Ad­ven­ture: Åland’s 6,000 is­lands

The thou­sands of tiny is­lands that make up the maze-like Fin­nish Åland Is­lands are a wor­thy cruis­ing des­ti­na­tion with beau­ti­ful an­chor­ages and rich his­tory, says Maeve Bell

Yachting Monthly - - VIEW FROM THE HELM -

Rich his­tory and beau­ti­ful an­chor­ages await in the Fin­nish ar­chi­pel­ago, says Maeve Bell

Can you tie up to a rock or do you need as­sis­tance?' en­quired the help­ful man who had come to meet us in his RIB. De­spite it be­ing only 1600 (or so we thought), the dock along the south shore of Käring­sund’s well­shel­tered nat­u­ral har­bour on the is­land of Eck­erö was al­ready jam-packed with boats. Be­yond the row of tra­di­tional wooden boathouses on the more se­cluded west­ern side, how­ever, there were a cou­ple of large, smooth rocks. ‘We’re fine,’ we called back. Out came all our new Baltic equip­ment: a 15kg stern an­chor on a 100 me­tre reel of tape at­tached to the push­pit, two 25 me­tre bow warps and, the pièce de ré­sis­tence, a stout bow lad­der. The an­chor went down with a splash, Adrian steered to­wards the rock, I paid out the tape and John perched on the lad­der ready to jump ashore with the first bow warp.

We were ready for the shel­ter as the 40 mile cross­ing from Swe­den to Åland had been bumpier than ex­pected; the wind had gusted to 30 knots from al­most dead astern, pro­duc­ing a nasty chop on top of resid­ual swell from a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. With two reefs in the main­sail and a muchre­duced genoa poled out, it had still re­quired a deft touch on the helm to avoid the risk of a gybe all-stand­ing. Once ashore, we paid the

Kon­tor, or har­bour­mas­ter, a mod­est fee and strolled south­wards to in­ves­ti­gate the im­pos­ing yel­low build­ing with a clas­si­cal façade that we had spot­ted from sea­ward. To our sur­prise, it turned out to be a for­mer post of­fice built in this re­mote spot as a tri­umphal ges­ture by the Rus­sian Czar Alexan­der I after he had de­feated Swe­den in 1808. Vic­tory meant that Fin­land and the Åland Is­lands were ab­sorbed into the Rus­sian em­pire for over a cen­tury. Adrian and I had over-win­tered

Oisín Bán, our Ar­cona 430, in Swe­den the pre­vi­ous year and were now keen to ex­plore more of the Baltic. With our friends John and Paul on board, we headed for the Åland Is­lands, which lie on the edge of the huge ar­chi­pel­ago to the west of the Fin­nish main­land. An an­cient realm of 6,500 is­lands, islets and sk­er­ries, Åland is full of quirky con­tra­dic­tions: it be­longs to Fin­land but its 29,000 in­hab­i­tants speak Swedish and have their own flag, po­lice and par­lia­ment. Just the sort of place where four sailors from the north of Ire­land could feel at home.

On our re­turn, Oisín Bán was no longer in soli­tary splen­dour but sand­wiched be­tween a cou­ple of other boats; the sail­ing season in this part of the world is short but

in­tense with ev­ery­body afloat in July and early Au­gust. We were a bit sur­prised at how early our neigh­bours cooked din­ner, took down their en­signs and went to bed but thought little of it. That evening we stud­ied the fore­cast and tried to square the cir­cle. We wanted to make a clock­wise cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of the main is­lands, ex­plor­ing the re­mote north coast be­fore en­ter­ing the Lumparn, an al­most land­locked sea that is thought to have been caused by a me­te­orite strike 1,000 mil­lion years ago. From there we could con­tinue to Mariehamn, the cap­i­tal, in time for Paul’s flight the fol­low­ing Wed­nes­day. It is often said that if you don’t like one fore­cast, keep search­ing till you find one that you do like. But they were all in agree­ment: per­sis­tent strong to gale force winds from the south­west were go­ing to ar­rive no later than the start of the flow­ing week. Wrong strength, wrong di­rec­tion. Re­luc­tantly we de­cided to go south-about to the Lumparn.

