Half a century ago I signed on as a deckhand aboard a 90-ton trading ketch that had recently been sold out of service in the Danish Baltic Sea. She had made her way to the South Coast of England, where I was based and was refitting for a voyage to the Caribbean. The old girl was in a sorry state, but she still had the sweeping sheer built into her at Fåborg in 1929. My shipmates and I adzed out new masts, rigged her, caulked her, painted her and, against all odds, sailed her away. Her name was Johanne, and she taught me a lot more about the world than the three years I had just completed in college.
By the early 20th century the glory days of the Viking ships were long gone, the Nordic countries were living quietly, minding their own business, and the Baltic Trader had become the icon of Danish seafaring. Local commerce has now changed, however, and these sweet vessels too have had their day. The modern cruising yachts that have replaced them do a fine job for today’s leisure sailors, but I’m glad I served my time aboard Johanne in another era. It left me with a visceral connection to the Danish scene that remained as strong as ever, even 50 years later when I decided that after keeping my Mason 44 Constance on the Solent in England for a good while, it was time for a change.
After a varied life of sailing in waters both warm and cold, Northwest Europe has become my cruising ground of choice. The four countries that make up modern Scandinavia offer wildly different experiences to the sailor. In Norway, I’ve watched the Arctic sun sweep the northern horizon, touching peaks so extreme they look like mountains from a fantasy book. Similarly, mainland Sweden hides behind endless archipelagos of skerries and islands created by a generous god for the benefit of those who love the feel of a sailboat eating her way to windward through flat water.
Finland, on the other hand, while superficially similar, is a different proposition. It is the only country in the world where I have sat naked in a midnight forest by the water’s edge, drinking beer over a campfire in the company of total strangers. We passed a memorable night between sweltering at oven heat in a wood-fired sauna and leaping off a rickety timber dock into a Baltic that had been frozen only a month earlier, before clustering round the embers to unzip another can of Finland’s finest.
It’s around 600 miles from England to any of the gateways to Scandinavia, and the trip has been growing less attractive as world business has advanced. Today, much of the passage involves dodging gas rigs and heavy shipping in the gale-swept North Sea. Often it’s to windward as well, so a couple of years back my wife, Ros, and I took the decision not to do it. Instead, we opted to winter Constance in Denmark, whereas it happens, a layup in Augustenborg Yachthavn’s climate-controlled shed costs less than leaving the poor yacht to muscle it out in the rain in England. The Danes also handle our boat as if she were their own and it’s only two easy days to drive there from Britain with the carload of gear all sailors know well.
Before deciding to keep the boat in Denmark, its relatively low-lying shores had served merely as a path to the more spectacular skerries and highlands further north. Last summer, though, we decided to take a closer look on our way back to Augustenborg after cruising to Stockholm and points northeast. And we weren’t disappointed.
Augustenborg lies at the top of a shallow fjord only a bridge away from the southern extremity of Jutland, near the German border on the European mainland. The rest of the geographically small country of the Danes is made up of islands, large and small. The plan was to enter the country at the tiny fishing port of Klintholm on the middle-sized Isle of Møn, a 50-mile hop from Sweden. We rattled this off in something under eight hours with a few feet of reef rolled into our Leisure Furl in-boom system and a cracking beam wind.
(As a side note: the Leisure Furl makes light work of sailing a 44-footer two-up. We inherited it with the boat, and after a lifetime of cruising and racing in conventional craft, we assumed it would be for the dumpster, but we decided to suck it and see. After a season we were converted. It suits the Mason and seven summers later we know that it suits us too.)
Landfall at Klintholm from the north is perhaps Denmark’s most impressive scenic offering. The countryside is usually a tableau of rolling agricultural fields and woodland leavened with bright yellow crops of oil-seed rape. However, the Klint of Møn is different. The Klint itself is a high headland surrounded by very un-Danish cliffs, so white they would give Dover a fair run for its money. We bore away around these and piled into the harbor with several other boats hot on our tail. It was already crowded and when Ros flashed up the latest internet forecast we saw why. We’d started the passage at 0400—in broad daylight of course—and had been unimpressed by an angry sky as the sun slid over the horizon in the northeast. Dirty weather was promised for later in the day, hence the dawn start, but this was now upgraded to an imminent full gale from the south, dead on the nose for us.
We found ourselves a snug berth where the boat would be blowing off the dock and went ashore in search of our first Danish pastry. None was to be had, so we paid our dues and settled in behind the spray hood to watch the action. By 1800 waves were breaking over the harbor wall and survivors were limping in. A big German shot through the entrance with his genoa streaming from the forestay in rags. A Dane with no bow thruster made three attempts to grab a tempting empty berth astern of us, but each time his bow blew away before the guy on the foredeck could scramble ashore. I went to take his line, but as he heaved it to me it blew straight back at him. Proper seaman that he was, he finally backed up to the berth and stepped off his sugar scoop with a stern line. Once secure, he took a warp from the bow to the shore and winched himself in with the warping drum of his windlass. A good lesson learned.
