From Mariehamn I passed through the Lemström bridge which, to the considerable annoyance of a boat motoring busily at it from the east, opened for about 30 seconds instead of the promised 10 minutes. Then it was out into the round bay of Lumparn. With a rising northerly I had an exhilatating beat to blow away the harbour cobwebs. For a while it looked like Zophiel might be winning in the unofficial, unspoken race with a couple of other boats that came through the bridge at the same time. But no, they soon pulled ahead and sailed that bit closer to windward. Normal service was resumed and Zophiel, long-keeled 27 ft cutter designed for plodding across oceans, was still the slowest boat in the Baltic.
I had read in two pilot books an apparently astounding fact about the round bay of Lumparn. Since it’s an old meteor crater it has virtually no islands in it. Imagine that, a whole bit of sea about 5 miles in diameter with not many islands in it! What an astonishing natural phenomenon. People must come from the ends of the earth to see such a unique bit of water.
That’s another thing that characterises Baltic sailing and makes it totally different from the experience back home in the UK. The islands. Before I travelled to Scandinavia I used to think we were pretty lucky in Scotland. After all the whole of our west coast is littered with nice rocky islands. Then there’s the archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland as well. There’s probably quite a lot of people with a fondness for such things who could name every island in Scotland. Everything over a hundred metres or so across anyway. There’s perhaps a couple of hundred islands all told.
It seems to me unlikely that anyone living can name all the islands in a 20 mile stretch of Finnish or Swedish coast. There’s just millions of the bloody things. Sailing in the Baltic is mostly about swerving about trying to avoid hitting them.
In England, where they are not nearly so well endowed, islandwise, as the Scots, there is a famous annual yacht race. With typical southern presumption it’s called “The Round The Island Race”. There is more than one island off the coast of England but there’s not many and there’s only one, the Isle of Wight, that’s populated and anywhere near the big sailing centres on the south coast of England. So it’s just called “The Island”. You can tell by the fact that it’s a southerner talking that he’s not referring to anywhere on the west of Scotland. Dodging islands is not something that normally preoccupies your English sailor.
When I first visited Norway I had various forms of chart. As well as a chart plotter I had some Norwegian charts and some old British Admiralty ones. On the Norwegian charts and zooming in on the chart plotter you could see ever greater levels of detail as you looked closer and closer. In places the miasma of impenetrable islands and rocks resolved themselves into a series of ever more winding channels marked, in the Norwegian case, by directional steel poles stuck on rocks. You realised that there was a complex network of routes winding their way through all the islets and dangerous lumps of stone. In fact it was pretty much the case that if you wanted to go anywhere there would be, if you zoomed in enough, a channel to take you there.
I looked at the same bit of sea on a British Admiralty chart at the same scale. The whole area was just coloured in pale blue, with no further detail at all but just the words “Dangerous rocks” emblazoned worryingly right across it. That’s how we would deal with archipelagos like the ones in Scandinavia. We would simply steer clear of the whole thing. If there’s a gale forecast the Scandinavian sailor’s first instinct is to nip in amongst the rocky islands to take shelter. The traditional British advice would be to stand well out to sea, at least 20 miles from the nearest rock, until the gale had blown through. I’m sure there are British sailors who, crossing the Gulf of Finland from Estonia, for instance, would take all the sails down the moment they approached the outer archipelago. “Far to dangerous to sail in amongst all those rocks, we’re motoring all the way to Turku.” They would then be surprised to be passed by huge ferries and cruise ships in amongst the islands. We aren’t terribly good at rocks, I’m afraid.
I had a great sail, reaching and beating as I dodged round the islands and the wind increased to 11m/s. At the busy Sottunga guest harbour I sidled around the quay looking for a space. I learned last year that even when a place appears to be full, it’s worth poking about at its edges. Sometimes an obvious place – which nobody else will take and which you imagine must have something wrong with it – turns out to be perfectly fine. I spotted a large gap right on the inshore end of the pontoon. “How deep is the water there” I shouted. “Not deep enough for you” a woman on a motorboat replied. I poked into the space anyway. It was three metres deep right to the pontoon. Later two more boats appeared and, encouraged by seeing a sailing boat there, joined me in my perfectly sheltered inner space. Sometimes I assume that Finnish people are the local experts. I forget that there’s a pretty good chance it’s the first time they’ve visited the harbour as well.
