A sea temple, a Frisian king, and back in the water

The tide has turned and the waves begin their race up the beach, reaching further and further each time. Bearing the remains of the Wise One, the small procession wends it way along the sandy path from the village, smoke rising lazily from the huts nestled in the trees behind. Keening wails rise from the women at the rear of the procession, calling the spirits of the land and sea to receive the Wise One into their world. I stand, my arms upraised, while the body is laid gently into the cradle formed by the roots of the upturned oak tree in the centre of the sacred ring of trunks, newly cut for the purpose. Their bark has been left on specifically to symbolise the connection with the land. Once the flesh has been picked from the body by the birds of the air, the remains will be transferred to the second ring of tree trunks further along the beach, their bark removed to signify the brightness of the sea and sky. Our Wise One is on her way to join her ancestors through these portals to the OtherWorld.

The waves begin to lap at my feet as the procession of mourners deposit their gifts of grain, newly born lambs and calves at the base of the trunks. They will provide the Wise One with the food she needs on her journey to the next world. The chanting begins and I renew my calls to the spirits. A breeze springs up, signifying their arrival. A seagull, the messenger of the spirits, alights on one of the trunks, eying the body.

“Excuse me”, says a woman gently touching my arm. “Are you feeling OK? It’s quite stuffy in here.”

It takes me a few seconds to remember that I am not the holy man of the tribe in Bronze Age Norfolk, but in the British Museum at the World of Stonehenge exhibition. I am standing in front of Seahenge, the remarkable ancient monument found on the beach near Holme in Norfolk in 1999, and loaned to the Museum specifically for the exhibition. These are the real tree trunks cut down in the spring of 2049 BCE that I am gazing at, not some modern reconstruction. They are 4071 years old, almost to the day!

The Seahenge display at the World of Stonehenge exhibition, British Museum.

The woman has the intense look of a retired history teacher at an expensive school. I put my arms down and move on. Her eyes follow me, wondering whether to call the museum staff or a doctor.

We had driven down the day before from Scotland, staying with friends in Bedford, and I had taken the train from there down to London to attend an interview at the Swedish Embassy for a long-term Visitor’s Permit which enables me to stay up to a year there and also visit other Schengen countries. Since the UK had left the EU in January 2021, life has become more difficult for cruising sailors, as the maximum time permitted in whole Schengen area is now 90 days total in any 180-day period. However, a few countries offer longer-term visas, Sweden being one. For that, though, I have to attend an interview in person at the Swedish embassy in London. It had gone well, so in the afternoon, I had decided to treat myself to the Stonehenge exhibition.

Swedish Embassy, London.

The next day, we continue our journey down to Dover. The news on the radio the day before hadn’t sounded good. Apparently, there is chaos at the port and huge queues tailing back up the M20, not only because of Brexit but also because of the laying up of the P&O ferries as a result of their sacking their staff and replacing them with new cheaper people. Luckily we are booked to travel on DFDS, but it is apparently still chaotic due to P&O passengers trying to find alternative ways to get to France for their holidays.

“It doesn’t look too bad”, says the First Mate, as the satnav indicates only five miles to Dover. “We haven’t seen any queues yet. I fully expect to see the start of one around this corner.”

But there isn’t. We arrive in Dover, and everything seems normal. We find our lodgings for the night and I drive down to the local filling station to top up with fuel before we cross the next morning. There have been rumours of fuel shortages throughout Europe due to the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Every pump has a ‘Not in Use’ sign on it.

“You won’t be able to buy fuel in the whole of the south-east”, says the filling station attendant, with an air of weary resignation. “We have been expecting a load for a week now, but nobody knows when it will come. Another week, perhaps. Maybe two. The war, and Brexit, you know.”

It’s the same at the next garage. And the next. Luckily our tank is about three-quarters full, so we don’t have an immediate problem. Perhaps France will be different.

“I hope you are right”, says the First Mate when I get back. “I don’t fancy running out of fuel in Belgium somewhere.”

Our crossing the next morning is at 0800, but we need to check in an hour beforehand. We decide to get up early to avoid the reported queues. Bleary-eyed, we drive down to the ferry terminal through the slowly waking town. Temporarily, a rubbish truck blocks our way and we fret and fume helplessly while it swallows its breakfast, but we are soon on our way again.

And still there are no queues. We pass through passport control and customs and before we know it we are waiting to board the ferry, third in the line.

“Perhaps the queues were just the trucks”, says the First Mate. “Although we didn’t see them either.”

“And I am puzzled as to where all the P&O passengers have got to”, I say. “I had expected it to be heaving. But it is all very relaxed.”

P&O ferry suspended from duty for bad behaviour.

As we drive off the ferry into France, we notice that the car deck is only half full. If the P&O passengers are here, there are not many of them. Plenty of space for more.

“Did you get your passport stamped?”, asks the First Mate as we leave the port area in Dunkirk.

Panic! She’s right. Now with Brexit, we are considered a third country by the EU, and we have to have our passports stamped to prove when we entered the Schengen Area.

“I didn’t see anywhere to have it done”, I say. “I can’t understand how we missed it. We have to go back and find it. Otherwise I will have no proof of entry and could get fined.”

We drive back to the port area. I am still adjusting to driving on the right, and nearly go around a roundabout the wrong way.

“Look out!”, shouts the First Mate. “That truck nearly hit us. I know we have medical insurance, but I don’t want to end up in hospital so soon into the trip.”

We find the passport control booths for car passengers leaving France. One is empty and I knock at the window. The official slides it open. A car pulls up behind me. Then another. And another.

Vous auriez dû le faire tamponner au Royaume-Uni avant de monter à bord du ferry”, says the official.

I manage to work out he is saying I should have had it stamped in the UK before we left.

I tell him in Franglais that they must have forgotten to stamp it in Dover and that I need to get it stamped here. I am not sure he understands me, but with a Gallic shrug he takes my passport and stamps it. With his pen, he changes the sign in the bottom corner from an arrow pointing out to one pointing in. Pragmatism at its best. At least I am officially in Europe now, I think. Or should that be ‘I hope’?

Merci, merci”, I say profusely.

He waves me away impatiently. The cars behind me move forward.

We find a filling station and top up. No shortages here. We fill the jerry cans just to be sure. If we don’t use them for the car, we will be able to on the boat. That’s what they are for anyway.

In the evening, we approach Kappeln. It’s been a long day.

“I hope we can get across the bridge”, says the First Mate. “I’ve heard that it was closed due to repairs.”

“I think that was just the lifting part for boats”, I say. “I am hoping that it will be OK for cars driving across. Mr Google hasn’t said otherwise. At least we overwintered Ruby Tuesday on the right side of it.”

The lifting mechanism of the bridge across the Schlei fjord in Kappeln had broken over the winter and was being repaired. Another bridge further up the fjord at Lindaunis also wasn’t working. Boats that had overwintered in marinas between the two bridges were trapped between the two, not able to put to sea or even explore the upper reaches of the fjord. A rush of schadenfreude comes over me. Normally that would be us, but by pure luck we had made the right decision for once.

Broken over the winter.

We spend the next week preparing Ruby Tuesday for launching. With her out of the water, it makes sense to take the opportunity to antifoul her. The last application had been done at Ardrossan on the west coast of Scotland three years previously, and it had lasted well given that it is supposed to be done every year or so. The next couple of days we spent underneath the hull scaping off any loose material and painting on the new dark blue layer with a roller brush. The latter is messy work and I need to cover up.

Scaping off the old flaking anti-foul.
Painting on the new anti-foul. Yes, it is me!

“You’ve got blue blotches everywhere on your trainers”, says the First Mate, “And little blue speckles all over your glasses.”

“I was wondering why you were looking bluer than normal”, I respond. “I thought you were feeling the effects of the cold evenings again.”

We work our way through the to-do list as the scheduled date of launching looms. Many of the jobs can be done once she is in the water, so we focus on making sure everything is completed below the water line and on the mast. We fit a new anchor light on the latter.

A new anchor light gets fitted to the top of the mast.

The day of launching arrives. The trailer arrives exactly on the dot of the scheduled time. German efficiency at its best. Vorschprung durch Technik, or words to that effect. The giant crane lifts her off the trailer, and I take the opportunity to paint antifoul on the small squares on her hull that were missed where the cradle supports had been. I manage to spill some on the ground.

Vorsicht, vorsicht!”, shouts the crane operator angrily. “Jemand könnte da reintreten.

I feel like I am back in kindergarten the day I made a mess with my paints.

Ooops! Naughty me!

The crane swings Ruby Tuesday around, and lowers her gently into the water. A smaller crane lifts the mast back on, and it is secured with the shrouds. She starts to look like a yacht again.

In she goes!

Back in our berth, we re-attach the boom and the kicker and hoist up the mainsail. Everything seems to be running smoothly. Then a glitch. I try to turn the furling drum of the foresail, but it sticks tight. After some twisting and turning, I manage to get it to move, but it is so stiff as to be unusable. Liberal doses of WD40 don’t seem to make much difference. We speak to the rigging expert.

“It’s probably corroded inside”, he says. “It’s a known problem with the early versions of this type of drum. The circlips that hold the bearings in place are made from mild steel and not stainless steel, and sea water gets in and rusts them. Why anyone thought of using mild steel in a marine environment is beyond me. You can try dismantling the drum and seeing if the circlips can be replaced with new ones, otherwise you will have to replace the whole thing, I am afraid.”

Jammed furler drum.

We try and undo the bolts that hold it together. It’s as if they are welded and won’t budge.

“The only thing I can suggest now is that we take the drum off and try and dismantle it in the workshop”, the rigger says. “We can probably get the bolts undone by applying heat. But we will have to use the crane to take the whole furler off. We can then let you know if you can repair it yourself or whether you need to replace it.”

It is starting to sound expensive. But we don’t have a lot of options, as we have planned to drive down to stay with the First Mate’s folks in Nord-Rhine-Westfalen for a few days, so we leave it in the rigger’s capable hands while we are away.

The journey down is supposed to take five hours but takes nine due to stau, or traffic jams, around Hamburg. We arrive tired and grumpy. Over the next few days, we do a few cycle rides in the surrounding countryside to restore our spirits.

“You know”, says the First Mate, propping her bike on its stand. “In all the years that I was growing up here, I never came to this bit. I can’t understand why we never did. It’s a great view.”

We are standing on top of a huge mound of tailings, the remains of the Radbod coal mines that were an important part of the local economy of Hamm in the first part of the 20th century. It has been rewilded and there is a lookout tower on the mound giving a good view out over the city. Behind us, we can see the two giant headframes that were used to lift the coal up the shafts. Immediately in front of us is the Lippe River and the canal that was constructed both to control its flow and provide a harbour to load the coal on for transport. To the east is the Radbodsee area that is now a large lake for watersports.

Headframe at the Radbod coal mine, Hamm, Germany.

“We were always told as kids that Radbod was a 12th century king of the Frisians”, she continues. “But I was reading the other day that when they built the mine here, they initially named it after St Radbod, a local archbishop. When they tried to recruit Protestant miners, however, they found that they weren’t too keen on working in a mine named after a Catholic priest, so they changed the story to it being named after Radbod, the King of the Frisians, to give it more universal appeal even though he didn’t really have much to do with the area. It seemed to work, as lots of Protestant miners were recruited.”

“There’s advertising for you”, I say.

Cycling along the Lippe Canal, Hamm, Germany.

Below us, we see a police car driving furiously along the road beside the canal, its siren blaring raucously.

“Dooo-daaah, dooo-daaah”, it goes.

“Flens-burg, Flens-burg”, I sing in harmony.

“Why are you saying that?”, asks the First Mate. “We are in Hamm.”

“Every time I hear a police siren in Germany, I am reminded of the time we were in Flensburg when there seemed to be a siren every ten minutes”, I answer. “Even throughout the night.”

“That was because we were tied up just next to the police station”, says the First Mate.

In the evening, we get an email from the marina to say that they have taken the furler drum off and that it is completely corroded inside and beyond repair by normal on-board tools. They recommend that the drum is replaced with a new one, and can do it before we get back. Not wanting to waste time, we give the go-ahead.

Corrosion in the old furler drum.

Two days later, we take the train back to Schleswig and catch the bus to Kappeln. I take special care to remember my fleece after my mini-adventure in Holland last year. When we arrive it is pouring with rain. A taxi takes us to the marina.

On the way back to Kappeln by train.

The new furler drum has been installed and turns easily with one hand. At least we can finally get going now. I try not to think of the bill.

Crossing the border, lifting out, and a lost jacket

“There looks like a long stretch of bad weather coming in a couple of days’ time”, I say over breakfast. “Much as I would like to stay on Ærø longer, I wonder if we should make a move tomorrow to get back to Kappeln for the winter, or else we might be stuck here for a week or more with high winds.”

We have decided to overwinter Ruby Tuesday in Kappeln. We want to leave her in Germany, as with potential travel restrictions due to COVID, it is easier to get into that country due to the First Mate’s nationality. Kappeln is also reasonably easy to get to with public transport – a regular bus to the small town of Süderbrarup 5 km away, then mainline trains from there to Kiel and beyond. It had also been very difficult to find storage places anywhere else in Germany with any space left, even outside or in the water, and a marina at Kappeln was one of the few that did have room. Apparently the shortage was because many German sailors had brought their boats back to Germany for the same reason of access during times of restricted travel. This year, many who had kept their boats in Denmark had not been able to get to their boats until late in the season. We didn’t really want to be stuck in the same situation next year.

“I think that sounds a good idea”, answers the First Mate. “I am not too keen on rough crossings. And we have quite a bit to do to prepare Ruby Tuesday for the winter. The sooner we get started, the better.”

We cast off the next morning at 0730, motor out of the marina, and turn southwards to clear the south-eastern tip of Ærø. Once we are out of the shelter of the island, the wind picks up to 22 knots. Unfortunately it is from the south-west, meaning that we will probably be beating most of the way.

Close-hauled in a stiff breeze.

The wind is even more on the nose than was forecast. We sail as close-hauled as we can, 30° off the wind, but is soon becomes apparent that we have no chance of reaching Kappeln on that angle and are more likely to end up in Kiel instead. I decide that there is nothing to do but take a long series of five-mile tacks. At least we have all day.

The sun comes out, warming us up. We look back as the coast of Ærø fades into the haze.

The Danish coastline recedes into the distance.

“It’s kind of sad to think this is our last sail, isn’t it?”, says the First Mate. “I’ve got used to boat life in the last four months.”

“Yes, it’s been great”, I say. “We were pretty lucky to have been able to get over here and stay healthy all that time, what with Brexit and COVID. I have to say that I have really enjoyed Denmark. I didn’t know much about the history of the place before we came, but it has been fascinating how this area here has flip-flopped between Denmark and Germany.”

