From the exquisite city of Helsinki, we navigated west following the southern islands of Finland’s Archipelago Sea – the largest archipelago in the Baltic with around 50,000 islets and islands and 10,000kms of marked channels. Our destination: Åland, located at the southern end of the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland.
In Finland and Åland, people (including boaters) have a right to roam known as ‘Every man’s right’ where people have the right to move freely across the waters and through nature, and to temporarily stay overnight. The essence is ‘do not disturb and do not destroy’, which is aligned with our attitude which is to ‘take only memories and leave only footprints’. Of course it makes sense not to disturb private homes and invade others privacy, so respect and good judgement is the key. Many of the islands have saunas close to the water so it’s not unusual to see a naked person going in for a dip at the waters edge.
The outside temperature in early July was a chilly 11degC, heavy mist and drizzle, but the weather was sure to improve over the coming weeks. Much like summer in Australia between December to February, July and August are the busiest months in this region as school is closed for the period allowing families to enjoy endless summer daylight hours on land and on the water.
Our first stop after leaving Helsinki was an anchorage to the south of the Porkkala peninsula, followed by a peaceful anchorage at Falkholmen. For this region we used Navionics e-charts on an iPad as we didn’t have a SD card e-chart to use in our chart plotter as we didn’t expect to reach Finland. In Helsinki we’d purchased a useful magazine (Satamaopas) which had lat/longs and descriptions of many of the harbours in the region, plus Tom in Helsinki gave us some useful paper charts for the islands and they were really handy – thanks for the charts and information Tom! Once we get beyond Åland we can use our chart plotter again.
Still chilly and drizzly, we made our way through the clearly marked channels to reach an anchorage at the island of Älgö within the Ekenäs Skärgårds National Park – a lovely spot for dropping a stern anchor and securing bow to rocks (the Baltic way), or like us, still a bit suss on poking our bow that close to rocks, dropped the anchor with plenty of swing room and good holding.
Ashore at the Rödjan Nature Information Hut is where the Älgö Nature Trail begins. It’s a short loop along the granite rocks to a lookout then to Lake Storträsket before returning. A pamphlet downloaded before the walk provided information on the interesting geology of the area, particularly the impact of massive ice sheets over thousands of years and the changes since the melt. Also here is a small jetty for a few boats to tie up bow-in for 10€ per night plus a sauna for €20 per sauna. No charge for anchoring.
Although were used to all sorts of dangerous critters, one thing to be aware of in this region are ticks. The risk of the tick-borne encephalitis virus is real and we weren’t vaccinated, so we made sure to spray our feet with Aussie Bushman’s 40% DEET beforehand, checking in between our toes upon return. Wasps and bees are out in force at this time of year too but they haven’t been bothersome. The temperature peaked at a cool 15degC during the day with the wind keeping the temperature down. Afterwards on nearby rocks we warmed ourselves in the sun.
From Älgö a 25nm sail to a natural harbour on the north coast of Hanko – the most southern tip of Finland. The unrestricted safe harbour anchorage is clearly marked on charts and safe from strong westerly winds. Smaller craft were tied to docks around the bay but we were the only yacht at anchor. Sitting in the cockpit, a scent of summer jasmine wafts over the harbour from nearby gardens, while a couple of Whooper Swans, the Finnish National bird, swim by uninterested in our appearance in their bay.
The main dock has large recycling and rubbish bins so we dropped off the small amount of rubbish we’d collected over the week before walking 30 minutes into town. Hanko is a popular tourist place with no identified anchorages close to the town centre. There are a couple of marinas that would be very busy during peak summer. Berths are upwards of 35€ per night for a boat Blue Heeler’s size so the anchorage suited our budget. Hanko is a popular sailing area and the summer sailing season was well underway with many small yachts flying brightly coloured spinnakers as they race through the channels.
Hanko also has a few shops and a big K Supermarket so I grabbed some fresh bread and veggies before heading back to the boat. Finland has a government run outlet for alcohol, similar to Sweden, but a name that Aussies can resonate with, aptly named ‘Alko’. The prices are steep so replenishing our stocks in Latvia made good sense.
Next leg of our journey was from Hanko to an anchorage at Norstö – 22nm. The wind was right on the nose so we motorsailed; at times the sails flapped but we hoped they may give us just a little boost. Along the way we ran the watermaker which works so well in the almost fresh water.
With no wind forecast for a few days, from Norstö we had no choice but to motorsail 28nm to Jurmo, a popular place for boaters. The marina and breakwater can berth up to 40 vessels with rates around 22€ per night. Our ‘Baltic Sea and Approaches’ guide suggested a suitable place to drop the pick just west of the lead line. Anchoring in 4m the anchor rattled along the pebbly bottom before it hooked in soundly. We were the only boat on anchor while the marina was bursting at the seams with boats. Anchoring is far more appealing to us – the breeze blows over the boat, we can play our music, fire up the Cobb bbq to smoke a fresh piece of salmon or bake some marinated chicken, and we don’t have boats rubbing up next to us.
