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
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