It was the gunboats which woke us. Their supercharged diesels roared out of the early mist, sweeping past us close inshore not 100 yards from where we lay asleep on the trampoline net of our little "Catapult" cruising catamaran, pulled half up onto the tiny boulder beach. First one, then four, huge breaking waves surged towards us as we struggled out of our sleeping bags.
We had pulled our boat ashore just after midnight at the only landing place on the remote rocky island of Bla Jungfrun - the Blue Maiden - a hump on the eastern horizon a dozen miles off Sweden's east coast. Eleanor and I were dinghy-camping up through the Eastern Archipelago towards Stockholm, and were about to be wrecked on the beach by the Swedish navy. One by one the waves surged in, steepened and collapsed onto our little boat, washing all our gear off the trampoline and into a soggy heap among the boulders.
"Eina!" yelped Eli in her mother' tongue as we scrabbled barefoot in the shallows to hold down our leaping boat, "This is no way to wake a lady!" Somehow the hulls survived - although showing some fresh scrapes and scratches - and we passed the rest of the day exploring this uninhabited, little-visited isle and its ancient rock labyrinth, tracing the many carvings in the stone with our fingertips and wondering about the lingering tales of pagan practice, while our cuts and clothes dried in the sun.
Our way lay on further north, deep into the vast archipelago guarding the length of Sweden's Baltic coast. Huddled against the bitter east winds of winter onto the few islands with water is a handful of tiny communities of fisher-folk, each family smoking their uncertain catch on oak chippings and a secret mix of special herbs during the brief Baltic summer. There is little enough to set aside - a couple of scrawny chickens, dried fish and some berries, some poor root vegetables from the tiny fields patched here and there among the bare rocks - for their only winter food, before the long hard, dark months when the northern Baltic freezes over and the winter gales sweep down again out of Arctic Russia.
Here is one hundred thousand islands - some a score of miles long, many just a score of yards - home to a million seabirds in protected refuges.... and just a few hundred seals, sad remnants of the huge colonies once hunted to near-extinction on the ice by Swedes, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Poles, Russians - even the old Viking sea-traders who took the furs on to the doors of Asia.
Day on day the steady sea breeze blew, carrying the warm summer smells of fresh hay and flowers from the Baltic isles of Oland and Gotland just over the horizon. Deeper into the maze of isles and skerries we roamed....Snuggo and Vino, Kroko and Haradskar.....each gold dawn a flurry of seabirds and a bright new promise, each island evening still and quiet in the glow of our driftwood fire, grebes calling, and the moon glinting and gleaming on the quiet waters.
Few leisure boats come this far into the archipelago. The Swedes like their boats heavy-built and deep-keeled, with more than a passing nod in their design to the harsh ice-bound winters where they will lie, beset month after month in thick ice, within their marinas. Exploring the rocky islands and skerries demands shoal-draft craft, light enough to be pushed and hauled where boulder fields - laid down when the glaciers retreated from Europe - almost block the many channels between ice-scoured islets. Our Catapult would float on a wet meadow, and could easily be hauled ashore or across most obstructions by just the two of us, much as the Viking raiding boats were hauled over a thousand years ago.
All we saw, from time to time, was a coloured sail or two tracking along the narrow and now well-marked deep-water channel some miles to the west which runs close inshore the whole length of this archipelago, affectionately called by the Swedes 'The E5 Highway'. Their sea-safety culture today keeps them from venturing at all far into this reef-strewn wilderness, preferring to gather in droves at night - stern anchors out in deep water, bow-lines ashore to trees or pitons driven into the rock - in natural anchorages featured prominently all winter in their lavish coffee-table books and sailing magazines.. We - with the sea birds and seals - had the maze of islands almost to ourselves.
Here, deep in the heart of the outer isles, we stumbled into one of Sweden's closest secrets....Threading a chain of passages, the reefs now jagged where before they had been scoured round, we spotted a small boat slip behind a rock and disappear into the trees. We followed, and found ourselves in a hidden lagoon half-filled with heavy moorings. Alongside the cluster of huts ashore were a handful of powerful launches - most in the grey and black paint of the Coastal Marine Guard - while moored in the deeper water were three of the navy gunboats encountered a week before.
"Hoi!...Hoi!" came the shouts from ashore, "Come here!" .... We'd been spotted! What had we stumbled on, flying our British red ensign and MOCRA/DCA club pennants?... A special forces training camp?... A secret defence base?....Would we foreigners be arrested...?
We quickly discovered this was Thures Udde's famous "fisk rokeri" - the source of the finest smoked fish in the Baltic and home to an old buccaneer whose exploits against the Germans - and others - are still legend to the Swedes. We had just gate-crashed a highly informal naval drinks party, celebrating some old battles or new promotions, in one of the few places in Sweden where the bar don't close and the drink flows free! And I do mean free, for it had recently been impounded from smugglers, so when we produced some hip flasks of duty-free Glenlivet from our sacs, we were invited to participate in an old Viking custom.....
The illicit aquavit and vodka passed swiftly from hand to hand. Old Thure's sitting room was the packed centre of the party, his green enamel log stove glowing far into the night. The bastu/sauna behind the store held the overflow, while a continual stream of glowing, beaming swedes - men, women, even some children - swirled to and fro, first in tracksuits, then in towels, then not.....from boats to sitting room to sauna....
