“Have you seen the marmalade?”, I ask as I set the table for breakfast. “I can’t find it anywhere.”
“It should be in the Condiments section”, says the First Mate. “Where it always is.”
It’s not. I resign myself to a breakfast without marmalade. The universe feels a bit out of balance.
After breakfast, we weigh anchor, take the north channel from Paradiset, and thread our way gingerly through the rocks and skerries that litter the way. On several occasions it looks as if the obvious route should be straight ahead, but we put our trust in the GPS and the charts and make several dog-legs to skirt around the hazards lurking just below the surface.
Our patience is rewarded when we eventually reach clearer water, where we take out the sails to catch the slight breeze that has sprung up and head northwards. Now out of the shelter of the islands, the breeze strengthens, and we skim along at a respectable five knots.
Soon we enter the narrow gap between the islands of Yxlan and Blidö. Elegant houses dot the shores, well-manicured gardens sloping gently to the water. The wind direction becomes more variable as it funnels along the waterway, but we manage to keep the sails full.
Soon we reach the end, and enter the main Söderarm fairway used by the ferries from Stockholm to Mariehamn and further.
“The guide books all say that we need to watch out for the numerous ferries that use the route”, warns the First Mate. “They travel fast and can come up behind you before you know it.”
One ferry passes us the whole time we are on the fairway.
“Well, that was a bit of an anti-climax”, says the First Mate, as we cross the fairway and head up a stretch of water call Tjockofjärdin. “Perhaps it’s just the time of day.”
We eventually arrive at the Österhamn harbour on the island of Arholma. There is a small wooden staging against a rock promontory in the south-western part of the bay which requires a stern anchor to hold the boat at right angles to it. It’s time to test our new stern anchor setup that we had fitted in Paradiset. I drop the anchor as we approach and allow the line to pay out. Luckily there is one other boat already there to help us moor the bow. Everything appears to work as it should, and before long we are secured to the staging with the anchor tape holding the stern fast. So far so good. But strong northerly winds are forecast for tomorrow, so that will be the test.
“I still haven’t found the marmalade”, I say the next morning. “I am not sure I can go without my toast and marmalade.”
“It’ll be there somewhere”, says the First Mate. “Just keep looking.”
We set off to explore the island. There are no cars, and the main forms of transport appear to be unimogs, bicycles or feet. We choose the latter.
A footpath leads through lush fields decorated with oversize dandelion flowers. Before long, we arrive at the small cluster of buildings on the western side of the island that constitutes the ‘capital’. Only the community-run general store is open. We buy some bread and spreads to make lunch. As we pay, I ask the till lady if there is anywhere else on the island that is open.
“They open on midsummer’s day”, she says brightly. “It’s only three weeks now. We are looking forward to it.”
“Why don’t they open earlier?”, I ask.
“There are so few people around, that it isn’t worth it”, she tells me.
We sit in the sun at one of the picnic tables near the small ferry quay, and make our lunch. The small ferry from the mainland arrives and two backpackers and a small family get off. I can see her point.
It has been a puzzle to me for some time now that even though the weather can be beautiful and sunny in May and September, the holiday season in Sweden is really only for the month of July, and shops, restaurants, cafés and museums are mostly closed outside that time, especially in the archipelago. Surely, I think, if they spread the season more, it would be to everyone’s advantage – local people on islands would have more of the year making an income from holiday-makers, and holiday-makers would have a more relaxed time without the intensity of crowds.
“Traditionally, it used to be that everyone had four weeks’ holiday in July with factories and offices closing for the whole period”, says Birgitta, our non-resident ‘go-to’ for information on matters Swedish. “And if you could, you would include the Midsommar weekend in your leave. Then schools start early to mid-August.”
“It does makes sense”, says the First Mate.
After lunch, we walk through the forests to the northern end of the island where the Arholma Battery is located. Preparations are underway for a wedding there the next day. We climb to the top of a rock outcrop to find the remnants of an early warning system to detect incoming missiles and a large 10.5 cm Bofors gun pointing eastwards out to sea.
We learn later that it was built in the 1930s as part of a chain of coastal fortifications to protect the approaches to Stockholm, and was in service throughout the Cold War. In the 1960s, a cavern was carved out of the rock underneath the battery to house a garrison of 110 soldiers. In the 1990s it was decommissioned, and in 2008 made into a museum and national monument.
“It’s such a beautiful view”, says the First Mate as we sit on a bench and take in the scene. “All this military stuff seems a bit out of place amongst it all.”
“And it always seems that the Russians are involved in some way”, I say. “I wonder if the Swedes are wishing they had kept the battery what with the current situation in Ukraine?”
We walk down the path again, and find the steel gates of the entrance to the underground cavern. At the end of a dimly lit tunnel two people dressed in Gothic style are setting up music equipment.
“We are getting married here tomorrow”, the girl explains.
Surely there must be nicer places to get married than in a dark musty cavern left over from the Cold War, I think to myself.
“It’s cool”, says the male, in response to the look on my face. “And the acoustics are amazing in the big room. Lots of people get married here.”
We wish them all the best for their big day. On the way out I say hello to one of the guests dressed in army uniform and wearing a gas mask. He doesn’t respond.
“Come on”, says the First Mate. “Can’t you see that it is only a model?”
