We Wanna Canal;You Gota Canal?

Navens Lighthouse The morning we left our faun-bestrewn bay was bright and sunny. We motored gently northward through Lake Vanern (with an umlaut over the a). The lake is about the same size as the English channel between Dover and Plymouth and quite capable of being just as rough. The main difference is that it is not as deep and that it is criss-crossed from one side to the other with a series of Skargarden – festoons of rocky islets with further just-covered rocks nearby. With no electronic charts on board we were relying once more on old-fashioned navigational techniques. A little sea breeze picked up in the early afternoon that enabled us to have a couple of hours sailing as we approached the Ekens Skargard, entering it just by the much-photographed Naven lighthouse. From there, for six miles, the passage wove between reed beds and rocks, sometimes no more than a few meters apart, sometimes opening up to modest ponds. It was profusely marked, but with such a number of intersecting passages, that very profusion created its own problem. With twenty poles visible, which one was the next one we had to go around? At one point the passage narrowed to a gap between stone walls less than 5 meters apart, which we would have balked at, had we not seen a lifeboat come through it at 20 knots, heeling violently as it made the sharp turn on the exit.

As evening fell, the walls of Lacko castle (or ‘schlott’ as they call castles around here – even when sober) came into view. We eventually found a bit of the pontoon below the castle where the water was deep enough to allow Voltair to moor. There was power available, so Robin asked the girls, who had taken up residence in the aft-cabin, if they could pass out the power cable from its home in the cupboard over their step. “It’s not here”, they called back. “Ridiculous”, thought Robin and went and emptied everything out of that cupboard and then out of every other substantial cupboard on the boat. No cable! Peter, under torture, admitted uncoupling the cable from the dockside in Gotaborg, but no-one could remember putting it away. Just before the keel-hauling commenced, calls were put in the harbour master in Gotaborg (no reply) and to Swedish friends (ditto) with the object of arranging transport to a future port. The survivors were then allowed a brief walk ashore, but whilst reaching for the keys to lock-up the boat, Robin’s hand fell upon an incredibly neatly coiled white cable with a large plug on one end.

There is indeed more joy over a cable that was lost but is found, than over twenty cables always stowed in the right place. Copious Gins and Tonics were awarded in recognition.

Lacko Slott

Lacko castle was built by the Skara bishops in the 13th century and whilst a glorious building with its wonderful dome capped turrets and soft pink walls – it is also a monument to their greed. For although untaxed themselves, they nevertheless imposed taxes on the population for miles around which were paid in kind in the very harbour we were using.

By now the Gotaborg provisions were running low, so we slipped around some more rocks and reeds and into Spiken, where we tied up at the fishing wharf and went ashore to revital the vessel. We were only ashore for 30 minutes, but in that time the wind on the fishing wharf had got up from 5 knots to 25. We were now pinned against the wharf with fenders squealing. A walk ashore followed by lunch and tea in the Café seemed appealing. We watched the lifeboat leave again and come in escorting a Danish couple. Then around five in the afternoon the wind dropped and we slipped out through some more intricacies to enjoy a pleasant sail tacking northward to Huson – an island in the middle of another Skargard. There was an old barge moored against the quay and a group of teenagers around a campfire ashore, but there was not enough water for Voltair, so we anchored off and dined on a variety of local-caught local-smoked salmon filets, jacket potatoes and salad.

Overnight the winds returned. Thus on Wednesday, a brisk breeze from the north enable Voltair to reach East at just over seven knots under reefed genoa and main. Peter helmed magnificently, but Rachel spent the time lying on the lee side of the cockpit. By lunchtime we had covered the 35 miles to Sjotort (pronounced ‘sure – tort’) where the Gota Kanal proper was reputed to begin. We circled the broken harbour walls trying to find the gap we were supposed to go through, as opposed to the gaps created by storm damage, and eventually tied up against the outer pontoon eager to greet the officials who we expected to come aboard to seal our toilets, inspect our fenders, and relieve us of loads of Krone. Finding no such reception we walked around to the canal entrance and found, instead of the multi-storied offices of our imaginings, a small shed in the process of being painted. “Yes”, a painter informed us, ‘there had been someone there earlier, but they had gone now. Perhaps they would come back the following morning, or perhaps not.’ Anyway he had a key and let us in. Inside there were various brochures and leaflets one of which had a telephone number on it. He offered it to us and we spoke to Alice at headquarters. Alice told us that the canal did not open for the season till the following Monday. There was nothing about this on the website we protested. “It’s in the skippers handbook.” When do you get this handbook? When you go through the first lock! You see the snag, dear reader? But all was not lost, said Alice, for during the month before the season they run accompanied flotillas – and the next was due to leave on Friday.

