20.11 - The Season is Over
19 September 2020 | Picture: Egret being lifted out at Ernemar, Sweden
Ernemar Hamn Ekonomisk Förening is a members' association which owns and operates a sizeable marina and a large compound for storage of yachts ashore. It just so happened that out friend Göran was the current chairman, and he and Gudrun had been very keen that we laid Egret up there for the coming winter. There was the added incentive of their offer of help in every way and the knowledge that they would keep an eye on her during the long winter months. We even had an invitation to stay in their home once the boat was ashore.
We had three days afloat to service the engine, take off the sails, un-reeve all the control lines and start removing bunk cushions etc. for storage ashore. Then we had to go alongside the quay where a crane had been organised to remove the mast and lift Egret ashore. Göran had enlisted a team of helpers, but I was the one who had to go up the mast to attach the sling, check that the heel came up through the cabin safely, and help lay it onto trestles. We then had to set up the slings to lift the boat onto a trailer which was towed round to the yard. The crane lifted her onto the ground where we shored her up with eight props. Next day, with an even bigger team of people, we man-handled Egret's enormous mast onto a trolley and trundled it round for storage on car tyres next to the boat.
Then the hard work started. We had to design, procure timber and fastenings and build a frame, not unlike a set of roof trusses, for the winter tarpaulin. Göran of course knew exactly where we could buy everything we needed, he had a trailer to get it all, provided the tools and worked tirelessly with me for almost the whole time. Amanda meanwhile was packing up bedding and clothes and cleaning inside and out, and of course we had to winterise the engine and drain every last drop of water from the systems as precaution against the harsh Swedish winter. Gudrun was still gainfully employed, but she provided for us royally with traditional Swedish fare (excepting meatballs) when we got back exhausted to their home in the forest at the end of each day.
It had been a wonderful two weeks together with Göran and Gudrun and, by the end, we felt as if we were becoming real Swedes! We had so much to talk about, reminiscing about shared experiences sailing around the world and discussing our plans for the future. Of course the madness of Brexit and the tragedy of Covid were often mentioned, both of which have had or will have an enormous impact on the lives of the yacht cruising fraternity. All the jobs were done, and we knew that Egret would be well cared for until we could return next year. We were dropped off at the bus station for the long journey to Stockholm Airport and onwards to London and home. We felt very fortunate to have had this opportunity to escape from the chaotic goings-on in Britain to the careful freedoms of Sweden. Luckily for us, the UK had just lifted its restrictions on travel to Sweden only a few days earlier, so we didn't have to quarantine on our return. So it was back to the "new normal" at home, and dreams of carefree cruising around Europe in the future.
20.10 – Tjust an Archipelago
08 September 2020 | Chart: our route from Mem into the Tjust Archipelago
Out of the lock at Mem, one emerges from the Göta Canal into the Slätbaken fjord, about 20 miles inland from the open waters of the Baltic Sea. The coastline southwards is bound by the 5,000 islands of the Tjust Archipelago, covering a distance of some 75 miles. The principal navigable routes through the islands, both along the coast and out to the open sea from the mainland harbours, are identified on the paper and electronic charts with black or magenta lines. The passages can be quite intricate with numerous twists and turns, so one needs to plan ahead carefully to avoid being caught out by a reef-strewn dead end, a low bridge or a long detour around a cluster of islands. Even though it was out of peak season, we occasionally found ourselves in a procession with other boats, all following the same line.
A fresh north-easterly breeze gave us a nice fetch for about 12 miles down the Slätbaken, then we daringly tacked off-piste until we merged with the main route heading southwards. Islands of all sizes stretch as far as the eye can see: the larger ones clad with trees; a few inhabited with the buildings of a fishing community, or now more likely holiday homes; others with just a single house or boat-shed; and lots of islets of polished granite rock, the significant ones marked with a beacon. The wind was shifty, with powerful gusts and intermittent lulls, so we decided to take in one reef and then a second to keep our speed down to manageable levels.
We'd been recommended Fyrudden as a convenient harbour for an overnight stop, where we arrived in mid afternoon. There were only a couple of other yachts, so there was space alongside the wall - much easier than trying to dock between those annoyingly slender finger-piers. We couldn't find anyone to pay, then another boat-owner told us that it was out of season, being September, and therefore free! We went for a walk along a street of seemingly empty waterside homes nestling amongst the trees, where a little deer was the only sign of life. We read on a noticeboard that mink, descendants of escapees from farms, were quite common in the area, so assumed that the small mammal we saw next morning scavenging along the quayside was one of them.