“I was surprised how beautiful it all was”, the First Mate replies. “All the little villages and houses are so quaint and colourful, and those doors! They have somehow managed to maintain a lot of their old buildings rather than ripping them down and replacing them with modern monstrosities.”

“Where do you think we should go next year?”, I ask.

“I would quite like to work our way along the south coast of the Baltic”, she replies. Germany, Poland, then perhaps up to the Baltic States – Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. I saw a documentary on them, and it looked beautiful there. But I heard that they haven’t been doing too well with COVID.”

“I wondered about heading up to Sweden and doing the east coast there”, I say. “The Swedish archipelago is supposed to be very nice. We need to think about it over the winter.”

We sit in silence for a time, lost in our own thoughts.

Reminiscing over our voyage.

“I wonder what sort of country we will be getting back to?”, I say. “Shortages of drivers, food shortages in the shops with empty shelves, disputes with the EU over Northern Ireland, arguments with the French over fishing rights, and so on. It just never seems to stop.”

“I heard from one of our neighbours that it isn’t too bad for shortages around where we are”, says the First Mate. “Maybe the odd thing isn’t available, but it’s nothing like empty shelves or anything like that. At least not yet. But it does seem that prices of things have gone up.”

“Wah-hay!”, I interrupt, looking up from the chart. “I’ve just noticed that we have crossed the border from Denmark into Germany.”

Crossing the border.

“It doesn’t feel any different”, says the First Mate. “But I’ll put the kroner away and get the euros out, if you like.”

“Fine”, I say. “I’ll change the courtesy flags.”

Approaching the entrance to the Schlei fjord.

We approach the entrance to the Schlei Fjord. On our port side, I notice a small wooden yacht with two people on board. It is heeled right over, looking like they are racing us to the narrow entrance. Lacking the inclination and the ability to do anything about it, we watch them with bemusement. They reach the entrance well before us, still heeled significantly, and continue up the fjord. There is a buoyed channel, perhaps 20 m wide, for yachts to follow – outside the buoys where it is shallow, one ventures at one’s own risk. I forget about them momentarily as we enter the entrance ourselves, then see them again in front of us tacking furiously from side to side as they go.

“That little yacht is going well outside the buoys”, says the First Mate. “Should they be there?”

I shrug. “They are probably local and know the water here like the back of their hands. You wouldn’t get me doing it with our draft, but I am sure they are alright.”

They’re not. As I speak, the little yacht comes to a shuddering halt and starts to lean alarmingly to one side.

“I think they have gone aground”, says the First Mate. I check the depth on the chart where it is. 30 cm!

“Sure looks like it”, I say, “That’ll teach them to show off.”

I try not to let the schadenfreude in my voice show. We are in Germany after all.

“Should we go and help them?”, says the First Mate.

“There’s no way we are going over there”, I say. “They are not in any immediate danger. Anyway, here comes someone to pull them off, look!”

Sure enough, a small motorboat is making its way slowly towards them.

We round a bend in the fjord and lose sight of them. Later we hear on the VHF that a yacht went aground, but has now been rescued.

“I am glad they are all right, at least”, says the First Mate. “It’s a pity we didn’t get a picture of them.”

We spend the next few days preparing Ruby Tuesday for the winter on land. We take down the sails, the cockpit canopy, and spray hood, and stow them. I change the engine oil and replace the oil and fuel filters.

Changing the engine oil.

We take the boom off and store it on the foredeck tied to the railings. We wash, dry and stow all the running rigging. This year we are taking the mast off for the first time to check that everything is OK on it. Better to find out now if there are any issues rather than somewhere in high winds on a lee shore with the tides against us. I disconnect all the electrics running up the mast and prepare the standing rigging for removal. The First Mate stores all the clothes and textile things in the vacuum packs and sucks the air out of them with the vacuum cleaner. And cleaning, cleaning cleaning.

Preparing the mast for removal.

“I am always amazed how much cleaning needs to be done”, says the First Mate. “Even though it is quite a small area and we clean it regularly en route. Here, can you empty the rubbish bin again?”

“Humans are just messy creatures”, I say, sweeping out the cockpit and trying to sound profound at the same time. It doesn’t work.

It’s the day of the lift out. We arise bright and early. At least it is not raining. We eat our breakfasts in silence, planning in our minds the last little jobs that we have to do. We cast off and reverse out of the berth into the fjord, and motor up to the lifting crane.

“Watch out!”, shouts the First Mate. “There’s a fishing boat coming up on the inside. It looks like it will cut us off. Don’t hit it.”

There is a strong current in the fjord taking us out to sea and I am not keen to try and remain stationary to wait for the boat to pass. I wave to him to indicate that we are going into shore to the crane, but he continues on his course. We are already getting swept down, so I decide to head for the lifting area and hope he will pass around us. He keeps coming. At the last moment, he veers to port and misses us.

We tie up, and the marina staff swarm over Ruby Tuesday, attaching the crane to her mast, removing the shrouds and furler. A whine of winches and the mast is lifted off and laid on trestles.

Off comes the mast.

Two large straps are pulled underneath the hull and attached to the crane. We hold our breaths. Another whine of winches and before we know it Ruby Tuesday is sitting happily in the cradle that will support her for the winter. We needn’t have worried – the staff know their jobs.

Out she comes.

There is surprisingly little growth on the hull – just a cluster of barnacles around the driveshaft and propeller where we didn’t antifoul her last time, and a few along the waterline. Not bad for not having been lifted out for three years!

The staff clean the hull with a high pressure hose to remove the small amount of slime here and there. The First Mate and I then get to work scraping the barnacles off. It is strangely satisfying work, and soon the drive shaft and propeller are shiny again.

Cleaning off the barnacles.

Soll ich den Rumpf reinigen?”, says a voice next to us. “Es ist einfacher es jetzt zu machen als nächste Jahr. Ich verwende ein spezielles Waschmittel.

One of the staff is standing next to us with a high pressure hose attached to a brush and a container of detergent. He’s asking if we want the top part of the hull to be washed.

Ja bitte”, says the First Mate. “Glauben Sie, Sie können diese Rostflecken auch entfernen??

Wahrscheinlich. Ich werde es probieren”, he says.

Whatever he uses works a treat. Soon Ruby Tuesday is gleaming all over.

“She looks like she is smiling”, says the First Mate. “I’m glad that we got that done.”

She is towed over to her winter storage location in the back paddock. Ruby Tuesday, that is, not the First Mate. The latter needs to be towed back to Britain for her winter storage.

Ruby Tuesday in her place for the winter.

We put anti-freeze in the sea-water cooling circuit to minimise damaging from freezing, disconnect the batteries, and drain the freshwater from the tanks and the hot water cylinder. One last clean and we lock the door, climb down, and wave goodbye to her. We are staying in a hotel in the town centre not far the bus-station for the night.

“I hope she will be alright”, says the First Mate.

“I am sure she will be”, I answer. “She has the cows to talk to.”

“What about Spencer?”, she says. “Where’s he?”

“I put him in the anchor locker”, I answer. “It will be warm and dry in there. He’ll be fine there for the winter.”

Spencer examines his home for the winter.

The next morning, we catch the bus that takes us to Süderbrarup train station, 12 km away. Five minutes after we get there the train to Kiel arrives.

“Quick, get on”, I say. “This is our one.”

“No, it isn’t”, says the First Mate. “I booked the later one to make sure that we didn’t miss it if the bus was late. We have to wait another hour.”

It eventually comes. We climb aboard and settle into our seats. We are finally on our way home.

Homeward bound!

The effort of the last few days catches up with me and I doze off. I start dreaming of snow, mountains, long walks, and lockdowns. Someone shakes my arm.

“Quick, quick!”, I hear the First Mate saying. “Wake up! There has just been an announcement that we can transfer here to go directly to Schiphol.”

“I thought that we had to go to Amsterdam Centraal first, then change”, I say grumpily.

“Yes, I know, but they just said that we can get out here, and there’ll be a train for Schiphol along in a few minutes”, she says. “It’ll save us about 20 minutes.”

Still rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I grab the rucksacks and struggle to the door. It opens and we step out on to the platform. The First Mate tumbles out after me clutching her luggage.

“Brrrrr, it’s a bit chilly”, I say. “I am going to put on my fleece ….. My fleece! My fleece and gloves! They’re still on the train!”

I rush back to the train door. It closes in front of me. The train starts moving.

“Oh no!”, I shout. “They’re gone. My favourite fleece and gloves have gone!”

Other people standing on the platform stare at me pityingly. I wave at the accelerating train, pretending that I am upset that my favourite aunt is leaving us. They don’t look convinced.

“You need a new one anyway”, says the First Mate, unsympathetically. ”You have had that one for thirty years. It doesn’t owe you anything.”

A fairy-tale town, a 12th century fortress, and ships galore

The forecast is for heavy showers, but we decide to take a chance and head in a south-easterly direction from Lyø towards Ærøskøbing on the island of Ærø. Once we are out of the shelter of Lyø, the wind picks up to 13 knots from the south-west and gives us a comfortable beam reach all the way. The islands of Avernakø, and then Drejø, pass by to our port side. In the distance, we can see squalls, and we keep our fingers crossed that we are to be spared. It is pleasant sailing, but we feel that it is only a matter of time before the rain comes our way.

And so it does. Just as we pass Drejø, down it comes by the bucket load. We drop the sides of the cockpit canopy and huddle inside, eyeing the AIS and trying to peer through the sprayhood window to make sure nothing is coming. Out of the gloom a tall ship appears, but it is travelling parallel to us in the opposite direction, so it is not a danger. A few minutes later, it disappears back into the murk again.

A tall ship looms out of the mist and rain.

As we approach Ærøskøbing, the rain eases. We follow the marker buoys into the marina on the right. The wind is still strong, so we opt to tie up alongside the outer pontoon rather than a box berth, and let the wind blow us onto it.

“Perfect”, says the First Mate. “I must say, I like alongside berthing better than the box berths. And I don’t have to clamber over the anchor all the time. But have you noticed the marina is only about half-full?”

Tied up in Ærøskøbing marina.

“Yes, it has quite an ‘end-of-season’ feel now”, I say. “It’s nice that it isn’t so busy, but sad to think that that’s almost it for another year. But at least we have a bit of time left. Let’s go and explore Ærøskøbing in the meantime.”

We wander through the quaint little former market town with its colourful houses and cobbled streets lined with hollyhocks.

Street in Ærøskøbing.
House in Ærøskøbing.

“I read that it is Denmark’s best-preserved settlement from medieval times”, says the First Mate. “It certainly is very picturesque. It reminds me of something out of a fairy-tale.”

Fairy-tale town?

In the morning the winds are still strong, but have moved around to the north.

“I think I’ll go and get some photos of those doors today”, says the First Mate. “They’re just so beautiful.”

“Fine”, I respond. “I was thinking of seeing the museum. We can meet afterwards and compare notes.”

I climb the steps of what was a former bailiff’s house, now the recently refurbished Ærø Museum, and am immediately immersed into a world of the island’s history and culture, replete with creaking floors.

Like many of the coastal towns in Denmark we had visited, Ærøskøbing was founded in the 1200s. The ‘-købing’ suffix means that it was given the status of a commercial and maritime trading town in the Middle Ages. The town was destroyed by fire in the 1600s, but was rebuilt – it has been from those times that the character of the town today derives. To maintain this character, master craftsmen have been encouraged to settle there, particularly bricklayers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. One display celebrates the role that these craftsmen have played in the development of the town, some of which, such as wheelwrights, coopers, and millwrights, have long gone.

Carpenters’ planes in Ærø Museum.

A poignant little tale is that of Bende Bendsen, a poet, teacher, linguist, and, yes, a hypnotist. Although born a West Frisian, he settled and lived most of his life in Ærøskøbing. Despite his several talents and obvious intellect, including writing a grammar of the West Frisian language, he struggled most of his life near the poverty line, and when he couldn’t work any more due to old age, he died in the poorhouse. After his death it was found that he had written several scientific articles and had communicated with numerous academics throughout the world.

With no bridge to the mainland like most of the other Danish major islands, much of the focus in the museum is on the modern challenges of maintaining a viable island population on Ærø. Many of the younger people are leaving the island to be educated and to find jobs elsewhere, so that the population is both declining and aging. Nevertheless, the people are fighting back, and when the Maritime School in Marstal was threatened with closure in 2000, a third of the population travelled to Copenhagen to protest. The government backed down.

With its picturesque building and streets, the town is a popular tourist destination, and has also promoted itself as a wedding venue, simplifying many of the complex rules surrounding international marriages.

Ærøskøbing – a popular tourist destination.

I eventually find myself in a small enclosed garden at the back of the museum, which is supposed to be a reconstruction of an 18th century urban garden. It s quiet and peaceful, and I sit down on one of the seats for a few minutes.

I think of the challenges of trying to maintain a viable island community in today’s world. We had encountered similar issues on some of the islands on the west coast of Scotland we had visited – Canna had only a tiny population of 19 permanent residents, Gometra only three. Attracting people with the right skills who want to live on such small island communities is difficult. At least Ærø has 6000 people; and they seem to be quite dynamic – one aspiration is to be self-sufficient in renewable energy – already solar, wind and biomass power are providing 55% of the island’s needs, and a fully-electric ferry was commissioned in 2019. The island of Eigg, in the Inner Hebrides, had similar aspirations.

Urban garden at the rear of the museum.

A group of people enter the garden, talking noisily. I decide it’s time to leave and have a coffee with the First Mate. As I walk back, I see a wedding taking place. Just as it said in the museum.

Wedding in Ærøskøbing.

“How did you get on?”, I ask the First Mate, over our cappuccinos.

“Great”, she says. “I took more photos of doors than I know what to do with. Each one is different, and I can’t chose which one I like best.”

Colourful door in Ærøskøbing.
And another one …

“They certainly seem to like their doors”, I say. “But what’s this one? The prison?”

And a third …

The next day, the wind is still blowing hard, so we take the bus up to Søby in the north of the island.

“I read the guide book”, says the First Mate. “There seems to be a bit going on there.”

When we get there, there isn’t. It is a Sunday, and everything is closed except for Finn’s Bakery. We do the harbour and the surrounding area in ten minutes. It’s two hours until the next bus back to Ærøskøbing, so we decide to have a coffee and some cake at the café. I pick up a brochure at the table.

The only place open in Søby on a Sunday.

“Søby translates as lake-village, and dates back to the 1100s”, I read. “The area surrounding it is mostly farming, but there are fortifications north of it that were used in the Gunboat War between Denmark and Britain in the early 19th century. Nowadays it is a fishing and industrial port. There is also a shipyard and a marina with 200 spaces. The stone pier was built in 1865, and eventually regular ferry services were established with Faaborg.”

“All very interesting”, the First Mate says. “I didn’t realise that Britain and Denmark had been at war with each other.”

