Friends in High Places: Helsinki, Finland

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.

May 2014: Chagos yachties enjoying BBQ

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.

Until then…

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Baltic nation: Estonia

One of the sailing experiences that I really wanted to tick off the list was to sail overnight during summer in the Baltic. We would have the opportunity over a two-night 200nm sail from Riga to Tallinn.

Each evening of our voyage the sun set after 10.30pm, only to rise again around 4am. The sun takes ages to go down! I can go and make a cup of tea with the sun balanced on the horizon and it’s still setting when I return fifteen minutes later. In between sunset and sunrise, the sky remains at twilight, never quite reaching the darkness we are used to on night sails further south. But too much sunlight can play havoc with sleeping rhythms, although off-watch I managed to get a few hours sleep once I put on my eye-mask. Wayne managed to get a few hours of sleep too with his head buried under a pillow.

9pm at night

To the west of mainland Estonia are a number of islands and shallow waters. Having sunlight allowed us to navigate these waters with no problem.

Midnight in the Baltic

Sailing south of and parallel to the shipping lane in the Gulf of Finland, we then headed across the busy ferry lanes to arrive at the Pirita Kalevi Yacht Club in the Republic of Estonia.

Our view from Blue Heeler at Pirita Yacht Club

The Pirita Kalevi yacht club is where the sailing sports of the 1980 Russian Olympics took place and is located 6kms north-east of Tallinn. The small marina has everything we need close by (diesel, supermarkets, etc) and the 20 Euro per night was far more attractive that 55 Euros per night at the Tallinn city marina. The bike ride into town is a convenient 20 minutes or an easy 60 minute walk.

Tallinn, Estonia – view from top of St Olaf’s Church

Tallinn is the capital and largest city of Estonia. Old Tallinn is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe and another UNESCO World Heritage site. Over the centuries, the small country was invaded by various others, and like Latvia is celebrating its 100th year of independence in 2018.

St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

To learn more about Estonia and Tallinn, we joined a guided tour offered by the Tourist Information Office. Our guide was affable and witty and like most youngish Estonians, spoke excellent English. Although we both thought her accent seemed to have an Irish slant, she assured us she had lived in Tallinn all her life. Our walk around the town included sites such as St Nicholas’ church, St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Town Hall and Square. Surrounding the town is the remains of the ramparts and bastions, one of the best preserved in Europe apparently. Afterwards we walked up 220 skinny steps to the top of St Olaf church for spectacular views of the city and harbour. It’s amazing that any of these old buildings still stand. In March 1944, the Russians bombed Tallinn with over 5000 buildings pulverised immediately or demolished soon after. This attack by the Red Army killed over 800 people, mostly civilians.

Estonia Freedom monument

Now, here’s a few interesting facts about Estonia that our young guide shared with us: Apparently Estonia is one of the most tech-savvy countries in the world and the popular tag ‘E-Estonia’ recognises their advances in technology (Fact: fact Skype was developed in Estonia and over 40% of Skype employees are based in Tallinn and nearby Tartu); Estonia was the first country to have online voting back in 2005; Free Wifi is just about everywhere and the population is well-connected digitally speaking; Estonia has the highest number of start-ups per capita in Europe; Estonians also love to sing! In 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union a series of mass demonstrations during which Estonians sang national songs and patriotic hymns that were strictly forbidden is known as The Singing Revolution; Estonia enjoy participating in the Eurovision song contest; Estonians love nature and their favourite bread is black and made from rye (it’s moist and tasty too!).

So now here we are at the Summer Solstice and this weekend Midsummer festivities take place in the countryside over the weekend.  But as luck would have it, a nasty low (990mb) has blown in from the west bringing strong gales and plenty of rain, keeping us on board for a couple of days. But it will soon pass in a day or so and we’ll head across to Helsinki, Finland crossing the 60 degree latitude – the most northerly location sailed by Blue Heeler.

Until then, terviseks!


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Baltic nation: Latvia

Over the past two weeks we’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in two of the three Baltic States: Latvia and Estonia. Fortunate as I never imagined we’d manage to get this far north by midsummer.

