From popular Scandinavian waters, to off-the-beaten-track eastern gems, Wietze van der Laan and Janneke Kuysters share six great Baltic sailing routes
The Baltic is one of the best cruising grounds in Europe, with a myriad of options to choose from. But how can you make the most of sailing the Baltic – and, for non-Schengen passport holders, what can be done in 90 days?
Between late June and mid August the Scandinavian summer can be seriously warm with temperatures around 25°C-30°C. There’ll be the occasional rainy or (very) windy day, but in general the forecast is very accurate. Sweden, Norway and Finland broadcast good forecasts for the whole Baltic, and we also found the ECMWF model (through the Windy app) very accurate.
Prevailing winds are from the west or south-west, fuelled by a train of lows coming from the Atlantic. However, in summer a stable high pressure area forms over Scandinavia, bringing beautiful weather and moderate to light easterly winds. Make sure you have enough fuel or a large light-weather sail for these conditions.
Distances between destinations are never very far. For cruisers who don’t fancy sailing through the night, there are 20-22 hours of daylight in midsummer, giving you a wider choice of destinations to sail to. The lack of tide adds to this flexibility.
Midsummer is celebrated everywhere with food, drink, festivities and a well-decorated maypole. In the shoulder seasons it is a bit chillier, especially in the evenings. Before midsummer and after 1 August restaurants, tourist offices and attractions decrease their opening hours. The upside is that it gets quieter and easier to find a space in the popular harbours and anchorages.
Northern Baltic shores are strewn with rocks, the southern shores are sandy and shallow. Everything is well surveyed and navigation is simple if your charts are up to date and you use common sense and caution.
There’s an abundance of cruising guides detailing every anchorage and bay with the rocks marked on aerial photos – they’re worth every penny. Markers and buoys are plentiful, sometimes to an almost confusing degree.
Mooring options when sailing the Baltic
There are lots of marinas and public jetties, and average berthing fees are around €30 for a 44ft yacht. Most have an intricate system for mooring. Parallel to the jetty there is a line of mooring balls. You pick up one of these, secure a line and then motor towards the jetty to attach two lines. There are no cleats on the jetty, but rings.
Most Scandinavian boats have fancy ladders ready at the bow to make this manoeuvre easier. Yachts with centre cockpits or wide sterns tend to motor with the stern to the jetty. In Denmark, mooring is done between poles.
But the best thing is just to anchor in one of the thousands of bays in the archipelagos. Free anchoring can be limited due to the size of the bay, so a stern anchor comes in handy. Drop it over the stern when approaching a good-sized rock. Slowly advance to the rock and tie the boat to a tree, to a ring in the rock or to another rock.
Done with caution, this is an excellent way to spend a lovely summer evening.
Swedish West Coast
Technically, the Swedish west coast – and the country road to the east – is not the Baltic, but Skagerrak and Kattegat (Kattegat is a Dutch expression for ‘narrow entrance’). The west coast of Sweden is a great landing place after a North Sea crossing.
The island of Orust has many well known boatyards on it, and towns like Fjällbacka, Marstrand and Gothenburg are all worth a visit. Marstrand is the epicentre of regattas on the west coast, and foreign competitors will find a warm welcome.
From Gothenburg, there are two options: one is to continue south and wind your way in between the thousands of islands and rocks. Here there are many picturesque small towns to visit, but also contemporary Malmö with a marina right in the centre of town (Denmark is only a stone’s throw away, though we’ll get to that later). The other option is to take the Göta channel straight through Sweden.
You start in Gothenburg on the Trollhättan canal which is 40 miles long. In six large locks, you go up to 42m above sea level and exit the Trolhättan channel in the Vänern lake. You could spend weeks here exploring this very large lake (55 miles by 45 miles), anchoring in little bays and exploring the beautiful castles and little towns on the shore.
In Sjötorp, the fun really starts: you enter the first of 58 historic locks and climb to 92m above sea level. In Motala on lake Vättern there is a museum about the canal. The figures are mindblowing: it took 22 years to build, is 95 miles long and it took 58,000 conscripted soldiers to dig it with spades.
The reason behind this mammoth project, which started in 1810, was to cut down the travelling time between Stockholm and Gothenburg. Over land, it took up to two weeks. By boat through the channel, it could be done in less than a week. Traditional passenger boats still ply the channel, but the majority of the users are recreational craft.
From Sjötorp to Söderköping you travel in between locks on a small canal, fringed by fields of yellow flowers, farms painted the typical Scandinavian red, cattle and lots of cyclists. Life is easy and time goes slowly.
Traditionally, at every lock there is a lock keeper’s house in a distinct light yellow colour, and some of these cute dwellings are now ice cream shops, coffee bars and restaurants. Particularly near locks that are a little more complicated, holiday crowds often gather to watch the activity on the yachts; the Göta channel is nicknamed ‘the Divorce Ditch’, because for a short-handed crew it requires a bit of agility to tackle the locks.
When the last lock closes behind you in Mem, a whole new cruising ground opens.
