lake, others narrow and high-sided like a gorge, and everywhere are wooden cottages, snug among the treetrunks or perched precariously atop the granite.

It is peak holiday season here, and the main water highways are crowded with yachts of all sizes, motorboats tearing around disturbing the peace and bouncing us around in their wake, and ferries plying the inter-island connections. Towards evening we pinpoint a cluster of islands, selecting a deeply indented bay to tuck into for our night at anchor, sheltered from whatever wind may be predicted. Local custom is that if the banner is flying, the neighbours are in residence (just like the Royal Standard over Buckingham Palace), and visiting craft are encouraged not to lie within sight of the windows.

Another local custom is to moor tied bows to a rock, with the stern secured to a buoy or anchor; we haven’t attempted that yet, and so attract curiosity by floating ‘free’ at our heavy bow anchor, unencumbered by land or too many unwelcome guests of the buzzing, flying variety. Apart from the stress of driving straight towards an unforgiving lump of stone (so far we’re maintaining our 100% record of not bumping into the scenery – at least that visible above the water surface), a great advantage of this method is that we achieve natural air conditioning, as the boat will always swing into the wind, which is scooped by the gaping hatches down into the cabin. As a bonus, the view from below is constantly changing.

From the decks, we’ve spotted a number of sea eagles, another bird of prey, perhaps a European variety of buzzard, or possibly an eagle? Water birds include grebe with chicks, swans and cygnets, heron, tern, cormorant and several species of gull. On land we’ve seen a doe and her fawn, a glimpse of another roe deer, and a small herd of Belted Galloway cattle. Further off was another group of cows, possibly Highland or Angus, horned and shaggy-coated.

Some anchorages are good for a second night, in case new sights every day are not relaxing enough. Mate takes advantage of Skipper’s designated ‘lazy days’ to work on mosquito nets, custom made to fit the various apertures needing protection.

Allures, and of course specifically l’Escale, are the perfect choice for this type of cruising: the lifting centreboard means we can slide through much shallower water than most yachts of our size, (even many smaller boats have much more restrictive draft) while our water tank volume, capacious fridge and appropriate sanitary provision encourage us to be completely independent for days at a time. We carry a flexible wardrobe of sails, suited to a range of weather conditions, and our powerful engine carries us effortlessly, thanks to generously-sized diesel tanks.

Preparations for departure

Saturday 7 July

A little ‘city-ed out’, to be honest, and after the briefest pause at Passport Control coming back into Finland, my crew spent the rest of Friday and most of Saturday provisioning and catching up with laundry duty. They were delighted with the treasure trove that is the new Hakaniemi market hall, only a kilometre’s cycle ride along designated cycle paths mostly along the waterside, that offers all manner of delicious fresh foods and local artisan crafts. Outside on stalls in the market square, prices of fresh fruit and vegetables, of undeniably high quality, were something of a shock: a week’s produce for two came to €80.

There was a bonus to spending so long on our departure preparations, though, in the shape of my new best friend Saltimbanque, who arrived into HMVK in time to say hello and for our crews to make arrangements for a social visit in the coming few days.

We finally slipped the lines at 1900 and headed West into the evening sunshine – yes, of course the weather had improved again now our guest was no longer with us. At last we were back on anchor, dropping the hook in a lovely peaceful spot between Pukkisaari and Pyöräsaari, two of the hundreds of islands outlying Helsinki.

L’Escale in St Petersburg

Wednesday 4 – Friday 6 July

Not me, you understand, but for my crew – the plan to sail me there had long since fallen overboard, for reasons of cost, bureaucracy and general inconvenience. Instead, Mate booked them both a cabin aboard the Princess Anastasia, for a night passage from Helsinki on American Independence Day, to arrive in St Petersburg in the morning of Thursday 5 July. They would have the day in this Russian city of culture, and return to Helsinki overnight to dock Friday morning.