In the Baltic region during the months of April and May the weather can be cold, wet or even snowy, so we’ve certainly had the fine-weather Gods on our side since leaving the UK.  This post covers Latvia, following is another on our short time in Estonia.
I hope you enjoy my take on Latvia and Estonia.

Our first landfall in the Republic of Latvia was the large port of Ventspils. The landscape is flat and the approaching sea is quite shallow and arriving on a Sunday, there was little activity on the waterfront. Within the harbour, in a corner away from the fishing vessels, about fifteen stern moorings are available for yachts. Unlike other places we’d visited recently, there were no available moorings (a sure sign summer is on its way), so we had to double up onto another boat’s mooring then secure our bow lines to the dock. Doubling up isn’t something we’d normally do, but the harbour master said it would be fine, especially with calm conditions overnight. One thing that I would have to follow up – I’d noticed a very big painted sculpture of a cow on the starboard side of the port as we entered, and once inside the harbour, another painted cow stood stiffly ‘mooing’ in silence near the harbour master’s office. What’s with the cows?

Ventspils Harbour, Latvia

Facilities at the harbour are basic, but they were clean and adequate for our needs. We had access to electricity on the dock and water too. The harbour master helped us tie up then suggested we head to the make-shift bar for a cold beer, since we’d been sailing since 3am. Well, alrighty then! After our 90nm trip from Faro at the top of Gotland we were fairly tired, and hungry too, so we also ordered a kebab and fries to compliment the dark beer. While we drank our beer and waited eagerly for our kebabs, a Customs official waved Wayne over – he wanted to see our boat papers and passports. Australian flagged vessels are unusual around this region so our vessel certainly stands out. However, our paperwork is all in order – our EU passports still valid and the boat is still within its 18 month permitted entry period. Back to our beer!

The main town centre of Ventspils is about 2kms from the marina but not much was happening the day we visited. But along the walk into town we noticed another hand-painted fibreglass cow, then another, and another. Apparently in 2012 Ventspils hosted CowParade; the largest and most successful public art event in the world where artists display hand-painted cows and unique works of art. There are many cows adorning the city’s foreshore and parks in Ventspils. While I’m on the subject, did you know that Latvia also has the rarest cows on the planet – the Blue Cow. Apparently there are only around 100 of them in Latvia so I’m unlikely to see one.

Unlike more developed European countries, the standard of living is much lower in Latvia and the Euro was only introduced in 2014. A small market in the centre of town sold sweet berries, fresh vegetables, bright flowers and smoked meats, plus some stalls had cheap polyester frocks and polyethylene shoes, but little else. I bought a few legs of smoked chicken and squishy chocolate cake to have for lunch. Ventspils is a little off the beaten-track for most tourists and perhaps the locals prefer it that way too.

Small harbour on the south coast of Ruhnu, Estonia

With an excellent wind forecast, from Ventspils we sailed around the north into the Gulf of Riga and stopped for the night at the small Estonian island of Ruhnu, swapping my home-made courtesy flags along the way. The small marina at Ruhnu has tiny finger berths and a high wharf for longer boats wanting to berth alongside. The facilities are good and once again the harbour master was friendly and helpful. Next day after a good sleep we sailed the 60nm south to the capital of Latvia – Riga is the largest city of the three Baltic states – Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

Situated close to the city of Riga, the Andrejosta Yacht Club has a guest dock with short rickety pontoons to tie-up to. It certainly isn’t fancy and for 33 Euros per night, it’s slightly more expensive than most, but given the location, which is recognised as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, I certainly can’t complain. Nearby the huge cruise ships unload and load passengers each morning and night.

View from Andrejosta Marina, Riga

The old harbour office that overlooks the marina was converted to a posh restaurant and during our stay a couple of wedding parties were held there. Behind the restaurant are a couple of toilets, two showers plus a washer/dryer to use gratis, but with many passing boats and slow operating domestic machines, I had to wait ten hours before I could get my load on.

