Meta-modernism, temporary imprisonment, and a homecoming

Back at Slagsta Marina, we spend the next few days preparing Ruby Tuesday for lifting out. Down come the sails, the bimini, splash hood, and the cockpit tent. The oil and fuel filters are replaced, and both engine and gearbox get new oil. Ropes are washed and stowed away. The fuel tank is topped up to avoid condensation and biocide added to prevent growth of diesel bug. The rubber dinghy is cleaned and stowed.

Cleaning the dinghy.

In the evening, we relax in the cockpit with our glasses of wine and watch the sun go down. Clouds scurry across the sky making patterns against the deepening blue.

“I really love this boat life”, says the First Mate. “What surprised me the most was realising how little you need to get by on, and yet still enjoy life. We have our home with us wherever we go, and really have not spent a lot, apart from buying food and from the occasional entry fee to go and see things like castles, museums and exhibitions.”

“And the winds were good too”, I say. “We used less fuel than in other years – we haven’t even used one tankful for the whole season. And we did a lot more anchoring this year too, so marina fees were less than normal. And we had friends and relations visit us, and made some new ones. What more can you ask for?”

I had read an article saying that during and since the pandemic and lockdowns, the number of people re-evaluating the narrative of their lives and giving up their jobs to go off and do something different has markedly increased. We had made that decision well before the pandemic – we have been sailing every summer now for five years and are still enjoying it – so much so that we see it more of a way of life than a summer holiday. Life takes on a different rhythm, governed by a combination of the great forces of nature – the weather systems far out into the Atlantic and the resulting winds and sea currents – and our own whims and fancies. The structured world of work seems a long time ago now. Life now is slower, deeper, more satisfying.

And yet, somehow we are both looking forward to getting home too. It is nearly six months that we have been away, but there is a feeling that the season is over. All the hopes and expectations that we had during the planning, and the excitements, worries and fears during the voyage, are now in the past. We feel full – of experiences and memories – but it is now time for a season of reflection to extract some meaning from all that we have seen and done.

There is a knock on the side of the boat. It’s Willie. Willie is Finnish, but has lived in Sweden for most of his life. He likes to chat. The conversation drifts to having Russia as a neighbour.

“Ah, it’s all western propaganda about how terrible they are”, he says. “”You can’t believe anything. It’s all down to your perspective. If you live in Russia you believe that the Ukraine war is justified, if you live in Sweden, you don’t. So what is truth? There is no such thing as absolute truth. Truth is just in our minds, a human construct.”

“I am not so sure”, I say. “I somehow feel that there is a reality out there, independent of the human mind. You can believe what things you like about that reality, but whether those beliefs are true or not depends on how well those beliefs correspond with it. It is the beliefs that are human constructs, not reality itself.”

“Maybe”, says Willie. “But we can never experience that reality because we can’t get outside our beliefs to do so. And because everyone’s individual perspective of the world is different – we all have different backgrounds, personalities, genetic makeup and life experiences – it is impossible to say that there is an absolute reality. So, we end up merely constructing our own personal realities. That’s what I meant when I said that truth is only in our minds.”

“I can see where you are coming from”, I say. “But if we were all just arbitrarily constructing our own realities, there would be total chaos. And some nasty accidents. For example, if my belief of reality says that there is a tree over there, I will avoid walking into it and hurting myself, whereas if your reality says there isn’t, you might just try and walk through it and knock your head. So there seems to be some sort of reality there which we all agree to call a tree. I would say that my belief that the tree is there is a more useful belief than yours that doesn’t, in that mine stops me from hurting myself. You can extend that to all of human science and knowledge – even though there may be a deeper reality we can’t experience directly, our scientific beliefs are close enough to that reality for us to make progress.”

“Ah, the modernist and post-modernist schools of thought”, says Willie. “But perhaps what we should be thinking about is meta-modernism. It tries to bring together modernist and post-modernist ideas, by focusing on complexity, holism, emergence, and links between the natural and social worlds. It sees the universe consisting of four planes of existence: Matter, Life, Mind and Culture. That might help us to understand the way that things work better.”

“Wow, that was all a bit intense”, says the First Mate after he has gone. “But you asked for it!”

“Interesting”, I say. “I will have to read up about it over the winter.”

“Apparently Willie used to be an economist”, another neighbour tells us. “Then he became fed up with the rat race and decided to build a boat and sail around the world to get away from it all. It’s taken him 37 years so far, and there’s still a lot of work to do on it. That’s it over there. You can judge for yourself if he will ever get it finished.”

He points to an object in the far corner of the marina that looks like a cross between a catamaran and an airplane fuselage. Planks and other building debris lie chaotically under the side pontoons. A wisp of smoke emerges from the stovepipe chimney. He has certainly constructed his own reality, I think. Good on him.

An alternative reality?

The day comes for Ruby Tuesday’s lift-out. It’s a dull grey day, signifying the end of summer. We motor over to the slipway, the giant straps of the crane are slipped underneath her, the crane engine revs up, the hydraulic rams extend. Out she comes.

Out for the winter.

Slowly and carefully she is transported over to the washing apron where she is given a high pressure wash. There is not much growth on her.

Cleaning Ruby Tuesday‘s bottom.

Eventually she is taken to her place for the winter. We spend the next few days covering her with tarpaulins to help the snow slide off. Apparently heavy snow that has accumulated has been known to add so much extra weight that the support cradles can buckle or break. I don’t know if that is true or not, but we decided that it is better to be safe than sorry.

Covered against the snow.

It is the last evening, and we have already drained the water system to protect any of the pipes from bursting from ice formation.

“We need some more water just for tonight”, says the First Mate, holding out the five litre bottle. “See if you can find a tap and fill it up, there’s a good chap.”

In the gathering dusk, I wander over to the tap on the small building next to lifting out pad. It’s quiet – all the marina staff have gone home. The handle on the tap has gone. I frown; it was definitely there earlier in the day. Not to worry – there are taps and hoses on each of the pontoons. I head towards the first one and press the key fob against the sensor. There is a click and I push the gate open. The gate closes behind me.

I fill up the bottle, put the screw top on, and press the fob against the sensor pad on the gate again. Nothing happens. I turn it over and try again. Again, nothing. I am stuck on the seaward side of the pontoon, not able to get back on land. And with no phone to call anyone. For a brief moment, I consider climbing over the gate or around the sides, but the builders have done a good job – curled razor wire puts paid to that idea.