“Is it?”, I say. “It’s very realistic.”
On the way back, we stop off at the church. Apparently, the islanders clamoured for one, so in 1920 a former mission house was moved from central Sweden to Arholma.
An interesting feature is the use of old mill-wheels as front door steps.
A little bit further on is the Arholma beacon. A man walking his two dogs stops to talk to us.
“It was built in the 1760s from stones from the castle on a nearby island called Lidö which the Russians had destroyed during their pillage in 1719”, he tells us. “Apparently Peter the Great wanted to end the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia, so he sent a fleet of ships to pillage the islands of the archipelago to force Sweden to capitulate. Many of the buildings on the islands up and down the archipelago were razed to the ground. But the Swedish resisted and actually managed to destroy 70% of the Russian fleet and stopped them from attacking Stockholm.”
One of the dogs jumps up on the First Mate, growling.
“He’s afraid of strangers”, he says, hauling the dog back with its leash. “But he won’t hurt you. Anyway, nowadays the beacon is an art gallery open during the summer months. You can get to it up that little path there.”
“You get a real sense of the brooding menace of Russia here”, says the First Mate on the way up. “The Battery that we just saw was aimed towards them during the Cold War, that Dalarö Skans fortress that we saw last year, Vaxholm Castle, the effects of the Russian Pillage. And do you remember the Naval Museum in Karlskrona last year? It was very clear from that who the enemy of the Swedish Navy was. I am not surprised they want to join NATO now after the events in Ukraine. Russia always seems to be the enemy, never an ally.”
“Of course, all the European nations have fought and scrapped amongst themselves for centuries too”, I say. “But Russia seems to be the only European country that hasn’t really moved on from that. They still have delusions of empire in an age when empires are a bit passé. The rest of Europe has realised that it is better to have peace and the prosperity it brings, and to trade between sovereign countries rather than trying to conquer and rule them. It makes you wonder if Russia had had a functioning democracy rather than all the power concentrated in the hands of one man, whether the war in Ukraine would have ever happened. But there seems to be something in the Russian psyche that wants autocratic rulers.”
“Well, they didn’t have a very good experience with democracy in the 1990s”, says the First Mate. “So perhaps that explains it.”
That night the wind blows strongly, and the stern anchor drags a little. Luckily I had tied an extra line from the stern to the staging, so the boat doesn’t move much. But it seems that the anchor might be a little bit light. It was only a small one that had come off our previous boat. We’ll need to buy a larger one somewhere.
The next day we decide to walk along the little lane to the top of the bay, where the remains of a wreck are marked on the charts.
The smell of grilled meat wafts over from one of the houses nearby. People are sitting around a table in the garden, while smoke drifts lazily from a barbecue in the corner. The owner of the house sees us and comes to talk to us.
“Where are you from?”, he asks.
We tell him we are from Scotland, and that we have sailed from there, but not all in one year.
“Ah, are you from that boat over there?”, he asks, pointing across to the other side of the inlet where Ruby Tuesday lies tied up to the jetty. “I saw you come in and tie up, and wondered where you might be from.”
Some of the people in the garden look more Middle-Eastern than Swedish.
“We are just having a barbecue for some friends of friends of ours who live on the island”, he explains, following our gaze. “They are from Afghanistan, and we thought it might be nice to show them a bit of what Swedish island life is like.”
“It must be different from life in Afghanistan”, I say.
“It certainly is”, he responds. “And they are finding it quite cold here.”
“We’ve come to see the wreck over there”, says the First Mate.
“Ah, that’s the wreck of the Apollonia”, he answers. “She was a square-sailed schooner that was built for one of the island residents back in the 1850s. In those days, Arholma was quite a centre for shipping, and they say that at one stage, there were so many schooners packed into the inlet that you could walk from one side to the other over the boats without getting your feet wet.”
“It’s hard to believe that now”, I say.
“Yes, it is, isn’t it?”, he says . “The Apollonia was 30 m long, made of pine, and carvel built, which means that the planking was butted edge to edge rather than clinker built with the planks overlapping. Caulk was used to seal the joints.”
“What sort of boat was she?”, I ask.
“During her life she mostly carried timber products from Sweden to Germany. But eventually she started leaking through the gaps between the planks where the caulk had deteriorated. One solution to this in those days was to tip buckets of straw and sawdust underneath the boat where the leak was, and the flow of water through the leak would carry this mixture to block it. They could get a few more years of life out of boats in this way. But in 1883, the leaks became too large to plug and it was becoming dangerous to sail her, so they towed her into here to decide what to do with her, and she never sailed again.”
We stand for a few moments looking at all that remains of the Apollonia. I try to imagine the hustle and bustle of the harbour that would have gone on in her heyday – horses and carts bringing sawn timber down from the forests, men loading the planks onto the boats, sailmakers mending the rips in the sails, others bringing the provisions from the farms to be stored below decks. It was poignant to think that all that was left of this busy way of life were a few spars slowly rotting away in this quiet part of the bay.
“I’ve found the marmalade”, I say in the morning. “It was hidden behind the coffee jar in the Beverages section. It’s not very logical to keep it there.”
“I must have put it there without thinking”, says the First Mate. “But I told you that you would find it if you just kept looking.”