We wanted to find out what the real Baltic Sea looked and felt like, so we decided to sail offshore of the archipelago for the next leg. Heavy rain overnight had eased to light rain showers, but a thin mist reduced visibility as we headed towards the horizon. After about 6 miles we rounded the Nygrund East Cardinal buoy and turned to the south. There were no waves, but a long swell, left over from recent gales further north, broke across the shallower parts of the extensive area of reefs inshore. There were no other vessels to be seen, apart from a tug and barge far out to sea. 15 miles down the coast we rounded Storkläppen, a rocky islet with a conical stone lighthouse, its base washed by spray. From there we followed a buoyed channel through the archipelago back towards the mainland, and then into a large, fully enclosed bay. Some 5 miles up, we reached the city of Västervik, where we berthed at the new Slottsholmen Marina. (Again, there was no one to pay, and neither we nor our neighbours could work out how to pay online. Despite this, the extremely luxurious showers and loos were open and spotless!)
We had the rest of the afternoon and the following morning to buy some food and explore this attractive old city, with the help of a guide map from the tourist office. There was a lovely Baltic schooner alongside the quay; a maritime museum - closed of course, but with some traditional small fishing boats outside; a handsome early 20th C. church and a 15th C. one with a valuable 18th C. organ; the ruins of a 14th C. castle and a large collection of old timber buildings with fascinating histories. It was all very quiet, but one could imagine the place thronged with visitors during the summer.
Göran and Gudrun arrived during the afternoon aboard Anniara, the same yacht they had when we first encountered them on the island of Nuku Hiva in French Polynesia. Our plan was that they would show us some of their favourite spots in the Archipelago over the next three days on the way down to their home port of Oskarshamn. It was a bit of a magical mystery tour, following in their wake along a remarkably tortuous route down some very narrow channels between the islands. We sailed when we could, but there was still a lot of motoring. We anchored in a secluded bay off the island of Skavdö and took our dinghies across to the neighbouring island of Eknö, at 6km by 3km one of the biggest in the archipelago. We went for a walk through the forest to an old fishing and farming village, now largely devoted to holiday accommodation.
We continued next morning to another favourite spot between Kalv and the mainland. They had hoped to introduce us to the "fun" of mooring alongside a rock, but there was a bit too much swell so we anchored instead. Swedes who haven't ventured far afield seem to be wary of anchoring, preferring to moor to a rock, either alongside, or bow to with a kedge anchor dropped astern. The location of mooring rings are shown in chart books, and some boats carry a few spare pitons just in case. So far, we have always been able to find sheltered places to anchor in reasonable depths with very good holding. Our pressure washer has been well used in removing the sticky mud from our anchor and chain.
We had reached the end of the archipelago, and our mini cruise together ended with a lovely sail in a gentle breeze across open sea to the port of Oskarshamn. After topping up our tank with diesel, we moved back down harbour to the marina at Ernemar, which was to be Egret's home for the coming winter.
20.09 – To the End of the Canal
01 September 2020 | Picture: the Carl Johans flight of seven locks
Too be honest, it was a bit of a relief not being able to move that Sunday. We had the large gästhamn to ourselves, were surrounded by pleasant countryside, and the small town of Berg was nearby. We even had a chance to watch "one woman (Swedish) and her dog (English)" rounding up a small flock of sheep in a neighbouring field, with all the familiar whistles and c'm byes. Amanda took advantage of the sunny weather and sole possession of the laundry facilities to do loads of washing. I put on my wetsuit and dived below the boat to check for any damage and remove the remnants of weed. We treated ourselves to lunch at a lock-side restaurant, and then walked down to gaze over Lake Roxen. This is at the bottom of the Carl Johan flight of seven locks: the next hurdle on our route through to the Baltic.
We had come to the conclusion that the reason we suffered so badly from weed was due to Egret's wing keel, which must have been harvesting a furrow along the bed of the canal. We began to hear stories of other yachts defeated by it, including two which had completed their journey on the back of a truck. We learnt later that weed in the canal was first recorded in 1896 when it clogged up the boilers of steam-ships, and it has recurred in cycles ever since.
