Cruising Finland's western archipelago - Åbo (Turku) to Åland

"Finnish for beginners"

It's a good job there were six of us in the crew for this leg - we would never have managed to carry all the bags otherwise! The beauty of British Airways is that one is allowed 23kg in the hold plus a sports goods bag of up to 32kg and two pieces of hand baggage! All for £73 each, with 1100 miles of flying and a free bloody mary thrown in for good luck. Who needs to get paid when you can get service like this? (Ask a cabin attendant, and find out!)

Having shoehorned the luggage into the basement lockers at the railway station and established that our Finnish State Railways e-ticket didn't need converting into cardboard rectangles, we set off on a 1-hour walking tour of the parliament, the opera house and the boating lake (there's sure to be a bar at the boating lake). There wasn't, but we did find a nice open-air piano-bar shortly thereafter and practiced saying "Kiitos" to the waitress and "Kippis" to eachother. There - now you know two words of finnish! It's all down-hill from here!

The train was remarkable - overhead electric provided the power to a large red loco, and double-deck carriages followed. This was a "normal" inter-city service - we could have taken an earlier "Pendolino" train, but it was more expensive and would have reduced our piano-exposure quotient. Our reserved seats in carriage number 3 were all downstairs (business class is upstairs, but the same seats) and all had 240v sockets and a headphone socket for 5 channels - Finnish radio maybe. The imperceptible acceleration as we started and total silence of the wheels and track belied our displayed speed of up to 155km/hr, shown on the train info system suspended from the roof of the centre of the carriage. Journey info in three languages was not only displayed but audibly and understandably broadcast, whilst the farmland and birch trees, smart country houses and red-'n-white barns flashed past. Perhaps the only weak point of the entire system was the trolley service, which was wheeled through by a slightly grumpy lady, and which provided significantly too expensive fare.

Two taxis convoyed us swiftly to the northern bank of the river Aura where we found Voltair neatly moored, toerails gleaming, and with cold beer in the fridge! Thank you - Robin and departing crew! Then it started raining and blowing, which it did on and off for 36 hours. We got enough weather respite to visit the excellent open vegetable market which was a 25-minute walk upstream, and also found a rather smart food hall in the basement of a department store. "No, our car isn't parked in the under-basement garage, but could you deliver to a boat?" didn't elicit a positive response, so it was shanks' pony that bore the vittals southwards, with only a short stop at a Ravintola for re-hydration. Robin's team had thoughtfully installed an aluminium rainwater butt in the shape of a roasting chicken suspended above the chart table to catch the 2-year-old leak we have developed, so this was emptied over the laptop on our return (no, I'm kidding, only a drop or two went that way) and the food crammed into Voltairs capacious lockers.

One of Jane's Hanseatic forefathers called Frank had parked the world's last surviving 3-masted wooden barque "Sigyn" just downstream of us, and we enjoyed an exploration of the vessel from quarterdeck to keel. The ribs were of such heavy sections and laid so close together that we supposed the swedish yard that had built her at the end of the 19th century had got ice in mind as well as cannon balls. The captains deck cabin had 6-inch thick walls, and the hull must have been about a foot thick from the outer planking to the inside of the ribs - and then they had iron frames and another 2-inch layer of timber inside the hold to contain the cargo. Performance in force 2? Probably not fantastic, but who knows, it did have about 25 sails to put up!

The steel-hulled three masted full-rigged ship moored a little further downstream, the Suomen Joutsen, (the Swan of Finland), was a lot bigger and had a much greater mileage on the clock. Built in St Nazaire, her first life had been as the clipper "Laennec" working between Europe, the antipodes and Chile. Rebuilt as the "Oldenburg" in 1920 she had done many trips on the guano run to south american ports, and then in 1930 she was bought by the Finns as a sail training ship and given her current name and outfitting. Cabinet ministers still grace her immense dining suite, but her seagoing days are over, despite the apparently serviceable nature of her rigging and hull. There's a nice story about the ship, which has been stationed in Turku since she was taken over by Finland. The mayor of Helsinki proposed that the museum-ship should be moved to downtown Helsinki. This roused great opposition in Turku, and the local radio station obtained an Optimist dinghy, painted it white and named it "Suomen Joutsen", and delivered it to the Mayor's office in Helsinki, leaving it on the town hall steps.