Perhaps one of the boats has someone in it. I walk along the pontoon, but every one is empty. On the neighbouring pontoon, someone is working on their boat. I call out. He comes around to the gate.

“My key fob won’t work in that gate”, he says. “Each fob is specific to a pontoon.”

“Perhaps you could let my wife know that I am stuck?”, I ask.

He goes off. A few minutes later he reappears with the First Mate.

“Now I have got you where I want you”, she says, grinning. “I can do anything I want now.”

“It’s serious”, I say. “I might be stuck here for the night. And I am getting cold.”

The three of us stand looking at each other trying to think of a solution.

“What about getting one of those small dinghies over there?”, I say, somewhat desperately. “You could push it over to me, and I could paddle back to land in it.”

“I think they are all locked to the stack”, says our companion doubtfully.

They are. Suddenly, we see someone walking in the distant gloom.

“Maybe he has a key”, says our companion. “I’ll see if I can catch him.”

A few minutes later, he returns with a man. It’s the night watchman. He thinks that his key might work. He fishes into his pocket and unlocks the gate.

Relief floods over me. I am free again.

“Phew, that was lucky”, I say. “I really thought that I was stuck on the pontoon until the staff arrived in the morning. But at least we have our water.”

“There’s a tap out here”, says the night-watchman, pointing to a tap just outside the gate. “Why didn’t you use that one? No need to go on to the pontoon.”

I hadn’t seen it. I suddenly feel very silly, like the time I was late for school assembly and tripped over in front of the whole school in my haste. I was five years old then. Am I in my second childhood, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything, as Shakespeare might say?

“Come on”, says the First Mate, taking my arm, laughing. “Let’s get the old man home for the night.”

Accidental incarceration.

We have booked a taxi for the next morning to take us to the train station from where we will catch a train and then a bus to the airport. There are a lot of frantic last minute jobs to do before then, and we are running late.

“I’ll go over and meet the taxi”, says the First Mate. “You can just finish off the last few little things. I’ll ring you when he arrives.”

A few minutes later, my phone rings. It’s the First Mate.

“Hurry up”, she says. “The taxi is waiting. He’s charging us for it.”

Attending to the last minute jobs.

I take the ladder over to the shed where it came from, and run back to pick up my rucksack. As I do so, I notice that I have forgotten to close the stern gate. I can’t reach it, and there’s no time to rush back and grab the ladder again. Luckily Jan, our neighbour is on his boat.

“Jan, would you mind closing the stern gate for us?”, I ask. “The taxi is waiting and I don’t have time to get the ladder again.”

“Sure, no problem”, he says.

We make it to the station with minutes to spare, and settle into our seats in the train.

“That was a bit hectic”, says the First Mate. “At one stage there, I didn’t think that we were going to make it. But at least we can relax now.”

My phone rings. It’s Jan.

“I closed the back gate for you”, he says. “But while I was doing so, I noticed that you had left the keys in the starter panel. What shall I do with them?”

I sigh. There’s always something.

“Jan, if you don’t mind, could you leave them with marina reception”, I say. “They can look after them for the winter. Thanks very much.”

We make it to the airport and climb aboard. Our plane taxies down the runway and claws for the sky like a giant cormorant.

Flying over Lake Mälaren as dusk falls.

“I reckon I can just about see Ruby Tuesday”, I say, looking out of the window as the dusk starts to fall over Lake Mälaren. “I feel a bit sad that we are leaving her behind. She’s been our home for nearly six months. I hope that she will survive the Swedish winter.”

“Me too”, says the First Mate. “We’ve had a great season. But I am sure she will be all right. She’ll be glad to see us again next year.”


A breeze stirs, bringing more leaves down with a rustle and stirring those already on the ground into a miniature whirlwind and dropping them against the dead grass at the bottom of the fence. We stop at the stone bridge and admire the reds, yellows and browns of autumn, the cold afternoon sunlight filtering through the sparse tree canopies, casting long shadows on the muddy path in front of us. Somewhere above us, a wood pigeon coos, while in the field next to the small brook a flock of crows swaggers its way between the lifeless stalks of the harvested barley, picking any juicy worm that has been foolish enough to stray too close to the soil surface.

Autumn colours.

The familiar and yet unfamiliar. A newly fallen tree. Broom pods shattered, empty of their seeds. Bracken leaves brown and withered. We had last been here half a year ago. A whole season of birth, life and death has passed us by while we were away.

Death in the woods.

A magpie croaks. A chill wind springs up. We wrap our fleeces tightly around us and continue our walk.

It’s nice to be home.

Familiar territory.

A Viking ‘thing’, a centre of learning, and a royal palace

“Västerås is supposed to be the second most ugly city in Sweden”, says the First Mate. ”Apparently they had a competition a year or so ago, where people had to vote on how beautiful they thought various cities were. Västerås came second from the bottom. Only Borlänge was worse.”

“I have to say that from my first impression I can see why”, I respond. “All I can see is great characterless high-rise apartments everywhere.”

Approaching Västerås from Lake Mälaren.

We are approaching the city of Västerås on the northern shore of Lake Mälaren. We had left Strängnäs in the morning, and had had a pleasant sail northwards driven by a south west wind.

“What do you think that little hut on the water over there is?”, says the First Mate pointing over to our starboard.

“Ah, that must be Västerås’s underwater hotel”, I say. “I was reading about it in the guide book. Let’s go and have a look at it.”

The Utter Inn, Västerås.

The Utter Inn, or Otter Inn in English, is an art project by artist Mikael Genberg. It has two storeys – the entrance and balcony above water and the bedroom below water. A boat is provided to row yourself out, and you can supposedly wake up to fish swimming past your window.

“Cool”, says the First Mate. “A hotel with a difference!”

We push on to the marina. There is supposed to be a gästhamn here, but we can’t see it. We turn right and motor gingerly up the fairway, but the depth drops alarmingly to 10 cm.

“It’s getting a bit shallow”, I say. “I don’t want to run aground. I’ll reverse, and perhaps we can ask that chap working on his boat over there where we should go.”

