A 350-mile offshore isn’t everyone’s idea of relaxation, but Sweden’s Gotland Runt proved the perfect tonic for Nikki Henderson
3:45am. I don hat, base layers, foulies, boots, head torch and neck gaiter before stepping up on deck. There I am greeted by a fiery sunrise rising above the fierce vertical cliffs of western Gotland, and a very sleepy Scotsman still wearing a pair of shorts (turns out that, no matter how many years you’ve been sailing, you can still get your gear choice wrong sometimes!).
The boat leaned to the lee as we sailed dead downwind through glasslike waters in a new breeze. We were on the rhumb line to the mark off Visby, threading a gap between Karlsöarna and Lilla Karlsö. The previous watch had overtaken three yachts; our suspicions had been proven correct that the surprisingly enormous spinnaker was Spica’s secret weapon.
Freshly brewed coffee in hand, I beamed from ear to ear. This was the sailing I was addicted to.
In 2019 Andy Schell and Mia Karlsson of 59° North bought Spica, a Norlin 34, as a family boat for their now 16-month-old son Axel to grow up sailing in.
This 1970s balsa cored design was originally built with the Gotland Runt race specifically in mind. Despite plans for sleepy cruising around the Swedish archipelago, it was inevitable that this iconic race would soon lure in the ocean sailing couple.
The Gotland Runt is the largest annual offshore race in northern Europe. It takes place each year on the first week of July, just after the much celebrated midsummer festival in Sweden.
The sun sets at 2200 and rises at 0400, hence the early hours get dark enough to put the instruments on night mode and to grab a head torch, but the haunting effect of a pure darkness never fully sets in.
The race course is 350 miles long. In contrast to the traditional 600-mile offshore races it feels like more of a sprint than the long slog of a light wind Middle Sea Race or heavily tidal Fastnet.
The winds in the Baltic at this time of year are predominantly gentle, and we were lucky enough for our year to fit this trend with glorious weather, and conditions no heavier than a Force 5. Even if it had been a gale, I think the unusually short nature of the course would have made the bad weather easier to handle.
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I fell in love with this race on the first go. The light conditions, the 24/7 daylight and the shorter course were all part of the charm, and certainly make up perfect ingredients for this to be a starting ground for anyone new to offshore racing. But the real magic for me was the balance of the race.
“The special thing about this race is it provides an opportunity to compete with yourself over the years, at the same time that you are competing with others,” our trimmer Johan, summed up the Gotland Runt ethos.
This is a race that Swedish sailors return to again and again. Last year’s Covid cancellation was the first time the event had been paused since World War II. The 2021 edition sold out in a matter of minutes. The course, the atmosphere, and the spirit are – as I learnt – very typically Swedish: humble, hospitable, egalitarian, serious and focused, but never taking seriousness too far.
Strategically the race can be split almost 50:50 offshore vs inshore. An initial close quarters battle through the archipelago leads into two offshore legs, heading first south and then north around Gotland.
Marks at both the southern point of the island and another inshore turning point on the west coast then add another layer of inshore tactics, with localised weather, shoreline currents, and sticky navigation to contend with.
The questions posed on board were whether to head inshore or offshore? If so, how far? And would the island’s sharp shoreline mean a wind shadow or an acceleration zone?
The crew had worked up to the wire getting the boat ready, as well as squeezing in a quick test sail just before start day. It was the first time on the boat for us all except Andy, and the first time he’d ever hoisted a kite on Spica after a few gentle family cruises last summer.
It was also the first time ever working with a symmetric spinnaker for our bowman Steve – an ‘in at the deep end’ few days for him, and all of us.
I’ve spent my whole career working with less experienced sailors, and I think many presume that those of us who know what we are doing just step on a boat and it all runs smoothly and seamlessly.
If we’d had a camera rolling for our first day that would have been proved to be hilariously far from the truth. There were elbows in faces, we fell over each other in the cockpit, dropped equipment overboard, hoisted sails backwards, sent three people off to do the same job, and frequently forgot ferries and beaches and other obstacles to plan around.
“This is my favourite part of sailing,” I said to Andy 10 minutes before our start as we hoisted the J1 fresh out of the bag. I love getting to know a new boat, learning its idiosyncrasies, and getting positive feedback as the crew gets better and better.
The race starts just outside the city centre of Stockholm. Stockholm is best described as it is commonly known: ‘the Venice of the Baltic’. Just as London is a series of small villages connected by roads and railways, Stockholm and its suburbs are a series of islands and waterways, connected by bridges and boats.
This Venetian trend continues east for 40 miles. Scrolling the online chart, any non-Scandinavian will feel dizzy, as hundreds of unpronounceable islands pepper the screen. If you are new to the race, I’d recommend the old-fashioned paper and pencil technique to plan this archipelago slalom. A plotter, tablet, or even worse, a smartphone, does not have a large enough screen to be able to gain a big picture understanding of this 40-mile obstacle course.
I didn’t take my own advice and had no clue where we were beyond spying the next headland, and deciding left or right of the course. Only when we turned north to head through the narrows of Oskar-Fredriksborg – a key landmark in the race that I had noted due to the 100° course change – did I truly get my bearings.
An interesting side note – you’ll see on the charts that the depth goes from 35m suddenly to 15m in this most narrow (100m) part of the course. This depth change is man-made; back in World War II the Swedes dropped boulders in the water to stop any Russian submarines transiting this route and forcing them to diverge to Vaxholm where there was stronger defences.