The next day I had another pleasant, sunny sail, at a more sedate pace, to Jungfruskär. I wanted to take it easy and sail whenever I could. None of the frenetic rushing about to meet targets and deadlines that characterised last year’s cruise. When I’d visited Jungfruskär in July last year the place had been packed and I’d been lucky to find a little inner space in the shallows. Now, with a northerly forecast, it was nearly empty. Nobody was bothering with stern anchors and I got a perfectly comfortable space on the outside of the quay, facing into the small waves and bobbing about nicely. It was about as calm as my marina near Edinburgh usually is and about as rough as a Finnish mooring ever is. Other boats, less used to a few waves in an anchorage, pinned to the quay on short lines instead of using long springs, snatched and jerked about all night.
At the official barbequeing spot I marvelled at the cute little red shed, stocked with dry logs, barbie tools, a saw and an axe. I imagined the proceedings of a committee meeting in the UK at which such a thing had been suggested. “Right, so after two years consultation with all the relevant bodies and a consultant’s risk analysis, We have finally agreed, for a monitored trial period, that there should be a place where people can have barbeques, provided that a qualified member of staff is on hand at all times, that anyone involved in the barbequeing activity has undergone a full training course in the health and safety implications and that a fire engine and field ambulance are in attendance. Now, we have a new proposal to leave saws and sharp hand axes lying around all over the countryside where anyone can nick them. Anyone have any issues with this?” In Britain we are fond of the saying “Health and safety gone mad”.
You’ll have noticed that so far I’ve been restricting myself to harbours and established mooring places. I was determined to start going ‘off-piste’ and just tying to rocks outside the commercial harbours, but to be honest I am having something of a problem in Finland with information.
When I ask Finns where the good anchoring and mooring places are they invariably tell me that there’s millions of good places and that I can just tie up anywhere. This, frankly, is bollocks. To demonstrate that it is bollocks I generally ask him or her for an example. He or she says “Oh you can just go anywhere”. “Well how about here?” I say, pointing at the chart. “Well no, obviously not there, there’s houses there”. “What about here then?” “No, there’s a cable there”. “Here?” “It’s too shallow”. “Here?” “Too deep”. “Here?” “Too many rocks”. “Here?” “A restricted area”. “Well where then?” “Oh you can just go anywhere”. “Shall I just go to a guest harbour then?” “Yes, perhaps that would be better”.
The published information is little better. The stuff written by Britons is absolutely terrible. There’s a book published by Imray called “The Baltic Sea”. It has the obvious problem that it’s trying to cover far too large an area in one volume, which is fair enough, but what it does say is absolute nonsense. In many areas it only bothers to mention any ports at all just to say that they have no facilities for yachts.
Of course the Finns, in common with the Swedes and more recently the Scots – though not the English – are justly proud of their legal rights of access to land. Access to the countryside is a jealously guarded public right and should be a great selling point for tourism. Before coming to Finland for the first time last year I read the following passage in “The Baltic Sea” that made me almost not bother coming here. “Most smaller Finnish islands are privately owned.. And landing is seldom allowed”. Now it is traditional for British pilot books to be as negative and scaremongering as possible and try to put you off visiting anywhere, but that level of misinformation is
Of course most places are ‘private’ in the sense of being in private ownership. The Sahara Desert is in all probability ‘private’ in as much as various people will have ownership, grazing and use rights over different bits of it. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to go there. Only to an English mind does the word ‘private’ imply an absolute prohibition. If it’s private you can’t go there. So he’s told all his English speaking readers that, irrespective of whether there are houses or anything else on it, you should on no account land on a Finnish island.
The Swedes have written a couple of fantastic books about their archipelagos, with excellent charts showing exactly where you can tie to rocks in hundreds of places along the east coast of Sweden. It happens that these books are also translated into English, which is great for me, but even in Swedish they would be a great resource. I think they are the best nautical pilot books I’ve ever seen. I’m afraid that the Finnish equivalents don’t quite come up to the same standard. There’s plenty of information on guest harbours, for example in the volumes by the ‘Sea Scouts’, but very little to help me in my quest to go ‘off piste’. Even just a list of coordinates of likely places would be a good start.
Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I head off in the morning on a gentle downwind sail eastward in pursuit of my random Finnish rock. And I found it. With very little difficulty as it turned out. In glorious afternoon sunshine I hopped ashore on a steep, deep rock in a bay on north Västerön. My anchoring performance was so good that a couple from one of the two German boats anchored in the bay came over in their dinghy to congratulate me on my professional rock-hopping. Result!
I was only a little perturbed that the word Västerön looks, to my English speaking eye, like the name of the fastness of an evil alien overlord. I suppose that should be ‘reading eys’ shouldn’t it. It would be a very strange alien indeed who had a speaking eye. I lit the barbie and cracked open a beer to enjoy life on my own, exclusive rock.
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.