From the marina we cycle through warm air filled with the scent of jasmine. It’s a short bike ride across a busy dual-lane road and not far to the heart of Old Riga. Not knowing much about Latvia I made sure to read as much as I could about its most recent history. This year marks the 100th year that Latvia gained independence from Soviet Russia. The granite Brīvības Piemineklis (Freedom Monument) unveiled in 1935 symbolises freedom, sovereignty and independence of the Republic of Latvia. However the Soviets weren’t finished with Latvia and in 1940 the Soviet’s military invaded. However, between 1941-1944 Latvia was occupied by Germany, but soon after occupied once more by Soviet Russia. After the dissolution of the USSR, Latvia’s sovereignty was fully restored in 1991. Fortunately Riga was lucky enough to escape much of the bombing, unlike some other European towns.

At the centre of Old Riga is Dome Square and nearby the Riga Cathedral. Groups of people on walking tours amble about with their heads raised up to view the magnificent sculptures and architecture above them. Around the city are many statues dedicated to the struggle for independence or to recognise a poet, writer or another who contributed to the small republic.

The ‘Three Brothers’ building complex

Forming the oldest complex of buildings in Riga is the ‘Three Brothers’, the oldest of which was constructed in the 1500s. Another of the most superb buildings, and probably the most famous facade in Riga, is the ‘House of the Blackheads‘. No, it’s not a beauty salon, but a building erected during the early 14th century for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried merchants, shipowners, and foreigners in Riga.

House of Blackheads, Riga

Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world. Over a third of the buildings were built in the early 1900s at a time of rapid economic growth. This is truly an outstanding town, but don’t forget to look up as there are some interesting things perched on top of the spires!

Popular Alberta Iela has expertly restored apartment buildings – each uniquely decorated with ornate balconies, tall columns and silent sculptured faces. In the central section of old Riga are plenty of eateries and bars catering to those who may prefer to view the World Cup after a day of looking at buildings.

Old zeppelin hangar now sells meat and cheese – Central Market Riga

A short distance out of the old town is a popular place for locals and tourists: Riga’s Central Market. Built between 1924 and 1930, it is apparently Europe’s largest market and bazaar so we went along to check it out. Old Riga and the Central Market were included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. The five huge pavilions of the market used to be hangars for German Zeppelins but now they house meats, cheeses, artworks and other items.

This time of year is the season for berries. Throughout the market the sweet smell of blueberries, cherries and strawberries fill the air. For general provisioning, however, a more convenient place is the large Rimi Hypermarket about 1km north of the marina. It has everything you need for stocking up the boat and is much less chaotic than the busy market. Walking distance from the marina is a large Spirits and Wine outlet which many of the cruise-ship tourists visit to stock up and take supplies back to Finland or Sweden. There is a wide selection of spirits and wines and it’s worth purchasing a bottle or two.

Of course a visit to an old Hanseatic town isn’t complete without the need to fix something aboard! We had a leak in the boat. Fortunately the leak was from the galley tap/mixer! With a crack at the base and unable to be repaired, Wayne cycled 4kms south of the marina to the huge Depo store. This place sells everything from taps, fish, 10″ water filters, liquors, fabric, rugs and a huge selection of hardware and tools. I’m surprised he came back, but he did – with a new tap and a bottle of Jameson’s Whisky! I was so impressed by his adventure, I went there the next day and bought a few things (for the boat of course!).

So our next voyage takes us from Riga to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The distance is 196nm and with a low pressure system due in a few days we wanted to be tucked in somewhere for the blow so decided to travel directly. So we left Riga at 6pm, motoring 8nm down river until we reached the Gulf of Riga where we could settle into the trip. Light winds on the nose kept our pace slow, but we weren’t in a hurry.

Usually, we are never in a hurry!

Memorial statue of two struggling soldiers, Riga, Latvia

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Sunshine sailing in Sweden

Sweden is experiencing “an unusual season”. Last month reported the hottest May in Sweden for many years. The past few weeks (in fact the past two months) have been particularly warm and mostly pleasant for us as we’ve travelled along the Northern European coast. We don’t know any different though.

