Crossing the ocean

Nyhamn, some of the last islands of Åland before the Ocean.

Nyhamn, some of the last islands of Åland before the Ocean.

As I prepared to leave Enklinge in the morning a Swedish bloke on the next boat asked nervously “Are you crossing the ocean tomorrow?” I explained that I was planning to cross the Åland Sea to Sweden, but that the thirty miles of open water probably didn’t constitute an ocean anywhere else in the world than Finland and Sweden.

In the meantime I was heading south and west to a ‘wild’ anchorage in a sheltered bay at Möholm, a few miles south of Degerby. For once this was a rock to tie to the details of which had been published in a book. A rare commodity in Finland. It had been recommended to me by a group of loud and jolly Swedes on a group of four boats travelling together, each with a mob of excitable and noisy sprogs. They explained that they were all heading for the same rock as well.

I left the harbour after a long leisurely breakfast, once again grateful for the tideless sea which allows lazy Scandinavians to head off on a passage whenever they please. At home I would have to plan the passage to take account of the tidal flow. Often it might be impossible to make progress against the tide, or the harbour I was heading for might be completely dried out at low tide. Sometimes the need to arrive at a particular place just as the tide turns means that there is only a very small window during which you can leave. Invariably this means getting up at about 4 a.m.

This was intended to be the sea trials for my ‘new’ old prop, but in the event I had little opportunity to test it out. Within a few metres of the harbour I had the sails up and the engine off. I was soon barreling downwind in a force five under full sail. Around Mosshaga I put a couple of reefs in the main as the wind increased to a force 6, about 12 or 13 metres a second. It was the fastest passage of the summer. You Finns with your slim, racy boats won’t think this remarkable, but at times my 27ft long keeler, with a maximum speed of 6.4 knots and absolutely no ability to plane, was doing 9 knots.

I sat in the cockpit with the folio of charts on my knee, watching the sea marks flashing past, rapidly turning over the ridiculously small chart pages and steering from buoy to buoy, rock to rock down the channels. I was glad that no crusty old sea dogs from Britain could see me with the charts on my knee in the cockpit. The traditional British sailor would have an apoplectic fit if he were to see such a thing. Our charts are all 700 mm wide by something over a metre long and they stay where they belong, down below on the chart table. Always and without exception. Most boats have a chart table which allows them to lie flat, folded in half.

Navigating with the chart outside

Navigating with the chart outside

The idea is that you go down below to consult the charts whenever you have a decision to make. That is to say every few hours. Perhaps you mark a position on your straight passage line every hour or so. The boat of a friend of mine, which sails on the east of Scotland, has the chart plotter and chart table down below under such a difficult spray hood and down such a long ladder that it takes about a minute – and a lot of contortions – to get from the helm to the chart. But if I were ever to suggest bringing a chart out on deck I would be greeted with the same stunned silence I would get if I suggested sacrificing the skipper’s firstborn to the weather gods.

But in Finland if I had kept going in a straight line for an hour, at an average 6.5 knots, I would have had to pass through several islands, so I kept flicking through the little charts on my knee.

Möholm, with its anchorage published in an Åland pilot book, was a good example of why these places need to be publicized and why it is unhelpful to suggest that you can easily find rocks to tie to using just the normal charts. On the chart Möholm is a patch of pale blue with crosses for rocks right across the entrance, surrounded by a squiggle of coastline. There are literally thousands of such bays in Åland alone. Many, if not most of them, are rock strewn patches of sea a metre deep, or have reedy, inaccessible coastlines. From the chart it is impossible to tell Möholm apart from a yacht’s graveyard into which no sane person would go.

On the ground it’s entirely different. The rock at the entrance is marked by two small cardinal buoys. There are clear, new, white leading lines into the bay. None of these marks are shown on the charts. Inside are banks of lovely friendly rocks to tie to, a wide bay three metres deep with room for about fifty boats at anchor, a sailing club harbour and, at the other end of the bay, several private quays. It’s a perfect anchorage, but without the
published information, it would be impossible to tell this. Sorry to keep harping on about this subject, but I do wish Finnish people would stop telling me that it’s easy to spot good rocks to tie to just by looking at the charts.

Zophiel tied up for the last night in Finland at Möholm.

Zophiel tied up for the last night in Finland at Möholm.

Arriving in Möholm I had the usual difficulty of a singlehander trying to approach a rock with a stern anchor. But there were three Swedish boats already there, one with people in the cockpit, so I was confident that someone would come and take a line. Out of courtesy I headed for the opposite end of the line of rocks so as not to ruin their privacy, waving and greeting the Swedish woman in the cockpit as I passed. Instead of waving back she scowled and went below. A man appeared and stood in the cockpit, staring at me. As I carried out yet another death-defying leap from the bow onto a slippy, sloping, rapidly receding rock and clung on desperately to a line to stop the boat from blowing away, he casually pissed over the side of his boat and continued staring at me. “Thanks for all your help!” I shouted breezily.