“You were on the right track”, the man says. “Just keep going. It is about two meters depth, but you will make it. The gästhamn is right at the end. These are all private berths here.”

We eventually find it, but the berths are too small for our length and beam. The only spare place is on the end of the pontoon. There is no one to help us catch our lines, so I allow the wind to blow us down into place. The depth shows zero on the display. The keel must be almost resting in the mud.

In the morning we unload the bikes and cycle into town. It’s the day of the Swedish elections, and there are election posters everywhere. People are queuing outside the town hall and other places to vote.

Voters queue outside the Västerås town hall in the national elections.

For several days, the freemen from the surrounding areas had been arriving at the sacred mounds of their forefathers to attend the Thing, tying up their boats in the small bay in front of the mounds or leaving their horses in the hands of their slaves to find grazing for. Normally they would come to the Thing to settle disputes, trade and socialise, but this one was different. A new king had been elected by the Swedes in Uppland, and they were there to discuss whether this man was worthy to be their king in Västra Aros. For two days now, they had been listening to the fine speeches and arguments as different views were put forward, and had been drinking and eating in small groups gathered around fires as they deliberated throughout the night.

Anundshög Viking burial mound.

Now on the third day, the king-elect will present himself and make his case for them to accept him as their king. In reality, they don’t have a choice, as the Westrogothic law states that the Swedes of Uppland have the right to elect kings, and the other tribes have to accept it.

There is an air of expectancy as the men take their places in the Thing building marked out in the shape of a Viking long-ship by large standing stone, the richest and most powerful in the front, the less well off towards the back. At noon, there is a clatter of hooves as a large group of richly-dressed men on horseback canter their way along the dusty road from where they had been staying nearby and make their way towards the mounds. They slow to a trot as they splash their way over the ford across the small brook to the east of the mound area. A shout goes up from the assembled crowd. It is the newly elected king and his heavily-armed retinue. They dismount in front of the rune-stone, and proceed up the path to the Thing building and take their places in front of the assembled gathering.

Remains of the ship-shaped Thing building.

The law-speaker stands and faces the assembly, lifting his arms into the air. The assembly falls silent.

“Men of Västra Aros”, he says in a loud voice. “As you know, the death of our beloved King Inge, poisoned by the treacherous Östergötlanders, has meant that we need a new king. After much deliberation, the men of Uppland have chosen one Ragnvald Knaphövde who is now on his Ericsgata to the provinces. May I present the king-elect.”

There is a fanfare of trumpets. Ragnvald Knaphövde stands.

“I am Ragnvald Knaphövde, son of Olof Näskonung”, he says, establishing his credentials. “I have been elected king by the nobles of Uppland at our sacred Stones of Mora for my prowess in battle. I will also now be your king. I promise to protect you from your enemies and make you prosper. In return I expect your loyalty. Will you have me as your king? Yea or nay?”

There is a silence for a few seconds, then an almighty roar.

“Yes, Ragnvald for our king”, shouts the crowd of assembled warriors, clashing their swords against their shields. “We swear allegiance to Ragnvald. Ragnvald! Ragnvald for king!”

I am at the Anundshög Viking burial mound site to the north-east of Västerås, the mounds supposedly the largest in Sweden. In addition to the mounds themselves, there are five ship structures traced out in standing stones. In front of the mounds and stone ships is a line of standing stones, supposedly marking out the edge of the Ericsgata road passing the site. A runestone in this line of stones tells us that ‘Folkvid raised all of these stones after his son Heden, Anund’s brother, and that Vred carved the runes’.

Rune stone at the edge of the Ericsgata.

I have been imagining the Ericsgata of one Ragnvald Knaphövde, who was elected King of Sweden around 1130. Unfortunately Ragnvald probably would have qualified for a Darwin Award if they had been around at the time. It was customary in those febrile times for the king-elect to travel with hostages from the noble families of each province to guarantee his own safety, but Ragnvald decided to dispense with his. Regrettably, when he got to the province of Västergötland, he was killed as the people there preferred their own king.

“It just shows that you shouldn’t take things for granted”, says the First Mate when I meet her later over a coffee in town. “King Charles the Third needs to be careful when he goes to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. There’s a lot of discussion about whether we need a monarch in this day and age.”

“At least the Vikings elected theirs”, I say. “Perhaps we should try that. It’s only later it became a hereditary affair. But how did you get on?”

“Well, I had a good look around the town”, she says. “It’s not as bad as I thought from the votes it got. The old town and the river is quite pretty. The castle is not as picturesque as some we have seen, but it is intact at least. Oh, and the museum and art gallery were interesting. It’s only when you get to the outskirts it looks a bit suburban.”

River Svartån, Västerås.
Västerås Castle.
‘Horse in six parts’, bronze, Västerås.
Office block, Västerås.

On the way back to the boat for dinner, we pass the water-sports facility and watch the wake-boarders doing their tricks.

Wake-boarding, Water-Sports Centre, Västerås.

The next morning, we slip the lines and edge our way out of the marina, heading for the small island of Gröneborg on the north shore of Lake Mälaren, 20 NM away, where we have decided to anchor for a day or two. The wind is variable, sometimes blowing 20 knots, other times just a light breeze.

Heading for Gröneborg.

We eventually reach the island and circle it looking for a good spot to stay. The wind is blowing from the north-west, so we find a smooth patch of water on the leeward side and drop the anchor.

“It’s lovely”, says the First Mate. “Good choice!”

Anchored off the island of Gröneborg.

There is hill fort on the southern tip of the small island, so I drop the dinghy from the stern and row over to a small sandy beach. A rather indistinct path leads from the beach up the side of the hill. From time to time I lose it and have to retrace my footsteps, but eventually make it to the top. Sure enough, there are the remains of some kind of fortification smothered in grass and bracken. No-one really knows much about who built it but it is strategically placed, guarding the entrance to Enköping. But the view is superb.

Hill fort remains, Gröneborg.
View from the hill fort, Gröneborg.

In the evening, we sit in the cockpit and sip our wine.

“Look at all the geese over there”, I say. “This must be one of their favourite spots. There are so many of them.”


“Isn’t that a sea-eagle coming towards us?”, exclaims the First Mate excitedly, pointing to the sky.

Sure enough it is. I reach for the camera and manage to squeeze off a couple of random shots. The giant bird flaps its way languidly over us and disappears behind the trees on the island.