Good news: the sun was shining and we could join Monday's convoy, which was due to arrive at lunchtime. Bad news: there were already two sailing yachts of about Egret's size, plus a smaller motor-boat, which would be a squeeze in the locks. Sensibly, the lock-keeper decided that the yachts would go down the flight of locks first, followed by the motor-boat, which had the speed to catch us up across the lake. The whole descent took about 90 minutes, and we were lucky to have help with the lines from the German motor-boaters. Once out on the lake, the three of us set our sails and managed without engines for at least half of the crossing. Lake Roxen has a wide open stretch for about 8 miles followed by 5 miles of intricate channels. We spotted two white eagles soaring not far away above the pine forest which surrounds the lake. The town of Norsholm lies at the far end, where we had a bit of a wait for the railway bridge which was followed immediately by the final lock of the day. So far we hadn't seen any weed but, worryingly, we collected a load around our rudder in the short distance between there and the gästhamn, which we reached at 1900.
Now for the final day, so long as all went to plan, with 15 miles and 14 locks to go before reaching the sea. The canal diverges from the Motal Ström here, and I would love to know why. On the map it looks an easier route to the Baltic via another lake and the large town of Norrköping. Were there good engineering reasons, or was it political? We cast off as soon as the green and white warning lights on the first bridge started flashing. We reached the first lock and the keeper asked us to enter it together. We were the last in and it was very nerve-wracking, particularly as the breeze was blowing us off and the Swiss couple next to us didn't see the need for having fenders on both sides of their boat. There was a different keeper at the next lock and, after watching us struggle to get in, she agreed that, for the rest of the day, we would go through in pairs. (The fact that there were two keepers on duty suggests that that had been the plan at head-quarters.) Fingers crossed, it seemed that we had seen the last of the weed.
We passed through the narrow lake Asplången, just 3 miles long, another length of canal, then a series of locks in close succession: two doubles and four singles. We had originally booked a two-day break from the convoy in Söderköping, but we had used up that time with our earlier delay, so we had just 10 minutes while we waited for the lock to open. The medieval town looked a pleasant spot, so perhaps we'll visit by land on another occasion. After the penultimate lock, the canal opens out into a much wider stretch of water. There is a man-made embankment on the south side, but to the north the water is bounded by natural cliffs that may once have been exposed to the sea. The small village of Mem lies at the end of the canal, where there is a basin with mooring facilities and fuel pumps, but little else. We came out of the final lock and moored alongside the quay for the night.
It felt good to back on salt water again after 16 days of cruising along one river, two canals and several lakes. It had been a fascinating trip and a delightful way of seeing parts of inland Sweden. With so few other boats around, cruising during the day and being alongside at night was very peaceful, but I imagine there would be a very different atmosphere during the summer holidays. We had originally planned to have crew, but that had gone awry due to covid. The locks could be quite hard-going at times and we reckoned a third agile crew member would have made things much easier. Also, a lot depends on the co-operation of those with whom you share the locks. Obviously our biggest difficulty was the weed. One had the feeling that the canal company had not yet addressed the issue sufficiently and that its staff were in denial. There was no sign of any maintenance crews, weed-clearing barges or piles of arisings on the banks anywhere. I would advise that anyone contemplating the passage should seek an assurance that the route will be clear. On balance, however, we are glad to have undertaken this inland voyage.
20.08 – Down, but not Out
29 August 2020 | Picture: Egret (by G. Einefors)
The convoy we were due to join was scheduled to arrive at 1600 in Motala, where we were waiting with Stormhatt. Her owner phoned the office to learn that actually there were to be no other boats apart from us. We had expected a lock-keeper to come and brief us but, when we saw the lights indicating an impending bridge lift, we decided we ought to get moving. We entered the first lock where Linus was waiting. We expressed concern about the weed we'd seen, but he assured us it shouldn't be a problem. We proceeded for 2 miles along the canal, through a railway bridge, two more road bridges and two cycle/foot bridges, until we reached the top of the Borenshult staircase. The echo-sounder was often recording zero depth under our keel as we moved over and through the weed, and we could feel it slowing us down.