"A little light reeding"

By friday it had stopped raining, and the sky looked a lot better. Not having a clear destination in mind for the first few days was a definite advantage - we dismissed the suggestion from the helpful Helsinki-ite in the showers, who had told us Hogsara was very nice, and the favourite place of the Czars, since that meant 30 miles into the force 5 that was still blowing from the south. Instead, under 2/3 genoa and now't else, we slid down the river, green reeds on alternate shores, northwest through the calm water, picking our way under bridges that were only just high enough for us, and down diminishing channels, between lateral marker poles that were only a boat's length apart. We determined to sail the entire afternoon, and, with David on the helm, the wind temporarily eddying around some woods, we soon had one of the starboard poles rolling down the gunwhale as Voltair carried her way, just about, as the wind picked up again (though we didn't stop and do a 360 as a penalty). Several tacks later and we were suitably anchored in a sheltered bay, with Jenny taking her first swim and the rest of us taking our first pre-prandial.

Saturday morning brought a visit from Pekka (all finnish men are called this, hence the finnish women's saying, "Kiipiuur Pekka opp") in his new rowing boat. His house was just opposite us, where the rest of his flotilla was moored, and we thought at first he was coming to complain about the generator noise. But no, it was a social call, so we had a small morning Balvenie libation, and discussed his splendid house (where he had spent a fortune reclaiming land from the sea - strictly forbidden, and which had not one but two saunas, one of which was heated by 300kg of 60°C rocks, a boathouse and an underground pub), the uses of reeds (not known), where to go next - "Don't go to Velkua, too many people there today - its a beer festival" etc. With a lower windspeed and still a southerly wind, we determined on another north-westerly leg, which went towards..... Velkua (fancy that, I hear you exclaim). All three sails were set, and then we thought our spinnaker colours would nicely coordinate with the courtesy flag, so we morphed the headsails to suit. Before Velkua appeared, we got to the festival - more a market with beer tents, really - and a quay with wall to wall boats. Fortunately, the end-boat was leaving just as we approached, so we formulated a plan and activated it. The bows-to mooring in a gusty sidewind was going splendidly, with the stern buoy picked up and the boat's head nicely lying on big-bertha against the quay, when we made the mistake of assuming the guy who was asking us for our line had some idea what to do with a bowline and the bollard at his feet (put one over the other and stand back, stupid). Half a minute later, with the boat's bow rapidly heading towards the glistening topsides of the 46footer to leeward, while our "helper" limply held onto the loop in the rope, he finally put the rope over the bollard allowing our foredeck crew to heave in and belay it. We all needed a beer after that, so we all had one.

The plan of sailing with or across the wind (rather than into it) held good for another 3 warm and sunny days, during which we sometimes felt we were actually on the Norfolk Broads, with reeds waving 6ft from the side of the boat in the moorings, muddy anchors and numerous swans to be seen. Temperatures were around 65-70°F overnight, and around 80°F during the day. The anchorages became less and less populated as the coast of Finland receded until our last one (before we got to Åland) was thoroughly devoid of any evidence of the human species. Two men in a small craft came within hailing distance, and it turned out that they were swedish, but the mother-in-law of one of them owned the surroundings and possibly the water we were anchored in too! But they left us alone after failing to catch any fish and we had the fine sunset at 22:25 local time and in a north-westerly direction to ourselves.

The following morning we returned to civilisation on the other side of the island (Jurmö) and depleted the local shop of supplies, but left them a lot of pants. Then we had a fine walk to the observation tower, a fine construction made from 5 tall fir trees of which Nelson would have been jealous, (SWL 15 persons, evenly distributed!). Our neighbours from the moorings joined us, one swedish couple the owner of an Arcona 37, the other having a 40 footer, the same as Tim D is currently in Stockholm acquiring from the yard, along with a severe dent in his credit card! On our return to the harbour (with a fine capful of bilberries), I got a tour of the yacht and its steel skeleton, self-tacking jib and no less than 3 double beds (Sig Berlusconi would be in his element and Tim will no doubt be too). I was also shown the "golden bolt" that holds the keel on to the chassis, but I will have to keep the location of this a secret in case Tim doesn't know where his is!

"Swans, seals, salvage and swimming"

We then had a long sail across to the main island of Åland with almost no inhabited islands on our track. There were lots of swans around though - we can't figure out why, as the water was deep and vegetarian food must have been scarce, and a colony of large seals near an isolated granite sunbathing spot. We also found a splash of kayakers heading to the open sea, and two very small rocky vegetation-less islets, one with two small garden sheds on it, the other with just the one but two humans outside it. No boat was obvious. They didn't wave, so we didn't rescue them. Perhaps this was the filmset for the Finnish version of "Castaway". Arriving at our destination, we were denied berthing rights at the only pontoon by one of the two yachts there already, so anchored at the head of the bay. Half a dozen other yachts then arrived and soon the pontoon was groaning, as well, presumably, as the sauna's benches. No naked bodies flung themselves into the sea, so perhaps it wasn't cold enough to satisfy. Another yacht arrived, cast out a stern anchor into the shallowing water, and hung rather awkwardly from it about 100 yards from us, in an area we had rejected because of the lack of depth.

