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Wandering in History

Wandering in History

Haapsalu CastleIt was already the last week of August when we arrived in Haapsalu, but the place still seemed busy with tourists. The weather was warm and sunny. This beautiful old town was full of people sitting on the streetside terraces, cafes and restaurants, walking along the waterfront in the shady parks, visiting the old castle and enjoying the town’s many spas.

The town of Haapsalu dates back to the medieval times. The bishopric castle with its cathedral was founded in the 13th century. The construction went on for several hundred years, and today it’s still largely preserved. We enjoyed a day of wandering along its walls and ramparts, the cathedral and the ruins of the monastery. There’s a legend of a restless young maiden, the White Lady appearing on the cathedral wall during full moon in August. Unfortunately we missed her by about a week.

We strolled along the narrow streets lined with beautiful old houses, with their carefully carved details, forged iron hinges and door knobs, sunny verandas with windows made of blown glass. Here you get a feeling that the time has stood perfectly still for centuries. But that’s not true. Anyone who visited Estonia during or shortly after the Soviet occupation will remember a completely different scenery.

I could describe my first visit in Estonia over 20 years ago like a black-and-white photograph, with all the joyful colours drained from it. Today we can only marvel at the amount of work, skill and imagination involved in creating this timeless and charming atmosphere. It’s as if the colours have been put back into that photograph. The Estonians have wasted no time in their 25 years of regained independence.

While we were happily immersed in the city life, the wind was gathering force again, with the seas getting more and more agitated. A storm was expected from the west, and we got company at the marina as several boats came in to wait out the bad weather.

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

Next stop: Haapsalu, Estonian mainland

Next stop: Haapsalu, Estonian mainland

dsc_0614I must admit I felt a bit nervous as we headed out to the open sea from our safe haven in Hiiumaa. The wind was blowing and the waves were high, again, but this time they were behind us. What a difference it will make! No rocking or bucking, just gentle swaying of the boat’s rear end as she slid down the big waves. We were making excellent speed with just our smaller headsail, travelling southeast into a wide strait between Hiiumaa and Vormsi.

The sea around here is called Väinameri, literally “the sea of straits”. It’s surrounded by four large islands – Saaremaa and Muhu to the south, Hiiumaa and Vormsi to the north – and Estonian mainland to the east. It’s very shallow, you won’t find a single spot deeper than 10 meters. Further south we reached the sea fairway between mainland and the islands, busy with ferries going back and forth. The fairway has been dredged through some very shallow places so there’s no improvising here! We never turned on our echo sounder, knowing how nerve wrecking it would have been to see it tossing smaller and smaller numbers on the screen.

The islands offered protection, making the waves smaller, and we were able to hoist the mainsail as we turned to beam reach towards Haapsalu. It was the most wonderful way to finish a long day at sea, smooth and easy sailing as the evening fell, and we reached Haapsalu marina in time for dinner at a nice restaurant by the town bay.

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

Sea, Surf and Ancient Lighthouses

Sea, Surf and Ancient Lighthouses

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Can you imagine what seafaring was like in the the year 1500?

Columbus had only recently discovered America. The European colonial empires were in their infancy.

The Baltic waters were busy with merchant ships of the Hanseatic League, sailing between the numerous Hansa cities along the coast. One of these cities was Tallinn, and to get there you had to navigate past the dangerous shallows of Hiiumaa. The Kõpu lighthouse was commissioned in 1504 to light the way for the ships, and it was completed in 1531. It was built on the highest spot on the western peninsula of Hiiumaa, pretty far inland. It is the oldest still working lighthouse in the Baltic Sea and possibly (at least according to Estonian sources) the second or third oldest in the world. The original beacon consisted of the lower, conical part of the building, and local peasants were hired to carry firewood and keep a fire burning on top of the beacon. The highest part with the prism was added centuries later.

I climbed the stairs to the top. They were straight and very steep at first, then winding and cramped, to say the least. Halfway up I made the mistake of looking back down and had to gather myself for a while, clinging to the handrail with both hands before I could continue. But the view from the top was worth the trouble!