“Neither did I”, I say. “Remind me to look it up when we get back to the boat.”

“Anyway, what about walking back to that stately home place that we passed on the way up?”, she says. “I think it was a couple of kilometres, so it shouldn’t take long. Then we can catch the bus back from there.”

“Sounds like a good idea”, I say. “The brochure says that it is called Søbygaard. There are also the ruins of a fortification there we could have a look at. Let’s go.”

It’s a sunny day, and we arrive at our destination hot and sweaty. They are some quite impressive ramparts called Søby Volde built by a King Niels in the early 12th century as fortification against foreign incursions, mainly from the Germans and people called the Wends, a confederation of different Slavic tribes living along the southern coast of the Baltic Sea.

Søby Volde, fortification from the 12th century.

“It says on this panel here that the ramparts were only used for about 150 years, then it fell into disrepair”, says the First Mate. “Apparently the sea used to come almost up to here also before it was drained. They’ve found the remains of buildings, which was likely to have been a trading port.”

“You can just see where it would have come”, I say, once we get to the top of the ramparts. “There’s a marshy piece of ground called Vitsø Nor over there. Amazing to think that ships used to dock here.”

I try and imagine the castle as it once was – apparently wooden palisades were embedded on the ramparts, so it would have been much higher. Traces of fire and crossbow bolts have been found, suggesting it might have been attacked at some stage.

On top of the ramparts trying to work out what’s what.

We walk down again and up the small road opposite the ramparts to Søbygaard, a medieval manor house and farm buildings. There is a moat around the house.

Søbygaard manor house.

“It was built by Hans the Younger around 1580”, the woman in the ticket office tells us. “He quite liked building manor houses on Ærø – he already had one at Gråsten, this one was the second, and later he built another one at Gudsgave in the south of the island.”

“I bet he didn’t have to do the cleaning of them himself!”, says the First Mate.

The ticket woman smiles.

“That’s for sure”, she says. “Then in the last few decades a lot of effort has been put into restoring the house and its surroundings, and now it is used for concerts and exhibitions.”

The bus is almost due, so we walk back to the road. Some llamas are also waiting at the bus-stop.

“Are you going back to Ærøskøbing too?”, I enquire politely.

“Don’t be silly”, says the First Mate. “They don’t understand English. You’ll have to ask them in Danish. Or Spanish. And mind they don’t spit at you.”

Llama waiting at the bus-stop for Ærøskøbing.

We arrive back in Ærøskøbing without the llamas.

“I think I’ll just walk over and get some photos of the beach huts over there”, says the First Mate. “I’ve been wanting to do that since we arrived.”

From the boat, we can see the huts on Vesterstrand, the beach that stretches northwards from the marina. Apparently they are a bit of a thing on Ærø – the plots that they are built on are rented indefinitely, and there are strict regulations about what can and can’t be done to the huts themselves. No extensions, no electricity or water, and only minor maintenance. But they are quite a status symbol to own or stay in, and some have remained in the same family for four generations or more.

Colourful beach huts on Vesterstrand.

While the First Mate is away, I look up the British-Danish War of the early 1800s.

“It occurred during the Napoleonic Wars”, I read. “Denmark and Norway were neutral and tried to keep the seaway between Denmark and Norway free for trade. The British were having none of that as they wanted to blockade trade to France, so they attacked and destroyed a lot of the Danish and Norwegian navies. The Danish and Norwegians retaliated by fitting guns on small fast boats which were quite successful at attacking the larger British ships. They were helped by shore batteries, one of which was near Søby. In the end though they lost, and Denmark had to cede Heligoland to Britain, and Norway was annexed by Sweden.”

“Sounds a bit traumatic, given their sensitivity to territory”, says the First Mate when she returns. “They seem to have forgotten all about it now, though.”

The next day, the wind has dropped, so we decide to push off to Marstal, in the south of the island. Even though it is only about five miles from Ærøskøbing to Marstal as the crow flies, the journey by sea is about two-and-a-half times that, as it is too shallow to sail directly. Instead, we must make a huge loop by heading north-eastwards, then taking the narrow Mørkedyb Channel southwards, and then turning south-westwards again. Luckily the route is buoyed most of the way.

Our route from Ærøskøbing to Marstal through the Mørkedyb Channel.

The entrance to the marina at Marstal is narrow and quite shallow, but we manage to find a berth. The owner of the boat next to us grabs our lines and helps us to tie up.

“Yes, this is our home port”, he tells us. “We have finished sailing for the season, but we decided to have a couple of weeks just relaxing on the boat before we go home again.”

“You will know Marstal well then”, says the First Mate. “What should we see here?”.

“Well, Marstal is the largest town on Ærø, and also the main shopping centre”, he says. “It became world-renowned in the 17th and 18th centuries for building wooden ships, and that sets the atmosphere of the town. It has a Maritime School that trains navigators for the Danish merchant fleet, and there is a Maritime Museum that’s worth a visit. The streets and houses are also quite quaint, although, I have to say, not as picturesque as Ærøskøbing.”

We set off to explore the town.

“It’s interesting”, I say. “Have you noticed that there is no real town centre like other places? There’s no church that is in the centre either. I read somewhere that the town developed around the streets that radiated out from the shipyards, then they just put in ring roads every so often to link them.”

Cottages in Marstal.

“Yes, but there are not so many nice doors as in Ærøskøbing”, says the First Mate. “Our neighbour was right.”

We walk back to the harbour. There are ships of all shapes and sizes.

Traditional ship in Marstal harbour.
Boats in Marstal harbour.

We eventually come to the Maritime Museum. We spend the next couple of hours going through it. It’s an impressive collection of all things nautical.

Ship in a bottle – Maritime Museum, Marstal.
Storm at sea – Maritime Museum, Marstal.

“Phew”, says the First Mate as we come out. “They must have paintings or models of almost every ship they built here. I don’t think that I have seen so many pictures of ships in one place before. And some of those storm paintings also made me shiver. Here, get a photo of me with this chap. I’ll send it to people and tell them I have run off with a pirate.”

Tall dark stranger?

“They probably think that already”, I say.

Back at the boat, we clamber back in over the anchor. Suddenly there is a cry from the First Mate.

“Help, help! My shoe has fallen in. It’s drifting off.”

Luckily, there is a boathook close to hand.

“They need a good wash anyway”, I say, as she hooks it back in. “Why don’t you chuck the other one in too?”

Man shoe overboard!

Rebel farmers, portals to the cosmos, and a prisoner king

We leave Årø harbour at around 0930 and head south-eastwards for the island of Lyø. The wind is from the west, so we enjoy a pleasant broad reach, with the First Mate helming most of the way. At the appropriately named Sønderhjørne promontory (Southern Corner in Danish) of Fyn we turn due east. With the wind now directly behind us, we roll the mainsail away and use the genoa alone. Our speed drops, but we still make about 4 knots or so.

Leaving Årø for Lyø.

We approach Lyø and enter the narrow entrance to the marina, its width only about twice our beam. I always feel apprehensive entering unknown harbours, but we make it through and into a box berth on the far side.

In the evening, we hear a knock on the bow. It is the harbour master come to collect the fees. The First Mate goes to pay.

“I’ve found out a lot of useful information from him”, she says on her return. “It seems we can hire bikes here. You just put 20 kroner per bike per day in the honesty box just up there next to the ferry terminal. It’ll save us from getting our own bikes out.”

She has a point. Getting our bikes in and out from the storage cabin is always a bit of a hassle with the risk of damaging the woodwork. It’s easier to use bikes that are already on land. The disadvantage is that you are never quite sure what you are getting.

In the morning, we select a couple of bikes that look reasonable. Mine needs the saddle putting up. I loosen the clamp and raise it to the right height, and tighten the clamp again. I sit on it to test it. The saddle goes down to its lowest point again. I select another bike and try it. This time the saddle is OK, but it won’t change gears. The island is a bit hilly not to have gears.

“Perhaps we should get our own bikes out anyway”, I say.

“Mine’s OK”, says the First Mate. “Here, try this one. It looks in reasonable condition.”

The saddle is fine, and the three gears seem to work. But the brakes don’t.

“You don’t really need brakes”, says the First Mate. “Mine don’t work very well either.”

We put the money into the honesty box, and set off. It’s about a kilometre to the main village of Lyø By. We make it on one piece, mainly because it is slightly uphill and we don’t need to use the brakes.

The village is clustered around a few small ponds. The story goes that it was established in the 1540s when 24 families who had been involved in a failed uprising against their landowner on the mainland were told that they could choose between execution or exile. They fled to Lyø, where the previous population had died out from an epidemic, built the village more-or-less in the centre of the island, and divided up the land into farms running radially out from the village, a bit like spokes on a bicycle wheel. Most of the current islanders are descended from those 24 families, and the houses and land arrangement has remained pretty much the same ever since. The ponds were apparently constructed to provide water for the fire service.

Map of Lyø showing Lyø By village in the centre.

We come to a rock in the middle of the village. The inscription translates as 6 May 1223. A night of sorrow over the land for 1864-1920, however, for our cause God advises and leads everything to the best. Travelled 6 May 1923. Another reminder of the time that this part of modern Denmark was under the rule of Germany for more than half a century. It’s not only the rock that it is etched into, but also deep into the Danish psyche.

Reunification memorial stone, Lyø.

“I wonder what happened on the 6th May 1223?”, says the First Mate.

“I have no idea”, I say. “Remind me to try and find out.”

“Look, here’s the village shop”, she says. “The harbourmaster said last night that his wife runs it. Let’s have a look at what they have got.”

It is a typical island village store that stocks pretty much everything.

Lyø village shop (photo used under VisitFyn Terms and Conditions)

“You can order bread for the morning here”, the harbourmaster’s wife tells us. “I bake it myself, so it’s as fresh as you can get. I can particularly recommend the oat bread.”

“Why don’t you get yourself some for your breakfast?”, asks the First Mate. “I have plenty of rye bread, so don’t worry about me.”

I order and pay.

“My husband delivers it to the communal room down at the harbour in the morning”, says the woman. “You can pick it up there at 0830. It’ll have your boat’s name on it.”

We return to the bikes and explore the village.

“It’s just so picture postcard”, says the First Mate. “I could almost photograph every house in the village, they are so beautiful.”

“I think you have already”, I say. “I am surprised you have any space left on your camera.”

Traditional house in Lyø.
Another traditional house in Lyø, this time around the village pond.
And yet another one.

A little bit further on is the church. It is immaculate with its orange-tiles roof, stepped gables, whitewashed walls, and circular graveyard. A man is trimming the little hedges around each grave with a hedge-trimmer while another sucks up the pieces with a garden vacuum cleaner.

Church in Lyø.

We take the small road Vestensvej to the west of the island. On the outskirts is the old mill standing on the highest point of the island. Although there had been mills there for centuries, this particular one was built in 1876 based on a Dutch design. It is now a private residence.

Mill on Lyø.

“You go on”, says the First Mate. “I’ll catch you up. I want to take a few photos of the windmill.”

I continue to the end of the road where it gives way to an unpaved track, and come eventually to the dolmen nestled in a small grove of trees. It is old – built around 5,500 years ago during Neolithic times, not long after the introduction of farming to this part of the world. Although originally it would have been covered by a mound of soil, that has long been eroded by the wind and rain, or removed by local inhabitants for other uses, and all that remains now are these four standing stones and their massive, horizontal capstone, pockmarked by cup-shaped hollows made much later during the Bronze Age.

Klokkestenen dolmen on Lyø.

I lie on one of the seats, staring at the scudding clouds, and try and get my head around how old it is – 1000 years before the Egyptian pyramids, 3000 years or so before the Greeks and Romans. Who were its mysterious builders? What sort of people were they? How did they see the world around them? Why did they build it?

I feel drowsy and close my eyes. I am back in the Neolithic. I look around me. The island’s woods have been largely cleared to grow crops and to domesticate animals. Nevertheless, there is still game in the remaining woods and fishing around the coasts is good, so many of the farmers continue to hunt and fish. Brushing away a tear, I refocus on the burial chamber in front of me. The soil is still fresh from where it has been laid to cover the stones containing what remained of his body and his few possessions – his bow and arrow, his favourite drinking vessel, his flint blades, and battle axe. A farmer, hunter and warrior, my father had been respected by all, and had done much to nurture and protect the small settlement on the island against the marauding neighbours. But now he is gone, journeying through this portal and on to the Otherworld, to the third tier of the cosmos, to take his place with the other ancestors. I will not see him again until I myself also travelled that way. It is as it always had been and always would be.

Until then, it is my duty to continue what he started and to care for my people, ensuring they continue to prosper in this benevolent landscape. The Earth Mother will give me the strength and means, and the spirits of the ancestors the guidance to achieve this. I had chosen the site of my father’s burial mound for that very reason – in view of the fields and woods behind, the beach and the sea in front, the fishing spit to the north – the source of all our wealth. It will always be a sacred place – for our storytellers to hear the Earth Mother as they sleep and refresh their tales of our past and our place in the cosmos.

“It’s not a bad view, is it?”, says the First Mate, getting off her bike. “I can see all the way across the Lillebælt, across to Horne Land on Fyn, and down there to Lyø Trille spit.”

“That’s probably why they chose this spot for the dolmen”, I respond, emerging from my reverie. “They would have seen it as a significant point on the landscape, connecting the world of the living and the world of the dead.”

“Did you read the information panel?”, she says. “It says that there were once 52 barrows and dolmens on Lyø, but now only five remain, including this one. Apparently it’s called the Klokkestenen, or Bell Stone, as it makes a sound like a bell if hit with a stone in the right way. If it rings, you can make a wish which will come true.”

“I’m not sure if we should do that”, I say. “If everyone who had seen it over the last 5000 years had bashed it with a rock, then there would be nothing left of it.”

“I guess you are right”, she says. “It’s bad enough that the other 47 have been destroyed. Better to leave it for future generations to ponder over. Anyway, let’s go. I’d like to see the other end of the island.”

We head back to the village in the middle of the island. From there, we take the road Østensvej eastwards along a tunnel valley formed during the Ice Ages. It is a gentle slope all the way down to the coast and the bikes gather speed. With the brakes hardly working, we whizz along, the trees and bushes on each side of the road just a blur. Luckily there is a small knoll at the end which slows the bikes to a standstill. We rest for a while looking across to the island of Avernakø and further south to the lighthouse on Ærø.

Looking across to the island of Avernakø.

“It’s so peaceful”, says the First Mate. “Denmark really is a beautiful place.”

We carry on along a rough track around the eastern coast of the island through fields of barley and grazing cows, until we come to a farmhouse and buildings. There the track seems to peter out.

“Here it is”, I say, spotting a small arrow pointing to the west. “There’s a road here called Smedegyden. According to the map it should get us back to the village.”

