It’s been a long time since Tom Cunliffe sailed south in June. Why go to Spain, he argues, when there’s solitude, astonishing scenery and around 20 hours of sunshine a day in the Swedish Baltic?
What’s the attraction of the Baltic?, my friends ask when I cruise north in summer. After all, it’s cold isn’t it? And expensive. Why go to Sweden when you can sail south fuelled by cheap wine to lands where you can sweat at night under a single sheet?
It’s been years since my wife Ros and I joined the hedonists in Spain for the annual three-month cruise on our Mason 44 Constance. We like sunshine and might toddle to North Africa now and then. But mostly we head the other way.
Once you’re tucked in behind Scandinavia, the Atlantic weather can’t hit you. The sun beats down and you’re so far north it keeps up the good work for 20 hours. That’s why even the blondest Swedes are brown. Food and drink prices only seem around ten per cent more expensive than the UK; costs in Norway can be stratospheric, but that’s on the other side of the mountains.
Berthing, if you pay at all, is half the price of the English Channel and the endless islands ensure there are no waves. So, we turned our bows towards the Baltic again last summer, bound for the legendary Stockholm Archipelago.
Via the Keel Canal
The quickest route there is via the Kiel Canal. Built for the kaiser’s battleships before World War I, it joins Brunsbüttel on the Elbe river with the Baltic via 50 miles of rural waterway patrolled only by German walkers with ski poles. However, the approach from the German Bight doesn’t feature in my book of idyllic sailing tours. The seas are often akin to a washing machine, with lee shores, TSS roundabouts, wind farms and every hazard to navigation except coral reefs.
This time the place served up a typical cocktail of misery, but, having paid in full, we arrived at the lock at 1500 in mid-June for a session of international diplomacy that made UKIP look an attractive choice for the thinking voter.
A long queue of yachts outside the gate always suggests this may be the last lock of the day and that you may not get in. The upshot this time was a carnival of national stereotypes as Dutch, Danes, Swedes, Germans and the occasional Frenchman jostled for position. Only us Brits and a bemused Pole hung back like gentlemen. All this in a three-knot tide for two hours while the lock operators finished their luncheon sausage.
When the lights turned green, pandemonium reigned as the fleet surged into the giant lock like the Charge of the Light Brigade. Somehow everyone squeezed in, although the shouting would have done credit to the Tower of Babel on payday.
After-dark navigation in the canal by yachts is banned and the marina just inside is only a few boat’s lengths from the heavy brigade. So, our slumbers that night were punctuated by thumping propellers and the scream of steel on steel. But sunrise banished bad dreams and by late afternoon the windy Elbe and Kaiser Bill’s ditch were history. We motored out of the eastern lock into a tranquil Baltic and squared away for the north-east.
From the canal it’s 250 miles to the Hanseatic city of Kalmar where the real island-hopping starts. The only question is whether just to go for it or to break up the passage.
Ystad in southern Sweden is 140 miles, so it’s an overnighter. But if you’ve had enough of watch-keeping, a series of cracking minor harbours in Germany and Denmark can chop the journey into bite-sized chunks. Ystad is the centre of operations for the TV detective Kurt Wallander and the town now makes an industry of his efforts to control crime.
We didn’t see Wallander, but we enjoyed the modern marina, with its little restaurant overlooking a white-sand beach. The place also boasts an 18th Century opera house, where we grabbed the last two tickets for a Mozart evening.
The music sparkled, the old gentleman next to us in a white tux and pink bow tie was charming and the champagne bubbled over. As we strolled back to the ship in the long evening shadows, three ladies dressed in ballgowns for the performance sauntered homeward through the cobbled streets ahead of us.
Utklippan for the good life
When the Almighty designed Sweden he thoughtfully dropped the skerry of Utklippan off the corner that leads into the central Baltic. Utklippan on a sunny day is about as good as life gets. Not quite out of sight of the mainland, its shelter marks the limit of the islets offshore, so anyone on passage to Stockholm via Kalmar Sound, inside the island of Öland, can leave its big lighthouse to port and kiss his troubles goodbye. Birdlife is so undisturbed by the eco-aware Scandinavians that you have to dodge the nests on an afternoon stroll.
The midsummer sunset after a day of intense blue and gold was a kaleidoscope that went on until dawn paled it out. We carried our supper down onto the rocks with a group of Swedish sailors. Someone produced a bottle of malt and we drank to Nature, then to the sun itself as it rose again in splendour over the distant land.
Kalmar Castle came up ahead the following afternoon, impossibly exotic with its onion towers and domes. Like Ystad, the marina here is clean, cheap, has its own sauna and is virtually in the centre of town. Five minutes walk saw us raiding the supermarket and the victuals were terrific – if you enjoy marinated herring and caviar, nobody does it better.
As well as food, Kalmar has one of the rare government-approved wine shops. Unlike the shady joint in Iceland where, 30 years ago, I bought Black Death (the local hooch) among a queue of men in brown macs, this was Liberty Hall: a big space with good choice. Prices were little more than Majestic’s in Salisbury, but I still kicked myself for not loading up in Germany, where they almost seemed to be giving the stuff away.
Over towards the castle we strolled through the Gamla, the villagey old part of town, in search of a spot of lunch. Here, old wooden houses painted in brave colours crowd together while roses pour over garden fences. The sun always seems to shine on Gamla. I’d love to see it in the snow, but I couldn’t come by boat. You can walk across the sea ice here in February.