I used to be afraid to admit that I was afraid. Maybe it was a gender thing. Boys aren’t supposed to show fear. Or maybe it was a peer pressure thing. Siting around the campfire listening to ghost stories is not the time to show your sensitive side. Or maybe it was a parent thing. Letting a child see your fear only amplifies their fright. But then I heard someone talk about fear management. Alas, there was finally a sign that maybe it was OK to have these feelings. Maybe even not just OK but beneficial.
I know that some people think our choice of adventure sailing is too risky. That is, the people other than the people that think we are on a summer-long vacation of sunbathing and cocktail sipping. It is somewhat true. Not the vacation part, mind you, but the risky part. We live on a 25,000 pound floating platform that is one hole away from succumbing to the forces of gravity trying everyday to pull it under. Unlike the seafarers of yesteryear, Karen and I do know how to swim, but gravity would be more than happy to take us too if we were to go overboard. And while 25,000 pounds sounds big, it’s mere roadkill to the massive freighters whose paths we cross. We also navigate around rocky outcroppings sharp enough to break apart our boat faster than a wrecking ball. And those are the rocks we can see. For the ones lurking underneath the surface, we have to trust our electronics, the often decade-old work of survey crews, and the limited utility of polarized sunglasses.
I could not stop checking the newsfeed every hour. Like so many, I was captivated by the announcement of a submersible exploring the depths of the Titanic, lost with five crew onboard. But why was I hooked on their story? People die everyday, every hour, plenty in a gruesome manner. Why should I care about five more people, these five people in particular. Of course there was the uncertainty of the crew at the inky depth of 3800 meters below they surface of the Atlantic, desperately trying to hold on to the slippery bonds of life. I didn’t want to get caught up in the livestream theatrics of it all. ‘The Truman Show’ was showmanship worthy of my attention and praise. But here were real live human beings, with ten fingers and ten toes, just like their mommas had hoped for. The graduating senior who drank too much at prom and drove a car full of buddies into oncoming traffic is tragic, no doubt. So much potential lost, so many questions to answer. Yet here, knowing that there could be a submersible crew at the bottom of the ocean struggling for their life, while my own struggle was simply running out of bread for the day’s sandwich, felt deeply troubling. And then to learn that they apparently were banging on the hull every thirty minutes in a crude underwater cry for help.
The time had come to wrap up the season. Karen and I took one more day on the water, on a beautiful blue sky day without a stitch of wind, to bring Sea Rose down from Borgholm to Kalmar. Earlier in the summer we had secured a spot at Baltic Kalmar Marina for the winter. To my surprise, it wasn’t easy to find a place to haul out. A few boater friends recommended the north coast of Germany, another couple of days south from Kalmar, and probably easier to fly in and out of, but every yard was either booked up or couldn’t take our size of boat. We had also looked at several well regarded yards in Denmark, to no avail. It’s always a juggling match midway through summer to find a place. We have to guess how far we will go in the remaining months, what yard has a good combination of technical skills and a friendly nature, and where the best travel connections can be found. When we found Baltic Kalmar in July, it was a huge relief. We could plan on that destination and set our pacing and range of adventure accordingly. The one challenge we had was the winter weather. This would be the first time we hauled out in a freezing climate with Sea Rose. We had plenty of experience with this on our old boat, Thalia, in the Northeast U.S. But here in Sweden, we would need to figure out how to winterize this boat and source the materials needed. The marina encouraged us to store the boat inside – in what everyone in the area refers to just as a ‘hall’. In a heated space, we wouldn’t need to winterize the boat. But at twice the price, it was a budget buster. So, instead, our baby Sea Rose would sit outside, but at least we had a nice, heavy-duty cover for her, and from every indication the winters in Kalmar were fairly mild, at least compared to our experience in the Northeast U.S.
The Kalmar Guesthamn, a traffic jam of boats when we first visited in early July, looked like Times Square the morning after New Years Eve – a few of us boaters showing signs of weariness from too much fun earlier in the summer, and a few stalwart boaters that didn’t get the memo that summer was over. We were pleased to see that our newfound buddy boat Pinocchio pulled into Kalmar as well. After finding, like we did, that so many other yards were full, Pinocchio’s captain decided to haul out at Baltic Kalmar marina too. It’s good to have a buddy when you are staring down a to-do list that will take a full week to grind through before you can head home. Some might even call such a relationship ‘priceless’!
Expanding on my “Tom’s Top Ten List” from our last blog, today I’m telling you about our Top Six destinations on the route south of the Stockholm Archipelago, in a no less spectacular sail to our winter haul-out location at Kalmar. We took this route with our friends Patty and Patrick, dropping them off in Vastervik, and Karen and I made our way alone the rest of the way. The Stockholm Archipelago gets a lot of attention, partly because it is close to where so many Swedes live on the eastern side of the country. But I think you’ll agree after reading this Top Six list that there are many more hidden gems south of Stockholm. So, let’s dive in!