Jane with her entry for the Smiley Smorgasbord Competition So we held an on-board creative smorgasbord competition, which was won by Jane with her entry 'The smile of the happy Troll'

Then we hired some bicycles and toured the locality. We came across a private garden with a welcome sign and went in. Soon a gentleman came across and in perfect Swedish introduced us to the various features – the floating duck island, the ring of firs enclosing a troop of gnomes, the windmill on the hill, the two hole toilet with seats for him and her, and the delightful fountains. We thanked him in fluent English.

We enjoyed a fine fish lunch at a local hostelry, visited an ancient boat shaped cemetery and greeted the local bull – “the only one of us with a reliable job around here” said his owner.

Thus it was on day eight of the trip that we proudly presented ourselves at the head of the twelve boat flotilla setting off up the Gota Canal. The first four boats went into the first lock - an Englishman, a Dane, a Fin and a Swede. There must be a joke here; so this week’s competition is for you to provide it. There are 58 locks on the canal, built between 1810 and 1832 by 58,000 Swedish soldiers under the leadership of Baron Balzar von Platen.

That first day we dealt with 16 of them. (Locks - not soldiers).

Sailing along the wall On day two of our Gota Canal experience we reached lake Viken and Voltair sailed at her record height – 92 metres above sea level. In the second arm of this lake, there is a lovely sandstone wall in the middle of water; it is about a meter wide, a kilometer long and runs along the length of the lake but is unconnected with either bank. This strange structure provides the western limit of the navigable water whilst the eastern side – just a few meters away - is marked by buoys.

Sailing through deep and dark woods

When the wall ended we played “where do we go now?”, finally guessing in favour of a clump of trees which seemed a bit less dense than the others and found that there was inde ed a snicket into a narrow cut nearby. We cruised through deep and pleasant woods

Drinking, singing and watching Voltair

...finally emerging at Forsvik en fete.

It was Sweden’s national day and for a few hundred people that Saturday lunchtime, we were the entertainment.

It was not as chaotic as it looks. ..Or was it Forsvik was planning to launch a new lake steamer that afternoon and bands were gathering, speeches being made

....and pleasure boats were plying their trade.

Steampower ...including this rather fine old girl, named in honour of the estimable count who organised the buiding of canal.

But we went on to Karlsborg on lake Vattern. Here Von Platten had persuaded parliament to build a massive fortress capable of the housing the Swedish treasury and the royal family and withstanding the might of the Russian army and navy which, in 1818, was stationed in the Aland islands – far too close to Stockholm for comfort.


It was a massive project and stretched for 5kms end to end. It was not completed until 1909, by which time military technology had rendered it obsolete.

Depth not charted here The next day we crossed Lake Vattern and moored for lunch in the moat around the copper-domed royal castle of Vadstena.

The patron saint of Europe

A walk ashore took us to the convent and monastery founded by St Birgit – at whose tomb the late Pope prayed during his Swedish visit. Today it has a strong ecumenical mission.

In the afternoon Peter, at the helm of Voltair took on the Finn, with whom we had been travelling since Sjoport, in a straight race to Motala. The Finn had the advantage of a racing X-boat but the disadvantage of having a non-sailing wife and 4 children on board under the age of 10. Peter had the disadvantage of us as his crew. Both helms were sailing with a measure of ignorance about the other. The Finn did not know he was in a race, and Peter did not know that the Finn was Esko Rechardt – gold medallist in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. We awarded the race to the Finn by a short head.

Trying not to get wet. Going down it is best to be at the front of lock; going up, at the back

Then ensued a measure of confusion. This was the one day in the year – we were later to find – when a round-the-lake bicycle race took place. This required that the bridge in Motala to be closed almost all the day. “Locking down will begin at 4 pm” we read. Unfortunately a Swedish word had been mis-translated and the word ‘begins’ should have been ‘ends’. Thus arriving, as we did, a few moment after 4, we found the bridge being lowerd before our eyes.

Following a interview between our on-board solicitor and the lock-keeper a special passage was arranged for Voltair staring at 7 pm. Thus we dropped down to Lake Boren, crossed it and moored up in Borenberg in time for a late dinner. When going down, it can happen that water floods over the gate behind if someone is emptying the lock behind, thereby providing extra showering oportunitiers.

There was one more lake, then we reached the famous fight of 11 locks at Berg. The last seven of these are in the form of a staircase, from whose precipitous top there is a fine view over the lake. Aerial view borrowed from the Gota brochure

A brisk sail over lake to us to the railway bridge at Norsholm – on the main line to Stokholm. After a wait, the electronic sign lit up saying. ‘When bridge opens enter quickly. Do not wait for green light. If you do not enter now, you will not go through this night.” So we rushed to enter when the bridge moved. Alas the bridge operator did not appreciate that we were a ketch and started to lower the bridge as soon as our main mast was through; unable to speed up due to the boat ahead, we were nearly de-mizzened, but just scraped by.

And so to Norsholm, a waiting car, and a sad goodbye to Rachel, Jane and Peter.

Best wishes from us all Robin.

Aficianados will be interested to know that on the very next quay is an old fishing boat with a semi-diesel Antonson. And they started it up tonight. What a noise!