Blue Heeler sailed from Sassnitz on Germany’s Ruegen Island and headed to Rønne on the east coast of the Danish island of Bornholm. The distance is 56nm and sailing along with a fresh breeze we arrived mid-afternoon at the small hafen. Here we went to the self-service bowser and topped up with 200 litres of diesel – DK11.50 per litre (that’s around A$2.50 per litre – you can understand why we must sail as much as possible!). No box-berths here, just normal floating pontoons.

Small harbour of Hanö

A couple of days at Bornholm, taking a day to enjoy a cycle around, the wind turned favourable for a sail to the small Swedish island of Hanö, another 56nm further north. There’s not much to do on Hanö except walk up a hill to the lighthouse in the centre, which is only ten minutes from the harbour. It’s charming though and dotted with wooden cottages and sheds painted in Falu red (a pigment from copper mines), ubiquitous to Sweden.

The following day the wind wasn’t as strong as previous days, and it was a headwind, so we managed a slow 28nm in eight hours of tacking and motor sailing to arrive at the tiny harbour of Utklippan. Utklippan consists of two small islands or skerries – the north skerry is where the harbour is located, while the south skerry has the lighthouse and cabins. The lighthouse is disused and the few cabins cater for a maximum of twenty guests. The harbour has enough dock for passing yachts (five boats during our stay but apparently over the busy summer season up to fifty boats cram in!).

Utklippan is a haven for reptiles (particularly frogs), birdlife and seals. The latter were easily spooked when we snuck out from behind a rock to witness them darting into the sea.The friendly harbourmaster suggested we walk up the lighthouse for a good view, so we did. The 122 steps to the top is worth it for excellent views of the harbour. The harbour has a couple of dinghies available to quietly row from one island to the other without disturbing the local bird life with noisy outboards.

A few days before arriving at Utklippan, the Swedish government issued an important pamphlet to citizens warning them of a “heightened state of alert” and what to do when an attack is imminent; obviously not directed at our arrival, but more so to the provocative neighbours to the east. The harbour master at Utklippan reckoned there was a good possibly of lurking Russian submarines not far away. That night we were inspired to rewatch The Hunt for Red October.


Entry at Kalmar, just in case you weren’t sure!

Leaving early from Utklippan we tacked our way north until we reached the medieval town of Kalmar. The first noticeable building is the Kalmar Slott (castle), with origins from the 13th century and looking pretty much now as it did in the 1600s.

Kalmar Castle

The old Hanseatic city has stunning historic buildings surrounded by ramparts and segments of old wall. The Kalmar Cathedral is stunning, and taking a late afternoon walk around the historic town is a rewarding experience.

We stayed at the Kalmar Gästhamn (guest harbour) a couple of nights to provision and ride around. There is a good chandlery opposite the harbour office so we bought a couple of Swedish sailing guide books – Hamnguides. The text is Swedish but the sample charts and diagrams are good, and we use Google Translate to translate the text.

Our cruising kitty is certainly getting a little bruised in this region. Sweden is second on the list of EU countries with the highest VAT of 25%, equal with Denmark. Alcohol is very expensive and can only be bought from Government run liquor outlets known as Systembolaget. Despite this, they have a great selection of wines, liquors, beers, etc. but for a few dollars more. Beer up to 3.5% can be bought from supermarkets. Even though some things are expensive, marinas are comparable to Australian marinas, with the off season rates anywhere from SEK150 to SEK300 (around A$22 to A$50 per night). And of course anchoring is free and abundant which helps keep things under control.

It’s around this area where the famous Swedish archipelago begins. Over the following ten days, and blessed with extraordinarily warm weather, we anchored in various bays taking in walks through pine forests, reading or knocking off a few onboard jobs while our cruising kitty licked its wounds.

Although the air is warm, the water hasn’t caught up and is still very cold (around 17degC). On a lazy afternoon I decided to clean above the waterline so to keep warm I donned my wetsuit and booties and sat astride the dinghy to scrub, while Wayne worked on removing dirty fuel in our outboard. There’s always plenty to do.