Working out where we are.

Sure enough it does.

When we get back to the harbour, we see a tall ship tied up to the edge of the ferry wharf near the entrance to the marina. Day trippers line the gunwales as the boat prepares to leave.

“That doesn’t look right”, says the First Mate. “Wouldn’t he be better to reverse straight out?”

She’s right. For some reason, the skipper has decided to turn around in the narrow entrance and has become stuck, only able to move forward and backward about a metre at each end. The entrance is completely blocked and no one can enter or leave. There is a sound of splintering wood as the small tender on davits at the stern smashes into the wharf guard rail. The passengers who realise what is happening look bemused, while others continue tapping their phones, oblivious. Eventually the skipper manages to swing the bow around to clear the piles at the entrance, and is free.

“Phew”, says the First Mate. “They made a bit of a mess of that, didn’t they?”

Chaos at the harbour entrance.

In the morning, I wander over to the harbour communal block for my shower. Sure enough, along with several others, the oat bread is lying on the table as promised, still warm from the oven. I take the one marked Ruby Tuesday back to the boat, and we toast it for breakfast. It’s delicious with marmalade.

“Mmmm, this is good”, says the First Mate. “You can’t beat freshly baked bread.”

“Hey, I thought you were supposed to be eating your rye-bread!”, I say.

“I just wanted to try this to see what it tastes like”, she says.

Freshly-baked oat bread.

In the afternoon we get some new neighbours. They are Jan and Marien, a retired Dutch couple who are heading northwards towards Copenhagen. They have sailed this area many times and know it well.

“Yes, Lyø has to be one of our favourites”, they tell us as we watch the sunset in the evening. “There’s a lot of history here. Did you hear the story about Valdemar the Victorious?”

“No”, we say. “We can’t say we have. Tell us.”

Learning about Valdemar the Victorious.

“Well, Valdemar the Victorious was the king of Denmark back in the 1200s”, says Jan. “He started as the Duke of Jutland, and by beating off various challengers for the throne, he was proclaimed Valdemar II, King of Denmark, in 1202.”

“We saw a castle called Valdemar’s Slot in Svendborg”, says the First Mate. “I wonder of that was the same Valdemar?”

“No”, says Marien. “That was a different one. He was about three or four hundred years later.”

“Anyway, Valdemar II invaded and conquered quite a bit of northern Germany and eventually controlled all the land along the south coast of the Baltic from the Elbe to Danzig”, Jan continues. “He even conquered Estonia to the east of the Baltic.”

Lands under Danish control in Valdemar’s reign (from Wikimedia Commons).

“Then, to cut a long story short”, says Marien, “Valdemar was here on Lyø on the 12th of May 1223 hunting with his son Valdemar the Young. They had had a successful day hunting, and had had a large feast in the evening. Then after they had crashed out for the night, he was captured by one of his German nobles, Count Henry of Schwerin, who took him, probably through this very harbour here, back to Schwerin near Hamburg, and imprisoned him. Henry demanded that Valdamar give up all of the land along the south coast of the Baltic and that he became a vassal of the Holy Roman Empire.”

“Of course, the Danish weren’t very keen on that idea, so they declared war”, Jan says. “But they were soundly defeated, and lost all of their German territories. Valdemar even had to pay 44,000 marks to secure his release. He spent the rest of his days back in Denmark developing a code of laws and introducing feudalism to the country, which was good for the nobility but not for the peasants, as they lost all the freeman rights they had had since Viking times.”

“Ah-ha! The 6th of May 1223 explains the date on the memorial stone we saw in the centre of the village yesterday”, I say. “I wondered what the significance of that was.”

“Yes”, says Marien. “The Danish see it as the day marking the unravelling of their ‘Baltic Empire’. They have been a bit sensitive about what is in and what is out of Denmark ever since. It’s not helped by having a large neighbour like Germany right next door.”

In the morning, I set the table for breakfast.

“Do you know where the oat bread got to?”, I say. “I can’t find it anywhere.”

“Ah, I meant to tell you”, says the First Mate. “It was so nice that I had another slice yesterday, then another, and before I knew it, the loaf was gone. I am really sorry.”

The day doesn’t get better. On the way out of our berth, I catch the stern flagpole on one of the rear posts, snapping it off at the base. As it falls towards the water, I manage to grab it before it disappears. I feel a bit like one of those soldiers you read about who risks his life to protect his country’s standard and honour.

“I think I’ll write to the Queen”, I say to the First Mate. “I might even get a medal.”

A stunning sunrise, an island walk, and an international bird reserve

I wake up suddenly. Yellow light pours through the cabin window, casting a golden glow on the roof. My first reaction is that there is a forest fire on the island. I jump to my feet and poke my head out of the companionway. It’s just the sunrise, but what a sunrise! The sun hangs heavy in the sky like the Eye of Sauron. The water lies still, glowing like lava. A solitary ketch lies at anchor, its reflection dancing gently in the ripples from the slight breeze. It’s primordial.

Sunrise near Lænkevig.

I make a cup of tea, and sit out on the deck. The boat next to us swings gently at anchor, the occasional wave lapping against her hull. There is an autumn tinge to the air and I draw my fleece tighter around my shoulders.

“You know what they say, don’t you?”, says a familiar voice. “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight, red sky in the morning, sailors’ warning. The red colour is due to all the moisture in the air. It bends the light into the red part of the spectrum. There’ll likely be rain today. I’d be prepared for it if I was you.”

It’s Spencer the know-all. Who else?

“You know”, he continues. “I overheard your conversation last night about energy, and it reminded me of quite an interesting book I read over the winter called ‘The Upside of Down’, by a chap called Thomas Homer-Dixon.”

“I am sure you are going to tell me about it?”, I say.

“Well”, he responds. “His argument is that as societies get more complex, they consume more and more energy, but that this also makes them rigid to change. The Roman Empire, for example, maintained a large army and constructed magnificent buildings designed to project power, but these required huge amounts of energy to build and sustain. Complex social organisation was required to generate and channel this energy. Not all that dissimilar to your modern-day civilisation in many ways. But in the end, the Roman Empire just couldn’t generate enough energy to sustain itself, so it went into decline.”

“You would think people might have seen what was happening, and tried to do something about it”, I say.

“Well, this is the thing”, responds Spencer. “Often you humans can see the warning signs and know all about the risks and their causal factors, but you just tend to ignore them, thinking the world will carry on just as it has always has. These days these signs include climate flips, energy price jumps, pandemics, and global financial crises, but you find it difficult to give up your cherished worldview that the Earth was created for your benefit, so you try to contort difficult facts to fit that view, particularly when those facts are ‘slow-creep’ ones. Then stresses slowly build up in your societies to breaking point and suddenly breakdown and collapse occur. That’s when social revolutions happen. You have probably noticed that you have already had two of the four warning signs since the book was written in 2006.”

“It all sounds a bit dire”, I say. “Does Homer-Dixon think anything can be done to stop it?”

“Well, he argues that there will have to be a massive shift in the trajectory of modern civilisation”, says Spencer. “People will have to adopt new mental tools through which they see, understand and deal with problems. It will be a bit like the so-called Axial Age from about 900 to 200 BCE when there was a similar change in thinking – people then started using reason and reflection to understand their world, they realised that societies are not static but develop and change over time, they learnt that individuals had the capacity to determine their own fate, and they began to see that their physical and spiritual worlds were separate. You still think more-or-less along those lines today.”

“Yes, I know about the Axial Age”, I say. “But what sort of things does he think will need to change these days?”.

“Well, it’s like you said last night”, says Spencer. “You need to move to a steady-state economy rather than one based on growth. But the question is what such a steady-state economy would look like. What economic and ethical values might it be based on? Would it be compatible with political and personal liberty? How would political and social conflicts be dealt with if there is no growth?”

“Big questions indeed”, I say. “But don’t you think that some of that change might start to happen after COVID? The global economy slowed down last year because of all the lockdowns, and people changed their lifestyles by working from home and travelling and consuming less. They realised that there were other values besides just constant work and making lots of money. Now that the vaccines have checked the impact of the virus, will life just go back to pre-COVID patterns or will people maintain those changed lifestyles and newly-acquired values?”

“My guess is that things won’t change that much”, replies Spencer. “The problem is that a lot of people saved their money by not travelling and consuming, so what will happen to all that pent-up spending power when it is released? It might even be worse than before. Industrial production may increase to meet its demand, and along with it, energy consumption. What do you think will happen with prices of fossil fuels?”.

“Probably increase? They always do. But I suppose we will just have to wait and see”, I say, somewhat glumly.

“You might not have long to wait”, says Spencer. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have to dash. There’s a nice fly over there waiting to join me for breakfast.”

It begins to cloud over. The sun disappears and the brilliant red and oranges are replaced by a dull grey. The breeze stops, as though nature is holding its breath in anticipation. I hear the First Mate moving about down below. The aromas of toast and fresh coffee waft out from the cabin. It’s time for breakfast.

“I think that there is going to be rain today”, I say to the First Mate. “We should get going as soon as possible.”

“Just finish your toast then, and we can be off”, she says. “We can wash up later. If you don’t mind, I would like to get a bit of helming practice in this morning.”

We weigh anchor and set off towards the next destination, the island of Årø. The cloud morphs into a dense mist so that we can barely make out the land. There is almost no wind, and the little that there is is directly on our nose. We motor until we are clear of Fænø and enter the Lille Bælt, then try to sail by tacking into the wind. We move, but progress is slow. Porpoises appear and disappear periodically.

“Come on”, I imagine them saying. “Surely you can go a bit faster than that? Look at us!”

Porpoise in the Lillebælt.

It starts to rain. There’s truth in these old sayings. Fed up, we decide to resume motoring.

“That’s more like it”, say the porpoises. “It won’t take long now. Have a good trip. Bye!”

We arrive in Årø in the early afternoon. The ferry to Årøsund is leaving, so we slow down to give it time to leave the tiny harbour. Most of the box berths for our width are already full, but there is one left. There is a fresh cross wind blowing, but after a couple of attempts we manage to squeeze into it.

The harbour consists of the ferry terminal, a small café, and a self-help Tourist Information Office. ‘Cupboard’ would probably be a better description, as only two people can squeeze into it at any one time. Another couple are already in there.

“Never mind”, says the First Mate. “Here’s a seat we can sit on while we are waiting. I wonder what this word means?”

The First Mate waits outside the Tourist Information Office.

Her sidder de, de der altid sidder her” I say, consulting Mr Google. “It means ‘Here they sit, those who always sit always here’. Very profound. We could be in for a long wait.”

Luckily, the other couple leave after a couple of minutes, clutching a collection of guides and maps.

“They must have heard you”, says the First Mate. “Anyway, it’s our turn now.”

We collect a guidebook and a few maps, and sit down in the café for a coffee and cake.

“The guidebook says there are 150 people who live on the island”, says the First Mate, tucking into her cake. “Most of them live in the small village of Årø, which is about half a kilometre from here. It has a church and there is a farm there called Brummer’s Gård. Gård means ‘farm’ in Danish. The farmhouse is a protected building. There’s another small settlement on the southern part of the island. The whole island is less than 6 km2.”

“All very useful”, I say. “Let’s go and explore.”

We set off towards the lighthouse we can see from the harbour.

Årø lighthouse overlooking Årøsund.

From there, the path takes us onto a stony beach that extends across most of the south coast of the island.

South Beach, Årø.

Eventually, we join the road leading to the east of the island.

“Look”, says the First Mate. “There are loads and loads of rose-hips along here. I’ll pick some and make some jam out of them.”

Rose-hips for the picking.

The road eventually gives way to a rough track leading to the Årø Kalv bird reserve on the east side of the Årø. The guidebook tells us that the area was formed about 6000 years ago out of eroded material swept around from the south part of the island, and consists of shingle and sand ridges interspersed with shallow marsh areas. It is a Ramsar site, with access prohibited in the breeding season from April to July.

“What’s a Ramsar site?” asks the First Mate.

“It’s an international treaty to do with protection and conservation of wetlands throughout the world”, I say. “But I forget the details. I’ll have a look at Google.”

“The treaty was signed in 1971 in the city of Ramsar in Iran”, I read. “The Convention maintains a list of more than 2,300 sites of international importance covering more than two million square kilometres, with the UK having the greatest number of sites and Bolivia having the greatest area of sites. The committee meets every three years to review their objectives and update their policies – the next meeting was to be held in November of this year in China, but because of COVID they are having an online meeting at the end of October instead. It’s actually the whole of the Lillebælt which we have just come through that is the Ramsar site, so Årø Kalv reserve is part of that.”

“Interesting”, says the First Mate. “It’s good they are doing something about preserving these wild places.”

We pass a cycling couple, each with a dog trailer attached to the back of their bikes. The dogs peer morosely out of the mesh on the sides of the trailers.

“I suppose it is one way to take your dog for a walk”, I say. “Although I don’t think the dogs do much walking.”

“They’d probably chase the birds anyway”, says the First Mate. “Better that they are under control.”

We turn left and take the path along the top of a dyke separating the bird reserve from farmland. The path is rough, and eventually we find ourselves alone, the cyclists left far behind. Waders, ducks and gulls of various kinds swim in the shallow lakes. Overhead a raptor of some kind suddenly swoops and snatches something from the stony shore of one of the lakes and flaps off into the distance. It is too far to see what it has caught.

View of Årø Kalv bird reserve from the top of the eastern dyke.

The sun comes out. We find a place sheltered from the wind and sun ourselves. In the distance we can see the two islands in the reserve, Småholme and Bastholm. Beyond them, the orange-tiled roofs of the town of Assens on the island of Funen glow in the sunlight. I lie back and close my eyes, switching from seeing to hearing. Behind us, the trees rustle in the slight breeze. A pigeon takes to the air, its wings flapping wildly as it tries to gain height. Cows in the field beyond low sporadically. A rooster crows in the farmyard in the distance. It is a rural idyll, broken only by the staccato shrieks of oystercatchers piercing the air above us.

Cows grazing.

We continue on along the dyke. In front of us, we see a large bird feeding on something. It is the same raptor that we had spotted earlier. Seeing us, it flaps off lazily, leaving its prey behind. As we get closer, we see that it is a water rat, its black fur still wet and glistening.

We eventually come to the observation tower overlooking the Lillebælt. In front of us is a small beach with a few boats tied up. The cyclists with their dog-trailers are already there, having come by the road from where we saw them last. We nod in recognition. The dogs bark back. “Let us out of these ridiculous trailers”, they seem to say.

View out over the Lillebælt from the bird observation tower.

Eventually we find ourselves back in Årø village. We stop at the Christmas Church, so-called because the first service was held on Christmas Eve in 1906. The story goes that the land for the church and cemetery was provided by one of the local farm-owners on the condition that he was buried on one side of the entrance and his best friend on the other.