What a miserable, grumpy bastard. I reflected that this was, as we are prone – illogically – to say in English, the exception that proves the rule. I have found both Finns and Swedes almost universally friendly and helpful. If there’s anyone on an anchorage or a quay there’s always someone willing to help with your lines and interested in where you have come from and what brings you there. Indeed the friendly people are one of the highlights of a cruise. The fact that one bloke not bothering to help pissed me off so much is a reflection of how helpful and friendly people generally are.

But I had the last laugh. When, after an hour or so, the four noisy, sprog-laden Swedish boats turned up, I directed them to what I said were the deepest spaces, close around both sides of grumpy bastard’s boat. He spent
the evening down below as hundreds of Swedish sprogs screamed and squealed and splashed around him. How’s that for disturbing your peace?

Möholm was obviously a major staging post for crossing the mini ‘ocean’, as that night there were no Finnish boats at all but seven Swedish boats, a Scottish boat and a Norwegian boat tied to my rock, all waiting for the promised northerly force four to blow us back to Sweden.

Stormy ocean, Finland style

Stormy ocean, Finland style

That night I dreamed of a mooring I had been on in an estuary on the west coast of Ireland, two years before. In Finland I obsessively look for shelter where the boat can be facing directly into the wind. I consider a disturbance to be any wind on the side of the boat over two metres a second. In Ireland it was rather different. In a fast flowing tidal estuary on the windswept west coast were two secure moorings provided by the local government. These were the only safe place to stay for many miles along this deserted coast. I attached the boat to a mooring with a strong chain and two thick back-up lines, just to be sure.

Overnight a gale was forecast and the wind blew at 15 to 18 metres a second all night. The wind blew from the north west. For six hours the tide flowed up the estuary, at three knots, to the north east. Effectively the boat was moving through the water at three knots, bucking up and down in the steep chop and heeling at about 25 degrees, on port tack, as the wind blew on her beam. This was annoying but secure enough and I could get used to it. The problem was that in the middle of the night the tide turned and flowed south west at three knots for six hours. The boat turned round, heeled over at 25 degrees on starboard tack and I fell out of bed. This procedure was repeated every six hours for the two days the gale blew.

Getting back from the pub wasn’t easy either. Trying to catch up with a heeling, bucking boat as, still chained to the mooring a quarter of a mile from the shore, she effectively raced off at three knots and I rowed desperately after her, was no joke.

Here at Möholm the eight metres a second breeze outside the bay could scarcely make itself felt at all inside the sheltering ring of thick forest.

The next morning, after a very gentle sail on a glassy sea past Rödhamn, the breeze filled in and rose steadily during the day until we were bowling along at well over six knots on a nice fast reach. I had to keep up a good speed, of course, because I had only been given until midday to leave Finnish waters, deported by the Government for my negative comments about saunas. As we crossed the international line the navy gunboat which was escorting me out of Finland fired a parting volley of shells over my head.

Though the wind never rose above about 11 metres a second there were waves. Not very big ones – no more than one and a half metres – but waves nevertheless. I was reminded what sailing in the actual sea was like. As opposed to winding my way through a mass of sheltering islands and rocks.

That evening, with a stern anchor out and tied to the quay of a sheltered harbour run by the Archipelago Foundation, I emailed an Australian I knew and arranged to meet up later in Stockholm. He told me that he’d also crossed “the strait” that day. To a Swede the Åland Sea is an ocean, to an Australian it’s a strait. That served to illustrate what a cushy, comfortable sea you all get to sail in.

Hope to see you back in Finland next year again!

Hope to see you back in Finland next year again!

Later that evening a small Belgian boat came in and moored right beside me. Luckily I heard them speaking French as they came in and so was able to avoid accusing them of being German, which is the standard mistake with the much rarer Belgian flag. As they tied on I had a squint round the back of  their boat. “Excuse me” I said “but have you put down an anchor?” “An anchor!” the incredulous skipper said “why on earth would we put down an anchor?” I explained that every boat had an anchor out and that they couldn’t just raft up on my smaller boat and expect my anchor to hold the both of us. It took a lot of explaining to them.

Incredibly, they had travelled all the way up the Baltic to just before the Finnish border, without noticing that people in this part of the world use an anchor from the stern. To these tidal, North Sea sailors, now heading for Finland and St Petersburg, the idea of a stern anchor – along with most other aspects of Finnish sailing – was absolutely alien. I wished these new archipelago virgins luck the next morning as they started out for Finland and I began the long trek south, finished with Finnish sailing for another year.

Read the full story of Martin Edge and Zophiel sailing in Finland in 2013

Click on the links below to read about Martin Edge’s Finnish sailing experience as he slowly sails through the archipelagos of Åland and Turku.