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Decisions, decisions… That’s What Cruising is about!

Decisions, decisions… That’s What Cruising is about!

So did we or did we not sail to Sweden? I hope you haven’t been holding your breath all this time, because it certainly has taken longer to write about it than it actually took to make the decision.

The problem with being able to cruise only during summer holidays is that there are a lot of decisions to make. The first, and biggest one, is to determine whether it’s actually worth it to spend your entire summer holiday on a sailing trip. There are the family gatherings that you will miss if you decide to sail away for four weeks. Not to mention that those same four weeks would be the only time to enjoy your nice house with a garden, before it all disappears in the snow and darkness again, and the same goes for the summer cottage. So you might say that the pathetically short summer we have here in the north is always packed with so many expectations that even with the most careful planning, you will never have time to do everything you want to do.

We didn’t dedicate our entire summer holiday for island hopping in the Baltic sea because it’s something we’re passionate about. No – we have a bigger mission, a bigger voyage that we hope one day to embark on, and we have many things to sort out before that. We were planning this trip, like the one we did to Estonia last summer, for that specific reason. Perhaps our trip could be described as a shakedown cruise of sorts. Usually a shakedown cruise is where you test your boat to determine which systems and setups need attention and which equipment to add or replace. But we were testing ourselves – how confident and capable we would be in handling our boat in different weather and sea states, planning passages and navigating, finding anchorages and docking the boat without smashing it into other boats that would likely be far more expensive than ours. But more than the physical readiness, we wanted to find out about the mental side: how well we could get along as a couple and as civilized human beings in a small boat with very little space and very few luxuries. That’s how the big decision was made – we would spend our whole summer holiday sailing. 

(If we had known the weather was going to be crap we might have chosen differently…)

Once you’ve made the big decisions, heaps and heaps of smaller ones will follow: Which direction to sail to? What sails to put up? To reef or not to reef? Keep going or find a nice spot for the night? What’s for dinner? 

Now I was faced with a medium size decision, that would determine where the rest of our holiday would be spent. Sweden or Finland?

I climbed to the top of the rocky island of Rödhamn in the morning to take a look at the western horizon. It was cold and very windy, and it looked like rain. I stood on the weather beaten hill, wearing every single piece of clothing I had found in my duffel bag, and I was freezing. I pictured our little boat in the middle of that severe grey sea, with the grey skies hanging over it, and I pictured myself in the cockpit of that little boat, holding the tiller with my frozen fingers and the wind beating on my stiff neck, snot hanging from the tip of my nose, my teeth chattering.

That walk up the hill turned out to be a very decicive one. It was only a day’s sail to Sweden, but what a bad day it would be! And the weather was going to be just as cold and disagreeable on the other side of the pond. And we would have to make the same crossing back in a week’s time – suddenly I had run out of every reason to sail to Sweden.

But Rödhamn is only a short 10 nautical mile hop from Mariehamn, the main town of Åland archipelago. Suddenly a nice little city break felt very appealing, whereas a 10 hour offshore crossing in heavy winds and cold rain did not. Even if we might have seen amazing places in the Stockholm archipelago – especially the city of Stockholm itself – they would have to wait until future travels.

We set out immediately, motoring all the way as the wind was right on the nose, and a couple of hours later we arrived in Mariehamn! What a busy harbour it was, with four or five huge ferries spinning at the harbour entrance, fast boats and slow boats going in an out of the marina. We easily found a slip for our little lady, but later in the day the marina filled up to it’s last berth. It was one of the biggest marinas we had ever been to, with all amenities you could think of.

While we may infinitely prefer anchoring in quiet, secret coves, having the whole place just for ourselves, on a cold, cloudy day like this it felt oddly comforting to know you could go to a hot sauna whenever you wanted to, and every kind of food you felt like having was just a short walk away.

We walked to the town centre along a lush, green boulevard lined by picturesque wooden houses. About a hundred years ago Mariehamn was a popular bath town, and some old villas and guest houses still remain from that period. There’s also a stout stone church from the 1920’s and a nice shopping street full of hustle and bustle. Today Mariehamn is a very popular tourist destination, not least because of the huge tax free ferries shuttling between Finland and Sweden – the consequence of strongly regulated alcohol policies of both countries, I assume.

We enjoyed a couple of very authentic Italian pizzas, and while we were eating, the afternoon actually turned sunny. We ended up staying in Mariehamn for a couple of nights. One of the attractions was undoubtedly the very well stocked supermarket where we visited several times. Now we definitely had enough fresh delicacies as well as canned food and dry goods to last the rest of our holiday. We hadn’t yet decided where to continue from Mariehamn, but the northern part of the Åland arcipelago seemed intriguing, with it’s quiet anchorages – at least that’s what we were told – and the feeling of remoteness. Another decision had to be made, but this time it was easy. Sail around Åland, counterclockwise!

Continue our trip to the next post – Read the previous post – Start from the beginning!

Sailing West – to Sweden or Not?