The ‘Christmas Church’, Årø.

“Look, here’s a memorial plaque for soldiers who were killed in the First World War”, says the First Mate. “Believe it or not, Årø was part of North Schleswig in Germany at that time, so they fought for the German Army. After the war, the island became part of Denmark again, which it has been ever since.”

“It must be weird for the inhabitants here being shunted backwards and forwards between two countries”, I say. “Especially in times of war. Imagine having to fight against a country you used to be part of for a country that once was your enemy.”

The houses in the village are cute, with traditional thatched roofs.

House in Årø.

Further on we come to the Fire Station. It must be one of the smallest in the world – just a garage on the edge of a field.

“It can’t be a very big fire engine that fits in there!”, says the First Mate.

“Probably just a couple of bicycles and a job lot of expired fire extinguishers”, I say.

The smallest fire-station in the world?

“I love these islands”, says the First Mate.

A navy patrol boat, the Middle Way, and we get lost

I stare abstractedly at the bubbles streaming in our wake, marking momentarily our passage before disappearing. For a while longer a path of smoother water remains, before merging once again with the rest. Like our own existence, in a way. I think of the thousands of other seafarers that have travelled the same way before us. How many Stone Age people thought the same as they paddled these routes in their hollowed-out tree-trunks, how many Vikings in their long-ships, how many medieval traders in their skutes, how many modern day sailors like ourselves? Each must have left similar trails, each has now gone.

Fleeting trails.

The mists of time swirl. My mind takes me back to when the Baltic Sea is starting to form. A large depression in the rock of the ancient continent of Baltica starts to fill with sediment from erosion of the surrounding land. Much later, a river, the Eridanos, flows through the basin, deepening it and carrying much of the sediment out to the North Sea. Millions of years later, the ancient continent of Laurentia collides with Baltica and compresses the Baltic Sea into the elongated shape it is today. In the last two million years or so, glaciers cover the depression, leaving behind a vast freshwater lake called Ancylus when they eventually begin to melt. Eventually the North Sea breaks through the shallow Danish Straits where we are now and the Baltic Sea becomes the brackish water body that it is today. The islands of the Danish archipelago and the surrounding shallow straits are all that remains now of the barrier that once separated the lake from the sea.

“You look as if you are daydreaming again”, says the First Mate. “Look, why don’t you go and make us a cup of tea? That’ll wake you up.”

We are on our way from Bogense to Middlefart. The wind is gusting from the north-west, and we are sailing close-hauled. The First Mate is helming to get some practice handling sudden gusts. I dutifully do as I am told, and bring out two steaming mugs.

“You know”, she says. “I could get used to this.”

“Used to what?”, I ask. “Helming, or me doing as I am told?”

She doesn’t hear me.

We are approaching Middelfart. In the distance, we see the New Lillebælt Bridge spanning the narrow Snævringen channel between Jutland and Fyn. From this distance, the cars and trucks crossing it look like tiny Matchbox toys. We need to go underneath it.

The New Lillebælt Bridge, Middelfart.

“I have been thinking”, says the First Mate. “You can’t write Middelfart in the blog. It’s too rude. The automated censors will pick it up and delete it. Can’t you think of some other name?”

“Yes, you are quite right”, I say. “I think I will call it Bottomfart. That sounds much better.”

“Well, at least the blog will have something for everyone”, says the First Mate. “Even six-year-olds. Look there’s a navy ship following us. They’ll keep you in line.”

Sure enough, there is a patrol vessel not far behind us. The AIS shows that it is doing eight knots, so it will soon catch us.

Followed by a navy patrol vessel.

“They probably think we are smugglers”, I say to the First Mate. “I hope you hid those bottles of whisky.”

“They are more likely to think you are an illegal immigrant from the UK now that it’s a third country”, says the First Mate.

“Whatever”, I say. “Let’s see if we can outrun them.”

I push the throttle forward. Our speed increases from 6 knots to 6.2 knots.

“Well, that didn’t make a lot of difference”, says the First Mate. “We’d better hope they run out of fuel or something.”

The patrol vessel continues to gain on us. As we pass under the New Lillebælt Bridge, it slows and loops around and heads back in the direction it came from. Either they have decided that we are not carrying anything worth making a fuss about, or we weren’t the target in the first place. Probably both.

We follow the Snævringen channel around to the right and then to the left. Two porpoises surface close by, as though to welcome us. In the distance we spy the forest of masts of Middelfart Marina and head for there. Before long, we are tied up on the end of one of the finger pontoons.

“Let’s get the bikes off and go for a ride into town”, says the First Mate. ”I read that it is about a kilometre or so. We can have a look around and then have a coffee.”

Apparently the name of Middelfart derives from the Old Danish for ‘Middle Way’. It was originally used for the Snævringen channel between Jutland and Fyn that we had just come through, but later was applied to the town that grew up around it. In the Middle Ages, the town had specialised in catching harbour porpoises.

“The guidebook says that only selected families were allowed to hunt the porpoises, a privilege given to them by the king”, says the First Mate. “They used to line their boats up across the narrowest part of the channel and beat the water with their oars to frighten the poor things into the shallow areas where they were killed. Their blubber was used to extract oil for lamps. When electricity came along, there was no need for much oil any more, and hunting for porpoises stopped. Now it is illegal.”

“Perhaps that was what the patrol vessel was doing”, I say. “Making sure that foreign boats don’t do anything to the porpoises. As if we would.”

We sit and have an ice cream opposite the church.

St Nicholas’ Church, Middelfart.

“The Danish certainly have managed to preserve a lot of their medieval buildings”, says the First Mate. “Look, there’s one over there that was built in 1584. I might have a look around for some more interesting doors.”

Holm’s restaurant, dating from 1584.
Medieval house in Middelfart.
Door in Middelfart.

We end up at the small harbour on the north side of the town. Several traditional boats are tied up there.

Middelfart harbour.

The next day it is bright and sunny.

“I take your point about our tyre marks from Kolby Kås”, I say at breakfast. “They just don’t seem have started a trend. I think I am going to clean them off this morning.”

I fetch the hose from the pontoon and start scrubbing. It’s tough work but eventually the black marks are gone.

“Here, let me get a photo of you”, says the First Mate. “It’s not often I see you working so hard. I need a record for posterity.”

The shutter clicks.

“Oh no”, she says, looking at the small screen. “It’s made you look like the Mannikin Pis statue we saw in Bogense. We can’t put that in the blog.”

“Well, at least the six-year-olds will find it funny”, I say.

Cleaning the tyre marks off Ruby Tuesday. Yes, really!

We decide to have lunch at the small restaurant near the marina office.

“I was talking to one of the people along the pontoon this morning”, says the First Mate. “Apparently there is a very nice path from here out around the promontory and back into Middelfart. Why don’t we go for a cycle along it after lunch? I have a map, so we won’t get lost.”

“That sounds like a good idea”, I say. “It’s a nice sunny day for it.”

After lunch, we set off. The path leads along the shoreline, past a small yacht harbour, then into some woodland. There are beautiful views out over Fænø Sund towards Lænkevig, and we sit for a short time on a bench taking it in.

Looking out over Fænø Sund towards Lænkevig.

“That looks like a nice place over on the other side”, I say. Perhaps we can anchor over there tonight. It’ll be nice and peaceful and we will also save on marina fees.”

“That’s a good idea”, says the First Mate. “Let’s do that.”

We push on. The track becomes narrower and rougher.

“Are you sure this is a cycleway?”, I ask.

“I am sure it will get better just up around this corner”, says the First Mate.

We reach the corner. The track gives way to a small sandy beach. Two woman are there, enjoying the sun. They look surprised to see bikes on the beach. I smile at them, pretending that we are beach inspectors come to check the quality of the sand. I scuff the sand with my foot. They don’t look convinced.

Checking the sand quality.

“Over there”, says the First Mate, pointing. “I can see the track leading up the hill at the other end.”

It does. But it isn’t a cycle track any more. Even calling it a walking track is being generous. We lug the bikes to the top of the bluff overlooking the beach. Another path leads in the general direction we want to go. The gnarled tree roots criss-crossing it make it unrideable, on our small bikes at least.

The path gets rougher and rougher.

After ten minutes, we reach a huge gully blocking the way. The path leads down then up again on the other side.

“Let’s have a look at that map”, I say.

We are on a brown line snaking its way around the promontory. The key says that it is a walking track with a classification of three ‘boots’. Another key explains that three ‘boots’ mean that it is a strenuous hiking route and strong footwear is advised.

“I don’t think that this is a cycle route”, I say. “Did the chap you talked to really say it was? He must be into mountain biking.”

“No, he just said it was a nice route”, says the First Mate. “I just assumed that we could cycle along it.”

I stop myself from gnashing my teeth. I am not sure if our travel insurance covers self-inflicted dental damage, especially in Denmark.

We backtrack along the bluff and come across a camping site. At least there is a road leading out of it. We follow that and come to a small café.

“Let’s stop here and have something to drink”, says the First Mate. “I am getting tired and thirsty.”

Just as we are locking our bikes, the local Hell’s Angels chapter arrives.

“I’ll find us a table outside”, I say, remembering my encounter with Nebraska Man in the laundry on Terschelling. “You go and order. I’ll have a cup of tea. Earl Grey, please.”

“How did you get on with the bikers?”, I ask the First Mate when she returns. “Did they push in in front of you or beat anyone up?”

“Not at all”, she says. “They were very courteous. One even picked up my money for me when I dropped it.”

Courteous bikers.

In the evening, we sail across to the other side of Fænø Sund to Lænkevig and drop anchor. A few other boats are already there, but there’s enough space. We sit in the cockpit drinking wine and watching the sun go down behind the trees. There is an ethereal quality to the light.

Anchored in Lænkevig in Fænø Sund.

I pick up the book I am reading at the moment, Life after Growth, by Tim Morgan. In it, he talks about the era of growth that we have become accustomed to being over. It’s all due to the availability of energy – there is no shortage of energy as such, but what is important is the amount of energy that is extracted per unit of energy expended, or Energy Return on Energy Input, EROEI for short. At the beginning of the Age of Oil, the average EROEI was around 100:1, meaning that each unit of energy input would yield 100 units of energy output, so that there were 99 units of net energy available. Since then the EROEI has declined drastically, so that now the global average value is around 15:1. North Sea oil is even as low as 5:1. Obviously, when the EROEI gets to 1:1 the energy extracted is the same as the energy input, so there is no net gain. Apparently when the average EROEI gets to between 8:1 and 4:1, economies cease to be viable, as so much energy needs to be expended obtaining energy that there is not enough surplus energy for all the other things in the economy. Agriculture, for example, needs a lot of energy and natural gas to produce fertilisers and pesticides. Without those, we can’t grow crops, and won’t be able to feed the global population.

What to do? Renewable sources of energy will help but may not be enough. Wind-farms have EROEIs around 17:1 and solar panels between 7:1 and 9:1. Biofuels are around 2:1, and also need more land than world’s current cropland. Nuclear power may be an option, but the problems are public opposition and scaling up – 15 times the current number of stations would be needed. In the short term, we need to become much less wasteful of energy – more use of public transport, living closer together to improve energy efficiency, less consumption. But in the long run, we will need to develop a new economic model not based on growth. It will be a profoundly different era to what we are used to.

“What’s the book about?”, asks the First Mate, topping up the wine glasses.

I tell her.

“Can’t you find something more cheerful to read?”, she says. “Especially in such a beautiful place as this?”

“It is what it is”, I say. “Maybe we should just stay on the boat and live the simple life.”

Fellow mariners, a picturesque trade town, and a reflection

The forecast in the morning is for light winds from the north-east. We leave Kerteminde at 1000, needing to motor out of the fjord directly into the wind. Once we reach Alervet point, however, we turn northwest and catch the wind on our beam. We have arranged to meet Axel and Claudia at either Korshavn, a tiny harbour at the very north-east tip of Fyn island, or else Kolby Kås on the western side of Samsø island, further north. We’ll decide en route which to choose, depending on how things go. Starting from Korsor on the other side of the Store Bælt, I estimate they are probably around a couple of hours behind us.

Leaving Kerteminde.

We have about an hour of light wind and make reasonable progress past the island of Romsø on our starboard. Then the wind dies to almost nothing, and we sit with the sails flapping.

“We are not going very fast”, says the First Mate.

“No, we aren’t”, I say. “It would be nice to have a bit more wind than this. But there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

We brew the kettle and have a cup of tea drifting along in the current. On the AIS, we see that Axel and Claudia are still making seven knots. They still seem to have some wind, while we languish in the doldrums. They’ll be catching up with us soon.

Suddenly, the wind picks up.

“Ah, that’s better”, I say. “Someone must have heard me.”

“It’s a bit too strong now”, says the First Mate. “Couldn’t you have asked for something in between?”

Within the space of ten minutes or so, the windspeed has gone from around four knots to 16 knots. We are heeling significantly, so I take the sails in a reef. It helps, but we are still at quite an angle. We get a text from Claudia.

“Has the wind also stopped where you are?”, she asks. “There’s nothing here.”

“We were like that”, we text back. “But now it has picked up again.”

We whizz along at a good speed. Before long, there is another text from Claudia.

“We have it too now”, it says. “Shall we meet at Kolby Kås on Samsø? We have heard that it is not easy to anchor at Korshavn because of all the seagrass there.”

“See you at Kolby Kås”, we text back.

We are now entering the Samsø Bælt, the stretch of water between Fyn and Samsø islands. It becomes quite choppy, and the windspeed slowly increases even further. Before long it is around 22 knots. I take in another reef. We are still sailing at around eight knots. Ruby Tuesday alternately plunges through the troughs and rears her head again for the next wave like a thoroughbred. From time to time, particularly big waves wash over the foredeck and back down again on the leeward side. Exhilarating!

Sailing between Kerteminde and Samsø island.

We continue on like this for a couple of hours. Eventually we reach the lee of Samsø island and the wind eases off and the sea becomes quieter.

“Phew”, says the First Mate. “That was a bit rough. I hope we don’t get too many of those. Particularly as winds that strong weren’t predicted.”

We enter the tiny harbour of Kolby Kås and tie up against the pier. Some old tyres cushion us.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to tie up against tyres?”, says the First Mate. “I know they will act like fenders, but they might make black marks on our hull.”

I jump ashore and peer down at the side of our hull. A perfect imprint of one of the tyres is near the bow. There’s another midships, not quite so perfect. And another near the stern, a smudgy mess.

“We can pretend that it’s the latest in abstract art for sailing boats”, I say. “It might start a trend.”

Moored up against the tyres.

Axel and Claudia arrive later in the afternoon in their boat Astarte.

“Why did you moor up against those tyres?”, Axel calls out. “I think we will go over here.”