Between 10pm and 3.00am the sky is never really dark. Normally my rise and fall are synchronised with the sun, so it is in Sweden. This means I’m falling asleep around midnight only to awake at 4am sunrise. Heavy duty foil placed over the small porthole to blank out the sunshine and a heavy towel hanging in the ‘hallway’ to remove any trace of seeping sunshine helps darken the cabin and give us a few more hours of sleep.

Empty berths at Vastervik

The island of Götland was recommended as a must-see place to visit, but with ideal winds still a few days away, we decided to head into Västervik Gästhamn. (Björn Ulvaeus from ABBA comes from Västervik so we kept our eyes open in case we ran into him!). This was a good stop and a great place to provision with a huge ICA Maxi and Biltema department store 4kms away (a 15 minute ride). I was surprised there wasn’t more boats. We didn’t even have to tie up to the stern moorings as there was plenty of dock space.

Västervik was also a good place to meet up with friends. We first met Karl and Elisabet from “Spray” at Hemingway Marina in Cuba, then sailed on and off with them along the Antilles over the following months. While their Hallberg Rassy is on the other side of the world in New Zealand, they are in Sweden for summer and generously invited us to their summer home a couple of hours away from Västervik.

Two hours from the coast for spectacular views

The wind forecast for later that week was ideal for a sail to Visby, the UNESCO World Heritage Hanseatic Town at Götland around 54nm to the east. Back on board but this time with two extra crew as our friends joined us for what turned out to be a fantastic day’s sail, averaging 7kn!

The wind increased to 25kn as we approached Visby Harbour, but with three crew helping the skipper, we bounced into the harbour, dodging a departing ‘Destination Götland’ ferry, furled the sails, docked, and had the cold beers out in no time! That night we watched the sun go down… unlike the lower latitudes, this took about ten minutes for the sun to finally plop out of view.

Visby was the main centre of the Hanseatic League in the Baltic from the 12th to the 14th century and is the best-preserved fortified commercial city in northern Europe, with more than 200 warehouses and fancy dwellings housed within the 13th-century ramparts. We stayed on in Visby one more day as our friends caught the ferry back to the mainland the following day. It was great to have such nice people aboard and sail with us!

Kids enjoying Studenten

But it’s not all ramparts and buildings – that day and night held the Swedish traditional ‘Studenten’ –  the graduation from upper-secondary school when a teenager goes from being an upper-secondary school student to becoming eligible to enter University (much like Schoolies in Australia, but more family orientated and not as disorderly). The tradition begins with a Champagne breakfast at school, then the kids run out of the school building to waiting parents, family and friends bearing gifts. Tractors tow truckloads of celebrating students, while massive speakers blare out ‘doof-doof’ sound as they circle the town. They finished up near us on the beachfront for the revelry, drinking and dancing to continue into the night.

The next day we motor sailed on light winds around to the north to Farö and the small fishing harbour of Lauterhorn. Along the way I hand-stitched up a couple of easy courtesy flags for Latvia and Estonia.

Faro harbour, Gotland

The summer season hasn’t officially started yet and many of the marinas have reduced staff and reduced rates, with no need to struggle to find a berth. The approaching summer solstice on June 21 will begin the decline of sunlight hours, but an increase in holiday-makers.

Leaving Farö at 3.30am as the sun rose, we had a ripper sail across to Ventspils in Latvia. Here is where we’ll commence our anti-clockwise trip around the Baltic.

I know little about Latvia so I wonder what surprises are in store for us…

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Big ships, Box-Berths, Brathering auf Brötchen: A taste of Germany

With so much to see and with our goal of reaching Stockholm and Finland’s archipelago in the few months of summer, we made the decision to move through Germany swiftly to reach the northern Baltic. With so much on offer for tourists, we really wanted to spend more time in Germany, but now wasn’t the time, so we will return one day and give it our full attention. But even our short time on Germany’s northern shores we’ve managed to see a few historic ports and towns, taking in a beer or two at each stop. Here’s where we’ve been…

On the 2nd of May, once a couple of thunderstorms had passed over, we left Delfzijl in the Netherlands with our aim of the port at Cuxhaven, Germany – about 120nm east. All throughout the Netherlands, and particularly offshore, large wind-farms are generating power or in a state of construction. They have big plans to triple their renewable energy from wind-farms over the next few years which is really impressive.