Sailing West – to Sweden or Not?

The horizon in the Baltic sea can seem vast, but the distance to the opposite shore is never very great. Sailing to Sweden was one of our plans for the holiday, but we wanted to make it further west before crossing the open sea between Finland and Sweden. We travelled in the outer archipelago, navigating through passages between the islands and rocks that dot the coastline like a maze.

The Archipelago Sea, as the area between Finland’s southwest coast and the Åland (Aaland) islands is called, is quite unique in the world. There are about 40 thousand islands and countless smaller islets and rocks, and it’s impossible to navigate without detailed charts.

After the hustle and bustle of the busy regatta and shopping town of Hanko we wanted to retreat to a remote, peaceful island and chose Jurmo as our next destination. It was formed of sand and gravel during the Ice Age, unlike all the other islands in the area, that are made up of grey granite with an occasional layer of limestone.

We arrived early in the afternoon and there was plenty of time to wander around the heather and juniper moors of this windy place. I felt like I was in the plateaus of Scotland or Ireland, far from the Finnish archipelago. On my walk I found a high hill with a midsummer pole on the top, an old fishing and farming village with it’s white chapel, an enchanted little forest where the wind couldn’t reach – it was so quiet, you could almost hear the echo of your thoughts – rocky pastures and endless sand dunes. As I got back to the harbour, I could smell smoke from the fish smokery. What a perfect way to end a beautiful day: smoked salmon and fresh new potatoes for dinner in the cockpit! (Wearing woollies from top to toe, but I’ll leave that detail out of the story…)

Click the previews to see bigger pictures and captions.

The next day we had a beautiful beam reach sail to the Åland (pronounced aw-land) Islands. We were enjoying the sporty sailing to our heart’s content, and the joy was in no way lessened by all the bigger boats that quite casually overtook us. Our little lady was really doing her best, and we had a blast!

The Åland islands are an autonomous part of Finland. The official language is Swedish, and nobody has to learn Finnish. In the mainland everybody has to learn both Finnish and Swedish – the latter being a cause for disaffection amongst some people. I have always liked learning languages, though, and was eager to refresh my Swedish with the local folk.

The easternmost part of Åland is an island called Kökar, and that’s where we arrived in the evening. The marina was crowded but it’s always possible to find a gap to fit a small boat. Here we spent two nights and a very rainy day in between, so we didn’t feel like wandering around much. What a shame, for it’s a truly beautiful island with smooth, red granite shores, deep forests, fishing villages and a handsome old stone church. Leaving the next morning we rounded the church cape and caught a glimpse of St. Anna’s before it vanished into a thick fog.

We were surrounded by the fog for most of the day, a surreal feeling of being all alone in a big white emptiness. Without the dot marking our position on the plotter screen it would have been impossible to navigate, with so many rocks, islands and shipping lanes along the way. If our instruments had suddenly died we would have had to deploy the anchor and wait for the fog to clear. Fortunately, nothing happened, and the fog did clear just before we reached the big and very busy shipping lane between Finland and Sweden.

We had chosen an island called Rödhamn as our starting point for the crossing over to Sweden. It would be a short day trip in the brisk north-westerlies that were forcasted for the following day. But we felt like we had already arrived in Sweden! The harbour was full of big boats flying Swedish flags, people neatly dressed in marine blue and white, and cute kids playing on the sandy beach in their sailor stripes. For our evening entertainment we watched an episode of the Swedish holiday spectacle, that began at exactly 7 pm with all the men hopping off their boats, carrying portable barbecues, shortly followed by their wives and children in marine stripes, with matching linen and china, up to the cliffs, where a cosy dinner was set. Two hours later everyone was gone, and we could hear bedtime stories being read aloud in every boat.

On Thursday morning, July 13th, we had the alarm set for 6 am. The wind was from the north-west, just like predicted. Now was the time to sail to Sweden – or was it?

Continue our trip to the next post – Start from the beginning!

Not Too Fast, Not Too Slow

Not Too Fast, Not Too Slow

I watched from the shore as our blue sailboat became smaller and smaller, moving slowly with the wind. When I could no longer see the people onboard I turned away, started the car, and began my journey home. But oh, how fast the car was going! I felt like my brain just couldn’t adjust to the speed. Things were happening way too fast, I could hardly see where I was driving – I couldn’t read the road signs, I couldn’t focus on anything in that whizzing landscape. Yet, after I while I noticed there were several cars behind me with a frustrated driver in each one, apparently wondering why someone was driving so slowly.

Four weeks of travelling slowly is enough to turn you into a different being. While many people claim that flying is actually a type of time travel, and travelling by car or train is more in proportion with the human scale, sailing is yet another category. On a small boat like ours, you hardly ever exceed the speed of leisurely jogging – and when you do, it feels really fast! Sailing is a unique way of travelling in many other ways, too. You can walk, or jog, or bike only a certain distance before you get tired, or your muscles start to hurt, or you get blisters or abrasions. You can drive a long way in a car but eventually it makes you stiff and numb. Or hungry, at the very least. But you never get tired of sailing. You never get bored with the different islands, rocks, waves, clouds, however slowly you move past them – because the landscape changes the whole time, at a pace where you have time to see the details. You don’t get bored or stiff, because there’s always a sail to be adjusted or a route to be checked on the chart. And while you do get hungry often – there’s something about the salty air that does it, I’m sure – you can cook and eat as you move along.