“It reminds me of the time we saw that one off Soay Island on the west coast of Scotland”, I say.

White-tailed sea-eagle, Gröneborg.

We weigh anchor the next morning, and head eastwards towards Kungsängen.

“There are a whole lot of boats just coming down on the other side of the island”, shouts the First Mate from the bow. “I think it is some kind of race. We’ll need to watch out for them.”

Yacht race, Gröneborg.

Sure enough, clear of the island, we find ourselves with boats all around us. One looks as if it is going to ram us from behind, but at the last minute veers off to starboard with a cheery wave. We follow them for a while, but eventually we reach an island where we take the port side and they take the starboard side. We don’t see them again.

Eventually we reach the inlet leading to Kungsängen, and turn into it.

“There’s a big squall coming up behind us”, shouts the First Mate. “I think that we are going to get wet.”

Five minutes later the squall hits us. Water pours off the cockpit tent and bimini in torrents. In minutes everything in the cockpit, including myself, is drenched. Visibility drops to almost zero.

“I’ll try and get into the lee of this island”, I shout. “Then we can chuck the anchor out and wait for it to go off. I am hoping it is only a shower.”

Waiting out the rain squall.

It is, but it lasts half-an-hour. Eventually, it eases off, the sun comes out, and we continue into Kungsängen. The marina looks deserted. Luckily a couple appear from somewhere and help us tie up.

“You’re lucky to have caught us”, they say. “We are just off for a couple of weeks, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone else here at the marina. Here’s the code for the toilets and showers. Enjoy Kungsängen!”

They disappear. It starts to rain again, this time setting in for the evening. There’s nothing for us to do except read and watch videos while the rain pelts down outside. At least we are dry and cosy.

Tied up in Kungsängen marina.

“I would quite like to see Uppsala”, says the First Mate in the morning. “I know that our mast is too high to get under the bridge at Stäket, so why don’t we go by train up there for a day? I looked it up last night – we can get one into Stockholm, then another out to Uppsala.”

“Sounds like a good idea”, I say.

We arrive in Uppsala at lunchtime. We find a place on the main street that does a mean mushroom soup and freshly-baked bread rolls. While we eat, the First Mate reads the tourist guide that she picked up at the station.

Looking for somewhere for lunch in Uppsala.

“Uppsala is the fourth largest city in Sweden”, she tells me. “Since the 1100s, it has been the ecclesiastical centre of Sweden, and has a cathedral, castle and university. The university is the oldest centre of higher learning in Scandinavia. The city is also a thriving biotechnology centre.”

“Mmmm, that was good”, I say, finally catching the last mushroom slice as it slithers around the bowl. “Now let’s go and explore.”

Towards the end of the main street, several people are entering and leaving a gate in a wall.

“It’s Linnaeus’s house and garden”, I read on the notice outside. “We have to have a look. Linnaeus was a famous Swedish botanist and best known for coming up with the way to name living things. It’s called the binomial system of nomenclature, to be technical. Everything has a genus name and a species name. You know, like us humans are called Homo sapiens or some of the dinosaurs were called Tyrannosaurus rex.”

Linnaeus’s garden, Uppsala.

We reach the end of the main street, and take the road leading up to the cathedral. It was built in the 1200s and is supposed to be the tallest church in Scandinavia. The Archbishop of the Church of Sweden has his seat there, and for a long time it was where the kings and queens of Sweden were crowned.

Church of Sweden, Uppsala.

We continue on to the main university building.

“Look you can see the names of some of the famous people who worked at he University”, I say, pointing to high up on the façade. ”Linnaeus we have already seen, but there’s also Celsius who developed the temperature scale, and Arrhenius, who was one of the fathers of climate science and worked out the relationship between CO2 and temperature.”

Main university building, Uppsala.

High on a hill overlooking the city is the castle. It was built in the 16th century by none other than our old friend Gustav Vasa. Since then, it has been burnt down a couple of times, reconstructed and added to, to give the structure that we see today.

Uppsala Castle.

These days it is used as the official residence of the County Governor of Uppsala County, the regional archives, and the Art Museum.

The First Mate enjoying the Art Gallery, Uppsala.

“Well, that was an interesting day”, says the First Mate on the way back. “I am glad we did that.”

“I agree”, I say. “It’s just a pity that we couldn’t have sailed up the river to there. That would have been pretty cool.”

We slip the lines the next morning and sail southwards, heading back to Slagsta where Ruby Tuesday will stay for the winter.

“We’ll pass close to Drottningholm Palace on the way”, I say. “Shall we anchor in front of it and have a cup of tea?”

“Sounds a good idea”, says the First Mate.

Drottningholm Palace is the official residence of the Swedish Royal family. It was built in 1580, replacing an earlier royal residence. In the 1660s it was destroyed by fire, but was rebuilt in the present form.

We turn off the main fairway and wend our way between several small islands to the Palace, approaching it from the south. Before long, it appears from behind one of the islands. We furl the sails and motor into the small bay in front of it and drop the anchor in five metres of water. Just at that moment, the sun comes out.

Anchored in front of Drottningholm Palace.

“It’s beautiful”, says the First Mate. “I wouldn’t mind living here.”

“Yes, but think of the cleaning”, I say. “Keeping something the size of Ruby Tuesday clean is bad enough – that would be hundreds of times worse!”

“Hmm, you have a point there”, she says. “OK, take a few pictures while I put the kettle on, then we had better get going. We need to get Slagsta before it gets too late.”

A poisoned king, religious turmoil, and spilt tea

“Look, I can see the castle”, shouts the First Mate from the bow. “It looks stunning. Just like a fairy-tale one.”

We are arriving in Mariefred, a town on the shores of Lake Mälaren. We had left Birka around 1000 in the morning and for a while had caught the wind from the north, skimming along at a good speed on a comfortable beam reach. Then we had had to turn south into the long inlet leading to Mariefred, and the wind, now from behind, had dropped to a mere breeze. We had goose-winged by rigging the genoa to one side and the mainsail to the other, but it hadn’t made much difference and we had resigned ourselves to a sedate two knots for the duration. But we had been in no hurry, and had relaxed and read. Eventually the towers of Gripsholm Castle had come into view at the end of the inlet.