The ferry that marketed itself as a cruise liner was old and rattly, but fortunately only half full at around 1000 passengers of many nationalities. The sea was calm and my crew filled up from the breakfast buffet before joining the queue at Passport Control. Two hours later, they were finally released to the waiting shuttle minibus for the 30-minute transfer into the city centre, by means of which the required visa is supposedly circumvented.

As it was now noon, queues for the Hermitage Art Museum, top of the day’s list of must-see attractions, snaked several times around the Palace Square, and the plan of making it the first stop to beat the crowds faded in the sunshine. In case you’re planning a visit, be aware that the first Thursday of the month is Free Entry Day for Russian and Belarussian citizens. As it was now peak holiday season, doubtless this accounted for at least half the people standing patiently.

After picking up a few snacks at a local corner shop, Plan B was put into action: to find a riverboat to see the sights. Another city built on a network of canals, this proved the highlight of the whole trip. Front seats on the open deck of a wide, low vessel afforded prime viewing of all the key sights and points of interesting history, entertainingly described by Dennis in flawless English.

Item three on the wishlist was a visit to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. Possibly the most recognisable image of St Petersburg, it was built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881. He was Emperor of Russia between 1855 and 1881, also the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Finland. He was succeeded by Alexander III, who dedicated the building as a memorial to his father.

However, Mate’s planning and research for this trip did not allow for football fever – they arrived to a city in the grip of FIFA World Cup 2018. There was no match scheduled here today, but the ‘fan fests’ – white semi-spherical plastic marquees – were all over the city, including right across the front of this church, in a strongly cordoned-off area. Undeterred, they followed the path between two lines of chain-link fencing, topped by netting, to the entrance door…to find another long queue. With only a couple of hours left for sightseeing before the departure time of the last return bus back to the ferry, they admitted defeat and enjoyed the external architecture, allowing for the fact that the main spire was clad in scaffolding and plastic sheeting, completely obscuring it whilst under restoration.

Their ‘visa’ was for 72 hours, so if you’re thinking of booking a similar trip, they strongly recommend you treat yourselves to one or two nights in this beautiful city, to do it some justice. Once through the red tape, the atmosphere is no different than any other cosmopolitan European capital, and restaurants and cafés, with menus in English, are plentiful.

Highlights of Helsinki

Sunday 1 – Wednesday 4 July

We chose HMVK opposite Katajanokka Visitors Marina, on the South side of the causeway to Tervasaari Island, for our stay as it promised better rates. For us it was the right decision, as it lies further from the four-lane highway that runs between the sea and the city. We were allocated a box berth of sufficient dimensions. Showers, toilets and sauna facilities met the high standards of our demanding guest, and laundry fees are reasonable.

Inevitably, Sunday was a lazy day: a late breakfast, followed by a gentle stroll into the nearby city centre via coffee and cinnamon buns, a local delicacy, a short walk around the harbour. Unfortunately, the weather was damp and cool, so our explorations were cut short in the hope of improvement the following day.

In the event, only another brief wander around the island was accomplished on a damp and dreary Monday, mostly as a cure for cabin fever. This walk did, however, offer an opportunity to admire me as the largest, and obviously most beautiful, modern yacht in the marina, and to view the icebreaker ships lying in the outer reaches of the harbour, and for which this city is famous.

In spite of her physical discomforts, Second Mate did us proud by preparing all the main meals, undaunted by the limitations of my galley: apparently, it was “a pleasure to cook in a clean kitchen, and food prep using sharp knives”. It’s a good thing she’s moving soon to a new, civilised flat share with friends. In between these bouts of culinary activity, there was plenty of time to sit and chat, enjoying the rare treat of each other’s company. So passed Tuesday.

Wednesday was a day of increased activity, as it was time for Second Mate to pack ready for her homeward journey, and my permanent crew to gather their requirements for a trip without me. After a delicious lunch, they all left the marina to accompany our guest to the train that would take her to the airport. She just made the second train of her options; at least there was no opportunity for long, tearful farewells.

Back on board, my crew swiftly made everything shipshape, and set off again for South Harbour, the ‘next one round’ across this side of the city.