Sailing Stockholm's summery shores

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I'd passed through Sweden six months ago, having a ball of a time in the snow whilst seeing old mate Olof and his family in Stockholm and then travelling with him north into the frigid expanses above the Arctic Circle to visit the Ice Hotel near Kiruna.

Those were heady times indeed - the thrill of the moose hunt, the chill of the snow roll, the dill of a dog called Balder who just wanted to smile and make friends. So much so that since I would be based in London by midyear I promised to return in the warmer months for yet another bite of the Swedish cherry. It would actually be my fourth visit to this particular part of Scandinavia and like all previous forays, Olof ensured this one would be a completely new experience of the homeland he loves.

So a little more than a week after the most recent UK terrorist palaver I boarded a delayed Ryanair flight from Luton, sans my hand luggage and an extra 5 charged for having to check my bag in. Clownair (as we've officially renamed it) bleats and moans about the security situation but is still happy to bludgeon their customers and turn an extra profit. Not that the extra cash ever ensures an on-time flight, so after midnight that Friday evening I arrived at a now familiar Stockholm Centralen and wandered down to the nearby waterfront. A boat would be around here somewhere - I just had to find it in the darkness...

Good to his word, Olof was waiting in his speedboat in the canal adjacent to the iconic Stockholm Town Hall. Escaping from a bunch of Argentinian refugees he'd been hanging out with whilst waiting, we untied and pushed off into the inky blackness of Stockholm's main harbour-like waterway, stopping momentarily to raise the Aussie courtesy flag and check our position on the GPS. It was a few years since he'd cruised these waters and with over 24,000 islands in the Stockholm archipelego, there are many obstacles indeed.

We travelled for kilometres quite fast through the darkness, enjoying some very Australian VBs (beers) he'd picked up at the local System Bolaget (bottle shop). Fortunately we found the way to our intended mooring before a thick veil of fog descended at about 2.30am. If we hadn't the fog would have made finding things a lot more difficult.

I was absolutely starving by now (I hadn't wanted to give Clownair any more revenue than necessary) we decided to rig up the small tray barby and some marinaded steaks that ended up tasting delightful due to their slow cooking over a nice bed of pine charcoal which I have to say is much better than those sooty fire stone briquettes we're used to at home. Steak dinner and cask vino at 4am. That set the stage for an unusual weekend.

Sunrise was spectacular over the lake (the waterway west of the Baltic locks in central Stockholm is technically a very long lake). Lustrous crimson and violet hues reflected off the glassy lake surface and not a creature stirred except two semi-drunken boatmen who eventually decided after the lightshow that it would be best to get some sleep.

Waking surprisingly refreshed a few hours later we set off to partially circumnavigate Olof's home island of Munso. He let me loose behind the wheel but only at a frustratingly slow rate of 6 knots per hour, which actually made keeping the 150 horsepower beast on course a lot harder than expected. However more than an hour later this strategy would prove to be very wise indeed.

Stockholm, like much of Europe this summer, is struggling with overly hot weather and a relative lack of water. This has manifested itself in the lake by water level reductions of up to 1.5 metres, and since much of the lake has not been charted since the start of the 20th century this combination makes for some challenging boating.

Five minutes from our intended lunching island I spotted a oil can floating on the surface and diligently changed course to avoid it. Unfortunately soon after the boat was bucking and bronking across the surface as the prop dragged us across a patch of very shallow rocks! Powering down we got off the rocks and then raised the motor to find that it was only the stainless steel propeller that had scrapped along the bottom, as opposed to the whole fibreglass bottom of the boat. It was a little bent and mangled but still intact and operational. Phew.

It turned out that the shoal wasn't even marked on the chart which made later driving just a little disconceting. But at the time we just anchored near the shore, explored our next adopted island, then set up the BBQ with a couple more VBs and admired the expansive views.

A brush with some scrub ticks and one of Sweden's various adder species started to convince me that this area and possibly the whole of Sweden could be more dangerous than the Australian bush. Mortal threats include galavanting moose, wolf packs, savage and temperamental wolverines, rottweiler dogs, brown bears, feline attack lynxs and now an assortment of snakes and necrosis-inducing parasites! Still, despite having a similarly high per capita rate of outback dunnies to that of Australia at least there wasn't any Redback spiders on the seat of this particular commode, which probably means Sweden is marginally safer than home after all...

Next stop was Birka, an outlying island only accessible by boat in summer or by car across solid sheets of ice in the dead of winter. I hadn't made it here on either of two previous visits to the Munso area due to these obstacles. Looks like yet another island you say? No, what makes this place special is that it was the home of the original Viking warriors around 1,000 years ago.

Birka commands a perfect vantage point at a strategic confluence of waterways. Some lead eastwards and link the lake's fresh waters to the salty Baltic sea. In the other direction, hundreds of kilometres of internal lakes are accessible. All of this made it a handy base for controlling middle Sweden or for launching winter raiding parties to balmier southern Europe, as the Vikings of the time saw fit. Neighbouring islands (including Munso) housed the religous or political bigwigs, Birka was the warrior's home.