The coastline is shallow and strong winds can whip up stiff short seas. A blow came over that night, but it was from behind and actually helped us along. We didn’t want to reach the River Elbe too early as the outgoing current can run at 4 knots. As it turned out the currents, weather and tides were all in our favour so we bypassed Cuxhaven and sailed a further 20nm directly to Brunsbüttel and the entrance to the Nord-Ostsee Kanal, also known as the Kiel Canal. Unfortunately this meant we missed out in seeing some friends in Bremen, but we promise we will return!

The Kiel Canal is 98 kilometres long and allows ships and pleasure boats to cross to the Baltic from the North Sea saving around 250nm. The alternative is the head north around the top of Denmark.

To the south of the Brunsbüttel lock is a waiting area for pleasure craft, although there’s nowhere to tie up to. So we drifted in gear against a 3kn current. After waiting an hour or so, a white flashing light invited us to enter the lock. Once inside (of the two small locks we entered the west lock) floating platforms are available to tie to. This is unusual and something we’ve never seen (and we’ve been through many locks!), but it worked well. Keeping our fenders low at the water, I jumped off with a bow line and quickly looped it through a large ring on the dock then jumped back aboard to secure while Wayne did the same on the stern line. The water level dropped about two metres taking around 15 minutes. Once the gates opened to release the few pleasure vessels, we motored out and to port heading to the Brunsbüttel hafen where we would spend the night.

Brunsbuttel Hafen

The hafen is simple and not intended for boats to stay for days, but it has good showers, toilets, cheap and cheerful cafes along the port, electricity and water dockside. The hafenmeister comes along in the evening to take your berth fee (10 Euros) and Kiel Canal permit which was only 18 Euros and valid for three days passage.

As the huge commercial locks operate throughout the night, you will hear the hum and feel the vibration of massive propellers thrashing through the water as they build up speed to exit the locks. After sailing overnight from with only two hours sleep we were too tired to notice.

A couple of documents will help you through the Kiel Canal – “Guidance for Operation of Pleasure Craft – Kiel Canal” produced by; a copy of “SeeschifffahrtsstraBen-Ordnung – German Traffic Regulations” (it’s mandatory to have a copy in German) but the English version has the details of the Kiel canal and all waterways in Germany and is worth a read to understand the signals, signs and regulations.

The following day we were up early – our destination: the town of Rendsburg, 65kms away.

Rendsburg marina box berth

Rendsburg marina has box berths – having only done this once before we were happy once we’d tied to the dock. (box berths are tricky as the boat has to fit between two timber piles, stern lines then placed over each pile – port and starboard – then the boat inches forward where I then have to lasso the bowlines while Wayne tensions the stern lines. Easier said than done!).

Rendsburg town is pleasant to stroll through – follow the blue tourist line to reach Sculpture Park and the Stadttheatre – a fine building built in the 1800s – or just sit and have a brew. Not far and to the north of town is a shopping complex with a large supermarket where you can stock up from a good selection of beer and groceries.

The following day was a short 30km trip to the Holtenau locks and the exit into the Baltic Sea. The smaller locks to the north were non-operational so we had to wait for the larger locks to become available once commercial traffic had vacated. Here is a link which shows the availability of the locks. With us were about eight other yachts, all rafted up and having a bite to eat as they waited. The Baltic Sea has around 20% of the salinity of ocean water and there are literally no tides to worry about.

The process was the same as before – white flashing light, then boats untie and head swiftly inside the lock to tie up. Once through, the boats darted off in various locations. We headed south to the Düsternbrook Marina at Kiel as we were expecting a visit from friends the next day.