The Stockholm archipelago is a favourite among all Swedish sailors, thanks to its thousands of islands and anchorages. The weather here is usually calm, which, combined with the small tidal range and hardly any current, makes for an excellent cruising ground.
Many foreign yacht owners store their boats on the Swedish east coast in winter to get the most out of the summer season.
There are endless cruising options up and down the coast. You can take it easy on short day trips, anchoring or mooring to a rock, visiting small towns to provision and walking the hundreds of kilometres of footpaths that run along the shore. You can also opt to do a circular route: north along the coast, then inland to Södertälje. From there you pass through a lock and enter Lake Mälar.
Mälar is a large lake but a relatively unknown cruising ground with lots of lovely anchorages underneath the ancient castles and homesteads that line the shores. The water is clear and it’s a joy to have a swim on a hot day. You could easily spend two weeks here.
From Lake Mälar you sail to Stockholm, the bustling capital of Sweden. The city is built on islands, hence the nickname ‘Venice of the North’. There is lots of traffic: ferries large and small, cargo ships, pleasure craft. Even food deliveries are done by boat.
The old city centre, or Gamle Stan, is a pleasure to stroll through, while the Vasa museum is mindblowing. The King’s ship Vasa was launched in 1628 but sank within three miles in the harbour of Stockholm. For over 300 years it lay in the mud, only to be lifted to the surface in 1961, perfectly preserved.
From Stockholm you can go back to the south of the archipelago, or why not go north? You can sail straight up into the Gulf of Bothnia where only a few foreign boats sail each year. To the east there is another major cruising ground, while the island Arholma has two perfect anchorages to stop and consider both options.
Åland and Finnish archipelago
The Åland archipelago is an autonomous region within Finland with its own legislation, and Swedish is the first language spoken there. The Ålanders are very well connected to both mainlands: ferries go back and forth between the capital Mariehamn and both Stockholm and Helsinki. The archipelago’s pink rocks give the landscape a special charm, especially at sunset and sunrise – though you’d need to be up all night to see that in high summer, as there are only two hours of darkness. Ålanders also love good food.
Mariehamn has good facilities for visiting yachts: two large marinas, of which the ÅSS harbour is most suited for international visitors. You’re in Finland, so the sauna is included in your marina fee (and is a great place to hear the latest information on the best anchorages and other cruising gossip).
One of the joys of the Åland archipelago is that you can sail right around the main islands, either on a northerly or southerly circuit. The loop will bring you back to Mariehamn in 7-10 days of pleasant day sails. If you choose to go east, some of the more remote islands are worth a stop. Finnish Utö is one, the southernmost island of the archipelago and dominated by a large lighthouse. Only a handful of people live on the island and visitors are very welcome.
Once again, it’s hard to choose your next destination. The prevailing westerly winds will blow you nicely to the east, but you need to keep an eye on the lows that pass this area regularly and cause a stiff northerly breeze. Choose anchorages with that in mind.
The Finnish archipelago spans the whole south-west coast of Finland. You can meander through the islands and head northeast to Turku, a large town with all the facilities you need. Or sail a more south-easterly course and wind your way to Helsinki. Among lovely examples of islands are Bodö and Örö. Both were of military importance at one point in history and have been largely uninhabited, so nature has been able to flourish.
Two couples now lease the islands and are developing them in a very sustainable way, making them a true delight to visit with endless walks on well-marked paths, and the chance to enjoy sundowners on a wooden deck overlooking the small jetties lined with yachts, and excellent food in the small restaurants.
Well-known Finnish cruiser, Auli Irjala, says: “My partner and I have sailed around the world and have seen many beautiful places. Despite that, the Finnish archipelago is still very high on our list of favourite places. You can spend long summer days pottering around the islands for weeks on end. Sitting on a rock that still has the warmth of the sun in it and just soaking up the view, while your boat is moored alongside that same rock in calm water.”
If you aim to do a Baltic circuit, you’ll at some point sail to Helsinki. The historic resort of Hanko on the south side of the city is a must-see. Hanko is a yachting hub, and an overnighter will get you from Hanko to Helsinki. By going slower you can take several ‘inside tracks’ that’ll see you meandering between beautiful wooded islands and rugged rocky shores.
Entering Helsinki is an experience in itself: the many rocks and islands that surround the city require careful navigation, especially because large cargo ships and ferries head into Helsinki at full speed.
The large fortress island of Suomenlinna is an impressive sight; it also has a small marina. In the vibrant city of Helsinki itself there are also lots of options to moor, and the Nyländska Jaktklubben yacht club on the island Valkosaari is well worth a visit. You can spend days exploring Helsinki, but just across the Gulf of Finland is a relatively unknown cruising area which begs to be explored…
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania
Up until 1991 Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were occupied by Russia. The ‘singing revolution’ was impressive: without a shot being fired, the three countries gained their independence. During Soviet times citizens were forbidden to have boats and it was not allowed to live near the coast. Many guard towers and navy harbours made sure that nobody would escape to Finland or Sweden.