We had rented a car from the marina to tour the island. From Kõpu we drove on to the western tip of Hiiumaa, where we found another beautiful lighthouse and just underneath it the coolest Surf Paradise you could imagine! Cool in both senses of the word, as the water was pretty cool, but so was the little bunch of surfers lounging in their hammocks on that windy cape. And they had a cool little bar with excellent burritos, too!

Then our journey continued to the southern side of the island. The distances are not very long, the whole island is about 60 km across and 45 km from top to bottom (or 40 by 30 miles if you prefer) so you can easily do a round trip in just one day. We would have loved to stay longer in any of the places we visited, because the island is very beautiful – but we were late in the season and most of the cafes, restaurants and guesthouses were closed. But the country landscapes, old villages and the sunny sea flickering around every corner made our day really special.

After this perfect little road trip we returned to the marina to enjoy our last evening on Hiiumaa island. We had logged over 200 nautical miles and travelled for a week and a half. We could have gone on forever, but it was time to start heading back home. But there was one more destination to see before the compass would turn the wrong way round.

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

Sailing as it should be – and shouldn’t!

Sailing as it should be – and shouldn’t!

 

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many does a video count for? I put together a little sailing video, hoping to show some of the joy and excitement of being carried by the wind, moving fast along the water.

On our way to our next destination, Hiiumaa island off the northwest coast of Estonia, we experienced some of the best sailing we’ve ever done anywhere, on any boat. There was a brisk southerly breeze and we were making good speed on our little boat. By this time she had aquired a large number of affectionate nicknames, most of them referring to her compact size, her pear shaped body, her respectable age, or all of the above. Nevertheless, she proved herself to be a true thoroughbred among sailboats, sailing solidly and effortlessly like a much larger boat. As the wind increased and the waves got bigger she just seemed to grow taller and heavier but remained as responsive to the helm as ever, letting us steer her with just a finger or two.

However, as we got closer to Hiiumaa we found ourselves in a situation we hadn’t prepared for. The sea bottom rises to a very shallow depth many miles off the coast, making the waves suddenly very high and choppy. This combined with the large sail area that just minutes before had given our boat a thrilling speed now made her heel like a mad woman. I had to get up on deck to take the sails down. It felt like riding a bucking bronco, first flying through the air and then diving deep in the water with great green walls rising on both sides. As I crawled my way to the bow and back, I could feel the waves go in through my collar and come out through the trouser legs. What I don’t remember feeling was bumping myself into something, and multiple times. This only became evident later that night, when we were all safe and sound in the Kärdla marina, relaxing in a warm sauna – I’ve never seen such massive bruises in such unusual places!

That’s when I realized that all the sailing channel sailboats on Youtube have furling headsails. You simply couldn’t lounge on the deck in a bikini with bruises like that – no, you should never have to leave the comfort of the cockpit except to take pictures of dolphins! For next summer, we will definitely invest in a roller furler. I can’t wait to shoot some bikini scenes!

Seriously speaking, it’s also a matter of safety. Hank-on sails may be the way to go on a racing boat, but we are cruisers. And when you’re cruising longer distances you’re bound to encounter rapid changes in weather. Although we always clip ourselves to the jacklines when leaving the cockpit, you can still get badly injured if you take a fall. And in any case, the boat deck is full of cleats and lines and other obstacles to smash you body parts into.

In Hiiumaa we got a serious reminder – something much worse than a few bruises – of just how important safety is at sea. Only a week before our arrival in Kärdla a sailboat skipper had fallen overboard, just a few miles out of the marina. The inexperienced crew, unable to stop or steer the boat, couldn’t help him, and despite their efforts the Search and Rescue didn’t find him either. The boat had been towed into the harbour and hauled out, and it was a sorrowful sight. If a simple thing like a harness and a tether can spare a life, how about we all wear them – even before the going gets rough!

I conclude my post with a few hazy pictures from our Tallinn-Hiiumaa leg. After all, a sunset over the sea is one of the reasons we sail for, isn’t it?

