One of the pleasures of this extraordinary sailing life is the opportunity to meet other like-minded people and learn about other countries and cultures. Even better is the chance to visit them in their home country. Finland is at the highest latitude (60degrees) reached by Blue Heeler, and we were really lucky to meet again with lovely people we hadn’t seen in almost four years. But first, let me tell you a little about our visit to Helsinki.
Sailing from Estonia to Finland the south west wind settled between 18-22kn. The first 10nm sail from Tallinn was brisk, at which point we steered on a heading towards Helsinki, a further 33nm north. The Gulf of Finland, somewhat colder up here at below 8degC, was choppy from the recent blow but after crossing the busy shipping lane the seas eased. By this time Blue Heeler’s sails were winged out as the wind was a little further up its bum than expected.
Arriving at the entrance of one of many narrow channel entrances heading into the Port of Helsinki, we made sure to stay well out of the way of the frequent and fast-moving ferries departing for or arriving from from Tallinn, Riga, Stockholm, St Petersburg and Travemunde in Germany.
The Imray pilot ‘Baltic Sea and Approaches’ gave us a few suggestions of where to berth Blue Heeler in Helsinki but we also searched the internet for availability and rates. Typically, central to city locations charge a premium for the privilege of being where the action is. The Helsinki Sailing Club (HSK) on Lauttasaari island is only 5kms from the centre, so we elected to stay there and enjoy off-season rates a little cheaper than in town. The ability to cycle widens our choices too. The facilities at HSK are very good – hot showers, sauna, washing machine, WiFi, three very good chandleries and supermarkets close by – and thanks to Tommy who was helpful in arranging for our gas bottle refill. Kids are on summer holidays now and each day at the HSK the kids go dinghy sailing so the change rooms can be overrun with bags, clothes and smelly kids runners!
The fact that we’d reached Finland by midsummer still surprises us, as we weren’t sure we’d have the time to make it this far up at this early time of year. Taking the anti-clockwise route from Götland to Latvia and Estonia was a good plan, and the fine weather over the past couple of months certainly helped our progress. We floated the idea that if we sailed Blue Heeler into Russia (ie: leaving the EU) this would reset our boat’s 18 month EU entry permit – St Petersburg is only 160nm from Helsinki. But without visas, which can only be obtained from our home country, there was no way we could have taken our own vessel into Russia. Looks like Norway remains as our destination to re-set our sailing permit. (Note: we could have joined a ‘visa-free’ 72 hour stopover ferry trip into St Petersburg just to visit, but after visits to Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga and all the other places over the past couple of months we are quite satisfied with our list of notable historical cities visited).
The bike ride into Helsinki is 15 minutes from Lauttasaari over the Lauttasaaren bridge through the Ruoholahti district and into the town centre. Passing through Esplanade Park, towards the prominent Uspensky Cathedral you’ll reach the touristy area known as Market Square. Vendors under canopies of bright orange tents offer locally made souvenirs, deep fried white-bait, freshly cooked salmon, strawberries, blueberries, and reindeer skins. At the side sits an old busker playing a lively waltz on his well-used accordion, one ear expects to hear the chink of spare change in his metal cup. Many tourists from many cruise ships stagger around the stalls like zombies, sampling the local food and stocking up on trinkets to give to loved ones back home.
Helsinki is a beautiful city, with a blend of old wooden buildings amongst modern constructions. The bicycle network is extensive and makes getting around by bike simple. The waterfront has a number of marinas and large docks for ferries, and at this time of year the gardens are budding and fragrant. Most impressive and prominent landmarks include the white Lutheran Cathedral at Senate Square, Circle House, the red brick of the Uspenski Cathedral, the Finnish National Theatre, the tall granite clocktower at Helsinki Railway Station, and on the waterfront the modern Skywheel. Helsinki must be magical in wintertime.
From the market place, we took a 15 minute ferry across to the old fortress island of Suomenlinna. It’s not as if we needed to see ‘yet another fort’ but since it’s one of the top tourist things to see in Helsinki, and we had loads of time, it made sense to go visit and learn a little more about the history of Finland. Suomenlinna played an important and strategic role in the formation of Finland. I had expected to find rundown stone ramparts, bastions and canons (of which there was plenty), but I hadn’t expected to see buildings less than 200 years old currently occupied. Some are residential, some offices and artisan studios, plus there’s an old Russian Orthodox garrison church which was converted into a Lutheran place of worship in 1920, not long after Finland gained independence from Russia in 1918. In a nutshell… construction of the fortress commenced in 1748 when Finland was ruled by the Kingdom of Sweden. Forty years later during the Russo-Swedish War the fortress was used as a naval base. Twenty years later in 1808 Finland succumbed to the might of the Russian Empire and the fortress remained a Russian naval base until 1918. Canons still point to Sweden in the west. But after the Finnish Civil War in 1918 the fortress was annexed by Finland and named Suomenlinna. In 1973 the Finnish garrison left the island and the Ministry of Education and Culture took over the responsibility of the fortress. In 1991 Suomenlinna joined UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list of military architecture.
So, getting back to my original story: Back in 2012 at the start of the Sail Indonesia Rally in Darwin we first met the crews from two Finnish boats: ‘Kastehelmi’ and ‘Ever After’. The last time we were together was in Durban, South Africa in late 2014. So now after almost four years and many miles, we were delighted to have the chance to drop in! As luck would have it, we only caught up with Tom and Salme from ‘Ever After’ as ‘Kastehelmi’ is still sailing around the Med.
Our friends kindly picked us up and drove back to Porvoo only one hour from Helsinki. Together we walked around town, along with their friend Thomas, who we last saw in Chagos in mid 2014.
Along the river banks are the famous red-ochre wooden warehouses and up on the hill overlooking the town is the Porvoo Cathedral. We stopped for a delicious lunch, followed by an evening of drinks, freshly smoked salmon, tasty canapés and great company. By the time the sun went down (or came up?) it was time for bed, although that was very late (or very early!). Thank you Tom and Salme for a lovely weekend!
So with Trump and Putin on the cards to meet in Helsinki next week, it was time to head west to the Archipelago Sea, located south of the Gulf of Bothnia, north of the Gulf of Finland and east of the Sea of Åland. It is said to be the largest archipelago in the world, with thousands of granite islands.