Hav­ing been ad­vised not to ar­rive at Mariehamn around 1400 in or­der to avoid the ferry rush hour, we timed our de­par­ture for the short trip with a view to sail­ing up the chan­nel at 1230. Crikey! We were in the thick of it, dwarfed by large, block-sided fer­ries ply­ing in and out of the RORO fa­cil­ity. Fin­land, in­clud­ing

Åland, is on East­ern Euro­pean Time and our watches were an hour out. Now we had the ex­pla­na­tion for our neigh­bours’ early bed­time. Safely through the mêlée, we tied up at the friendly ma­rina be­long­ing to the sail­ing club, the Åländ­ska Segel­säll­skapet (ÅSS), in the shadow of the fa­mous Pom­mern, a four­masted bar­que that won the Great Grain Races twice in the 1930s. Built in Glas­gow and still in her orig­i­nal con­di­tion, she is now a mu­seum. Less than an hour later, there was an un­ex­pected knock on the bow; Ralph, a friend of a friend, had ar­rived to make us wel­come.

The next day’s des­ti­na­tion was

‘ Nar­row chan­nels, rocks strewn at ran­dom, and a plethora of con­fus­ing nav­i­ga­tion marks’

Banö-ön , a large, well-shel­tered bay to the east of the larger is­lands com­pris­ing the main part of the ar­chi­pel­ago. We set off mid-morn­ing mo­tor-sail­ing in a light northerly breeze, first south­wards down one of the main ap­proaches to Mariehamn, then un­der full sail to­wards a nar­row gap at Buskärs­fjär­den be­fore en­joy­ing a beat north­wards up the Led­fjär­den.

One of the bonuses of sail­ing in Swedish wa­ters for the past few sea­sons is that we are now less fazed by the rar­ity of un­ob­structed clear wa­ter. With­out this ex­pe­ri­ence, the wa­ters round the Åland Is­lands could

be daunt­ing, as you are con­fronted with nar­row chan­nels, rocks strewn at ran­dom, a plethora of some­times con­fus­ing nav­i­ga­tion marks, and lots of fer­ries, large and small, all of which have right of way. The pi­lot book ( The

Baltic Sea, Im­ray, £40) warns that, if a ferry skip­per has the op­tion of hitting a yacht un­der sail or en­dan­ger­ing his pas­sen­gers by tak­ing avoid­ing ac­tion, it doesn’t take him long to de­cide on the lesser of the two evils!

Next we en­tered a nar­row chan­nel with sev­eral sharp bends and fer­ries steam­ing both along and across it. Some pru­dent mo­tor-sail­ing was called for to ne­go­ti­ate the haz­ards be­fore we turned south for an en­joy­able reach to­wards the en­trance to Banö. Furl­ing the genoa, we went to start the en­gine. Si­lence. The genoa came out again smartly to en­able us to beat through the gap be­fore ex­e­cut­ing what we judged, rather smugly, to be a text-book ex­am­ple of an­chor­ing un­der sail. ‘I knew we were go­ing to be lucky,’ re­marked John. ‘There’s seag­ull shit on my hat!’

In­ves­ti­ga­tion soon re­solved the prob­lem, a loose con­nec­tion near the bat­tery, so we were good to go the fol­low­ing morn­ing and headed north­west to Bo­mar­sund. The sun shone and sail han­dling kept every­one busy as the chan­nels widened, then nar­rowed, twist­ing and turn­ing through the low-ly­ing, wooded is­lands. On reach­ing our des­ti­na­tion, the tiny dock was al­ready full but we found a se­cluded, rush-lined bay nearby in which to an­chor for a peace­ful night.

Bo­mar­sund was cho­sen as we wanted to ex­plore the ru­ins of its huge Rus­sian fort. Fol­low­ing vic­tory over the Swedes, the Åland Is­lands be­came the most westerly part of the Rus­sian em­pire and Bo­mar­sund was built to pro­tect the strate­gic over­land route through Fin­land to St Peters­berg. It as­sumed any at­tack would be by land since enemy war­ships un­der sail would be thwarted by the tor­tu­ous nav­i­ga­tion re­quired. But by 1854, in the midst of the Crimean War, the Bri­tish Royal Navy had steamships and was anx­ious to at­tack Rus­sia’s north­ern front. Once al­lied French troops ar­rived on the ground to sup­port the war­ships, Bo­mar­sund only lasted a mat­ter of days.