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

To Tallinn – with the following seas

To Tallinn – with the following seas

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The wind forecast showed slightly lighter winds for a very brief moment on Thursday morning. We had been stuck in Viinistu for three nights, but finally, just after 5 a.m. we managed to sneak out of the harbour and into the blue. As soon as we were a safe distance from the rocky shore we hoisted the genoa and headed towards the west. The wind was behind us, and so were the seas – the famous following seas, that you so often hear sailors wishing for each other. Well, it may be nicer having them follow you rather than come straight at you, but with a very short and extremely wide beamed boat I’d rather take the waves sideways, thank you! Our little lady sailed very well, like she always does, but she kept wagging her tail with every wave coming from behind. And the waves were big! Still, we enjoyed every moment, and never felt any fear or uneasiness, even though sitting on top of a big wave looking down to the bottom of the next one almost made us feel queasy!

We had the sea all to ourselves again, until we got close to Tallinn. You could say there was quite a bit of traffic there! Port of Tallinn is a very busy harbour with nearly 10 million visitors a year, most of them from Helsinki but also from Stockholm and St. Petersburg, along with a lot of international cruise ship passengers. We saw several big boats at a very close distance. However, the guest marina in Pirita, also known as the Tallinn Olympic Yachting Center, was nearly empty.

We spent a couple of days shopping, walking around the town and enjoying delicious barbeque dinners on our “back porch” – in a large harbour all to ourselves, with the Tallinn city silhouette in the background.

But suddenly we were no longer alone! A big competition called the Helsinki-Tallinn Race began on Friday evening, an exciting night sail across the Gulf of Finland. The winning boats arrived right after dusk, and more boats kept coming all through the night. We woke up to some other boat’s crew stomping on our deck and adjusting our mooring lines, and as I put my head out of the hatch I could see every single inch of dock and quay taken by more than a hundred sailboats. The atmosphere in the marina was exciting, electric. There were people everywhere, dressed in their foul weather gear, shouting out orders, tidying up their boats, discussing weather and tactics. It felt fun to be in the middle of all this without actually participating in the race itself!

But we are more into adventuring at our own pace, and so we untied the lines once again and continued on our journey – leaving our gap at the quay for someone else to fill.

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

Like a fish out of water

Like a fish out of water

Fisherman's hut

We had only completed the first leg of our journey, and already we found ourselves stuck in a marina because of bad weather. I know these things happen all the time when you’re cruising, but seriously – in the first port of call?!

Our boat felt even more frustrated than we did, she kept bobbing and rocking and pulling her lines, as if trying to say it was time for us to go. But the wind and the waves told us the opposite.

So we tried to make the best of the situation. At least there was shore power available so we could charge our batteries, watch a movie cosily tucket up in a bunk while it was raining outside… But wait! The outlet looked nothing like the plug in our power cord! And who knows how long we would have to stay here, and the dog’s food in the fridge would start to turn. The sky was covered in clouds so the solar panels weren’t charging. We would absolutely need some sort of an adaptor for the plug. Besides, we hadn’t really brought too much food for ourselves because we had expected to be in Tallinn by now, hoarding all kinds of good stuff from the supermarkets. There were no shops in Viinistu, and eating all our meals in that nice restaurant would have meant a serious breach of our travel budget – in the first port of call!

But we found a bus stop in the village square, and soon enough a bus came around. We hopped on, payed a mighty sum of 0.70€ per person (dogs travel for free) and rode into the closest town, Loksa. It was raining – no, it was pouring! – when we started our search for the adaptor, and for some food. The latter part was easy, but the salesman in the fancier looking of the town’s two hardware stores shook his head to our electrical problem. However, in the other store, one of those good-old-time shops with floor to ceiling shelves full of miscellaneous tools, screws, bolts and other bits and pieces, I spoke to a very nice gentleman who actually took his time to listen to what the problem was. And behold! – he found all the parts needed for the adaptor, and then he made a phone call to the caretaker of our marina who promised to assemble this electronic widget for us. Problem solved!

Now there was just the part about getting back to the marina. The next bus was going to be in the evening, many, many hours away. We went to a pub for some lunch and to ask if there were any taxis to be found. No, there weren’t – but the bar tender’s brother had a car and apparently nothing better to do, so he offered to give us a ride. And the lunch at the pub was excellent – self picked mushrooms made into the most delicious soup! So in the end it all worked out, and we were impressed with the people’s kindness and willingness to help a total stranger.

Back in Viinistu the skies had cleared enough for a nice walk through the picturesque fisherman’s village.

The wind and the waves were still pounding the shore, preventing us from leaving, but providing a lot of subject matter for photography.

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

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!