The Finnish line: Archipelago Sea to Åland

europe routeFrom 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.

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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.

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Useful paper charts and magazine to support our e-charts – must haves!

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.

tick repellant

Good old Bushmans!

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.

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Smoking salmon on the Cobb

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.

20180715 Archipelago sea Finland 021At 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.

BANNER FinlandMariehamn, 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!

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Blue Heeler on anchor at Mariehamn

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).

deerWith 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.

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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.

Until then…

 

 

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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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