After a suc­cess­ful morn­ing im­mersed in his­tory, a few hours’ sail­ing brought us into the Lumparn Sea and across its

north­ern part to­wards the wooded es­tu­ary lead­ing to Kastle­holm, with its small ma­rina tucked un­der the tow­er­ing walls of the cas­tle. The fi­nal ap­proach was too shal­low for our 2.3 me­tre draught so we an­chored in a pool ad­ja­cent to one of the tees of the lo­cal golf club. Keen golfers John and Paul en­joyed their sundowners in the cock­pit while as­sess­ing the pro­fi­ciency of the lo­cals and spec­u­lat­ing on the pos­si­bil­ity of hir­ing clubs for a round.

By morn­ing, omi­nous black thun­der­clouds, rear­ing up on the north­ern hori­zon, en­cour­aged us on our way with no fur­ther dis­cus­sion of golf. One op­tion was to exit the Lumparn Sea at the south­ern end though a tiny canal lead­ing di­rectly to the east­ern side of Mariehamn. We knew from friends, how­ever, that the chan­nel lead­ing to the canal was right on the limit for our draught so we re­traced our route south­wards con­cen­trat­ing hard and tweak­ing the con­trols to max­imise our speed in the light airs. With a pro­fes­sional in­ter­est in nav­i­ga­tion, Paul was be­mused by the chal­leng­ing num­ber, va­ri­ety and idio­syn­cra­sies of nav­i­ga­tion marks and his cam­era bat­tery soon ex­pired as he snapped away.

Moor­ing bow-on to the dock in Röd­hamn, we basked in the warm sun­shine and ex­plored the is­land. As a re­sult of its key po­si­tion near the en­trance to the main chan­nel lead­ing to Mariehamn, for cen­turies the is­land was a pi­lot sta­tion and an early tele­graph in­stal­la­tion. To­day its at­trac­tive little har­bour is run by the ASS dur­ing the sum­mer months; with its bastu or sauna, at­mo­spheric small cafe serv­ing mouth-wa­ter­ing cakes, and tiny beach of im­ported sand for chil­dren, it is de­servedly pop­u­lar.

Leav­ing our­selves only a dozen or so miles to cover in the morn­ing turned out to have been good de­ci­sion as the wind started to honk and, de­spite be­ing in shel­tered wa­ters all the way, two reefs were re­quired. Oisín Bán was se­curely moored at Mariehamn by lunchtime; over the next 24 hours yachts scut­tled in for shel­ter fill­ing al­most ev­ery avail­able berth.

There are much worse places to be gale-bound. We passed our time with Ralph, vis­it­ing the Pom­mern and the mar­itime mu­seum, hir­ing a car to visit the north­west part of the is­land, and en­joy­ing cof­fee and cakes in a de­light­ful cafe on one of the town’s tree-lined boule­vards. On Wed­nes­day Paul flew home while we re­viewed the GRIB files search­ing for a weather win­dow to en­able us to re­turn to Swe­den in a de­gree of com­fort.

The fore­cast promised both a change of di­rec­tion and some moderation the fol­low­ing day but in­di­cated only the briefest respite. We mo­tored down the chan­nel mid-morn­ing be­fore lurk­ing in a bay near the en­trance for a cou­ple of hours to wait for the an­gry, grey Baltic seas to sub­side. Pa­tience was re­warded and we en­joyed a fast and rel­a­tively com­fort­able pas­sage back to Arholma and the shel­ter of the Stock­holm ar­chi­pel­ago.

Käring­sund on Eck­erö was soon busy with lo­cal boats

Oisín Bán was back on the wa­ter after over­win­ter­ing in the Baltic

Mariehamn, the cap­i­tal of Åland, is an at­trac­tive town with much mar­itime her­itage

Åland Yacht Club (ÅSS) was a per­fect base from which to ex­plore Mariehamn

Sail­ing be­tween the rocks takes much con­cen­tra­tion

Tra­di­tional Mid­sum­mer cel­e­bra­tions in Röd­hamn

We got a friendly wel­come in Röd­hamn and a weather fore­cast with our bread

With im­proved con­di­tions, Oisín

Bán gets un­der­way back to Swe­den

One of the many lead­ing marks stands above rock art on Ršd­hamn

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