Dusternbrook Marina, Kiel

Unfortunately the box berth we chose at the marina was very long and disproportionately narrow. I thought our 16m lines at the stern would be suitable, but it turned out not to be so. I’d looped the stern lines around successfully and made my way to the bow, but we ran out of length to go forward enough to tie up the bow! With a 15kn breeze blowing on our beam and Wayne hanging on to the stern lines, the bow was still a good five metres from the dock. From the bow I threw a 10m line to a guy standing on the dock (assuming he was there to help and not just stare at me!), and he secured it to a cleat. Blue Heeler was now strung up between piles to our stern and the dock with no way for us to get off! Wayne rejigged the ropes and managed to increase the length allowing us to get the bow to the dock. During the manoeuvre, our Yamaha outboard caught the brunt – one of the piles bending the gear lever permanently in reverse. Afterwards over a beer we sat and pondered a better way to box berth! (I found this good article which explains how to berth).


Anyway, the next day we had a lovely surprise. Our Swedish friends Claes and Laila from the Hallberg Rassy ‘Comedie‘ came all the way by ferry from Gothenburg to see us! We hadn’t seen them since January 2014 in Thailand so it was a real treat to spend the day with them enjoying a stroll through the Kiel outdoor market and a couple of beers over lunch.

Kiel is a sailing city and the famous Kiel Regatta takes place every June. This is the largest sailing event in the world and attracts over 2000 boats – this would be a fantastic event to see! During our stay the weather was perfect for sunbaking and getting outdoors. The locals seemed to really enjoy the fine weather as we did.

Locals at Kiel enjoying the warmth

Our next stop was the island of Fehmarn 42nm, and the port of Burgstaaken. We tied to the fishing wharf along with a few other yachts, rather than stay at the Burgtiefe marina, which is further away from the town. The wharf is a good place to stay with all the facilities we needed, except there’s a bit of dust which blows over the boat from the dock. Each day the fishing boats bring in their catch and offer the fish to the public; nearby is a small U-boat which is open to the public.

The town centre is 2kms north of the port so on our bikes we took a bone-rattling ride along the cobble roads and rode around the area stopping for lunch at the village. Afterwards I rode around to the Burgtiefe marina, and the sandy beach to the south. I had no idea the beaches in Germany were so good – plenty of deck chairs and woven cane humpies available for beachgoers to rent for the day. The temperature was hot enough for a swim, but the sea temperature is still a cool 10degC.

After a great sailing day from Fehmarn, our next stop was the tourist port of Travemünde located 25kms from the historic city of Lübeck. As we sailed along, a German naval vessel and three planes were performing military exercises – the planes would swoop down on the ship and a ‘rata-tat-tat’ of gunfire would burst from the ship! We hadn’t heard any announcements on the radio that we may be in any exclusion zone, plus there were other yachts around. The ship made no effort to contact us as it veered close behind us, so we figured this was just a normal, but odd, situation.

Box berth at Travemunde

Arriving at Travemünde the wind eased to around 7kn. Our guide book recommended stopping at a marina at Travemünde rather than journey down the river into Lübeck so we had no reason to disregard this. The fishermen’s wharfs are usually a little less expensive than marinas, and it was another box berth but this time we had planned our approach.

At one end on each of the 16m lines I’d placed a 1m bowline. The free end was then fed through the stern cleat and looped once around the large winch – both port and starboard. As we approached the berth, I stood with the sternline amidship and placed the loop on the pile as Wayne slowly moved the boat forward. He kept tension on the windward line so we didn’t drift into the pile, while I placed the opposite line on the leeward pile. This wasn’t easy as the rough timber piles were quite a distance from me and continually snagged the lines. But then success! Up at the bow I’d prepared bowlines at one end of the 10m lines, but they were difficult to throw over a cleat from a distance so I quickly undid the bow line and lassoed the cleat with a free line, tying back to the cleat on the bow. We then adjusted the lines and had the anchors within reach of the dock so we could jump off. Yeehaw!

Off to Lubeck!

A public holiday – Ascension Day – and a wonderfully warm day for a ride to Lübeck. Wayne was happy enough aboard, so with my bike assembled onshore, some water, bike repair kit, and sunscreen, I was off. The ride took me along bike paths and through industrial areas for around 25kms until I reached the historic UNESCO town of Lübeck. It was a hot ride with the temperature around 25-30degC.