"Strewth! You don't see this at the Catapult Nationals!" hissed Eleanor.
As faintly exotic visitors, we were quizzed on our eccentric boat and recent travels. Our visit to 'The Blue Maiden' raised a few discreet eyebrows, and it was much later we learned that the Ancient Swedes' pagan rituals there were mostly of the procreative kindů. Our multiple hosts insisted we visit the bastu/sauna, and we did, but it was rather dark in there, there was a lot of giggling and wriggling, and my Presbyterian fears would not be stilled. After a decent interval, we made our excuses and crept away, not quite at dawn, to find another little island on which to crawl into our 'bags and nurse our pounding heads. The answer was, of course, to return to the sauna, but we feared for our souls....
The storm caught us working our way up the lee of a chain of islets at the mouth of the Braviken Gulf, a 25 kilometer open passage on our route to the north. From 3-sail reaching and running free - the pattern of the previous two weeks - we were down in minutes to deep-reefed main, luffing hard as each new squall howled down at us between the islands. We battled to windward, for there was nothing down to lee except rising wind and waves. Each time we were forced out round the end of a long gill net or outlying rock, I fought to recover the lost ground and make up towards a little wooded islet on which we could shelter. At last, one squall veered enough to give us the slant we needed, and we dove into a cleft in the rocks, Eli scrambling ashore with our mooring line. In no time we had our little dome-tent up, deep among the twisted trees, mainsail tied over as a flysheet, our boat and everything else hauled on land and lashed down. The spray flew right over us in sheets, and even in the lee of the trees our boat's rigging hummed and moaned all night....but we were warm and dry, and ashore.
Next morning, as we left in a cold westerly breeze, the seas still running high, a large black shape soared out from behind our island. We had shared our shelter with a rare solitary sea eagle - well over two metres in span - which escorted us, circling, along the chain of rocks and skerries for a couple of miles or so until only the the open gulf lay ahead.
Bowling along smartly as the sun climbed and the day warmed, we fetched the little town of Oxelosund - a planned staging post - by midday. The local dinghy club took charge of boat and gear, hauled up on their slip, while we went in search of a shave, shower, shampoo, hot meal, cold beer and a bank....not necessarily in that order! During the third cold beer, and while writing up our notes for the past 150 miles, we realised we had passed out of the Bla Kust archipelago, the coastline now running away east towards Stockholm.
Now, there are two sea routes to Stockholm. One runs round the coastline in a 130-mile arc, approaching from the east. This passes through a chain of seriously sensitive military areas - and we had been warned! The other takes a shortcut up the 40-mile Himmerfjarden, through a lock into the Malaren inland sea, then a right turn takes one another 40 miles down into the heart of Stockholm - by the backdoor. "Let's leave the Stockholm Archipelago for another time," offered the first mate, "The wind's fair for the direct route and Sodertaljie. we could deep-reach all the way.... and I can work on my suntan!"
This is one of Sweden's loveliest areas - the waters' edge lined with weekend cottages of characteristic brown-stained wood, the national flag on a pole, green lawns and little jetties....and a different kind of seal.
Whereas the whiskered grey/brown variety in the archipelago had been shy, slipping away as we passed, this species basked in the sun from mid-morning right through the afternoon, stretched out on little jetties or on the rocks to one side, their golden pelts and long blonde hair gleaming in the sun. Hiding behind their sunglasses, uttering their calls of "Hi...Hi" at our approach , these most prolific of Sweden's marine mammals preened and oiled themselves while awaiting their mates' return at days' end from the city. But the wind was fair, and I could find no excuse to linger.....
And so we sailed into the heart of Stockholm - spinnaker, club pennants and courtesy flags flying in the sun and between the parks - past the embassy lawns, under the motorway bridges - to find ourselves in front of the Parliament and the towers of the Royal Palace, rounding up finally alongside Barbara Hutton's fabled steam yacht "Malardrottningen", where the aristocracy and royalty of Old Europe once danced, gambled and loved. Now a luxury hotel, this elegant old ship was host to us - little Catapult moored alongside - as we dined on the afterdeck under the stars, savouring our first evening in Royal Stockholm and the end of our 250 mile voyage of exploration.
The boat is a much-modified 5 metre Catapult catamaran. Her light weight of 90 kilos and car-top portability aids exploration of distant areas, "backpacking by boat". Shelter is assured, for the tough Hypalon inflatable hulls permit beaching virtually anywhere.
Her rig is a 10 sq/m battened main on a wish'boom, a 4 sq/m jib and an 18 sq/m spi on a jib'boom....reefing and furling....hauls out onshore at night.
Hiking-out wings slung on wires, for relaxed sitting-out....gear stowed in waterproof bags on the tramp. Top-range warm clothing, drysuits, good sleeping bags, and a four-seasons tent. Boil-in-bag suppers, Glenlivet miniatures, one-burner gas stove and Wine of the Month. Scotland and Solent, Corsica, Cornwall, Norway and Baltic - she's tough as old boots.
Bilbo, © 2008