Going down in the locks requires a different technique from going up. The warps need to be passed through the mooring rings because both have to be paid out as the boat descends. The shore-crew has to be on board before the lock is emptied because there is no way of getting back on afterwards. Flights of locks are a bit different as it is possible for the crew member to walk from lock to lock carrying both lines, but the steep slopes and obstacles make this quite tricky. Luckily, our friends on Stormhatt were on hand to help out. We finally emerged out of the fifth lock onto little Lake Boren at 1755. It was about 6 miles from one end to the other and, disappointingly, we continued to have problems with weed in the shallow water. It was beginning to get dark by the time we had berthed at the brygga in Borensburg.
Day four in the schedule was for a 26-mile journey through 17 locks, expected to take 10 hours. And the forecast was lousy. I had flushed out the engine cooling water strainer which had been clogged with vegetable matter, and in the morning light we could see a dense mat of weed beneath Egret's hull. The lock-keeper arrived at 0900 and asked us to set off immediately through the first bridge. We cast off and found we could barely move, let alone steer, and it was with some difficulty that we managed to get back alongside. Our rudder was completely wrapped up in weed. We called the lock-keeper back, and he pretty much told us it was our problem to sort out. After some discussion, he made a phone call and said that someone from the maintenance department would come to see us. Stormhatt's owner was keen to get going since his smaller boat was having fewer problems, and it was a definite moment of despair as we watched them set off without us.
We pumped up the dinghy to get up close and assess the situation underwater through our 'looky bucket' (a bucket with a glass bottom). Then Torbjörn, the maintenance man, arrived carrying a 5m long grappling-pole. We used it to haul out barrow loads of weed from around our keel, sail-drive and rudder. He made some more phone-calls and kindly offered to accompany us as lock-operator himself, and also allowed us to keep the long pole until the end of the canal. We agreed to give it a go, but reckoned it would be impossible to get all of the way before dark.
It must have been about 1030 when we set off again, and by now the rain was coming down in stair-rods. After Borensberg lock, there was an 11-mile level stretch through agricultural land, running parallel to the Motala Ström, which passes through a series of small lakes. We didn't really get to appreciate the views, however, as we had to concentrate on finding a way through. One of us stood at the bow to point out rafts of floating vegetation which the helmsman tried to avoid. We had to stop and go astern on many occasions in an effort to clear the weed from our hull appendages. The best speed we could achieve was between 2 and 3 knots. We were both getting chilled to the marrow by the rain and stiff north-easterly wind, and there wasn't even an opportunity to get a mug of coffee.
We were at our lowest ebb as we approached the first of three sets of double locks. We were puzzled as to why two figures chose to be out in the rain taking photos of us; that was until we realised they were our cruising friends, Göran and Gudrun. We had first met them in the Marquesas Islands and last seen them two years later in the Azores, in 2015. We were due to meet them anyway in a week's time, but they thought they'd come early to surprise us! They'd been following our AIS trail, but it had required some detective work to actually find us on the day. It cheered us up no end to see them, and their help was invaluable in negotiating the remaining locks, particularly because the rain made the lock-sides so slippery.
We exited the final Berg lock into a large basin at 1745, tied up alongside in the gästhamn and waved farewell to Göran and Gudrun, who were late for a crayfish-party at their daughter's home. This was as far as we would be able to go that day, barely half way along the leg, with still another 14 miles and eight locks to go. We hoped we'd be able to join the next convoy in two days time, but Torbjörn wasn't so sure and, being a Saturday, there wouldn't be anyone at the canal company's office until Monday to tell us.
20.07 – Lake Vättern
27 August 2020 | Picture: Egret at Vadstena Castle
Our convoy was due to cross Vättern the following morning and continue down the canal, but we and Stormhatt had opted to spend a couple of extra days on the lake. We spent the first night next to Karslborgs Fästning (fortress) at Stenbryyggans Gästhamn, named after the old stone jetty that protects it. The marina is privately run by a club and has limited facilities, but there are a few spaces for visitors and payment is taken in the chandlery. It is in a superb location, and there is a supermarket 10 minutes walk away.