Coming into Mariefred, Gripsholm Castle on the left.

“Do a loop around it”, calls the First Mate. “So we can get some photos.”

I start the engine and we take in the sails. We make a loop around the bay to see the castle from the sunlit side. Cameras click furiously.

“I have always wanted to live in a place with a turret, ever since I was a little girl”, says the First Mate. “That’ll do me just fine.”

“You should have married a Prince”, I mutter.

“I can see a blue buoy just next to the marina”, calls the First Mate again. “I think it is one of those SXK buoys we are allowed to use. We could tie up there and save messing around berthing in the marina. We can go without shore power for another night.”

We motor in slowly, and slip the Heiks-hook into the ring of the buoy. It’s probably just my imagination, but I think I see one or two disapproving looks from the fishermen on the promenade, wondering whether we have the right to use the buoy. I fetch the Bojflagga sign from the cabin and display it prominently just to be sure.

Tied up to the SXK buoy in front of Gripsholm Castle.

“This is the life”, says the First Mate as she stretches out luxuriously, a cup of coffee in her hand and the sun streaming into the cockpit. “I can pretend that the turret is mine for the night.”

Refreshed, we decide to explore the town. We untie the dinghy and row ashore.

“I read that Mariefred means ‘Peace of Mary’ after the Charterhouse that used to be here”, says the First Mate on the way. “And that for historical reasons it is referred to as a city even though there are only 3000 people here. Normally a place would have to have 10,000 people to be classified as a city.”

We walk up to the station. A narrow gauge railway runs from Mariefred to Strängnäs, but because it is the end of the season and also a Sunday, everything is quiet.

Mariefred railway station.

Further on is the entrance to the castle. Outside is a runestone that was found when it was being renovated.

Runestone outside Gripsholm Castle.

We find ourselves back on the main street. Most of the shops are closed.

Mariefred main street.

We walk back past the picturesque old church, perched on a hill dominating the town.

Mariefred church.

That evening, I read the guide book on the history of the castle. It has belonged to the Royal Family since the days of our old friend Gustav Vasa I in the early 1500s, who had demolished a previous castle on the site and rebuilt it as a fortress, much the same as he had done at Kalmar, Bornholm and several other places. Gustav’s eldest son Erik, who had succeeded him as King of Sweden, had imprisoned his brother John in the castle, but later the tables were turned when John had imprisoned him. The Castle is now a museum and houses the National Portrait Gallery.

History from the mists of time?

“Interesting”, says the First Mate. “I would think that there are worst places to be imprisoned in. But I wonder why the two brothers imprisoned each other? Obviously they didn’t get on too well together?”

“It seems Eric had a mental illness and was a bit unstable”, I say, reading on. “At one stage he had a thing for Queen Elizabeth of England, but she turned him down. Then, after he became King, he convinced himself that his nobles were plotting against him, and had his brother John and his wife imprisoned in the castle. He then had members of one of the powerful families in Sweden massacred. This didn’t go down too well with the others, so all the nobles rose up against him. John took over as king and had Eric imprisoned in the castle.”

“Fair enough, I suppose”, says the First Mate.

“The story doesn’t end there”, I say. “Eric eventually died, apparently after eating a plate of pea soup.”

“Oh dear”, the First Mate interjects. “We had better throw away those tins of pea-and-ham soup in the storeroom. We don’t want stomach problems at this stage.”

“No, no”, I say. “It was deliberate. In the 1950s, they exhumed his body and discovered that it contained very high levels of arsenic. The pea soup had been poisoned to get rid of him.”

In the morning, I wake up early and make myself a cup of tea. I grab the milk carton from the fridge and pour it into the brewed tea. It isn’t the milk, but rather the apple juice. The cartons look almost the same. I sigh. It’s going to be one of those days.

Sure enough, it doesn’t get better. As I put the tea caddy back into the cupboard, the lid springs open somehow and tea leaves go everywhere. Luckily the First Mate is still sleeping. Frantically I try and brush them up. As I open the lid to the fridge to clean the rubber seal where some of the leaves have fallen into, more leaves land on the cheese. Painstakingly, I pick them off. Ten minutes later I survey my efforts. Everything seems to be back to normal.

No use crying over spilt tea.

“I think that I would quite like to find Kurt Tucholsky’s grave”, says the First Mate over breakfast. “I didn’t know that it was here in Mariefred, but I read somewhere that he was buried in the main cemetery.”

“Excuse my ignorance”, I say, “but who was Kurt Tucholsky?”

“Do you mean to say that you’ve never heard of him?”, exclaims the First Mate. “He was a famous German author and satirist between the wars who stood up to the Nazis. Most people in Germany know of him. I used to enjoy reading some of his books when I was younger.”

“My education is ‘gravely’ deficient”, I say.

“Was that supposed to be a joke?”, she says. “If so, it wasn’t very funny.”

We find the location on Google Maps and walk over. The cemetery is huge.

“I wonder how we will find his grave amongst all the others?”, says the First Mate. “I don’t really want to go looking at every one. There must be hundreds.”

“We could always read this map”, I say, pointing to a large map of the cemetery pinned to the church’s notice board at the gate. “It says it is over here.”

We still manage to walk past the grave, but the First Mate eventually finds it.

“He is famous for warning of the dangers of National Socialism before they gained power”, she says. “He was a social democrat, and was against authoritarianism. When the Nazis eventually did gain power, his books and other writings were banned, and he had his German citizenship stripped from him. He moved to Sweden and lived close to Mariefred. We had to read some of his books in school. One of his books was actually a love story called Gripsholm Castle after the castle where we are moored.”

“Perhaps we should try and get hold of a copy”, I say, as we walk back to the town centre. “I would be quite interested in reading it too.”

“Put it on your Amazon wish-list”, says the First Mate. “It can be your Xmas present. As long as I can read it first.”

In the morning we set off for our next destination, Strängnäs. We retrace our track back along the inlet into Mariefred before turning west. It is sunny and the wind is from the north-west. We sail along on a close reach.

En route for Strängnäs.

We arrive at the Stallarholmsbron, the first of the two bridges we need to negotiate. It opens at 1430. As luck would have it, we have ten minutes to wait. I ring the bridge operator to tell him we are waiting, and also that we will be passing through the Tosteröbron further up as well.