I’d draw similarities with the archipelago to my time racing on mountain lakes in Colorado; it’s an inshore racer’s territory. You need to think of the wind like water, as it flows in and around the islands, lifting you on the inside of bends, heading you in bays, with shadows around corners, and whirlpools in wide sections.
As we crept east close reaching on a dying breeze I looked behind us to see the tail end of the fleet charging on the same course with their symmetric spinnakers up. Deliberating when we should hoist ours we looked ahead to see 50 boats pressed at 45° heel upwind, also in the same direction. To starboard, just 5m away, were two boats completely stationary in a wind hole. What to do…
‘Do you win the trans-archipelago race with luck or with skill?’ We debated the question. Boats with the experience of 25-plus Gotlund Runt races parked up in wind holes, while newcomers like us sailed through. Was that our skill in spotting breeze and shifts? Does bad or good luck spread evenly? We concluded that we all had our fair range of luck, but the skilled teams made full use of advantages when they spotted them.
Although newcomers to the race, the Spica crew weren’t newcomers to the archipelago. Joining Andy and I were four Swedes: Steve, Simon, Johan and Phil: Steve is a 59° North crew member and Ovni owner; Johan and Phil team race J/92s in local Stockholm waters; Simon, on top of his career as a naval engineer, has a side hustle as an professional sailor, and is also the current ‘swim-run’ world champion.
There was a lot of local knowledge on board, and we needed it. While most of the islands are visible above the surface, there are large sections of shallows – entire islands exist just 2ft down. We exited the archipelago unscathed and in a good position due to Simon’s excellent navigation.
Like most offshores, the more strategic element of the race kicks in when you reach open water. Typically this coincided with dinner time. Eight hours and countless tacks later, we were all exhausted. Just as with the start of a 600-mile race, the temptation to give it everything until night time draws in is hard to ignore.
Advice from a friend prior to the start, ‘Don’t burn yourselves out before the end of the archipelago,’ had fallen on deaf ears. That coupled with a near rig failure and ripped J1 had pushed us close to our limit.
A huge thanks to the crew on Cappuccino for calling us and pointing out that our port spreader looked unusually droopy. The new spreader tips were exceptionally slippery to reduce chafe on our new dyneema rigging, but we found out this opened up a few other issues. That radio call was a perfect example of the spirit of this race: competitive but collaborative, everyone championing good sportsmanship.
The best part of an eight-hour, close quarters, highly tactical, mostly upwind leg is that the fleet remains compressed. We rounded the first major offshore mark, the spectacular Almagrundet lighthouse that rises mighty straight up from the seafloor, with Blue Magic, a Swan 65, and Falsat, a sub-30ft Express that was sailed brilliantly from the word go, beginning with a spectacular port tack start on the pin end.
Sailing south on a 60° apparent wind angle on the first leg of what was essentially a windward-leeward course, we watched enviously as our competitors pulled ahead with reaching kites. We made a note among ourselves to start a kitty for a Code 0 or A3 for next year, and braced for a long night ahead.
“This is my favourite part of offshore sailing,” Andy remarked as he snuggled into his sleeping bag. I laughed, and silently disagreed.
The homecoming leg of the race is from the southern tip of Gotland to the finish. We had been gearing up for this leg as a fast paced downwind run home.
The race organisers lay a mark less than 500m off the beach of Visby, the capital of Gotland. This draws the first 20 miles of the course parallel to the western coastline of the island. There is no other coastline akin to this in Sweden. In contrast to the low lying rocky outcrops of the archipelago or the western shores, this is characterised by sharp faced cliffs – similar, although a lot smaller, to the Jurassic Coast of the UK.
Gybing out from Visby, those of us on deck deliberated the next move. With light winds in the Baltic there was a decision to be made about whether to stay close to Gotland or close to the mainland. The sea breeze from a warm summer’s day was driving the afternoon gradients and there was likely a hole in the middle, as well as a predicted wind hole in the lee of Gotland.
Meanwhile, down below, Andy and Steve were preparing lunch. “Man, that stove is hot!” Andy exclaimed. Looking over to Steve, he jumped up. “That stove is on fire!”
There is a saying that there’s nothing faster than a man with a bucket. I can confirm it’s true. Six sailors (zero chefs!), an inaccurately filled alcohol stove, three buckets of water, and one fire extinguisher later we had a very powdery, but thankfully still floating, boat!
We sacrificed a few positions, but it made for an even greater sense of achievement on arrival. We crossed the line alongside two Optimist dinghies out training at 0530 – Sandamn truly is the Swedish sailing Mecca.
As we cooked up coffee and pancakes – our dusty oven now relegated to the dock – we reflected on the race. It’s remarkable how intense the feeling of community can seem on the water, despite the 300-plus participants being spread across the archipelago.
It had been a perfect contrast to the last 18 months, where so many of us worked together by remaining indoors away from one another. I can’t recommend getting out racing enough, particularly if you have felt isolated or lonely this past year. I finished the race feeling closer to people than I have in a long time. Never has a competitive environment felt so collaborative in spirit.
Within a few hours of the finish Spica had been transformed back to its family status. Whilst Mia rocked Axel to sleep in his pushchair down below, Andy and I cruised softly upwind back through the archipelago.
The race course’s relentless onslaught of headlands, wind shifts and endless islands to go around, had transformed into the dreamlike cruising ground that the Swedish archipelago is so famous for.
With each lull and lift, Spica gently rocked us too, easing away tiredness and tensions. There couldn’t have been a better way to wind down from the anxieties of not just the race, but from the very difficult year we have all had.
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