Sweden had ceded Finland and Åland to Russia after a war in 1909 and was worried about the vulnerability of its capital Stockholm. It spent most of the following century building the fortress here as a second line of defence, an alternative seat of Government and home for the royal family. It is monumental in scale and, although it was outdated by the time it was finished, it is still in use as a training establishment for the army. Much of the grounds are free to walk around by the public, and a museum and chapel can be visited for a fee. It appears that nothing was stinted on the architecture and construction of the stone, brick and timber buildings. Apart from the 678 m long Reduit, these include officers' quarters, depots and a hospital. There is even a building constructed in 1840 using the "experimental method of stone and lime mortar cast in timber moulds". (I presume they mean in-situ concrete.) If you follow the woodland walk around the peninsular beyond the barracks you will encounter the King's Villa and Vanäs Lighthouse. The latter was built in 1892 as an eight sided timber pyramid. At all of 11m high, it is the highest on Lake Vättern.
Lake Vättern is considerably deeper than Vänern at up to 98 m, about the same length but only 20 km wide. On a chilly, overcast afternoon, wearing Guernsies, oilies and sea-boots, we set off across the lake against a moderate but extremely shifty easterly breeze. Dark rain clouds swept across the lake both to the north and south of us. Playing the shifts and several tacks later, the wind died, so it was back to the engine. As we got closer to the ancient city of Vadstena, we could make out spires, towers and expansive roofs projecting above the ordinary buildings. We berthed that evening in a moat! Yes, that's right, the moat of a castle, which is connected to the lake and used as the gästhamn for the local town. We have parked Egret in some exotic places, but this was definitely a first for her.
Vadstena is a picturesque medieval town with cobbled streets and old timber buildings. There had been a royal palace there in the 13th century, but by the end of the 14th century it had been handed over for use as a monastery and convent. The abbey church is still in use but the other buildings have either been repurposed or left as ruins. A notice-board next to the lake shows the bathing temperature over recent years, and this August it was 20.6ºC, the highest for that month on record and 3º more than the average for the previous decade. July temperatures however have stayed pretty constant at around 18º over the same time, apart from an all-time high of 21.8º in 2018. I wonder if the nuns and monks went swimming, and what the temperatures were like then.
King Gustav Vasa ordered the construction of Vadstena Slott as a defensive castle in 1545, but his son, Johan III, remodelled it as a fine renaissance palace featuring large windows and ornate gables. Despite its use as a grain store and linen mill from the mid 1700s through to the 1800s, much has been preserved through recent sympathetic restoration. Part of the main building was taken over by Sweden's Provincial Archives in 1899, which has since been expanded into new wings cleverly built into the ramparts between the courtyard and the moat. Palace rooms open to the public feature original detailing and decorations, and contain an eclectic mix of artefacts ranging from carefully chosen pieces of period furniture and pictures to costumes and accoutrements from recent performances of opera held there. After our enjoyable day exploring the town and its buildings, we set off aboard Egret again and motored 8 miles up the coast to Motala, where we made fast between narrow finger piers in the Gästhamn above the next lock of the canal.
The headquarters of the Göta Kanal is at Motala, and I was pleased to see a plaque beside the front door commemorating the link with Scotland's Caledonian Canal and Thomas Telford. In the morning we walked down one side of the canal as far as Borenshult slussar, the flight of five locks that we would have to negotiate later in the day. We passed Motala Verkstad, the great engineering works that had been set up to build mechanical equipment for the canal. It went on to become the largest manufacturer in Sweden, producing bridges, ships, steam locomotives and much more. The company is still in business, operating out of several sites around Sweden. There are streets of company houses for employees with names such as Foremen's Terrace and Stamp Mill Terrace. Behind them is the Motala Ström, the river that drains Lake Vättern and flows beside the canal and through the same lakes for most of the way to the Baltic Sea.
After being somewhat daunted by the tier of locks, we stopped for an ice-cream at the only café not closed for the winter. The proprietress engaged us in a long discussion about the problems of covid in Sweden and the UK while the ice-creams melted in our hands. Heading back along the other bank, we passed a large dry-dock and, on a prominent site, the mausoleum of Baltzar Von Platen, the driving force behind the construction of the canal. During the course of our walk we noticed several clumps of weed in the water, and made a mental note to keep a look-out once we got under way. Little did we anticipate what a problem this was to become.
