Snaking their way across Sweden via a series of lakes, rivers and mad-made ditches are the impressive waterways: the Göta Canal and the Trollhätte Canal. These two historical constructions connect Stockholm to Göteborg; the fresh water of the Baltic Sea to the salty North Sea. For the modern boater, the journey presents an opportunity to experience the canals as they were over 100 years ago, enjoy modern facilities along the way, and appreciate the landscape of Sweden’s farmlands and forests.
From the early 1800s to the early 20th century, the two canals allowed boat traffic to reach Lake Vänern, the largest lake in the European Union. Originally, one of the main objectives of the canal system was for Swedish merchant and warships to have free passage through the country instead of passing Öresund in Denmark where duties were imposed. For the modern boater, these duties no longer exist, however, be prepared to pay a hefty fee to cross Sweden through the canals. The distance through the canals and lakes from Mem in the east to Göteborg in the west is around 220nm. The alternative is to sail around the south of Sweden which adds a further 200nm to the trip. Distance is not an issue for us and we did consider going around the bottom, but while in the archipelago with days of strong southwest winds signaling the imminent end to summer, we decided to follow our original plan – to follow the canal systems of Sweden.
The entire trip from Mem to Göteborg offers stunning scenery and a chance to meet locals along the way. For a boat the size of Blue Heeler the trip is doable, but larger boats would possibly be challenged. The minimum height on the Göta Canal is 22m, which is 3.5m higher than Blue Heeler. The depth is around 2.8m, and the width of the canal caters for boats less than 7m wide.
On a side note, it’s said the canal is also known as the ‘divorce ditch’ due to the anxieties of navigating through the network of locks, narrow canals and passing through or under bridges. But after weeks in the Erie Canal and the Inland Waterways of the USA in 2015, and navigating through the Mast Up Route in the Netherlands this year, this trip was just another day of living the dream – haha!
Below is some history and further information on our trip along the Göta and Trollhatte Canals of Sweden.
The Göta Canal is around 200 years old. In 1809, Baltzar von Platen and Scottish canal builder Thomas Telford (famous architect and engineer of the Caledonian Canal, which is the ‘sister’ canal to the Göta Canal) presented their idea of a water route through Sweden. Soon after the newly crowned King Carl XIII set out the rules for the construction of the canal in the royal charter that created the Göta Canal Company. Although expected to take around ten years to construct, this blew out to 22 years and cost six times the original estimate. Overall the cost at the time was equal to SEK15.3 billion in 2016.
The first lock was completed at Forsvik in 1813, but the entire canal system didn’t open up until 1832. The Göta Canal is 190km long (of which 90km was dug out by hand), has 58 locks, around 50 bridges, crosses five lakes, and reaches almost 92m above sea level. This canal offers passage for vessels no bigger than 30m long, 7m wide, 2.8m deep, and no higher than 22m. Our vessel is around 18.5m high with a draught of 2m.
Unlike the Erie Canal in New York State, the railway didn’t immediately overtake the canal, but by the late 1800s the canal was fairly redundant. By the mid 20th century roads and trucks impacted the importance of the canal even further. After a couple of decades of little use, it wasn’t until the 1960s when tourism brought the canal back to life.
For a yacht on the Göta Canal there is plenty to consider. First of all it’s important to make sure your vessel meets with HxWxD specs. Secondly is the cost to transit the canal. At SEK8770 (almost 840 Euros) it’s expensive. This high season price allows pleasure boats to stay at any of the 21 marinas for five nights at each, but that would be fairly unrealistic to do so. After August 16 is the low season or the ‘booking season’. The price is slightly reduced (SEK6100 – 580 Euros) but you no longer have the option to pass through at a leisurely pace – you must join a convoy with other vessels and follow an itinerary to get you through the system within five days. We had contemplated doing this, but for the extra cost we decided to get through in the high season and take advantage of stopping at towns along the way. But we just made it, arriving at the final town on the Göta Canal at Sjotorp on August 15 – one day before the booking season commenced – so we didn’t have to wait for a convoy to exit the final lock.
The gasthamns (guest harbours) along the way have good facilities for pleasure boats – toilets, showers, laundry, pump-out, electricity and water all included in the fee, but wifi was non-existent except for Berg. Eateries for those who want to buy dinner are close by, as are ice-cream shops for those who have a liking for waffle cones filled with delicious mjikglass (softserve icecream) sprinkled with lakrits (licorice)! Söderköping and Motala had the best grocery stores, but Berg also had a small grocery store too. We didn’t always stop at other places so I can’t comment on the facilities elsewhere. Berg was virtually empty when we stayed so the summer boating community evaporates quickly when the kids return to school.
Along the way we meet many Swedes who stopped to say “Välkommen” and inquired about our voyages around the world. A few of them are sailors themselves, while others have no idea of life aboard. Often passersby would stop and point at our Aussie Red Ensign trying to figure out which country it represented. More familiar is the blue Aussie flag so the usual guess is New Zealand or England. They are usually amazed and a little impressed when we tell them we’ve brought our Hallberg Rassy all the way from good old Melbourne to its homeland of Sweden!
