I did well to survive my night on Västerön. Late in the evening that I was there I discovered who’s evil alien lair it was. Västerön is in fact the headquarters of all the world’s mosquitoes. Closed in the cabin at night I could see them all out there, thousands of them, ranged along the rails and ropes and hovering menacingly. Some of them as big as seagulls. Waiting. But waiting for what?
That night I dreamed I was in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Mossies’. “What are they all doing out there? It’s like they are waiting for something. But they can’t get in here, can they? Oh no, they’re tunneling in through the basement! Aaaargh!”
Actually the Finnish mosquito is a fairly nonthreatening beast. He’s a great lumbering thing that’s easily swattable and can’t give you malaria. Just shutting the hatch at night kept them out. The Scottish version – the midge – is an altogether different and more horrible prospect. The Scottish midge is probably the single biggest problem the tourism industry in Scotland has. It’s also the reason why we would prefer to anchor at least 100 metres from the shore even if the tides allowed us to tie up under the trees.
The midge is tiny. It’s minuscule. It’s almost too small to see. The mesh has never been manufactured which is small enough to keep them out. They use mosquito nets for formation flying practice. They are about a millionth of the size of a Finnish mosquito and there are about a million times as many of them. On the west of Scotland on a calm, moist evening in the summer the air is about 30% midge. And they will drive you absolutely stark staring crazy. The only thing they can’t do is fly a long way across water. So from your anchorage well off shore you can watch picnickers, as the sun begins to go down, start insane dances as they rush about, beating themselves all over the face and arms, trying to gather up all their belongings whilst continuing to run and never fall below a critical six miles an hour.
There used to be a chemical that would keep them off you to some extent. DEET, it was called. But I think you can no longer buy it, on the dubious grounds that it’s carcinogenic and will kill you. Health and safety gone mad! As we say in Britain. The fact is that if you are under attack on a particularly midgie evening and somebody says “Here, use this, it will get rid of the midges, but it will mean certain death for you within 6 months” you will say “I don’t care, just give me the bloody stuff now!”
No, your great musclebound Finnish mossie, with a wingspan like that of a white tailed eagle, is no match for the Scottish midge.
Another day, another gentle downwind sail, mostly at less than 3 knots and another quest for a rock to tie to. This time my quest was rather more fraught. I headed confidently for the nature reserve island of Boskär, where there is supposed to be a guest quay. A big sign on it said – helpfully in three languages including English – that it was closed because it was knackered.
Undaunted, I put out a stern anchor and hopped onto a rock. Then I noticed that Zophiel was on a rock as well. I tried again where there were mooring rings in the rock. I managed to get ashore but Zophiel was firmly stuck in the mud. With difficulty I got on board again. It’s quite a fraught process leaping onto unknown rocks when you are solo. Getting it right so that you don’t ram the rock but the gap is small enough to leap is a skill I’m still learning. From that point of view it’s helpful if you do just run aground in mud. I gave up on Boskär and motored off, wondering how everyone else knew not to bother coming here, even though it’s listed as a harbour in the book..
I was determined to find a nearby rock now, so entered a bay on the tiny island of Glosan, just round the corner. Every bit of the shoreline I approached the underwater rocks just stuck out a bit too far. In desperation I finally managed to get ashore in one place. This involved leaping onto a stepping-stone some 5 metres from the shore, then onto another, then another, then finally onto my deserted island.
Stronger winds were expected in the night and there were rocks all around, so I obsessively strung a spider’s web of lines all around the boat, to huge boulders on the shore. Arranging a route backwards and forwards to Zophiel took a considerable amount of civil engineering and involved using Max. Max is, of course, the plank that I carry for going through canals and solving these little boarding problems. Cruising alone you do tend to go a bit insane and start to give bits of the boat names and start talking to them.
Secure in the knowledge that nobody else was going to be mad enough to come into this bay and see all my eccentric handiwork, I settled down in the evening sun to a beer and a barbie on my own desert island.
Another beautiful, sunny, calm day with just enough breeze to sail as I headed off north east through the islands. As I passed one group of low rocks I heard the mournful call of a seal and it seemed like something remarkable. It was a long time since I’d heard that noise.
I was reminded of one inevitable downside of this fantastic, sheltered, tideless sea. The relative lack of wildlife. At home on the Forth Estuary – the bit of water that Edinburgh sits on – it’s almost impossible to go for a sail without seeing seals. They float around everywhere and sun themselves on the channel marker buoys, which are small catamaran platforms for lights. Occasionally we get porpoises, dolphins and whales, but further out into the North Sea it is common to be escorted by pods of bottle nosed dolphins, keeping pace with the boat and playing in the bow wave. Near Inverness people queue up to watch, from the land, the dolphins fishing in the strong tidal current through the narrows. All over Scotland large colonies of seabirds – often thousands of them – inhabit the cliffs along the shore.
It seems odd that our relatively unfriendly, muddy, cold, shallow, tide-swept seas should be more fertile than the Baltic, but they are. The effect of tide creating movement is one of the factors that creates the nutrients for so much life and the tidal coastal areas are some of the most fertile bits of sea in the world.
There is a notable lack of life in the Baltic by comparison. Some blame pollution, others over fishing, others the lack of salt. But a low salt diet is supposed to be good for you, isn’t it? It’s certainly nice not to have salt caked through all my clothing, as would be the case in good summer weather at home.
No, personally, I blame the mosquitoes.
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.
- Interview with Martin Edge, skipper of Zophiel
- Part 1: The bare essentials on Finnish sailing
- Part 2: The quest for a rock
- Part 3: This story
- Part 4: Cleats and saunas
- Part 5: Harm done and ill effects
- Part 6: Crossing the ocean