Longest of Days: Cruising the Swedish Baltic
The endless delights discovered during a summertime cruise in the Swedish Baltic
When most of us think about cruising in Sweden, we imagine a place that’s expensive and cold, with Volvos and Nordic beauties galore, and well-built boats with hefty price tags. The blondes are there, all right. So are the Volvos and the boats, but costly and chilly it is not.
Every summer, my wife, Ros, and I move aboard our Mason 44, Constance, in May and then pop off cruising for three months. We stay connected via a cheap Internet dongle, so I can keep working while we’re having fun. If it weren’t for the deadlines, it would be like retirement.
With 100 days to kill, we can go anywhere in Western Europe that we like from our base in the English Channel. But while we both like sunshine, we rarely join the pleasure-seeking armada hacking south to swelter in Spain. Instead, we prefer to sail north to the Baltic where, once tucked behind Scandinavia, we’re protected from the weather of the Atlantic and the sun beats down in earnest—in earnest, that is, for 20 hours a day, which is why most Swedes are so golden by June. The weather is lovely. Provisions are more expensive than in the United States, but cheaper than in oil-rich Norway. Berthing isn’t free, but it’s less than in Britain or France, and because much of the coast is wall-to-wall islands, the sea never kicks up to spoil the enjoyment.
The easiest route to Sweden from points west is via the Kiel Canal, which connects the North Sea at Brunsbüttel to the Baltic Sea at Kiel-Holtenau, saving 250 miles of sailing up and around the Jutland Peninsula. Built for the Kaiser’s battleships before WWI, the canal crosses northern Germany through 50 miles of surprisingly pretty countryside. On the down side, the approaches to the entrance via the German Bight do not purvey the world’s most delightful yachting. It is, in fact, a washing machine of a place with turbulent seas, lee shores, ships jostling for position, wind-farms and all the fun of the fair. Every jewel has its price, though, and having paid in full, we arrived at the Brunsbüttel lock hoping the worst was over.
Alas, it wasn’t.
We now suffered an unusual lesson in international diplomacy, as a gaggle of yachts gathered outside the gate and various nationalities displayed the sort of stereotypical behavior that political correctness encourages us not to discuss. Competent Dutchmen hung around stoically at the front. Danes and Swedes cleverly insinuated their yachts among the Netherlanders, while the sole Frenchman careered around at high speed, and the Germans shouldered their way through, leaving only us Brits and a bemused Pole hanging back and watching the fun. This carnival continued for two hours in a 3-knot tide while the lock operators finished their lunch. Then when the lights turned green, pandemonium broke loose and the whole fleet, which now included an enormous tanker, surged ahead like the Charge of the Light Brigade. Miraculously, World War III was avoided and everyone squeezed into the gigantic lock with much shouting, but with surprisingly little damage.
Yachts may not navigate the canal after dark, and the marina just inside is only a boat’s length from the towering all-night action. As we subsided into the haze of a well-earned drink and post-passage exhaustion, huge ships rumbled by within yards, propellers thumping, lights blazing. Each was a world of its own, coming from somewhere, going to somewhere, carrying large amounts of something, all of it unknown to us down at water level.
This unusual window on world commerce receded with the sunrise, and by late afternoon the following day the windy, bustling madness of the Canal was in our wake. We motored out of the Kiel-end lock into a sunlit, tranquil Baltic and squared away for the northeast.
FROM THE CANAL it’s 250 miles to the Hanseatic city of Kalmar, where the real island-hopping begins. The question is whether to go for it, or to break the passage up with a stop in Ystad, 140 miles away in southern Sweden. Ystad has a modern marina with a great little restaurant overlooking a white-sand beach. It also boasts an 18th-century opera house where we grabbed the last two tickets for an evening of Mozart. The music sparkled, the old gentleman next to us in a white tux and pink bow tie was charming, and the champagne bubbled over. As we strolled back to the ship in the long evening shadows, three ladies dressed in ball gowns sauntered homeward through the cobbled streets ahead of us. The young woman, her mother and her grandmother completed the turning of the wheel Mozart had set spinning. A cameo of civilization.
When designing Sweden for the benefit of the cruising sailor, the Almighty thoughtfully dropped the skerry of Utklippan with its tiny harbor off the corner that leads north into the Central Baltic. Utklippan on a sunny day is about as good as life gets. Not quite out of sight of the mainland, it marks the limit of the rocks and islets straggling offshore, so anyone on passage to Stockholm via Kalmar Sound inside the long island of Öland can leave its big lighthouse to port and stay safe from danger. Bird life is so undisturbed by the ecologically aware Scandinavians that you have to dodge the nests on an afternoon stroll. The midsummer sunset after a day of intense blue and gold was a kaleidoscope that went on until it melted into dawn. We carried our supper down onto the rocks with a group of Swedish sailors. Someone produced a bottle of scotch, and as the evening breeze died away, we drank to nature and then to the sun itself as it rose again in splendor just a few hours later.