Ruby Tuesday, Tosteröbron opens at 1510”, he says. “You’ll have to be quick if you want to get from Stallarholmsbron to there in that time. Its next opening after that is two hours later, at 1710.”

“How far is it?”, I ask.

“About five and a half miles”, he says.

I calculate quickly in my head that we will never make 5½ miles in 40 minutes. That would mean an average speed of more than eight knots. That would be really pushing it.

“I wonder why they don’t synchronise the bridges for sailing boats?”, says the First Mate.

“We might as well give it a go”, I say. “If we miss it, we’ll just have to find a place to anchor and wait a couple of hours.”

We set off following the red and green buoys through the channel. One after the other pass in a blur.

Will we make it in time?

I look at my watch. The bridge will open in ten minutes. I call the bridge operator again.

“We are just passing the island of Sogerön”, I say. “Is there any chance of you holding the bridge?”

“How long do you think you will take?”, he says.

“Probably about 20 minutes”, I say.

“The bridge will be open for ten minutes anyway”, he says. “But if there is a lot of traffic, I’ll have to close it promptly.”

We push on. It’s now 1510. The bridge will be opening, I think to myself.

Five minutes later, we round the point, and the skyline of Strängnäs comes into view.

“The bridge is still open”, shouts the First Mate from the bow. “We could be in with a chance.”

“I’m going as fast as I can”, I shout back. “Fingers crossed that he can keep it open for just a few more minutes.”

“Oh, no”, shouts back the First Mate looking deflated. “It’s closing again. We’re not going to make it.”

Sure enough, the bridge starts to close. My phone rings. It is the bridge operator.

Ruby Tuesday, sorry, I had to close it”, he says. “There was just too much traffic in each direction.”

“Don’t worry”, I say. “We’ll find a place to anchor until the next opening. But thanks for ringing.”

Just a few minutes late.

We drop anchor in a little bay to the side of the bridge. The First Mate brews some tea.

“We are really getting through the tea”, she says. “We only filled the caddy up a few days ago.”

I mutter unintelligibly under my breath about sailing being thirsty work in this hot weather. Luckily, she doesn’t hear me.

Two hours later the bridge opens again, and we are through. Strängnäs marina is just on the other side. We find a berth with a stern buoy and tie up.

We eventually make it through Tosteröbron.

“It’s really pretty here”, says the First Mate. “That windmill up there looks beautiful. Let’s go and explore.”

Ruby Tuesday tied up in Strängnäs marina.

The windmill dates back to the 1630s.

Further on, we come to the cathedral. Around it are panels describing its history.

Strängnäs cathedral.

“Did you see the panel about the Reformation in Sweden?”, says the First Mate, as we leave the cathedral. “Strängnäs seems to have played quite a role in it.”

“No, I missed that”, I say. “What did it say?”

“Well, it seems that up until 1527, the country was dominated by the Catholic Church”, she responds. “But people all over Europe were getting fed up with its corruption, particularly with the luxury the top echelons were living in, and the indulgences where you paid money to obtain a certificate forgiving your sins so that you would go to heaven. The Church was also a powerful political force, and in the Swedish War of Independence from Denmark, the Bishop of Sweden sided with Denmark. Unfortunately for him, the Swedes won, our old friend Gustav Vasa became King, the Kalmar Union was dissolved, and the Bishop had to flee.”

“That’s the sort of thing that would happen to me”, I say. “Choosing the wrong side, I mean.”

“Anyway, Gustav had had enough of the Church meddling in national affairs and decided to break with Rome completely”, she continues. “Looking around, he quite liked what Martin Luther was saying at the time, so with the help of two reformers from Strängnäs, Laurentius Andreae and Olaus Petri, he decided to change the national religion of Sweden to Lutheranism.”

“Just like that?”, I say.

“Just like that”, says the First Mate. “But he didn’t stop there. To hobble the power of the Catholic Church even more, he made himself the head of the new religion rather than some distant Pope living in luxury, made the clergy economically dependent on the Crown rather than the church, insisted that only words from the Bible could be preached, and discouraged Catholic doctrines such as pilgrimages, veneration of saints, confessions and indulgences. He then confiscated all Church property in Sweden, and took it for the Crown. Of course, the fact that he was broke after the war with Denmark had nothing to do with it.”

Gustav Vasa I assumes headship of the Church of Sweden.

“So a pretty thorough make-over, then?”, I say. “One way or another, Gustav Vasa certainly had quite an influence on Sweden. We have bumped into him wherever we go.”

“Well, there were a few wobbles with the new religion – his son King Erik, who was imprisoned in Gripsholm Castle, continued his switch to Lutheranism, but when his brother John got into power, there was a bit of a Counter-Reformation as his wife was a Catholic. But that didn’t last long, and finally in 1593, Sweden proclaimed itself to be a Protestant country and abandoned Catholicism.”

We pass through the main square where the political parties are all out campaigning for the upcoming elections. The Sweden Democrats have a booth.

Sweden Democrats booth.

“I really hope that they don’t win”, whispers the First Mate. “I can’t believe that neo-Nazis can be so close to power in Europe again. What is the world coming to?”

“We will just have to wait and see”, I say, trying to sound philosophical.

We arrive back at the boat and prepare dinner. The First Mate opens the fridge to get the chicken pieces out.

“Yuck!”, she says. “There are a whole lot of tea leaves at the bottom of the fridge. Did you have an accident?”

Faced with the evidence, there is no point in denying it. I fess up.

“But I did try and clean everything up”, I say plaintively. “I must have missed some.”

Trying to change the subject, I turn on BBC Sounds to listen to the news.

“We are just getting news in that the Queen died a few minutes ago”, says Huw Edwards sombrely.

The tea leaves are forgotten.

A Viking trading centre, a mistaken identity, and the early Russians

“Come and see the most amazing sunset”, the First Mate calls from the front deck. “It’s stunning.”

I stop typing the blog and haul myself out of the cabin. She’s right, it is stunning. The small island at the entrance to the bay is silhouetted against the reds and yellows of the sun going down. Picture postcard stuff.

Sunset at Rastaholm.