We went to bed just before midnight, and, as Rachael prepared for her bunk, she commented that the anchored yacht seemed a lot closer than it had been. Indeed it was, and making stately progress downwind towards the open sea, bows first, with nobody evident aboard. We almost had the oars in the dinghy and the salvage reward in the bank by the time our hails produced a half-dressed owner and his partner in the companionway.

The next morning half the crew went ashore to locate and swim in a large lake which was a few hundred metres inland. This was warm and peat-coloured, and owned by the ants, who had a controlling interest in all the rocks and vegetation around it. We hung our clothes on conveniently placed fir tree hangers, higher above the ground than a pole-vaulting ant could reach, did the ant-dance (stamp foot, shake leg, slap calf..... repeat using other leg etc), and found an Ant Free Zone about 5 yards out from the bank.

"Rock-on, Voltair" - rearrange this well known phrase or saying

Intricate passageways of channels separate the main island of Åland from its western near neighbour, Eckerö, and you have to go west of Eckerö to get around to Mariehamn. On reflection, we could have just sailed around the whole lot, but our Norwegian experiences have conditioned us to take the more direct "inner" routes, especially if the wind is on the nose. That's my excuse for what followed a delightful lunch in a quiet backwater down one of the narrow leads.

David, on the helm, and with the sun in his eyes, glinting off a broad and featureless slightly choppy sea, alerted JK to depths below the keel of less than 3m (expected), less than 2m (expected), less than 1m (just about acceptable), and then a large uncharted light-coloured boulder passed down the port side, covered by only a foot of water, and we hit the bottom doing about 2-3 knots, heading pretty much into the wind under mainsail and engine, and bumped to a halt, swinging to starboard as we did so and filling the sail, bumping us further forward and sideways. We appeared to be on an uncharted field of rounded boulders ranging from 6" to 2 feet in diameter. We got the sail down, and then, with the crew standing on the bows, were able to motor the boats head (with bumps and thuds coming from the diection of the keel) around until we were facing the direction from which we had come. But it wouldn't go any further and we were now 30-40 feet sideways from our incoming track where we knew she would float. A dinghy team of David and Jenny were sent out with the depth plumbing device, but at this point, Suzy, the outboard, having run perfectly for 4 years, came out on strike in sympathy with the keel, and couldn't be restarted. The dinghy team completed their survey under oar power and found a deeper channel on our starboard side, but a large boulder immediately to starboard. Unpacking the porta potti from the lazarette gave access to the kedge and long warps, and we paid these out as the dinghy now took the anchor well to windward and past the line on which we had approached, dropping it in at the furthest point. Terry was kitted up with the bosun's chair, and prepared to dangle from the end of the boom to cause the boat to heel, but we found that by motoring ahead and pulling on the warp from the bows we could swing the boat around and go forward to miss the big obstruction on our right. Still aground, but now at least pointing in the right direction, Suzy was taken to "primary care", had the oily tears wiped from her short-circuiting sparkplug and was given her discharge papers. Perkins pushed, the crew pulled, and the dinghy team prepared to retrieve the warp and anchor. Voltair lurched forward, the rope got caught around the fairlead, whizzing out and whipping the whole coil out of the dinghy and in the direction of the propellor. We stopped again. No, the rope was not round the prop! The crew had a finger count and found none lost overboard.

So we went the longer way around - even that meant threading between nests of cardinal marks with only a boat-width between them, and less than half a metre of water below our rather less anti-fouled keel.

"And so, m'lud, we ended up rather later than planned in Kaeringsund last night, around 9pm in fact, after your harbour-master had finished for the evening, and had to anchor, about 60 yachts occupying every inch of moorable harbourside. And that's why we didn't pay your harbour dues, and have a porta-potti on our poop-deck."

In Mariehamn (5 miles away on port bow), Rachael, Jane and David are due to jump ship in favour of the Viking Line's ferry to Stockholm, a bus to the airport and BA to London. Jenny, Terry and John will remain on board to replace supplies that have mysteriously vanished from lockers, do a spot of underwater survey work on Voltair's keel, and to take the slower route to the west as wind and weather may permit.