With 58 locks to navigate, the days were busy, but we made sure to stop for a day or two to enjoy the sights along the way. The heatwave over Europe hadn’t quite disappeared so some days were long and hot.
One particular day we went up 19 locks including the flight of seven locks at Berg; the final seven locks for the day. By this time we were joined by another two small yachts. Blue Heeler was the larger vessel of three so had to be at the front of the lock. The turbulence at this lock was so fierce – even with two wraps on the ring at the top of the lock, the line began to slip when the turbulence took hold of the bow and pushed it towards the opposite side of the lock. I held on as tightly as possible, taking in slack when possible. Afterwards I had a quiet word to the lockmaster to perhaps tone down the turbulence for the subsequent locks. He did, but I also put on three wraps to be sure the boat didn’t get away from me! The final day of the canal passage is also 19 locks over 10nm – this time going down, and with less turbulence was quite okay.
The passage takes boaters through gorgeous countryside, much of it very dry this unusually hot summer. In fact it’s been so dry and hot here that there is a ban in most of Sweden regarding using BBQs or lighting any fires.
Narrow parts of the canal are carefully navigated, so we paid particular attention to the depth and height, as overhanging trees may cause problems too. Lock and bridge openings were generally timely, although a few have set opening times. All this information is available from http://www.GotaKanal.se.
Our trip on the canal took eight days plus an additional couple of nights at Sjötorp gasthamn to clean off the mud and muck that manages to get aboard. This time of year the canal wasn’t busy at all as the summer crowds have already returned to work and school. We didn’t feel rushed and managed to spend extra days relaxing at Söderköping and Berg and also catch up with Swedish friends Karl and Elisabet for a tasty pizza at Motala. A day off to cycle from Motala to the historic town and castle at Vadstena was worth the trip.
The Göta Canal is a holiday in itself and after our busy summer season in the Baltic, we probably didn’t give it the full attention it deserved.
We still have many miles ahead of us until we reach our winter home so it’s important for us to keep moving.
Lake Vänern is the largest lake in Sweden and the largest in the European Union. From Sjötorp to Vänersberg to the beginning of the Trollhätte Canal is 66nm. In the middle of the lake is an archipelago where we stopped for a couple of days to let a strong southwest wind blow over. Exploring the lake over summer would also be a good option for those with plenty of time.
The first lock system on the Trollhätte Canal was opened in 1800; earlier than the Göta Canal. At Trollhättan are the remains of the original locks constructed from 1795; a second set of locks from the mid 1800s, and the current locks opened in 1916. The canal is 82km long – 10km is manmade while the rest of the canal follows the Göta Älv River. The difference in sea level from Lake Vänern to the North Sea is 44m and there are six locks to navigate through. The first at Brinkebergskulles sluss drops around 6m; the Trollhättan group of four locks drops 32m, and the final Lilla Edet lock drops 6m.
This canal is commercial therefore larger than the Göta Canal allowing larger vessels up to 87m long, 12.6m wide and 4.7m draught. Freighters carrying 4000 tons regularly passing through the canals, although on our trip we saw only one ship.
The Trollhätte Canal is separate from the Göta Canal, but the transit cost of SEK1000 can be added to your Göta Canal fee at the time of booking. Otherwise payment can be made at lock number 3 at Trollhättan. The lowest vertical clearance along the route is 27m so we had no trouble with our mast height. All the bridges open (either lift, bascule or swing bridges) and a few are closed during peak hours so it pays to time the trip to coincide with the openings.
Of all the bridges we passed through, the final bridge was the one that concerned us the most.
The Göta Älv bridge, the last bridge to navigate under, is currently being revamped and as a busy conduit to the city, bridge openings are few and far between. In fact, they really don’t want to open unless they really have to. With a vertical clearance of 18.3m we would have preferred the bridge to open for us as our mast/antenna height is also around 18.3m. I called the bridge operator on VHF9 and asked if he would open it, but he said there was actually around 19m of clearance and we should be fine. Easy for him to say; he’s not the one that has to watch as the antenna snaps off the mast, or worse!
Wayne is certainly not faint-hearted so he slowed the boat down and headed directly at the 18.3m centre of the bridge, while I watched and waited. Under we went. Once under with no sounds of snapping rigging or crack of a broken VHF antenna, we breathed out as our lofty mast and antenna cleared with a metre to spare. Phew!
Soon after we turned to port and headed around the bowsprit of the four masted windjammer ‘Viking’ and into the Göteborg Gasthamn. Viking is another of the four-masted barques that brought wheat from Australia to Europe in the early 20th century.
So, this is the end of our canal adventure across Sweden.
After a couple of days in Göteborg to replenish our supplies we are now headed north to reach Norway. On the way we will attend the Open Yard at the Hallberg Rassy yard at Ellös – Blue Heeler’s birthplace.