We are in the small harbour of Rastaholm, on our way to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Birka, the Viking town on the island of Björkö. With about three weeks until the scheduled lift-out of Ruby Tuesday, we had decided to sail further and explore the inner reaches of Lake Mälaren. Rastaholm is on the western side of Ekerö, the same island we had caught the ferry to in the last episode, with about an hour to sail to Birka.

Tied up at Rastaholm marina.

“I told you this was a beautiful place to stop”, says the First Mate. “Let’s get some wine and watch the sun go down.”

“It’s a pity that the restaurant isn’t open”, I say. “It would have been amazing having dinner there overlooking the lake with Björkö in the background. But it seems that last week it closed for the winter. I don’t know why they don’t extend the season to the end of September at least, what with all this beautiful weather we’ve been having.”

Rastaholm restaurant closed for the season.

“I heard from our neighbours over there that the harbourmaster here has had to go in to hospital for a serious operation”, says the First Mate. “Perhaps that is the reason why the restaurant is closed. At least it explains why no-one answered the phone when I rang. I was trying for about three days to see if there was space for us.”

In the morning, I fill the front water tank with water before we leave. As I do so, our neighbour comes over. We start chatting.

“We’ve just got back from a trip to the Caribbean a couple of days ago”, he tells me. “We’ve been away for six months, and are still unpacking. But we found it all quite stressful. I think what you are doing going round Europe is much more relaxing. You can go as far or as little as you like each day and find nice places like here to stay for however long you like. I think we’ll do something like that next. We’ve had enough of these long-distance voyages.”

“Nevertheless, it’s a great achievement to travel cross the Atlantic and back”, I say. “I’ve been following the blog of some of your compatriots on YouTube, RAN Sailing. They’ve been out to the Caribbean too.”

“Ah yes”, he says. “We met them when we were out there. In fact, we are in one of their videos for a few moments. But they’ve sold their boat now and have come back to Sweden as they had some family matters to attend to. And they plan to build their own boat in the meantime.”

“A very ambitious project”, I say, as I screw the water tank lid back on. “I wonder how long that will take? It’ll be interesting to see if they ever get it finished.”

“I agree”, he says. “Time will tell.”

We cast off. There is a light wind, and we arrive at Birka and tie up to the small pontoon that protrudes out into the bay. One other sailing boat is already there. The guided tour starts at 1215 after the tourist boat from Stockholm arrives, and we have enough time for a cup of tea before then.

Tied up in Birka harbour.

“Look, I can see the tourist boat coming”, says the First Mate. “We should go and buy our tickets for the tour before it gets here. It looks pretty full. We don’t want to get stuck in the queue.”

Sure enough, a boat full of tourists is rounding the point. It has come from Stockholm bringing people out on a package tour to the Viking island. The museum and restaurant open specially for it, and close again after they leave. During the off season, the boat, museum and restaurant are only open at weekends.

A group starts to form around a bearded, Viking-looking individual. We join it, making sure that our little stickers are displayed prominently so they know that we have paid.

“Good morning everyone”, says the Viking. “Welcome to Birka. My name is Björn, and I am your guide for the day. I am an archaeologist by training. The tour will take about an hour, then you can have lunch at the restaurant or look through the museum, or both. The boat will leave at 1500. Now if you will just follow me.”

Björn the Viking introduces himself.

We follow him along a track, and past a small cluster of thatched huts. A Viking boat lies tied up to a small jetty at the water’s edge.

“These are just reconstructions to give you an idea of what a Viking village would have looked like”, says Björn the Viking.

Reconstructed Viking village.

We reach a fork in the track where the ground begins to rise.

“The first thing to appreciate is that the coastline has changed considerably since Viking times”, says Björn the Viking. “I have been careful to stand where the land was, but where you are standing now would have all been under water at that time. The land has been rising since the end of the Ice Ages, when the weight of the ice sheets disappeared. It’s called isostatic uplift.”

Björn the Viking explains all about sea levels.

“Let me tell you something of the history of Birka”, he continues. “It was founded around 750 AD, and was Sweden’s first real town. The King at the time wanted to control and benefit from the trade of furs, skins, iron and slaves in return for luxury goods such as gold, silver, glass, silk, wine, and weapons that was starting. At first it was mainly trade around the Baltic Sea, but eventually it extended down the Russian rivers as far as the Islamic world and the Byzantine Christian capital Constantinople, which the Vikings called Miklagård. It also included the west to Dublin, Iceland and the Faroes. It was a vast trading network, and people from all over Europe and Asia came here to trade. It would have been a hive of activity with large merchant houses and smaller craftsmen’s quarters along the water front, boats coming and going in the harbour. Then around 975 AD it all collapsed. No-one really knows why, but it might have been due to the rise of competing trading centres elsewhere on Lake Mälaren, such as the Christian settlement of Sigtuna.”

Artist’s impression of the Viking town of Birka.

We walk up the hill to where there are numerous mounds covered in grass.

Viking burial mounds on Birka.

“These are some of the burial mounds of Birka”, Björn the Viking tells us. “Don’t be squeamish about standing on them. The Vikings had no problems about people standing on their graves – they actually quite liked it and saw it as a mark of respect that you were interacting with them. Many of them were excavated by one of our famous archaeologists, Hjalmar Stolpe, in the late 1800s. There’s a whole lot more of them on that ridge over there.”

He points to a rocky ridge on the north side of a fertile area with grazing cows.

“Who did the graves belong to?”, asks a woman.

“We don’t really know”, says Björn the Viking. “There are around 2300 of them. We assume they must have belonged to influential people of the town or wealthy merchants, as quite a bit of effort has gone in to building them. Someone would have to pay for them. But if you look in the museum later, you will see that they have tried to recreate the lives of some of them from the grave goods that were found lying with them. You can use your own imagination too.”

“Now if you look down there where the cows are grazing”, he continues. “That is where the town itself was located. All the waste was just left to rot where it fell, and over time the soil became very black in colour. It’s very fertile. That’s why the current farmer is grazing his cows there. The archaeologists have also found it a treasure trove of every day objects. Now, come with me. I want to show you perhaps the most interesting grave on the whole island.”

The Black Earth area where Birka town once stood.

We follow him along a small path and climb up to near the wall of the hillfort ruins. We gather round four white stones laid in a rectangle on the grass.

Björn the Viking tells us of the Unknown Warrior’s grave.