“See”, says the First Mate. “It’s not much of a trend so far.”

“Give it time”, I say.

We invite Axel and Claudia over for coffee.

“I have to say it was a bit of a surprise to hear from you”, I say. “We thought you were still over in Griefenwald.”

“Well, we were”, says Claudia. “But we have to be back at the end of the month for a family birthday, so we need to get Astarte down to Rendsburg and all tucked away for the winter before then. We have to go back into the Kiel Canal to get there, and have quite a lot of work to do on her to prepare her.”

Axel & Claudia join us for coffee.

“We’ve had a frustrating summer”, says Axel. “We had a serious problem with Astarte just as we were leaving Gustow. We started taking on water, and couldn’t work out where it was coming from. We managed to limp in to Griefswald with the bilge pump working overtime, and got her lifted out by one of the yards there. It turned out that it was coming in through the stern tube.”

“A sailor’s worst nightmare”, I say. “You were lucky you were so close to land.”

“Then trying to get it fixed was a real hassle too”, says Claudia. “The company that said they would be able to do it, then changed their mind and said they couldn’t. But at least they felt guilty about it and said that we could use their yard and one of their staff if we were going to fix it ourselves.”

“Getting the old shaft out was also a problem”, says Axel. “It was jammed, so we had to heat it to loosen it and had to be ready with buckets of water inside in case it caught fire. We also had to cut the skeg off to get it out. And it also took a while to source a new one. At first the company sent us the wrong one.”

“It all sounds horrible”, says the First Mate.

“Yes, it was”, says Claudia. “But in the end we managed to find the right shaft, and thanks to everyone working night and day, we manged to get it fitted. Finally we got her back in the water.”

“Well, I hope that you have trouble-free sailing from now on”, I say.

In the evening, we all go for a walk along a farm track, following the coast of the island and watch the sunset. We walk back along the track in the darkness. It is surreal.

Sunset from Samsø island.

Back in the harbour, a few more boats have arrived. None have tied up against the tyres. Some trends are slow to start.

We both leave at 1000 the next morning heading for Bogense on the north coast of Fyn island. The wind is from the southeast and the sea is calmer than the day before, giving us a comfortable beam reach. Axel and Claudia’s boat is a half a knot or so faster than ours, as being a ketch it has more sail area, and they pull slowly away. When we arrive in Bogense, they are already tied up.

Ruby Tuesday leaving Kolby Kås .

“You got here just in time”, they say. “There are only a couple of berths left. Look, here’s one here.”

It’s a tight turn, and there is a fresh cross-wind blowing. We make a bit of a hash of it getting in, narrowly missing the boat on our right and coming to rest against the boat on our left. Luckily there are plenty of fenders on both boats. Sensing disaster, people appear from the blue to help with the bow-lines. I fling the stern ropes over the poles. Amazingly they go over first time. That doesn’t happen often. We pull them tight and we are secure.

Tied up nicely in Bogense marina.

In the evening, we have drinks on Astarte. The conversation turns to Brexit.

“It’s sad that the UK didn’t want to stay in the EU”, says Axel. “We really can’t understand the logic behind it. What benefits has it brought?”

“We are probably not the right people to talk to”, I say. “We don’t really see any benefits either. The one example most often given is the speed with which Britain could roll out the vaccine last year compared to the delay due to all the red tape in the EU.”

“It’s true that the UK had a head start”, says Claudia. “But most EU countries have caught up now, and many even have greater vaccination rates than the UK. So you can’t really say that is a benefit.”

“And what about the Northern Ireland Protocol?”, says Axel. “What sort of person makes an international agreement, telling everyone that it is ‘oven-ready’ and the best deal ever, and then a few months later wants to unilaterally break it because it isn’t suitable?”

We stare at the floor and shuffle our feet. There’s not a lot we can say.

“And now there’s talk of empty shelves and Christmas being cancelled because of a shortage of lorry drivers with all the East Europeans going back to their countries”, says Claudia.

“I think the Brexiteers were just lucky that COVID came along when it did”, says the First Mate. “They are able to blame all the Brexit problems on the pandemic and lockdowns. There may have been some effect, but there is no doubt in my mind that the real reason is Brexit and all the disruption it has caused to supply chains.”

“It’s amazing that a modern country would do that to itself”, says Axel. “Especially Britain, who we in Germany always saw as being so sensible and pragmatic. You were always very influential in Europe, but now you have lost all that.”

“The interesting thing will be what role we find for ourselves now that we have left the EU”, I say. “All this talk of ‘Global Britain’ by the government, but no one really knows what it means. The debacle in Afghanistan last month is hardly a good omen. The USA hardly even consulted on the troop withdrawal there. My worry is that we will become a ‘vassal state’ of America, hanging on to their coat-tails.”

“Yes, and all that sending of an aircraft carrier to the Pacific Ocean a few months ago to frighten the Chinese”, says Claudia. “Surely they are not serious abut trying to influence anything there?”

“Who knows?”, I say. “The present people in charge are capable of anything, no matter how crazy it seems. The world is becoming a dangerous place.”

Axel and Claudia leave the next morning. It’s been good to see them, but they have to get home now.

Farewells.

We decide to walk into Bogense to explore. The town began its existence as a trading post in the 12th century and eventually became a market town, but was destroyed by fire in the 16th century. It was rebuilt, but never really recovered. These days it is still involved in trade, but tourism is becoming more important, especially from sailing. The marina is supposed to be the largest on the island of Fyn.

Medieval houses, Bogense.

“Let’s start at the church”, says the First Mate. “It’s pretty much in the centre. It’s called the Sankt Nikolaj Kirke.The guidebook says that it was built in the 15th century on the remains of an earlier 12th century church. The baptismal font is from the 13th century, the altar was built in the 16th century, and the pulpit from the 17th century. Its spire is even used as a navigational landmark for boats.”

Sankt Nikolaj Kirke, Bogense.

“It has certainly had some history”, I say.

Not far from the church is the Town Hall, an impressive building in white.

Bogense Radhus.

“The old houses are all so cute”, says the First Mate. “But there are only so many pictures you can take of them. I think I am going to specialise in doors. There are so many different types.”

Door in Bogense.
No. 19, Bogense.

“Come and have a look at this statue”, I say. “It’s a bit rude, but with your strong constitution you should be able to cope.”

I am standing in front of a statue of a small boy having a pee.

The Manneken Pis, Bogense.

“Ah yes”, she says. “The guidebook says that it is called the Manneken Pis. Apparently it is modelled after a similar statue in Brussels. The story behind this one is that back in the 1800s sometime, they found a baby boy on one of the ferries coming to the town. No-one claimed him, so the city butcher and his wife adopted him. The baby eventually grew up to become a consul in the Foreign Office, responsible for passports and visas and the like. To show his appreciation to his adopted city, he commissioned this statue.”

“He must have had a sense of humour, at least”, I say. “I am not sure that I would like to be remembered for peeing in the main street of a town.”

“Speaking of which, I wouldn’t mind a coffee”, says the First Mate. “But have you noticed that many of the places seem to be closed?”

“I read somewhere that many smaller shops are only open for the summer tourists”, I say. “As soon as they disappear at the end of August, the shops close until the next summer. It happens in Britain too, but I am surprised how early it happens here, particularly when the weather is nice like today, and the older set without children are now on holiday. Like us.”

“This place looks like it should be open”, says the First Mate, sitting down outside a restaurant.

Any service today?

I peer through the window. A man is tidying up behind the counter at the back of the shop.

“There’s someone in here at least”, I say. “Perhaps he’ll give us a cup of coffee and a cake.”

I wave to him to come over. He waves back. We wait a few minutes, but he doesn’t come.

“Pretty poor service”, I say. “It’s not as though they are busy or anything.”

I peer through the windows again and mouth the word ‘coffee’. The man says something, but I can’t understand it. I scratch my head in puzzlement. The man scratches his head too. I stick out my left arm. The man sticks out his right arm.

It slowly dawns on me that he is me. There’s a mirror behind the counter.

“Is he coming?”, says the First Mate.

“No”, I say. “He said that they have just closed for the day. We’ll just have to make our own coffee on the boat.”

Running aground, meeting friends, and a Viking ship burial

We leave Svendborg at 1000h in the morning. It is sunny, but there is a strong north-east wind of 18 knots blowing. Unfortunately, this also happens to be the direction that we need to follow along the Siø Sund towards Skælskør, where we are heading to meet our friends, Hans and Gisela. Once we are out of the protection of the Svendborg Sund and Thurø Island, we face the full force of the wind on the nose. Nothing for it but a long series of tacks to get where we want to go.

It is slow going, but at least we make progress. At each cycle of the tack, we gain about three miles from where we were before. At one hour and twenty minutes per tack that works out at just over two knots Velocity Made Good.

Tacking up Siø Sund towards Lundeborg.

Eventually we reach Lundeborg, and decide to stay there the night. It is a small harbour with a circular marina and some alongside berths on a curving pier. We take the latter. We are helped with our lines by three cheery lads from Germany who are sailing around the Danish Archipelago in their small boat. How they fit into it is a puzzle to us.

Lundeborg harbour.

The next day, the winds are of similar strength and direction and we continue tacking up Siø Sund. Eventually, we are past the end of the sandbanks at the end of it, and far enough north to turn directly east to have a pleasant close reach all the way to the entrance to Skælskør fjord.

Our track from Svendborg to Skælskør.

The fjord is extremely shallow, only 30 cm deep in places, but there is narrow dredged channel marked by green and red buoys all the way to the town harbour. We line ourselves up with the two triangular markers at the entrance and motor in gingerly, following the buoys.

Trying to keep within the buoyed channel.

Shortly after the entrance we come to a sudden stop.

“I think you have grounded us”, says the First Mate. “You must have missed the channel somehow.”

It is one of life’s mysteries why, whenever there is a mistake, it is ‘me’ who made it, but whenever something is achieved, it is ‘us’ that did it.

I reverse the propeller and give it some throttle. We don’t move. Forward again, and more throttle. We remain stationary. We are well and truly stuck in the mud. What to do?

“There is a fisherman in a boat over there”, calls the First Mate from the bow. “Maybe he can pull us off.”

I peer through the binoculars at him. He has oars and no engine. His arm muscles don’t look anything special either.

I decide to give it another go. Lots of throttle in reverse, and I try to angle the rudder back into the direction of the channel. A widening cloud of muddy water streams from under the stern, churned up by the propeller. At first there is no movement, then slowly we start to move. Suddenly we lurch free, and Ruby Tuesday accelerates into the middle of the channel.

Stirring up the mud to free ourselves.

“We’ve done it, we’ve done it”, shouts the First Mate from the bow. “We are back in deeper water.”

See what I mean?

My immediate concern now though is not to embed ourselves in the mud on the opposite side of the channel. I cut the throttle, swing the wheel around, and manage to straighten her up. We motor forward. As we pass the fisherman, I give him a wave. He doesn’t wave back. “Another clueless idiot muddying my water”, his look seems to say.

We arrive in Skælskør harbour.

We tie up at the visitors’ berth in the town harbour. In the evening, Hans and Gisela come to the boat. They have been in Hamburg and have driven that afternoon back to their home in Skælskør. They are from Germany but live in Denmark, and are old friends from the days when we worked in the Philippines. Their boys are similar ages to our son. Gisela is a keen sailor; Hans is more into motorbikes and archery. It’s been a while since we have seen them, and there’s a lot to catch up on.

We tell them about our mini-adventure at the entrance to the fjord.

“Yes, a lot of people get stuck there”, says Gisela. “It’s really difficult to stay in line between the buoys, particularly if there is a cross wind blowing. Luckily it is only mud, so there shouldn’t be any harm done.”

We arrange to meet the next evening at their place for coffee and cake. They live about ten minutes cycle ride from the harbour. As they have to work during the day, we amuse ourselves by exploring Skælskør.

Old steam mill in Skælskør.
Swimming pier at Skælskør.

“We’ve been trying to work out why things are so expensive in Denmark”, I say when we see them. “They are in the EU single market, so why don’t things even out to the same prices as in other EU countries? ”

“They have their own currency, the krone“, says Gisela, cutting the cake. “There was a referendum in 2000 and they decided to opt out of the Euro. So, even though the krone is linked to the Euro, they have some control over their currency.”

“Taxes are also very high here to help pay for social care”, says Hans. “When we brought our car here from Germany, we had to pay three times its value in import duty. Also, anything with labour input into it is very expensive because of the taxes. Eating out for example. If you do all your own cooking, it’s not too bad. Speaking of which, it’s time to get the barbecue started.”

He stacks up the barbecue with charcoal briquettes and lights it. Soon the aroma of cooking meat fills the air. The next door’s dog starts yapping.

“That dog yaps all the time”, he says. “One day I am going to use it for archery practice.”

“Barbecued dog can also be quite nice”, I say. “Especially with chilli sauce.”

The next day we all have dinner at the Skælskør Sailing Club, where we finally meet Freddie. I had emailed the sailing club about a month earlier to ask them if it might be possible to tie up at their marina.

“Of course you can”, the return email from Freddie had said. “You are most welcome to come and stay at our little marina. Especially towards the end of the season, as it won’t be so busy then. We’ll look forward to seeing you and welcoming you to our beautiful town of Skælskør.”

Thinking he was the Club Secretary and encouraged by his effusive response, I had asked him a few technical details, including whether we would have any problems with our draught entering the fjord up to Skælskør.

“I am sorry, I am not able to answer that”, he had said. “I have to confess that I am just the cook at the sailing club, and I know absolutely nothing about sailing at all. But I know that quite big sailing boats do come in, so I am sure that you will be all right.”

Freddie was just as I imagined him. Cheery, large smile, slightly rotund, and looking completely at home behind the serving hatch in the sailing club, surrounded by photos of boats of all descriptions. Who would have believed that by his own admission he knew nothing about the things?

“Come and have a look at our boat”, says Gisela. “It’s just over here. Her name is Mille.”

The First Mate tries to clamber on for a closer look. Mille rocks alarmingly from side to side.

“Help me!”, shouts the First Mate. “I’m not used to this. It’s a bit too unstable for me.”

“At the moment, the centreboard is up while she is in the harbour”, explains Gisela. “When it is down when we are sailing, that steadies her a bit. But she is very light and responsive. That makes her more rolly than a big boat like Ruby Tuesday. We just use her for sailing in the fjord and a little bit along the coast. We have a lot of fun with her.”

Mille.

Freddie’s dinner is a buffet.

“You have to try some of this flæskesteg and brunkartofler”, says Gisela. “Roast pork and caramelised potatoes. It’s the traditional Xmas dinner in Denmark. We had some very strange looks once when we said that we wouldn’t be having pork for Xmas. It took us a while to live it down.”

Dinner at the Skælskør Sailing Club.