The gale blew itself out in the night, but the wind stayed set in the south, and the weatherman said it wouldn’t shift for days, so that was Plan A out the porthole. Instead of heading directly for our destination, we therefore opted to go north-about around the large island of Sjaelland and take in Copenhagen and The Sound as part of the bargain.
The Danish islands are, in a sense, the cork in the bottle of the Baltic. They virtually block the inner sea off from the Atlantic, with three main gaps to let ships through. Of these, the most important is The Sound. This 30-mile channel runs from Sweden’s Malmö in the south to Danish Elsinor in the north. We made the most of the southerly to fetch Copenhagen in a day. We’d been here before and had experienced trouble finding somewhere to tie up.
It’s not what you know, however, but who you know, and this time a man with whom I’d been corresponding fixed us up with a private berth tucked away behind the opera house. It looked great, and so it was until the small hours when the usual Scandinavian big-city drunks arrived with a case of beer and other less wholesome stimulants. Sleep was now impossible, so as soon as there was enough light to see the main halyard we cleared out and cruised on up to Elsinore. This town of huge character huddles in the lee of Hamlet’s castle as it looks across the two-mile strait to Sweden. Here, the kings of Denmark once levied massive taxes on anything that floated, and through this gap Nelson passed with his fleet on the way to the pivotal Battle of Copenhagen.
The town square furnished us with a famous Smörgåsbord lunch, after which we wandered off in search of pastries for tea. However, the bakers were either shut, sold out or didn’t stock them, so we drew another blank. I have to note here that editor Nielsen had once raved to me about his Danish mother’s pastries. With him in mind, we were beginning to feel short-changed but, undismayed as yet, we returned to the yacht which was lying under the walls of the castle.
I went below for half an hour to sleep off the large shot of aquavit that had washed down my lunch and had just dozed off when a hammering on the hull brought me up on deck in short order. There I saw a large, scruffy Hallberg Rassy had come alongside and a man knocking on my hatch who I’d last seen under a pub table in the Republic of Ireland nearly 10 years earlier. Since that memorable meeting, Yanne and his shipmate, Carl, had circumnavigated in the Rassy and written a lively book about voyaging on the wild side. Don’t miss Brave or Stupid if you ever find that life is getting you down. In the blurb Yanne is described as “on his third marriage and his third career, and he isn’t even a rock star.” Like the local bakers, Yanne had no pastries, but he did have a locker full of wine. The night that followed was not a quiet one.
As we left early in the morning trying nobly to sober up, a Baltic Trader that could have been Johanne herself came gliding in. My heart gave a little skip, but the wind was fair for our next port and we had a hundred miles to cover in a long day, so we didn’t stop. That night, after another blistering close reach, we tied up to another old trading ketch in the improbably named town of Middelfart, which sits strategically at the mouth of the so-called “Little Belt,” the westernmost and smallest route into the Baltic.
Here we became so involved with the guys off the numerous historic vessels that we forgot to look for pastries. Instead, we yarned with big-handed men to the ring of caulking hammers and the evocative beat of two-stroke hot-bulb diesel engines turning over at a maximum of 175 rpm while delivering irresistible horsepower via huge, feathering Hundested propellers.
In the days when I sailed Johanne the “tonk-tonk-tonk” of these machines was the sound of the north. Now they are so rare that I spill my tea if I hear one come into harbor. They are the very soul of engineering romance, and if anyone thinks there’s no such thing, go to Denmark and listen out on a frosty morning as some ancient fishing boat comes home. If you’re lucky, it will even blow some smoke rings for you from its 8in exhaust pipe.
The run from Middelfart to Augustenborg takes in the sheltered waters of the Belt and we were rewarded for our madcap sailing by a calm. Mr. Yanmar propels Constance at 6 knots through flat water at the improbably low cost of scarcely a half gallon of diesel per hour, so up the Belt we went, past green fields rolling down to the water’s edge, thatched farm buildings and extended low dwellings, direct descendants of Viking longhouses. Yachts were in abundance with very few motorboats to cut up the lake-like sea. In short, if ever you’re obliged to motor, this is the place to do it. The day was pure pleasure and the trip ended on a high because, after a quiet night at Augustenborg, I went ashore in the morning to the town bakery. There, spread out on shining shelves, lay a selection of pastries the like of which I have never seen, with a smiling blonde girl to advise me in perfect English which ones to choose. I bought the lot. Back at the ship, Ros had brewed a pot of strong Danish coffee. Sitting in the cockpit moored beside yet another castle, the pastries melted in our mouths and I can joyfully report to the editor that the heart of Denmark beats as strongly as ever.
Longtime SAIL contributor Tom Cunliffe and wife Ros sail Constance, their Mason 44, in Northern Europe