Sailing areas in Finland: The eastern Gulf of Finland

Kaunissaari by Harri Hansen

Kaunissaari by Harri Hansen

The waters along the Finnish coasts and the inland lakes offer a wide variety of boating opportunities, each with their own, distinct profile. This is the first in a series of posts here at Sail in Finland! that will explore the different sailing areas and try to give some insights into the characteristics of each area. The series starts down in the south-east with the eastern part of the Gulf of Finland (GoF).

Not really sure which came first, but in Finland, what we think of as distinct sailing areas tends to follow the division of the Finnish waters into the series of chart foils. The series are named with letters and the lettering starts with A for the eastern Gulf of Finland. The eastern GoF starts (or ends, depending on your viewpoint) from Helsinki in the west and stretches to the eastern border with Russia and then onto St. Petersburg.

A very large part of the sailing and power boats used for longer trips in Finland can be found in Helsinki and its immediate surroundings. When the summer high season starts, this flotilla tends to head west towards the Archipelago Sea, the Åland islands and beyond. This has a rather profound impact on the eastern GoF. Even during the high season, the waters east of Helsinki are not terribly overcrowded meaning you don’t need to make that desperate late afternoon dash to secure a good spot in the next harbor.

The other effect of this is that boating services tend to be a bit less developed in these waters. That could be viewed from two perspectives. Personally I like the slightly more authentic feeling of the less “developed” sailing destinations. Mind you, there are a number of big and very good marinas east of Helsinki, but there are also a few “rough diamonds” that certainly are worth a visit if you want some insight into life along the coasts a little while back.

Porvoo old part river view

Porvoo old part river view

Borgå/Porvoo

Heading east from Helsinki, the first major attraction you can visit is the very picturesque city of Borgå (Porvoo in Finnish). The city center has a very nice old town with wooden houses and a monumental cathedral dating from the late 13th century. Borgå is located at the estuary of the Borgå river and the river flows through the city center. You can reach the city center with a boat as the marina is located up-river just a few hundred meters from the old town.

Borgå has played one very important role in the history of Finland. When Russia won Finland over from Sweden in 1809, the tsar Alexander I, ruler of Russia, summoned the Diet of Porvoo. Here the tsar promised that Finland, now the Grand Principality of Finland, would retain a degree of independence and much of it’s traditional constitution. In return, the four estates of Finland swore allegiance to the new ruler. This event actually started a new era in Finland, and one could say that the seed of Finnish independence was sown at this event.

The building where the tsar met with the estates still exists and you can also visit the cathedral where the pledge by the tsar and the oath of the estates where given. The cathedral was badly burned a few years back by an arsonist but has now been restored to its former glory! If you visit the cathedral, remember to specifically check out the votive ship, a model of a Hanseatic ship dating back to the time when the church was built. The model has actually been built and donated to the church by my uncle, Karl Immonen.

Later in the 19th century, one of the big names of Finnish culture, the national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg (aged 5 when at the time of the Diet), would be working in Borgå and from there be a strong proponent for Finnish independence. Runeberg’s home is today a museum.

Lovisa/Loviisa

On our route east, the next stop is Lovisa (Loviisa in Finnish). Lovisa is a small, sleepy city. In recent years Lovisa has perhaps been best known for the fact that Finland’s first nuclear power plant was built just outside the city. The plant is still in operation and you actually pass just west of it if you sail into Lovisa. No reason to worry, the Lovisa plant has one of the best safety and uptime track records in the world!

Just a bit towards the center of Lovisa from the powerplant (north-west) you can find the most interesting tourist attraction in Lovisa, the Svartholm fortress island. Svartholm (meaning “black island”) was part of a defense system built by Sweden in the 18th century. The Svartholm fortress supported a land based fortification (that never was completed) and a Sveaborg sea fortress in Helsinki. During the 1808-1809 war, Svartholm was occupied by Russia and became a prison. In 1855, as part of the Crimean war, a large French-English fleet sailed into the Baltic and wrecked terrible cultural havoc. The destruction of the Bomarsund fortress on the Åland islands is the best known sacking done by this fleet, but also Svartholm was sacked, even though not quite as thoroughly.

You can visit Svartholm with your own boat, there is a free (!) marina with 70 berths, so a perfect place to stop if you don’t want to visit the hustle and the bustle (well, not much of it) of Lovisa.

If you do visit Lovisa, you can either stay in the Valko harbor a few miles from the city or sail all the way into the city center where there is a nice small marina. Adjacent to the marina, there is a small maritime museum. And outside the museum there is another connection to my uncle Karl Immonen, who has built the model ship outside the museum.

