Andy Schell and his wife, Mia, explore the red rocky islands of the Åland archipelago in the Baltic and find a wealth of seafaring stories
Surrounded by thick pine forest, with the characteristic red rocks of the islands glowing in the midnight sun and our boat securely at anchor, it seemed strange to be hearing tales from the high seas. But the link between these islands and the wider oceans of the world is strong.
Åland is a unique archipelago that belongs to Finland, but where locals speak Swedish, fly their own flag and have recorded an astounding seafaring history. Claes had been a merchant seaman in his day, and he told us of his trips round the world carrying cargo – “more than I can count,’ he said with a smile and a distinct twinkle in his eye.
“I’d thought about writing my memoirs one day,” he told us in Swedish, “but I’d only publish them if I could guarantee that my kids wouldn’t read them!”
We talked about how interesting it must have been to come from a small island in the middle of the Baltic and to go out and see the world, and bring back all those stories.
And it was stories like these that we remember most about our cruise to Åland. It was a chance to explore rather than a mission to get the boat from A to B.
We had crossed the Atlantic from the US to Sweden, and in 2013 Mia and I decided to explore the Baltic. We sailed our classic 35ft yawl from Stockholm to the Åland Islands.
Geographically, Åland consists of a series of main islands, connected by roads and bridges, surrounded on all sides by a scattering of thousands of smaller islets, rocks and skerries, some inhabited and many not, accessible only by boat. The islanders are self-sufficient and fiercely protective of their land – only true Ålanders can own property, and parcels of land and summer cottages are usually handed down through the generations.
Arriving from the Swedish coast after a boisterous six-hour downwind sail and planning to return there to overwinter, we thought circumnavigating Åland seemed the logical way to explore. Starting from the capital, Mariehamn, we headed south to sail counterclockwise.
A week later Arcturus had nearly completed a circumnavigation, and had arrived in Länsmansgrund after a five-hour sail in strong, rainy conditions, a rare wet and stormy day in Åland’s outer archipelago during what was otherwise a lovely six weeks of beautiful weather in the Baltic.
Mia and I debated for much of that morning whether we’d go anywhere at all. There is a saying in Swedish that roughly translates to ‘no bad weather, only bad clothing’. So in the end, weather be damned, we sailed.
The wind blew close to 30 knots from the south – 14m per second in the local parlance – as we hauled up the anchor. Despite the rain, it turned into a nice sail. Zig-zagging between the islands and rocks provided a flat sea, and the sun tried to come out a couple of times.
By the time we approached the outer archipelago to the north, there was a distinct change in the weather on the way. Ahead of us, to the north and west, a sharp line distinguished the bad weather from the good.
That line finally passed us after we sailed into the tiny cove of Länsmansgrund, careful to avoid the submerged rock on the western bank. The light from the low evening sun juxtaposed against the departing dark clouds lent a cine-matic feel to our arrival.
This little cove lay south-east to north-west and you could moor to the rocks. The scenery was typical of the outer archipelago of Åland, the ubiquitous red rocks making up most of the landscape, while the forest on the bigger islands gave way here to lower, scrubbier vegetation and lime-green moss. High cliffs surrounded the little harbour, ripe for hiking – like walking on Mars.
A small cottage was erected on the shoreline just metres to the west. The wooden hut had a set of bunk beds and an iron woodstove, plus a small writing desk with a four-paned window that looked out onto the bay. At the back a pile of split wood was available to anyone who chose to inhabit the place for an evening or a weekend. Länsmansgrund is a nature reserve and the cottage is maintained by the government for public use. Outside stood ‘Finland’s coziest picnic table’, according to the guidebook.
Since the bay was ours alone, we went for a naked swim, which became routine during our time exploring the Baltic. There is nothing like a little morning chill to wake up the system, and a hot coffee afterwards never tasted so good.
Länsmansgrund is just about as far north as you can sail in the Åland archipelago. If you climb up the cliffs facing north, you are afforded splendid views over the Sea of Bothnia stretching over the horizon and on towards Lappland, between Sweden and Finland. The guidebooks call Öregrund, the town just west of there on the Swedish mainland, the northern limit for most cruising boats.
We set another record on Arcturus – our mooring put us at 60° 28’N, farthest north, and only 5.5° of latitude south of the Arctic Circle.
At a friend’s small cottage on Åland’s big island, the last stop on our summer cruise, I learned about Åland’s Last Cape Horners. The property was on a peninsula overlooking a small cove inside a larger bay. The waterside was interspersed with the red granite cliffs, and reedy, swampy areas where the water was shallower. There was a very small dock in front of the cottage, where Tryggve, the owner, kept his old wooden runabout.