We leave Skælskør in the morning. Hans and Gisela come down to the small pier near the mouth of the fjord to wave us goodbye. I take special care to stay in the middle of the channel this time to avoid any groundings. Once can be passed off as careless, twice would be incompetent. We both breathe sighs of relief as we re-enter the Store Bælt and deeper water.

Keeping to the channel as we leave Skælskør.

Unfortunately, the wind has shifted and is now coming from the north-west. Just the direction that we need to go, of course. And there is not much of it. But at least the sun is shining. All caused by the presence of an anti-cyclone centred just to the west of where we are, according to the pressure charts that morning. We take a long tack westwards for a couple of miles then head directly north aiming for the middle of the Store Bælt bridge. We just manage to catch enough wind, but progress is slow. From time to time, the sails flap uselessly as the wind dies completely.

“It’s quite an impressive structure, isn’t it?”, says the First Mate, as we finally sail under the bridge. “I am glad that we don’t have to pay to go under it. Hans said that the toll is €60 each way to cross it by car.”

“As long as they don’t lower a clog down on the end of a fishing line for the fee, like they did on the canals in Holland”, I say.

Approaching the Store Bælt bridge.

We eventually reach Kerteminde on the other side of the Store Bælt and tie up in the town harbour. The town centre is about five minutes’ cycle ride away. It is a pretty little harbour town, strongly dependent on the sea for its livelihood.

Kerteminde harbour.

The woman brushes away the tears from her eyes. She must remain strong for the children by her side. Her son’s face is set like a mask – what is he really thinking, she asks herself. Will he be as strong and achieve as much as his father lying in the ship? He had subdued the unruly tribes on this side of the Great Belt, had become king, and had brought peace and prosperity to Fyn, Langeland and the numerous small islands to the south. But it had been a small uprising on one of those islands that had brought about his end. He had taken his ship – Rubin Tirsdag – named after the great god Tir – and 30 men to quell the unrest, but had been met by a much larger force and had been killed by a single spear thrown by the rebels as he stood on the prow of the ship to lead the attack.

Sorrowing, they had brought the his body back to Kerteminde in Rubin Tirsdag and prepared it for the burial. His favourite horses and dogs had been already been killed and lay in the boat next to his games-board and his other personal possessions. They would accompany him as he departed Midgard, the home of the mortals, to be carried by the Valkyries to Valhalla, where he would join the Æsir to fight and gain further glory alongside Odin, Thor and Tir against the Vanir, until that last great battle, Ragnorak.

She feels alone and afraid, facing an unknown future. Will they be able to withstand the strength of her husband’s enemies – already there was talk of the men of the southern islands coming to do battle and capture the body of the king. They must do all they can to prevent it. But will their men remain loyal now that he has gone?

“It’s very realistic, isn’t it?”, says a woman’s voice next to me.

“Um, well, yes”, I stammer, caught unawares. “I suppose it is.”

I am standing in front of a reconstruction of the ship burial in the Viking museum at Ladby, a small village just outside Kerteminde. The First Mate had decided to have a morning browsing around the shops, so I had cycled out by myself.

Reconstruction of the ship burial as it might have appeared in Viking times.

I walk from the museum through a newly mown field of grass to the knoll overlooking the Kerteminde Fjord. On the knoll is the mound containing the burial chamber. Not a bad view for one’s last resting place. Presumably overlooking the lands that he ruled when alive.

A small path leads down to the door of the tomb. I push the button at the side. The door opens and shuts behind me with a soft hiss. The outside world is shut out and I am in a dimly lit room within the mound. All by myself. Momentarily, panic grips me. What if there is a power cut when I am in there and the door won’t open again? Who would even know I was here? Would they think I am the Viking king when they discover my skeleton?

My eyes adjust slowly to the near-darkness and gradually the shape of the Viking long-ship appears, protected by a giant perspex box over its entirety. The last resting place of a minor Danish king from the early AD 900s.

The Ladby Viking ship burial.

The wooden ship itself has long gone, of course; what remains is its shape left in the earth and many of the items that were put into it at the time of burial – the skeletons of eleven horses and two dogs, various weapons, tools, utensils, riding gear, and even board games. The ship’s anchor is also well preserved. Strangely, there is no sign of the body of the king – one theory is that this was removed shortly after death by his rivals in an attempt to undermine the status of his family.

“How did you get on?”, says the First Mate when I return.

“Good”, I say. “I got some great ideas I want you to do when I fall off my perch.”

“Oh no, you don’t”, she retorts. “Don’t even think about it.”

In the evening, we receive an email from Axel and Claudia, fellow-sailors we met three years ago in Dover and Eastbourne at the start of our circumnavigation of the UK, and with whom we have kept in touch since then.

“What a surprise”, it says. “We saw on MarineTraffic that you are in Kerteminde. We are over at Korsor on the other side of the Store Bælt. What about meeting up in the next couple of days?”

Islands of the imagination, a Scottish dolphin, and a royal slot

I am awoken around 0530 by the sound of shouts and the splash of an engine exhaust as the ecowarriors leave. Through the hatch window I see the top of their mast gliding by, its anemometer spinning in the wind. Then all is quiet again. I snuggle back under the duvet and go back to sleep.

We have a leisurely breakfast and set off ourselves at 1000. It is sunny, the sea is calm, and the islands of Biørnø and Avernakø shimmer in the distance.

“They just look so beautiful”, says the First Mate. “Sort of mystical.”

There is something alluring about islands to the human psyche. My mind drifts back to a book that I read over winter, The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination, by Philip Marsden, given to us at Christmas by Uli and Ian, friends of ours. In it he describes his voyage in an old wooden boat up the western coast of Ireland to the Summer Isles on the west coast of Scotland to honour the memory of a close friend of his who had died in a mountaineering accident.

In the book, he talks about Tír na nÓg, the Land of the Young, an island in Celtic mythology far to the west of Ireland. Tír na nÓg is part of the Otherworld, where the Tuatha Dé, the ancient warriors of Ireland and People of God, live with their families, and remain forever young, beautiful, prosperous and happy. For mere mortals to get there, you need to be invited by one of the Tuatha Dé, and then make an immran, or voyage, along the Mag Mell, the golden path made by the sun on the sea as it sets.

Following MagMell to Tír na nÓg.

In one of the tales associated with Tír na nÓg, an Irish prince called Oisin meets and falls in love with Niamh, a beautiful woman from the Otherworld who invites him to sail across the sea to Tír na nÓg and live with her. He quite likes it there, but after three years, starts to miss his home in Ireland. She reluctantly lets him sail back again, but warns him never to touch the ground. When he gets back, he finds that, rather than three years, three hundred years have passed, and that all his family and friends have long gone. As he rides around looking for familiar faces and places, his horse trips on a stone and he falls off onto the ground. Immediately he turns into an old man as his body rapidly catches up with the intervening 300 years, and he dies, turning into dust.

Marsden never actually makes it to the Summer Isles, instead they remain a focus of his imagination, rather than becoming reality, while the voyage becomes a discovery of Celtic traditions of islands and the sea. In some ways it is better he doesn’t make it, as the isles remain a place of enchantment and meaning rather than crystallisation into a definite experience. A voyage is a passage of the soul, he says. It is the journey rather than the destination that is important.

We feel a little bit the same. We look forward with excitement and anticipation to each new island or town that we head for, we spend a few days looking at the sights and experiencing its character, then we feel the urge to move on to the next. Each contributes to the accumulated experiences of the voyage, even though the specific memories of each may fade. Somewhat superficial perhaps, without getting to grips with the bustle of life underneath, but the depth comes from the synthesis into a wider picture.

Lost in my reverie, it takes me some time to notice that the wind has dropped to almost nothing, and also seems to have changed direction. We are almost motionless. The boat following us a little way behind us is in the same predicament. We both try to tack northwards to catch some wind, somewhat unsuccessfully. A few seconds later we heel violently as an intense gust of wind out of the blue catches us and spins us around.

“What are you doing?”, shouts the First Mate.

I don’t have time to answer as I fight against the wheel to try to turn Ruby Tuesday into the wind. The sails begin to flap noisily, but we eventually regain a vertical position. Just as soon as we do, the wind dies down again.

“Phew, that was a bit scary”, I say. “I am not sure what happened there. From 10 knots to zero, then back up to 20 knots, then back to 10 knots in a minute or so. Some local topographic effect, I suppose.”

A sudden violent gust out of the blue.

We approach Svendborg, following the narrow buoyed channel under the massive traffic bridge that spans the sound. Far above us, we can hear the hum of the cars and lorries crossing from one side to the other.

“Look”, cries the First Mate. “There’s a dolphin up ahead. It looks like he is welcoming us.”

Sure enough, we see a fin and sleek grey body of a dolphin arching in and out of the water in front of us. A kayaker has stopped and is taking photos. I slip the propeller into neutral and we drift with the current for a few minutes watching him. He seems to relish having an audience and runs through his repertoire of tricks, swimming on his back and his front alternately, diving under the boat, and once, leaping out of the water completely. Eventually he disappears to swim off somewhere else. We learn later that his name is Delle, and that he has been positively identified as having come from the Moray Firth in Scotland just north of where we live, where he was known as Yoda!

Yoda or Delle, the Svendborg dolphin.

“No wonder he was so excited to see us”, I say. “He could probably smell the Moray Firth algae on our hull.”

“I wonder what possessed him to come all the way from the Moray Firth to Svendborg”, says the First Mate. “And all by himself too!”

“I suppose it’s a bit like Wally the Walrus who travelled all the way from Norway to the Isles of Scilly”, I say.

We decide to moor in the city harbour rather than one of the marinas on the outskirts. Luckily there is one berth left. From there it is only ten minutes’ walk to the city centre.

Tied up in Svendborg harbour.

Svendborg dates back to the early 1100s, and was an important trading centre in the Middle Ages. After that it fell into decline, but began to increase in prosperity again with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, when rail links were established and the harbour was developed as an active port. Nowadays, because of its relaxed shopping atmosphere, it is also a popular tourist destination.

We walk up the steps from the harbour, and find ourselves in the main shopping street.

“Look, they must have known we were coming”, says the First Mate. “They’ve rolled out the red carpet for us.”

Special treatment.
Vor Frue Sogn, Svendborg.

“I’ve just spotted the Danish version of SpecSavers”, I say. “I’ll see if I can get my glasses fixed.”

My glasses had broken way back on the Frisian Islands somewhere, but since then I had been unable to find anywhere that could or would fix them. I had been told by one that I would need to take them back to the company I bought them from. Unfortunately, they hadn’t had branches in Holland or Germany. But they do in Denmark.

“Yes, our parent company is SpecSavers”, says the girl behind the counter. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The Danish version of SpecSavers.

Within a few minutes, she has glued the leg back on, and strengthened it with a small plastic tube. And all for free.

“They did it, they did it!”, I sat to the First Mate when I catch up with her. “Now I have my old glasses back again.”

“I think I prefer you with your spare pair”, she says. “I’ve got used to them now.”

The next morning dawns bright and sunny with a cloudless sky. Over breakfast, we sit and watch the clouds roll in from the north. The forecast is for good weather in the morning, but rain in the afternoon.

“I know”, says the First Mate. “Let’s go for a cycle ride out to the Tåsinge Island this morning. There’s a place called Valdemar’s Slot that’s worth seeing, and there are some pretty little harbours to visit on the way. We can be back before it rains.”

“It was good of Valdemar to fit us in”, I say.

“Is that one of your jokes?”, she says.

“It was a bit obscure”, I admit. “Don’t feel bad. Not many people will get it.”

I do a Google Translate and learn that slot means castle in Danish, similar to the German schloss. All is clear.

We unload the bikes and set off. To get to the island, we need to cross the Svendborg Sund Bridge that we had sailed underneath as we arrived. From sea level it towers over us, and I wonder how on earth we are going to manage to get up there on our little bikes. Luckily, the route to it curves around gently, and before long we are on top of the bridge looking down. The view is spectacular. Below us, two yachts are just about to go under the bridge, and in the distance, we can see the harbour where Ruby Tuesday is tied up.

View from the top of Svendborg Sund Bridge.

We whizz down the other side of the bridge without pedalling, and turn left to follow the road around the coast.

The First Mate whizzes down the far side of the bridge.

We reach Trönse, which we had been told has a nice marina and that it is a good place to stay for a night or two. However, we decide against moving Ruby Tuesday here as it is somewhat exposed to the north, and strong north winds are forecast. 

Trönse marina – nice, but exposed to northerlies.

We eventually reach Valdemar’s Slot. I had half-expected a stone construction with battlements and turrets, but it turns out to be more of a country mansion. Nevertheless, it is impressive with its gates, gardens, pond and stables.

The castle was originally built in 1644 by King Christian IV for his son Valdemar. Unfortunately, Valdemar went off to fight and was killed in Poland. It was badly damaged in the Danish-Swedish wars of 1658–60, but was subsequently gifted by a grateful nation to the Danish maritime hero Niels Juel for his third victory over the Swedes in 1678. His grandson created the castle grounds with the lake, as well as the different stalls and stables. The castle is still owned by the Juel family.

Entrance to Valdemar’s Slot.

“There’s a sign saying that it is closed”, says the First Mate.

“Does it mean just closed for today, or closed for good?”, I ask.

“It’s not clear, but it looks closed for good, if you ask me”, she says.

Valdemar’s Slot.

There is a man standing by the gate. We ask him.

“It closed for good a month or so ago”, he says. “Money. That’s what did it. Or at least lack of it. They weren’t making enough from visitors to cover the maintenance.”

He doesn’t know what will happen to it now. Perhaps another buyer might buy it. It’s somehow sad. It has a certain beauty about it, and is now facing an uncertain future. Will it fall into rack and ruin?

“It’s certainly very impressive”, says the First Mate. “But I am glad I don’t have to keep it clean.”

We decide to wend our way back to the bridge via small country roads. Along the way, fields of barley lie freshly harvested. Oak trees spread their leafy branches. Birds chirrup in the hedgerows. Cows graze peacefully in the paddocks. A dog barks as we cycle past. We pass several cute thatched cottages. A trip back in time. For some reason, it reminds me of the Rupert Bear books I used to read when I was a child.

Picture postcard cottages.

I suddenly realise that the First Mate is not behind me. I wait for ten minutes, but there is no sign of her. I wait another five minutes, then decide to cycle back to look for her. Just as I jump back on the bike, she comes around the corner.

“Where did you get to?”, I ask. “

“I was picking blackberries”, she says. “Look. Here are some more. Help me get these. Just be careful of the thorns.”

We start picking.

Picking blackberries.

“Aaaaagh”, she shouts.

“What’s the matter?”, I ask, as I stand on one leg to reach some blackberries without falling into the ditch.

“I pricked my thumb on a thorn”, she says.