Fast forward 30 years, and when you cross from Helsinki, you’ll see many new yachts proudly flying the Estonian flag. There is a luxury marina right in the middle of the capital, Tallinn, from where you can walk into the historic old town. Facilities for yachts have been developed at a breathtaking speed – Estonians love to be out on the water.
To cruise Estonia, one option is to follow the coast of the mainland all the way to the ‘summer capital’ Pärnu. Along the coast, there are interesting places to visit. Haapsalu is one: a fortress towers over the small town. Spas are all along this coast, as the mud in this part of the Baltic is said to be healing for body and mind.
You can sail back to Tallinn via the Estonian islands: Kihnu with its ancient matriarchal culture, Muhu, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa with their historic castles and mystical forests. Facilities for yachts are all new, usually small harbours, often near ferry landings. They all have floating jetties, shower blocks and friendly harbour masters.
Further south is the Gulf of Riga: a vast body of water where the prevailing winds are from the south-west in summer. Most cruisers opt not to sail to the capital, Riga, from Estonia because it’s a 70-mile upwind slog, though we were lucky and had westerly winds.
The inner city is about seven miles up the Daugava river, with several marinas on the coast and up-river (the one nearest the city centre is basic but within walking distance of the key sights). Sailing to Riga is well worth the effort to wander around the cobbled streets of the historic city centre.
On the west coast of Latvia there are a few harbours with facilities for yachts. You could sail to Lithuania on day trips, but a keen eye on the weather is necessary. With the prevailing south-westerly winds, this coast is a lee shore and the shallow foreshore can create steep waves which may lock you into a harbour for longer than you’d like. Ventspils is the most popular harbour and an attractive holiday town.
Further south is the Lithuanian harbour of Klaipeda, which gives access to the Kurisches Haff, a freshwater lagoon. A long, narrow sand spit of very high sand dunes runs from Klaipeda all the way to Kaliningrad (a Russian exclave). From Klaipeda, there’s a marked channel on the east side of the spit. Well sheltered from the prevailing winds it’s a truly ‘off the beaten track’ destination.
From Klaipeda to Gdansk in Poland can be sailed in an overnighter, taking special care to avoid Kaliningrad’s 12-mile exclusion zone (now enforced by the Russian navy).
Poland and northern Germany
The jewel in the crown of sailing in Poland is Gdansk. You can sail there from the north of Germany, or cross to Gdansk from Latvia or Lithuania. Either way, with the prevailing south-westerly winds, it takes an effort to get there and back.
But it is worth it. Right in the city centre of Gdansk is an excellent marina. Gdansk is intriguing, because of its complex history. There are excellent museums and city walks that unravel the mystery for the curious visitor.
Sailing is also a popular activity in Poland, so it is relatively easy to find parts or get repairs done. Cruising the Martwa Wisla river you’ll pass shipyards on a massive scale, one of the mainstays of the Gdansk economy.
Going west from Gdansk you can make day sails to small harbours along the holiday towns that dot the coast of Poland, keeping a keen eye out for low pressure systems that bring temporary strong northerly winds. If you’re lucky, a high pressure area will establish itself and bring light easterlies. In summer the active sailing community in Poland creates a fun atmosphere, and foreign yachts are given a warm welcome.
From the Polish north shores you sail west to Vorpommern, a coastal region with interesting topography due to its high sand dunes and large, narrow spits that enclose vast bodies of water – especially fun to explore with a shallow draught yacht.
At the border of Poland and Germany, you can tuck ‘inside’ the spits, between the islands of Wolin and Usedom. The natural channels and shallow enclosed ‘Haffs’ make for excellent and very sheltered cruising areas with many quaint little towns to visit.
In case of strong south-westerly winds, this can be a good area to keep sailing while still making your way west. The Boddengewässer lagoons lead all the way south of Rügen to Heiligenhafen, on the west side of the island of Fehman.
If you fancy an easier tack offshore with a deeper draught boat, you could sail from Gdansk to Bornholm or Christiansö in Denmark’s Ertholmene mini-archipelago.
Denmark – and back
Getting to and from the Baltic depends on weather windows, and timing. There are three good options to choose. The first is to sail around the north of Denmark and via Skagerrak and Kattegat to the Baltic. The second option is to take the Lymfjord between Thyboron in the west and Hals in the east of Denmark.
The Lymfjord is a sheltered inland waterway with some little towns underway where you can moor and rest for the night. The third option is the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal, nicknamed the Kiel Canal, which cuts through Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein region and connects to the North Sea. All three have their pros and cons, depending on the weather and the amount of motoring you’re prepared to do.
Inevitably, getting in or out of the Baltic means spending time in Denmark. Denmark, with its many islands large and small, is a cruising destination in itself and it would be a shame to rush through. There is something for everybody: secluded anchorages, impressive natural phenomena like the limestone cliffs of Mons Klimt, and the contemporary city of Copenhagen. The tidal range is slightly larger in Denmark, especially in the north.
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