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Voyaging under the midnight sun

Nov 19, 2008



To the editor: For years we have sailed in the Caribbean with our friend Peter Hancock. So it is business as usual when Peter and Jake Crump, our crew for a circumnavigation of Cuba, joined Terrie and me for a cruise in our Malo 45, Nada. But this time we were on Sweden’s west coast, far from our traditional cruising grounds in the Caribbean.

Most days, the ocean in the morning is flat and calm. Peter, Jake and Terrie go exploring ashore while I tinker with the boat and write. Around lunch time a breeze begins to fill in as rising heat over the sun-warmed islands sucks in air from off the sea. By mid-afternoon we have the boat moving at hull speed and can continue sailing until 8 or 9 in the evening — we are at latitude 58° N and the sun does not set until after 10 p.m.

The cruising was wonderful with many exciting surprises. The most spectacular anchorage we found so far was at the foot of the medieval castle in Marstrand, with its massive central keep dominating the view for many miles. Over the centuries it was the scene of many a savage battle as Norway and Sweden fought to control this coastline, with occasional forays from the Danes.

Away from the towns, in some ways, the region reminds us of Maine, but without the fog. Tens of thousands of granite rocks and small islands create a multitude of protected anchorages and ever changing vistas.

The rocks were scraped clean by glaciers in the last ice age. It is amazing how little topsoil developed since then. Many of these islands are still almost barren, with heather and other small plants that eked out a tenuous existence in crevices, and in low spots. There were few trees. The numerous picturesque small villages were draped over the rocks like a mantle. There were boats everywhere — mostly older boats, many wooden, with lovely classic shapes. At 47 feet we were invariably the largest boat in an anchorage and felt a little ostentatious.

The area is sprinkled with guest harbors that welcome visiting yachts. But these were exceptionally crowded at this time of the year, with tight quarters maneuvering, and they do not really want boats more than 40 feet in length. So we anchored out — which in any case we prefer as it gets us a refreshing breeze at night — and dinghy ashore. In the mornings we had swans with cygnets swimming under the stern. In the evenings we heard the steady beat of their wings as they flew by.

There is almost no tide, so when anchoring the Swedes throw out a stern anchor and power slowly up to the rocks to step ashore off the bow and secure a line to a large rock or a stake hammered into a crevice. Many Swedish boats have better stern anchoring facilities than bow anchors! We were not set up for this and so we anchored off in the conventional manner. You would think that with the lack of topsoil setting an anchor would be a chore, dragging over bare rock, but everywhere we went the hook took an immediate bite and dug deep into mud. Whatever topsoil forms ashore must get washed into these natural harbors!

In Sweden its pretty much legal to go ashore anywhere and pitch a tent on just about any private property for up to three days (etiquette says you should ask for permission after the first night), so there is plenty of exploring to be done. Terrie had avidly read the guide books. She marched us off to see numerous Bronze Age rock carvings, Viking cairns, and labyrinths of stones laid out on the cliffs long ago. Her real passion, however, was painting the villages, for which we need to anchor out front.

Looking at the charts, there appear to be a multiplicity of suitable anchorages, but it was a bit more complicated than this. Sweden has a tremendous infrastructure of buried power lines and pipelines for these islands, and numerous ferries. Time after time we picked out the perfect vista only to see a “Kabel” sign ashore, or a pipeline on the chart, or find we were in the path of a ferry. Some of these ferries pull themselves along on a cable strung from shore to shore. As soon as the ferry gets moving, the cable goes taught, coming off the bottom and creating a serious hazard to navigation. We rapidly learned to stay out of the way of moving ferries!

I found the navigation challenging in other ways. The charts contain a number of unfamiliar symbols: I had to pull out a copy of my own book How to Read a Nautical Chart to decipher them. In particular, the Swedes, as do all Europeans, have numerous cardinal marks, which are not used in the U.S. These let the navigator know on what side — N, S, E or W — a hazard should be passed. For 15 years I was based in Maine, and when sailing at home the mainland was always to the west. Now the mainland was to the east. I found it quite disorienting, with my instinctive sense of compass directions frequently messed up, especially when the weather was overcast.

This is International Association of Lighthouse Authorities, Region A, so the red and green buoys are reversed from the U.S. In addition, the direction in which the numerous channels were presumed to be running is complicated — two channels next to each other may be charted in opposite directions, which means the red and greens reverse. The only way to tell was by looking for the “direction of buoyage” arrows on the charts.

Many of these channels were narrow, tortuous and bordered by low rocky cliffs. In some places there was barely room for two boats to pass. In spite of the lack of tide, there were frequently currents of a knot or two. With the boat moving at 7 or 8 knots things happened fast and there was no room for error. There were rocks everywhere, and one rock looks much like another — it was easy to get confused. We were thankful for our electronic charts, which took all the work out of keeping track of the boat’s position.

And so we head for our final anchorage before Peter must leave us. We had heard Smögen was a pretty neat town, but were quite unprepared for what we found. We anchored in a small bay with 50-foot bare rock cliffs on all sides. A narrow canal, with room for just two dinghies to pass, led to the town. We came around a corner into a spectacular harbor in a cleft in the rocks, with a boardwalk and small cabins built on piles along the base of the cliffs, and the town of Smögen perched above.

It was just so Swedish! Terrie, who originally was quite opposed to sailing in these northern waters, and wanted to head immediately for the Mediterranean, announced that it would take years to explore this area. It was true we missed the warm waters of the Caribbean, and the ever-changing spectacular show on the coral reefs, but not enough to keep us from coming back here. And then there are the fjords of Norway, even further to the north.

If we are not careful, we may get infected with the high latitude bug. At least our boat, as with most Swedish-built boats, has excellent central heating!

— Contributing editor Nigel Calder is the author of numerous books, such as Boatowner’s Mechancial and Electrical Manual.

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