It felt good to be back in the familiar waters of Sweden. As the days headed into mid-August, we had the advantage that family boaters had already sailed back to their home ports, along with most everyone else in that strange seasonal phenomenon where adults without school-aged children also assumed it was the end of summer, in a seemingly sympathetic gesture. But as much as we all enjoy outsmarting the crowds on vacation, it can also be alarming to travel completely alone. I find myself second-guessing decisions. Is there no one here because of some warning of danger that we missed? Is it too cold to enjoy the outdoors, in a country headed towards severely limited winter daylight? Will all of the fun sites exalted in the cruising guides still be open? In our favor, to fend off any loneliness, we had the joy of hosting three different groups onboard Sea Rose in these last remaining weeks before our haulout. In anticipation, Karen and I hurriedly scoped out several of the most interesting islands in the Stockholm archipelago before picking up our son Zack and his two college friends Andrew (whom you might remember from our travels in Croatia) and Evan for a week of island hopping. After dropping them off, we planned to welcome my niece Julia and her friend Mary from Ireland onboard, followed by our friend Patty (a regular crew member from our travels in Mallorca and Croatia) and her boyfriend Patrick.
As we pushed away from the dock at Hanko, we were starting a new chapter. No longer would we be exploring deeper into the Baltic. Hanko would represent our turnaround point, as we headed back west to Sweden, and then made our way south to our winter haul out location in Kalmar. These are milestones that can be bittersweet. When we were younger and we’d go on a one week family vacation, the first few days would always be super exciting and I would marvel at how much we were doing each day and how much more we had left of our vacation time. Then, suddenly, it would be Wednesday and our vacation was half over. Yes, we’d have a few more days of fun, but it was hard to get your mind out of thinking about re-entry. I wanted to go back to the innocence of those first few days. That headspace takes a lot of work to reach, and can be as slippery as the devil to hold on to. But we had to remind ourselves; this was Finland and Sweden, the two countries that we had so cherished exploring at the beginning of the summer, and we still had over a month of sailing days to leverage. It’s ironic that the same mind that leads you into a troubled mental state is the same mind needed to pull you back out. Your friends, your therapist, maybe even a stranger can assist, but it starts and ends with you.
All I can say about the interior of Finland is that there are trees, a lot of them. On our train ride out of Hanko, after closing up Sea Rose for a few nights of healthy separation, all we could see out the window were rows and rows of tall, straight pine trees. The kind that, with such fine uniformity of height and spacing, makes one wonder if you are traveling through some kind of Nordic version of the Truman Show. It sure does explain why the Finns love their wood-fired saunas though.
Karen and I were setting out on a whirlwind big-city tour of the northern Baltic, which, setting aside Stockholm and the unruly neighbors to the east, consisted of Helsinki and Tallinn. While you might be vaguely familiar with the former, like some Americans, the later is the capital of Estonia. If we successfully set foot on these urban bastions of the Baltic, we could check off all of the destinations of the original Baltic Rally except St Petersburg, which would have to wait for a detente between nations, or a day when Putin discovers the simple joy of blowing bubbles and playing Wordle!
When you are moving by water in an archipelago as jammed tight with land masses at this one in Finland, it can feel like a case of sailor’s claustrophobia. The rocky lines of demarcation between land and water start closing in like enemy troops in an uneven and futile battle to keep our keel wet and free.
For a fleeting moment, we thought we could keep pace with them. Heli and Kalle, our newfound friends from Finland, were creeping up behind us as we both sailed away from Sweden on our way to the Aland Islands in Finland. But Sea Rose, loaded up with cruising gear, was no match for their fancy X-Yachts racing boat, especially when they popped open their colorful spinnaker in the appropriate royal blue and white colors of the Finnish flag. Our plans to keep in touch as we both sailed towards Helsinki seemed to now be, like I would tell some of my team members during performance reviews, an overly aggressive stretch goal. We settled in for a full day crossing of the 26 nm gap at turtle speed, while Heli and Kalle played the part of the hare. It’s the journey, not the destination, I had to remind myself!
North was the name of the game onboard Sea Rose, as we eagerly headed out from Kalmar to discover Sweden’s skargard (“sharr-gourd”). Loosely translated skargard means archipelago, but most Swedes would be a bit disappointed in this meek description. Breaking down this compound word, ‘skar’ refers to a rocky outcrop, and ‘gard’ has several meanings, the most enticing to me is garden. So we have ourselves a ‘rock garden’. The populated centers of Gothenburg on the west coast and Stockholm on the east coast are literally chock full of rock gardens. In the waters near Stockholm, a staggering 24,000 islands comprise the largest skargard in Sweden and these draw summer holiday-makers out to a reported 50,000 cottages. The density of islands is mind-boggling and caused Karen and I to feel at once both titillated and intimidated. Would we be able to safely navigate these congested waterways? Would shifting winds above and submerged rock pinnacles below find their mark on a track record that we had so far kept clean? A little warmup would help allay our concerns, and we found it this week as we wound in and out of the smaller archipelagos south of Stockholm.