20.06 – Upwards through the Göta Kanal
25 August 2020 | Picture: Norrkvarn Lock
Twenty locks up from Lake Vänern to the summit and another thirty-eight going down to the Baltic: that's what we'd let ourselves in for. There are also forty-one lifting bridges across the 190 km length of canal, a distance which includes the crossing of four lakes. Construction of the Göta Kanal commenced in 1810 and it was opened in 1832, forming an alternative to the sea route between the east and west coasts of Sweden. The lead consultant was none other than Scotland's Sir Thomas Telford, the first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers (of which yours truly is a somewhat less distinguished member), who had recently designed the Caledonian Canal. He also provided much of the technology and many of his craftsmen. The canal is now largely used by private pleasure craft and passenger vessels. The maximum size of boat it can accept is 30m x 7m x 2.8 m draught x 22 m height.
During the main summer season, all of the locks are manned and boats can come and go as they please, once they have paid the fee. However, in spring and autumn, boats have to be pre-booked into a convoy, which follows a preset itinerary and takes five days to make the transit, accompanied by a lock-keeper with a car. By prior arrangement it is permitted to drop out of one convoy for a break, then tag onto the next one two or three days later. The canal company provides a number of gästhamns along the way, usually consisting of a timber jetty ("brygga") next to the canal bank, with electricity connection and access to well-kept toilets, showers and laundry facilities all included within the transit fee. The canal is closed during the winter.
Our trip didn't exactly get off to an auspicious start. The lovely lady who had signed us in and was to operate the locks for us, tripped on a bollard at the very first locking and needed treatment for a nasty head wound. A relief lock-keeper soon arrived however, and we got under way. We were in company with two other yachts, probably the ideal number as three fit easily into a lock in a staggered arrangement. There was a young couple who had just bought their boat Blues and were bringing her home, and an experienced trio of men on Stormhatt. We all got along very well and helped each other with lines. The lock-keeper, it seems, will not assist with boat handling other than to operate the lock gates and bridges.
The recommended procedure for going upwards in the locks worked reasonably well. The hardest part was the arrival, when the boat had to be brought close enough alongside a short jetty ahead of each lock so that a crew member could step off carrying both lines. A bowline on each line was placed over an eye-bolt on the lock edge, under but not through the iron ring. The aft line was set up vertically and made fast to the stern cleat so it was tight. The for'd line was secured some distance ahead of the boat, the other end having previously been rigged to pass through a block seized to the bow mooring cleat and back to a sheet winch. As the boat rises, the helmsman winds in the winch to keep the boat tight to the wall. Once at the top, the crew lifts off the warps and steps back aboard. We used a fender board and every fender we had, with the socks removed to avoid them getting engrained with dirt. One needs to agree beforehand with your lock-mates which yacht goes where, so that fenders and warps can be arranged accordingly.
We travelled only 10 miles on the first day but negotiated nineteen locks, of which two were doubles and one a triple. We also went through ten bridges which were remotely opened as we approached. The design of road bridges varies between substantial bascule bridges to narrow decks that retract to one side on rollers. One tended to have longer waits at railway bridges because the lock-keeper had to negotiate for a time-slot. The land either side of the canal is low-lying, with farmland and occasional homes beyond the tree-lined banks. There were cyclists, runners and walkers on the tow-path, and invariably a group of spectators at each lock. Both locks and bridges normally have a pretty keeper's cottage alongside, nowadays in use as a home or sometimes a café. We stopped for the night at Töreboda, a rather dull looking town, once important as the junction between canal and railway. It came to life in the morning when a stream of teenagers walked past on their way to school.
In contrast to the previous day, on day two we encountered only two locks but travelled 25 miles. There were still ten bridges but in addition we had two lakes to enjoy. For the first 8 miles we followed one contour sinuously through the countryside until we reached Tåtorp. Here the gates are still operated by hand, and boaters are invited to help. A capstan with a pinion engages with a rack on a timber beam which pushes or pulls the gates. With a rise of just 20 cm we had reached Lake Viken, the highest section of the canal: 91.8m above sea level. The lake is V-shaped, each arm about 6 miles long, and the shores and numerous islands are covered in trees. The western arm has open water, and it was a relief to cut our engine and sail for a while. Round the corner, the channel becomes more intricate and the wind became fickle, so soon the engine was back on. After a mile or so stretch of canal we reached our second lock of the day, which again was a water-control lock with a minimal fall. This marked the start of our downhill passage and led onto the small lake Bottensjön and across to the town of Karlsborg. Just one more bridge and we were out on Sweden's second largest lake: Vättern.