There is not much left now except one family's farm, a handful of sheep, numerous burial mounds and on the high point overlooking the waters, a tribute to the first brave Christian missionary to visit a couple of hundred years after Viking settlement. Still, it's all pretty well protected with the visitor's centre and anchorage located well away from the archaeological sites and even a ban on scuba diving for pillage along the foreshore. Was good to see though after all this time and to tread where these great adventurers and important figures in history lived, breathed and wenched.

With the weather starting to close in we headed back to the Wijk Familijien ranch for some sporadic moose hunting. Obviously summer is a lot different to the blanket of winter snow recently witnessed and these woods have a lovely, soft and ageless air to them that always reminds me of a pleasant fairytale forest scene. Such a great location, even with Balder crashing through it ahead of you. Needless to say, no new moose sightings...

It was also a chance to re-unite with some other friends once here. Anne, Elise, Balder and now three cats made me feel welcome again even if there was a bit of a turf war going on between the newly arrived kitten and the older felines of the household. Surprisingly, 45kg Balder and the tiny new kitty hit it right off early on. It was also nice to see the kitten released into the woods later in my short stay and to hear that she came back again after I had departed, as though she wishes to make herself a permanent part of the family.

The weekend coincided with the end of school holidays, meaning that I didn't get to visit Anne's class of 4th graders who have avidly followed my recent travels. That was a shame (sorry guys, will have to be next time) but it did allow Elise to get in a bit of water-skiing before heading back to her particular grindstone. Olof tore across the reed-lined bay that I had sat upon half a year earlier whilst ice fishing, dragging his daughter along at high speed on her skis. Was pretty impressed with her skill on those things - the last time I tried ended up a right mess.

We had one more water-borne expedition to complete that weekend so late that afternoon we headed east again towards Stockholm central with the aim of crossing into the Baltic. Bizarre cliff-side residences abounded for a time and then we stopped for beers and minor repairs at some random island which ended up being a deserted sailing club with all the mod cons. It was too good a camp to pass up so after a cruise by the royal residence at Drottningholm and a beer stop elsewhere nearby, we set up for the night on this little patch of well located heaven...

Sweden has a set of unusual but quite intelligent common laws which give right to anyone to camp on private property for a night, so long as the camp is not within eyesight of the owner's building and that the camp is moved the next day. Seeing as no-one was in the sail club the former wasn't a problem but I just wanted to mention this great little law which makes much of the country a legitimate camping site for responsible vagabonds like us (every island in the archipelego is privately owned so we'd used it the first night too). We set up the barby once again, cooking those groovy Swedish hotdogs I discovered last time I was here, and made ourselves at home.

More amusing were the strange lights in the sky to the south that Olof adamently stated were either asteroids entering the atmosphere (as mentioned on the radio a couple of days previous) or some sort of military training exercise down that way. In his increasingly drunken state he was obviously not going to accept the reasonable explanations of electrical storm lightning or an alien invasion, so we can up with a mutually acceptable explanation that each must be a universe colliding with ours (and possibly being destroyed by it). Satisfied with our new and profound understanding all that was left to do was enjoy the show. Obviously he wasn't the only one that was getting a little drunk...

Next morning we found that all the flashing was probably the most reasonable explanation - a bloody big electrical storm coming straight for us from the south. Goran near Malmo had gone through one of the largest storms in his life apparently. Despite that and the possibility of being fried to crisps in our flimsy deathboat on the open seas, captain Olof decided to head out the lock and see the Baltic side of Stockholm. 'Maybe we'll outrun it', he added, not very convincingly.

The Australian courtesy flag got us through the lock without having to pay and we did happen to skirt the storm for a while. Then a huge Viking galley floated by like some eerie premonition that was guiding us to Haides, just before Thor's hammer came down and blasted our boat with a torrential category 5 tropical storm. Thunder boomed directly overhead and cascading rainwater streamed into the cabin through myriad holes in the trusty old canopy. It was raining so hard that it was dangerous to move at even low speeds so we drifted for a time trying to stay dry, sitting the deluge out.

True to his word though we were going to see Stockholm in the sunshine that afternoon. We made it down a long and winding canal that led back to the main harbour just as the rain eased, so we were left with some stunning angles and views of Stockholm that few tourists ever get to see.

We cruised up and down small canals feeding around the main precincts of Stockholm, past the location where the very first Big Brother was shot and around the traditional gardners huts in another part of town. It really is very much like Sydney in the summer, with lots of focus on boating, the water and cute ladies in the few months that the sun beams down here. Beautiful.

Time was running out so we parked next to a floating sauna (available for hire and only in Sweden I suspect) and found the only restaurant open in the neighbourhood - Chinese. It was a long and challenging weekend but very worthwhile to see yet another face of this funky place. And considering the absolute 'rain chaos' that the capital had all around us that last day, maybe the signs were right to say that 'car sucks, boat rocks'...
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