Kalmar Castle came up ahead the following afternoon, impossibly exotic with its onion towers and domes. Like Ystad, the marina here is clean, cheap, has its own sauna, and is virtually in the center of town. Five minutes of walking saw us to the supermarket, where the victuals are terrific, so long as you like fish. I love marinated herring, and nobody does it better.
In addition to food, Kalmar has one of Sweden’s rare government-approved wine shops. Unlike the shady joint in Iceland where, 30 years ago, I bought “Black Death” in company with a queue of grown men who concealed the swag in brown paper bags, this was Liberty Hall. It was a big, airy space where liquors and good wines lined the shelves enticingly. Prices were manageable, but I regretted not loading up back in Germany where they almost give the stuff away.
Near the perfectly intact 12th-century castle we strolled through the Gamla village in search of a spot of lunch. Old wooden houses painted in brave colors crowd together here while roses pour over garden fences and hollyhocks stand riotous sentinel in the quiet streets. The sun seems always to shine on the Gamla when I’m there, but in February they say you can walk across the thick sea ice.
Now, about lunch. When eating out in Scandinavia, unless you are super-rich, avoid dinner. A main dish can cost twice what it costs at lunch, and the wine prices are obscene. I once paid $15 for a glass of it, accompanied by a tiny fillet of pike that would have been flattered to be labeled “undistinguished.” By contrast, I have eaten many excellent lunches at $45 for two in up-market cafeterias by the water with delightful open-air terraces. There you toddle up to the counter and order from the girls (blonde and bronzed). Ten minutes later the same girls deliver your lunch and beverages to your table. Just one tip: have nothing to do with the beer. It will only give you a headache and damage your budget, and it’s far better to drink on board with your friends, as the locals do.
HALF A DAY NORTH of Kalmar, we reached into paradise, heeling to a warm southeasterly breeze. The archipelago we were entering leads all the way to Russia in flat water. There are so many islands with anchorages yet to be discovered that the pilot books have given up trying to describe them all. You don’t even have to row ashore, because the local technique—soon mastered by the bold—is to simply to drive up to a handy rock, sling the hook over the stern, then hop off the bow and secure a rope to a pine tree. Hang your boarding ladder over the bow and step off with the barbecue, take a stroll in primeval woodland, or chum up with the ever-friendly locals.
If it’s solitude you want, you can find it on the smaller islands in company with sea eagles, a nation of industrious ants and, always, the birds. If you’re lucky, your solitude will be broken at breakfast time with a gentle bump alongside and an enticing voice asking if anyone would like some homemade bread. This girl, a mermaid in a rubber boat, lives on the neighboring island with her grandmother, who taught her to bake the sort of loaf once taken to sea by her grandfather. “It keeps,” she said, so I bought one. It was still good three days later when I met with another enterprising young tradeswoman playing the same game. This time I filled my locker, and it fed us for a week.
My favorite island came after something of a piloting bonanza, working to windward into the outer archipelago, jinking past rocks and watching safe bearings until we sailed into the perfect anchorage through a tiny dog-leg entrance. Inside were a few small local boats with children playing on the rocks.
After a swim and a run ashore we laid out the cockpit table for dinner. At 10 o’clock the kids had gone to their bunks and all was quiet. To seaward there was only the rockscape, the blue Baltic, the Finnish Gulf and the dark mystery of Russia. The half-lit night was flat calm as we set a match to the cockpit lamp and laid out herring, caviar, our wholesome bread, Polish vodka, crisp from the freezer and hand-picked strawberries. The sky was too bright for stars, and as Venus followed the sun below the northern horizon a flock of geese tagged along to see where it had gone. The air was so still we could hear the beat of their wings.
Provision in Brunsbüttel, Germany. It is cheaper than the UK, France or Holland, especially for alcohol. Water is everywhere, but take a hose. Fuel is not a problem. It is comparable in price to the EU, but a fright after the U.S.
Anchoring by the stern in the islands is easier if you have your kedge anchor on a reel of strong webbing. You can buy one for around 80 euros in the chandleries at Ystad or Kalmar. A bow ladder for disembarking onto the rocks is a must. I contrived one from my usual boarding ladder. A couple of long warps are useful for securing to trees, which are not always as conveniently sited as marina cleats.
Berthing: As in the U.S., box berths are found in many marinas. If your boat has a rubbing strake, you can forget the fenders and rely on it. If not (and if your topsides are vulnerable) rig a cheap heavy rope fore-and-aft down each side to protect them as you run between posts.
Charts: British Admiralty or NOAA charts will get you to and through the Kiel Canal. Once inside the Baltic, use local charts, which are vital to achieve a proper overview. They come in packs and can be purchased in Ystad, Kalmar or–believe it or not–“all good bookshops.” Local pilot books are equally useful. Electronic charts are available from Navionics (which charges extra for Denmark) and Garmin. Both also have iPad apps, but the Garmin one has no projected track feature, so it is less useful. I use the paper chart and then switch to the iPad for piloting and finding my position if I get lost among the islands.
Photos by Tom Cunliffe