Jurmo is almost treeless with broad expanses of rocky outcrops and shrubs concealing reptiles and nests of a variety of seabirds such as Terns and Barnacle Geese. There’s a small village to the north of the island. A fifteen minute walk east of the harbour is the ‘Munkringar’, or monk rings, Bronze Age rings of stone.
Jurmo has a small grocery store and nearby a fish smoker belches out bitter smoke across the harbour. Huge recycling bins are available for the many visitors to the island, and an ablution block for boaters and campers. The depths in the harbour are between 1.5m to 3m and smaller yachts have no problem manoeuvring the narrow channels. Campers from nearby tents still kayaking and swimming after 10.30pm as the sun was still above the horizon. No one seems to go to bed until midnight around here, including us, and the mornings are the time for sleeping in.
Next day we sailed a short 10nm from Jurmo to Ütö then again the next day to Kökar. It was on this day we retired our white/blue Finnish courtesy flag and hoisted the blue/yellow/red flag of Åland. The Åland group of islands is an autonomous territory of Finland and it’s appropriate to fly its flag alone.
As we approached Kökar, many yachts steamed by us hoping to snatch the last available berth at the dock, although three other boats anchored near us. The small harbour has 25 stern moorings, but I reckon almost double this amount managed to squeeze in – vessels literally on top of one another, masts leaning as they crammed in together. Many boats up here have no bow anchors or dinghies so anchoring is generally not an option, unless they drag their stern anchor to the bow. The few that do have anchors still prefer to pay for a berth so they can make use of the facilities: water, electricity, showers, laundry, etc. Their boats probably aren’t decked out as self-sufficient as Blue Heeler. Besides, these holiday-makers have worked and saved all year to pay for the few weeks they have off over summer so they have no need to scrimp, on the other hand, we live simply and only frequent marinas as the need arises.
At the Kökar gasthamn, a smooth massive slab of granite is easily mistaken for a boat ramp. Laying reptile-like on the warm slab were a few bikini clad young women with fake tans and a few pale guys catching some vitamin D as the temperature inched up to 18degC. Campers, motorhomes and yachts fill up the surrounding area, keeping the small grocery shop busy supplying smoked fish, recently baked bread, ice creams and freshly baked cinnamon buns, plus various other supplies.
There are plenty of walking trails around Kökar and near to the harbour is a track to see the Otterböte Seal Hunting Station – apparently one of the most well known bronze age sites in Scandinavia. The track over the boulders was clearly marked with white paint and I was careful not to get too close to the bushes in case of returning with ticks.
Mariehamn, the main town of Åland, is located on a peninsula at the southern tip of Åland and a 20nm sail from Fliso where we stayed the previous night. Our guide and charts indicated that anchoring was possible on both the east and west sides of Mariehamn, so we chose the east side anchoring in 4.5m. A high pressure system moved over Finland and the ambient temperature increased, as did the water temperature. I jumped in for a swim and the water has increased to 22.5degC, while the ambient temperature was around 24degC. A begoggled Wayne jumped in and inspected the hull (it’s been over a year since he last checked it at St Maarten in the Caribbean!). No surprise in the fresher water of the Baltic Sea, the hull was clean with no barnacles or excessive growth. Perfect!
Near to us on the eastern shore of Mariehamn is the largest marina in Scandinavia, which can berth up to 350 boats. It offers a free pump out facility and diesel for 1.65€ per litre and charges around 34€ per night for a boat our size. Though the harbour is spacious and depths adequate for many boats to anchor, oddly we remained the only ones at anchor. We double checked our guides and found nothing to suggest we couldn’t anchor, so we cranked up the music, fired up the Cobb and went for a swim!
I asked marina staff if we could leave our dinghy at the marina while we went ashore – no problem. So that’s what we did, making our way into town to stock up on fresh supplies and see some of the sights. It’s a pretty town and didn’t appear to be overwhelmed with tourists. It’s a nice stroll along the Esplanade to reach the west side of the peninsula. Here is a maritime museum and one of the remaining Flying P Line ships used in grain transportation from Australia, the Pommern. This is the third P boat we’ve seen, including the Peking in New York and the Passat in Travemunde, Germany. Unfortunately the Pommern is closed for renovations so we could only view it from outside. (Wayne recommends the book The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby – an account of his time spent on the Moshulu’s last voyage in the Australian grain trade).
With hot weather and calm seas, a yellow algae forms in the Baltic. We’ve noticed patches of algae since leaving Germany and the warmer weather has increased its spread. Apparently the toxic one to look out for is the greenish cyanobacteria, which is essentially caused by pollution. At the moment it’s just small bits of yellow algae, and doesn’t look very inviting to swim. But with the outside temperature hitting 30degC as a heatwave builds over the Baltic, we still jumped in to stay cool.
So, after originally thinking we wouldn’t reach Finland this year, our time is over and I’m glad we came to experience the island life and learn more about the region and it’s strong maritime history.
And now that we’ve crossed the ‘Finnish line’ our next destination is the famous Stockholms skärgård – the second largest archipelago in the Baltic with over 30,000 islets and islands. We’ll explore a few of them, avoid running into any of them, plus spend some time in Stockholm before we head west.