Our summer holiday started a month ago. As soon as the boat was ready enough to sail away, we untied the lines. There was no upholstery, no matching cushions and curtains, and the toilet hoses were in plain view, but we didn’t care. The engine worked, the sails were in great shape, we had food in the fridge and water in the tank. The first week we pushed westward. We had seen all of the places before and it felt more like a delivery trip than a real holiday. And the weather was depressing – it was colder than an average May, cloudy and gloomy, and whenever the sun came out for a while, there was no warmth in it. Finally, we got to the town of Hanko, at the southern tip of Finland, where we stopped for a day of shopping while there was a great Regatta going on. Instead of suntan lotion we bought woolly hats, foul weather gear and longjohns. Yes, woolly hats in July!

Click the previews to see bigger pictures and captions.

From here on, we were able to raise the sails every morning, and sail to a place we had not visited before. That’s what I think travelling is all about. Yet, every day we met people who had visited the same places, the same islands, anchorages and marinas a hundred times before. Some had sailed the same circle every summer for the past twenty years. But that’s also one of the great things about sailing: there are so many different ways of doing it. For some it’s going back, year after year, to the same favourite places, meeting the same people. For some it’s racing in the exciting regattas. For us it’s sailing towards the horizon, always wondering what lies beyond.

Continue our trip to the next post!

Step on a foreign shore

Step on a foreign shore

Beautiful calm evening in the Viinistu marina

Our first offshore sail – a total of 35 nautical miles! – came to an end early in the afternoon, as we were approaching the Estonian coast in Lahemaa National Park some 80 km east of the capital city, Tallinn.

Not quite like the ocean crossings we’ve all seen on youtube, but we had thoroughly enjoyed our day in the open sea, in the fresh breeze and sunlight. We felt happy and windblown, and it felt good to touch land.

The marina was called Viinistu and it seemed like a very nice place – there was a small breakwater, mooring balls, and a very good restaurant. And on top of it all a big Art Museum built inside a former fish processing plant, something we had definitely not expected to find in such a remote place! The atmosphere was very international, with cyclists, motorcyclists, campers and other travellers from all around Europe. And it was already past the peak holiday season, so I can only imagine how busy this place must have been in July!

The evening was beautiful with calm waters and even a nearly full moon. We curled up in our bunks, eager to get some sleep and then continue our journey the next morning.

But the next morning – we woke up to this!

I had slept like an Egyptian mummy, as I always do, but other members of the crew had witnessed some slight rocking and increasing sound of wind during the night. However, by the time I got up the wind was howling and there were big waves splashing over the breakwater and flowing in through the opening and into the harbour.

There was no way we could motor out of the marina. Our 8 horsepower Yanmar, as reliable as it is, just doesn’t have that extra kick to push the boat against such a current. The worst case scenario – being stuck sideways in the breakwater opening – made us decide to stay and wait for the wind to pass or shift.

Continue to the next post – Start our trip from the beginning!

The journey has begun!

The journey has begun!

DSC_0150

On August 15th, a beautiful Monday, it was finally time to cast the lines and head off into the blue! We had motored west from our home marina the previous day in no wind at all. But at first light on Monday morning there was a steady breeze from the west, meaning a good beam reach – the kind of wind our boat loves the best. And so we were on our way – heading south!

A couple of hours later the Finnish coastline had disappeared beyond the northern horizon and we felt free as birds in the middle of the sea.

A couple more hours later the southern coastline started to shimmer in the distance. No, not some exotic tropical coastline, since it obviously was not that far from where we left – it was the coast of our friendly and beautiful neighbour Estonia! But it was a big step for us, and with the way our boat handled in the moderate wind and some waves gave us great confidence in her.

Three weeks of freedom ahead of us, and it felt good to be on our way!

Continue our trip to the next post!

Easy sailing

Easy sailing

The third member of our crew will have the honour of starting this very first post of our very first blog. When it comes to sailing, one of us at least has the right attitude!

I will occasionally write posts in English – not necessarily exact translations of my Finnish posts. Because who knows, maybe there are people out there who like to hear about sailing a small boat in the Baltic Sea.

I’m not one of those people, I prefer big boats in the Caribbean, the Pacific or one of those places. But you have to start somewhere.

Whenever we sail out of our home port, we always follow the compass heading of 180°. Due south, that is, and usually it’s a Friday night. Unfortunately, on Sunday night we have to sail back north again, tie our boat to the pier, and return to our ordinary life.

It’s a curious thought, however, to keep going south, and not turn back…