Once in town I walked through the central market where festivities were taking place. I bought a fish burger and sat for a while in the shade before cycling around to see the leaning Holstentor Gate, Lübeck Cathedral and other historic landmarks.


Kids playing on a warm day at Travemunde

I returned to Travemünde after my 45km ride stopping at a supermarket to fill my panniers with groceries before returning to Blue Heeler. Loads of people filled the cafes and enjoyed festivities along the Travemünde beach front. That night as a thunderstorm passed over to break the heat, we treated ourselves to a feed of really fresh fish and chips from a café on the fishermans wharf as the rain poured down outside.

Sailing overnight our next destination was the small hafen at Vitte, Hiddensee located to the west of Rügen Island and some 90nm from Travemünde.

Warm sun but cool breeze – I kept my boots on!

We reached the fishermens wharf at Vitte at 6.30am and there was no dock space for us to tie up to. There were three yachts we could have rafted to, but it was a little to impolite to raft up at that time of the day! So we decided to continue on to Hanseatic city of Stralsund. (I didn’t know what Hanseatic meant either so I Googled it!).

We hadn’t had much sleep overnight so once we berthed at the Stralsund City Marina we had a little nap. Later on I took a walk through this beautiful town admiring the pastel coloured facades and the wonderful buildings. In the Alter Markt, the main square, is the ‘Rathaus’ – the city hall – a red-bricked gothic building built in the 13th century. Stralsund is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The following day we cycled around Stralsund, making the most of the fine spring weather.

To the east of Stralsund is the Rügenbrucke (bridge to Rügen) with a 40m clearance, plus a bascule bridge which opens five times a day. We passed through on the 12.20pm opening and headed only a short distance to a narrow anchorage. Although the entrance was very shallow, there was a deep pool inside where we anchored. This was a most pleasant stop – sunny, calm, and no-one to disturb us. For the first time in a while I donned the bathers, grabbed a book my mum sent me for Christmas and sat in the sun and read!

Quiet anchorage

From our tranquil anchorage, the next day surprised us as we managed to sail most of the way to the small port of Peenemunde. I say surprised as we weren’t expecting much wind at all. But as there is no swell, little waves and no problem with running out of daylight, we could take it easy and enjoy sailing in light breeze.

Peenemunde port caters for ships, ferries and fishing boats. The docks are high and rough, and not ideal for berthing a fibreglass boat. But there are small floating pontoons further inside near the Hafen Bar and campground.

We tied up to the pontoon hammerhead and went to the bar to pay for our berth. Not much at Peenemunde except an dilapidated U-boot and a museum for V1 and V2 rocket missiles. Both were closed by the time we arrived, so we had a beer at the Hafen Bar, got the WiFi code then settled in for the night.

U-boot museum, Peenemunde

Still wanting to make good progress, we took advantage of light wind and headed to Sassnitz on the east coast of Insel Rügen. Sassnitz marina didn’t have many good reviews when I Googled it, but I believe things are improving. There are plenty of berths and only five yachts during our stay. The ablutions are first class and located at the Hafenmeister office plus it looks like washing machines will be fitted soon. We took a 4.5m x 14m berth and this time with smooth timber piles I had the stern lines attached in no time, and lassoed the starboard bowline first go. The port side I just couldn’t snag, and ended up wasting too much time, finally jumping to the dock and tie-up. But I think we are getting better at this!

Sassnitz marina – expecting more boats?

So that is our brief German sailing adventure. In two weeks we’ve (almost) mastered the art of box-berths; I’ve learnt how to count to ten in German plus a handful of other useful and mostly nautical words; tasted the oddly popular dish of Currywurst and Pommes and ate Brathering auf Brötchen (fried herring in a bun); sampled some fine pilseners; visited  beautiful historic towns; but most of all discovered some fantastic sailing grounds and sandy beaches. The marinas are fairly inexpensive (half the price of south of England) and the amenities are good.

So now we continue our trip as we head across the Baltic to Ystad in Sweden.

Until then…Prost!


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