Kaunissaari/Fagerö

Once past Lovisa, the language scene changes from a mixture of Swedish and Finnish towards a pure Finnish-speaking environment. For Russian tourists the good news is that increasingly the eastern parts of Finland have understood the value of catering to the needs of tourists coming from Russia and therefore in these nooks of the country it is not uncommon to find persons who can speak Russian!

The next stop will be called by it’s Finnish name Kaunissaari (“beautiful island”, Fagerö in Swedish). Just like all islands called Kaunissaari, also this one really deserves it’s name. A big, lush island at the edge of the sea, Kaunissaari is a very popular boating destination. One reason for the popularity is the very safe “hurricane hole” like lagoon harbor, quite unique in Finland! See picture at the top of the post.

Boat from the Wellamo Maritime Museum collections

Boat from the Wellamo Maritime Museum collections

Kotka

Kotka is the main city of the region. Kotka, perched out on an island, used to be a very industrial city. Once the heavy forestry and other industries started their downward glide, Kotka has actively created new opportunities in the services, including tourism. For sailors and boaters Kotka is a “must-see”.

If you are interested in naval history or in the history of the Baltic region, you might actually have heard a lot about Kotka, but not under that name. The location for the last great sea battle won by Sweden over the Russian navy was fought at a place called Svensksund (Ruotsinsalmi). Svenssund is actually in modern day Kotka and you actually sail of the Battle of Svensksund if you visit Kotka by boat.  Actually it should be called the “second battle” as the Swedes had been defeated in the same place the previous year. But as always, history is written by the winners!

But let’s come back to modern days and start our visit to Kotka with the nice marina called Sapokanlahti (Sapokka bay), smack in the middle of the city. And with a water park just next to it. Next there is the national maritime museum on the northern side of the island, the  Maritime Centre Vellamo. Wellamo was opened in 2008 when the national maritime museum moved from Helsinki to Kotka. Tip: If you come to Kotka by boat, you can actually moor outside the museum when you visit it (no overnight stays though).

Finally, for the wooden boat lovers, one of the wooden boat shrines of Finland: The Wooden Boat Centre. Known for its restoration projects of wooden boats. Quote from the webpage: “At the moment, the boatyard’s most notable attraction is the 21-meter-long classic wooden racing yacht Blue Marlin.” The center also has a marina, so you can visit with your own boat.

Haapasaari lagoon by Harri Hansen

Haapasaari lagoon by Harri Hansen

Gulf of Finland National Park and Haapasaari

Moving further east from Kotka, we are now getting close to the Russian border. If you arrived to Finland from Sweden or Estonia, there was not much of border control (as all three countries are Shengen countries). Now, the border with Russia is a totally different matter. There are two things to observe before you proceed further east. Firstly, if you want to cross the border to sail into Russia (or if you enter Finland from Russia) you have to sail via one of the official border control points. There are two border control points in the eastern Gulf of Finland, Haapasaari (click here to see on map) and Hupru (click here to see on map). From and to the border control you must use official, marked channels.

What is perhaps less known is that there is a border zone (a couple of nautical miles wide) on the Finnish side of the border and you actually need a special permit if you plan to visit this zone or even just pass thru it without crossing the actual border. You can see the location of border zone in this image (the darker blue area with the text “Rajavyöhyke”). To get the permit, you must send in an application to the Finnish border control. You can find the application form and the addresses where to send the form here.

Now with all the official disclaimers in place, let’s visit then Haapasaari and the Gulf of Finland National Park! The park stretches from the Haapasaari island to the Finnish-Russian border. You can find a map of the park here (note that all the text elements in the picture are actually links and provide very nice information on the destinations)!

Coming to the park from Kotka, you might first stop over at Haapasaari. Even though the island is not part of the park, this is where  you find the park’s information center. Haapasaari is well worth a visit just for its own sake. People have been living here at least from the 17th century. Now the picturesque (yes, they all are :-) village huddles around the sheltered main bay in the middle of the island. In the actual park, you might want to consider a visit to one of the many islands that are boating destinations, such as Ulko-Tammio or Koivuluoto (and old Fishing camp).

Over to the other side

The Gulf of Finland does not stop by the border and neither did Finland before the war. The Carelian isthmus was lost to Russia after the WW2. A popular place for Finns to visit is the old Finnish city of Viipuri (Viborg in Swedish, Vyburg in English). From Vyburg you can also sail into the Saimaa canal which then takes you up 75 meters and into the Lake Saimaa waterways back on the Finnish side of the border. For information on taking the Saimaa Canal to the Lake Saimaa waterways, check out this guide to Saimaa Canal boating.

As a conclusion, if you appreciate the lack of crowds even during the July sailing high season and like harbors and anchorages that are a bit more authentic and “edgy”, then the eastern Gulf of Finland might just the best sailing that Finland can offer you. Welcome to try it out!

Map of the eastern Gulf of Finland

Map icons courtesy of Nicolas Mollet/CC license