We spend ten minutes trying to extract the thorn. It’s not easy without tweezers.

“I think it has gone”, says the First Mate. “It’s not so painful anymore. Look – I wish we could reach those ones up there. There are some really big ones just beyond reach. But these will do. You can have some on your muesli and I’ll make jam with the rest.”

On the way back, I decide to look for a bicycle shop. The clacking in my pedals has started again. I think it may be the bearings having loosened again. I need a couple of tools to take the pedal cranks off and extract the bearings and spindles. There is a bike shop not far from the marina.

“I’ll just nip along to that cycle shop”, I say to the First Mate. “Hopefully, I can miss the rain. I’ll meet you back at the boat.”

“No, I am sorry that we don’t have those tools”, the shop assistant says, when I get there. “Most bikes we deal with these days have sealed bearings and use different tools. You could try Hensen’s though. They might have them”

I look up ‘cycles’ and ‘Hensen’ on Google Maps. It tells me the shop is a couple of miles from the boat, but in another direction. Unfortunately there is also a steep hill to deal with. I need the parts though, so I decide to give it a go. Just at that moment, it starts to rain.

I reach Hensen’s bike shop completely soaked. The owner has an enormous bushy beard and his hair tied back in a pony-tail, and is the spitting image of Gimli from Lord of the Rings. So this is where he ended up. I do a quick scan around the shop to see if Legolas and Aragorn are there too, but they must have gone off for lunch. I explain which tools I need.

“I am sorry”, says Gimli, stroking his beard. “We don’t have those tools any more. They are not used very much these days. But you could try Hensen’s Autoparts. They might have them. They are on the other side of the city.”

I realise that this is probably the Hensen’s that the first cycle shop meant. The rain is torrential now. I speed down the hill again. The brakes are not working very well because of the water. Another hill looms through the sheets of rain. Tired, wet and cold, I pant my way to the top of it and eventually find Hensen’s AutoParts.

“Yes, we have those parts you need”, says the helpful assistant. “Is it raining outside? You look a bit damp.”

Back at the boat, I stand in the cockpit while the water drains from my clothes. A small pool forms around my feet.

“You’re all wet”, says the First Mate. “Did you fall in the harbour or something?”

A defeat, a quiet anchorage, and some ecowarriors

We leave Flensburg in the morning after topping up with fuel. The tank is still half full, and it is the first top up since we started. Most of it is because we were required to motor through the Kiel Canal, so we haven’t been doing too badly. So far this season, there has been a lot of wind, and we have been making the most of it.

We arrive at the Sønderborg marina on the south side of the town and tie up. It’s a box berth, but we are getting fairly experienced in box berths now, and we glide in gracefully and don’t even miss lassoing the poles on the way in or bump the bow against the pontoon.

“We’ll have to get used to calling everything a ‘-borg’ now that we are in Denmark, rather than a ‘-burg’ as we do in Germany, or a ‘-burgh’ as we do in Scotland”, says the First Mate.

“Not only that, I’ll have to look out how to do all these ‘ø’s, ‘å’s, ‘ö’s and ‘ä’s on my keyboard”, I respond. “Why can’t you Europeans just keep it simple? Twenty-six letters without all this fancy stuff on top are quite enough.”

We cycle into town and check out the shops. The prices are eye-watering.

“I’m glad that we did the ‘big shop’ in Flensburg”, says the First Mate. “At least we have enough to keep us going for the meantime.”

I shudder. My shoulders still haven’t resumed their normal shape.

Checking the prices!

“Look at all these umbrellas hanging up in the street”, says the First Mate. “I wonder what they signify?”

“Shoes in Flensburg, umbrellas in Sønderborg”, I say. “Do you notice a pattern here? It’ll be underpants in the next town.”

“Don’t be silly”, she says.

Mary Poppins town.

The next day, the water has risen again due to a wind change. We can hardly climb back into the boat from the pontoon which is fixed and not floating.

“I know”, says the First Mate. “We can use those little folding steps that we bought in Hoorn. I knew they would come in useful some time.”

They work brilliantly.

The next step.

The night air chills our bones, and we wrap our cloaks tighter around us and try to snatch what sleep we can. All the way down the hillside are fires, the orange flames leaping skywards as the soldiers throw on more logs. On the hill opposite are the fires of the enemy. I recall playing as a child on the ground that is now under their control. But it won’t be for long. Tomorrow we will show them, and drive them from the land that is rightfully ours, all the way back to the Danevirke.

“We should never have withdrawn from the Danevirke”, says my friend Johan, his face lit by the flickering flames. “It is the border of our country and a symbol of our nation. Abandoning it seems like a dereliction of duty.”

“The swamps at each end of it had frozen”, I say. “The enemy could have ignored the fortifications and just marched around the ends of it. We would have been outflanked. Now try and get some sleep.”

The Retreat from the Danevirke (from Wikimedia Commons).

We are awoken in the middle of the night by the dull thunder of the enemy cannon. Seconds later, the balls strike the wooden palisades of our redoubts, destroying them in showers of splinters. Grenades fly through the air behind our lines and explode in deafening claps. The enemy have launched their attack. We leap to our feet, out bodies still cold, tired and exhausted. The gun-smoke irritates our eyes, making it difficult for us to see what is happening. Behind us, the Dybbol Mill is hit and bursts into flames, lighting up the sky like a portent of doom.

In the morning, the Prussians charge our positions. Our men put up a stubborn fight and manage to beat them off. Heroes, every one of them. Our warship, the Rolf Krake, bombards the enemy positions from the bay. The Prussians have no warships and can do nothing about her. Things seem to be going well after all.

But slowly the tide turns. The enemy outnumber us and have modern rifles that they can reload lying down, while we need to stand up and are easy targets. They mount charge after charge, and eventually break through and capture one of our redoubts. And another. And another. Our men lie dead and dying around us. I look for Johan, but he is nowhere to be seen.

“National Retreat”, Martin Bigum, 1996.

We fall back to cross the bridge over the Alsund to Sönderborg. Defeat is written in the faces of the exhausted and dirty soldiers and the civilians that trudge along the road through the mud and snow. We have lost the battle and the war. What will happen now?

One of the stragglers, a young girl, is struggling with a baby in one arm and a bag of her possessions. I put my arm around her to stop her from falling …

“Hey, what do you think you are doing?”, a familiar voice says. “We’re in public, you know!”

It’s the First Mate, of course.

“I was just giving you a hygge”, I say.

We are at the Dybbol Mill on the hill overlooking Sønderborg, the site of the last battle of the Second Schleswig War in 1864, in which the Danes were defeated by the Prussian Army. I am imagining what it might have been like for a Danish soldier during the battle. It has particular resonance with the Danish psyche as it was the battle that lost them the southern part of Jutland to the Germans for more than 50 years. To make matters worse, the Danevirke, a line of fortifications built in AD 650 as a defence against the Saxons and later the Franks, and nowadays the symbol of their national pride, had been within that lost territory, a situation that continues to this day even though the northern part of Schleswig has been returned to them.

Dybbol Mill and memorial to the 1864 battle.

We cycle back into town to the museum at Sønderborg Castle. The castle was built around 1200 as a royal palace, but was later taken over by the dukes who ruled Southern Jutland (Sønderjylland) stretching from the River Kongea in the north to the River Eider in the south.

Sønderborg Castle and museum.

The focus of the museum is on the archaeology and history of the region, particularly the tussles between Germany and Denmark over its sovereignty. Woodrow Wilson’s principle of a ‘people’s right to self-determination’ and the resulting referenda at the end of WW1 to settle the question are described in detail. While it was probably the fairest solution, it has still left national minorities on both sides of the modern day border.

The point is made several times that archaeology is more than just a science – it is also a tool to establish ownership of territory as part of a nation. In the 19th century, many of the finds were examined minutely to see if they were more ‘Danish’ or more ‘German’. Nowadays, helped by membership of the EU, there seems to be more cooperation between the two sides, and archaeologists focus on working together to further the science rather than ownership of a particular piece of land.

Spearheads and sword blades in Sønderborg museum. Danish or German?

We leave the marina at 0900 the next morning and join the queue waiting for the Christian X bridge to open at 0938.

“I wonder why they chose 38 minutes past the hour to open the bridge”, muses the First Mate. “Couldn’t they have made it a round 40 minutes?”

Whatever the reason, the bridge opens punctually at 0938 and we follow the flotilla of other boats through to the Alsund, the stretch of water between South Jutland and the island of Als. The wind is from the north-west, and is a gentle breeze, just enough to allow us to sail majestically along the sound.

The bridge opens and we join the procession.

We arrive in Dyvig, a small inlet where we have decided to stay the night. Entrance into the small bay at the end is through a narrow buoyed channel about 15 m wide, which we need to negotiate carefully. We drop anchor in 5 m of water on the northern side of the bay where a few other boats are also anchored, and spend the rest of the day relaxing in the warm sunshine.

The next morning I awake to the sight of dappled light playing on the cabin roof reflected through the small side window. I make a cup of tea for myself and go and sit on deck. It is warm and sunny. The water is like a mirror, only the occasional zephyr of wind rippling it momentarily before it returns to its stillness. The other boats drift lazily at anchor, trees lean out over the water, the reflections of both almost perfect images of the real thing. All is quiet.

Except that it is not. As I relax I start to hear sounds that I am not normally aware of, sounds that my brain normally filters out because they are of no use to me in my daily life. Small birds chirrup. Wood pigeons coo in the trees along the water’s edge. A lone seagull mews as it flies overhead. Swans honk on the shingle spit protruding out into the water. A crow calls raucously, then flaps off into the distance. A fish breaks the surface, spreading ever-widening ripples. A cormorant takes to the air, its wing tips beating a rhythmic sound on the surface as it struggles to gain height. A heron stalks primly next to the bank of rushes, from time to time plunging its bill into the water like a stiletto and withdrawing it with a wriggling fish.

I focus still further, and begin to hear a gentle thrum of sound deeper down – the hum of bees, the chirp of insect legs, the rustling of leaves – almost like virtual particles winking in and out of existence, so low that I wonder if I am imagining it. But it is there.

A quiet anchorage.

I close my eyes and allow my mind to drift where it wants. Time stops. I am floating, detached from, and yet part of, the natural world around me.

There is a loud splash. Someone from one of the other boats has dived into the water. The world of humans once again asserts its dominance, and my reverie is shattered. It’s time for breakfast.

We weigh anchor at 1000 and set off for Faaborg. There is absolutely no wind, and we need to motor for the first couple of hours. The First Mate goes down below for a nap.

“You know”, says a familiar voice. “I overheard you talking last night about your visits to Dybbol Mill and the museum, and what makes a nation. So I thought I would do a bit of reading on the web.”

It’s Spencer. If you remember from last year, he found a way of linking his web into the Worldwide Wide Web and has become very knowledgeable on a lot of things.

“But I really wonder if the nation state will continue much longer”, he continues. “Its’s only a relatively new concept in the history of human affairs, and already there are a lot of things wrong with it.”

“Like what?”, I ask.

“Well, a nation is supposed to be a grouping of ethnically similar people with a common language, culture, history and territory”, he says. “Most modern nations are anything but that. Take many countries in Africa as examples – most were created on a map by Europeans with no regard for tribal differences and shared languages, and borders often just represented arrangements made between the European colonisers on their areas of influence. Most of the war in the last 100 years or so have been over territory and resources and who owns them. Even here in Denmark, the way that Schleswig was divided between ethnic Germans and Danes still causes unease.”

“I know the nation state concept is not perfect”, I say defensively. “But it is the best we have, and it works. Sort of.”

“Possibly”, says Spencer. “But the forces of the 21st century are causing it to creak at the seams. Globalisation and the internet, for example, are making a mockery of national borders. Some big companies have budgets greater than many countries and others already do things that governments used to do, such as surveillance and mapping. The wealthy are able to escape national restrictions, and governments have lost control over the flows of money that may be generated in their own countries. Where is the nation state in all of this? What we really need is a supranational form of government that national governments are subject to.”

“I am not sure that a world government would gain much traction”, I say.

A tall ship is approaching us, and I break off the conversation to alter course slightly to avoid a collision.

A tall ship passes us.

“Look at the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan”, Spencer continues after it has passed. “Twenty years the western countries have tried to build a nation there, and it collapses within weeks after they withdraw. Not exactly a success story. Many in the Muslim world have lost faith in the western concept of a nation state as a form of governance, and want to restore the glories of their past empires, based on their religion. Empires, after all, were the main form of governance for much of human history.”

“But they all fell in the end”, I say. “Most sowed the seeds of their own destruction by overreaching themselves so that they couldn’t afford the costs of maintaining them. Look at the Roman and British Empires, for example.”

“True, but some did achieve a lot while they lasted”, he says. “The Ottoman Empire lasted 700 years and generated amazing prosperity and cultural achievement before it finally declined. Look, I am not saying that more empires are the solution – just that we need different forms of government than the nation state to solve the problems of climate change, globalisation, big data, and all the rest of it. They need to operate at the level of global economic flows so they can be controlled, not underneath it.”

We are approaching Faaborg, and I need to concentrate on entering the harbour. We find a place on the inner pier and tie up. I look for Spencer to continue the conversation, but there is no sign of him.

Tied up in Faaborg harbour.

We have lunch and go to explore the town. Faaborg is an old port, dating to before the 1200s. It became prosperous as a trading centre, trading as far afield as England and the Mediterranean. Nowadays its quaint houses and streets make it a popular tourist attraction.

Faaborg clock tower.
House in Faaborg.
If you can work out what’s going on here, drop us a line.

Just as we are thinking of retiring for the night we hear shouts outside, the sound of an engine, and some bumping of wood against wood.

“I think that we have some new neighbours”, says the First Mate.

I go out to see what is going on. Sure enough, a boat has arrived, and is trying to manoeuvre itself alongside the pier behind us. The darkness is making it difficult. I go and help.

“We are sailing around the archipelago and stopping at different harbours to raise awareness about pollution of our seas”, says the woman, as she throws a rope to me. “It is still legal to dump construction rubble in the seas, and many companies are doing it. Some of it contains toxic material, which is permitted below a certain level, but no-one checks, and many companies are dumping material that is above the limit. It’s killing off sea life. By the way, my name is Vibeke.”

In the morning, I chat to the skipper of the boat.

“Vibeke is a politician”, he says. “She is really concerned about the environment. We are old friends, and I am retired, and this year we thought it might be a good idea to sail to different places to protest about the pollution. There is a harbour fete here today, and we are distributing pamphlets.”

Vibeke appears from the boat to make a video of their plans for the day. Shortly afterwards it appears on her Facebook page. Later in the day, we see her handing out leaflets at the harbour fete.

New neighbours tie up behind us.

“It’s good to see some genuine concern for the environment from a politician”, says the First Mate.