“When Hjalmar Stolpe first excavated this grave”, Björn the Viking tells us, “he found a body that had been sitting upright, a sword, spear, axe, fighting knife, arrows, battle knife, two shields, and two horses – a stallion and a mare. Now, if you were an archaeologist, who do you think might have been buried there?”

“A warrior of royal blood?”, says one of the women tourists. “A fighting man.”

“And so did Hjalmar Stolpe, and generations of archaeologists after that”, says Björn the Viking. “So you would be in good company. And you would be partly right. But let me tell you a little story.”

He pauses for effect.

“In the 1970s, one of the archaeologists working on the site, a woman, was examining the warrior’s skeleton, and thought that the pelvic bone looked like it might have come from a woman rather than a man”, he continues. “Of course, that idea didn’t go down too well with the archaeological establishment, mainly male. The controversy raged for several years, but most people believed it to be a male. After all, it’s men who do the fighting, and the woman looks after the babies, right?”

There are several sharp intakes of breath.

“Anyway, when DNA testing came along, they decided to test the DNA in the bones, and lo-and-behold, it turned out to be a woman”, he says with a smile, relishing the moment. “It was quite a shock in the archaeological world, but eventually most people accepted the idea when they saw the evidence. But there are still a few die-hards, including my own professor¸ who refuse to believe it and are searching for alternative explanations. So far they have been totally unsuccessful. So what we have is a female warrior of high status, possibly a commander. She was probably around 35-40 years old when she died. And isotope analysis showed that she was from southern Sweden and moved around a lot.”

Artist’s impression of the Viking Warrior Woman.

“You men are all the same”, whispers the First Mate in my ear. “You can’t accept that women can do the same things as men. Anyway, I find it absolutely amazing how they can work all that out just from her bones. I wonder what they will think if they analyse my bones in a thousand years’ time?”

“They’ll find so much salt in them, they’ll conclude you were a great sailor”, I say.

“What’s that cross up there”, asks one of the tourists, pointing up the hill behind us.

“That cross?”, responds Björn the Viking. “Well, it was built in the 18th century to commemorate St Ansgar who introduced Christianity to Birka in 830 AD. He was from Germany, but was invited by the King of the Swedes to come and preach. He built a church here, but overall wasn’t very successful. A few of the townspeople converted to Christianity, but most stayed with their old gods, the Æsir.”

St Ansgar’s Cross.

The tour is over. We walk back down the track towards the museum.

“I found that really interesting”, says the First Mate. “He did a good job of bringing it alive.”

“As much as you can with burial mounds”, I say. “Let’s go and have some lunch on the boat. Then we can have a look through the museum. There may be less people around then.”

Most of the archaeological finds from Birka are in the National History Museum in Stockholm, with only replicas on display in the small museum here. I had visited the National History Museum when we were in Stockholm, but much to my regret had not had enough time to see the Viking Room.

Nevertheless, we spend an interesting hour looking at the models of what the town might have looked like during Viking times, the lives of some of the people who lived there, and learning of the impacts of the Viking trading networks on Eastern Europe.

Model of Birka harbour in Viking times.

“Fascinating”, says the First Mate afterwards. “I never realised before that the Vikings were the ancestors of the Russians.”

“Well, sort of”, I say, trying to remember what I had read. “Although they were more hybrids. At first the Vikings went up and down the Dneiper and Volga rivers trading, but many of them also settled down, particularly in Kyiv, in modern day Ukraine. Because of their warrior prowess, they ended up as the elite there, ruling over the local Slav population. They became known as the Rus’, which derives from the Viking word for ‘rowers’, referring to their rowing their long-ships along the rivers. Over time they intermarried with the Slavs, and also with the Finns and Baltic people, and adopted the common language of Old Slavic. Their name Rus’ gave rise to the names of both Russia and Belarus. The Ukrainians are also descended from them.”

Viking trade routes and the origins of the Rus’ (from Wikimedia Commons)

“So that is what Putin means when he says his war is to reunite the people of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine”, she says. “Seems a strange way to go about it though, by carrying out a brutal war against his so-called brothers.”

“Perhaps there was something lost in the translation of his copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People”, I say.

Winter storage preparations, a forthcoming election, and déjà vu

“You know, I think I wouldn’t mind living in Stockholm”, says the First Mate, as we sit in the cockpit that evening sipping our wine. “It’s a beautiful city, and so much to do. And the Archipelago just on your doorstep to explore. Magic.”

“Of course, we are seeing it at its best”, I say. “The weather has been warm and sunny the whole time we’ve been here. I would imagine it would be quite bleak here in the winter with snow and ice everywhere.”

“Look”, she says. “There’s a balloon coming over the marina. I wonder where it has come from?”

The brightly-coloured balloon passes right over Ruby Tuesday. There is a burst of flame overhead as the balloonists try to gain more height. They disappear over the trees.

Hot-air balloon passes over Wasahamnen marina.

Night begins to fall. It is noticeable now that the days are becoming shorter. We watch the sun go down behind the Stockholm skyline in a blaze of red, yellow and orange.

“That is spectacular”, I say, finishing my wine. “It’s almost as if the city was on fire.”

“I reckon we get just as good sunsets in Scotland”, the First Mate replies. “But I agree. It was spectacular.”

Sunset over Stockholm.

We cast off the next morning and motor around to the entrance of the Hammarbyleden that will take us through to Lake Mälaren. The route was constructed in the 1920s by blasting through rock to join the Sältsjön, the main fairway into Stockholm, with the Årstasjön, a bay of Lake Mälaren. For a sailboat it is the only way through Stockholm into Lake Mälaren.

We have already phoned the bridge operator to tell him we are coming for the 1130 opening, but we are a few minutes late, and it is touch-and-go whether we will make it, even at near-full throttle. I call him on the VHF to tell him that we are in sight of it.

“How long do you think that you will be?”, he asks.

“About three minutes”, I respond.

“OK, I will keep it open for you, but if you are not here in three minutes, I will have to close it”, he says. “There ‘s already a large queue of traffic building up.”

I increase the throttle to its maximum, and we surge a full 0.1 knots ahead. We round the Viking Lines terminal, and there is the bridge, the Danviksbron, waiting open for us. I look at my watch. It is already four minutes. Half expecting the bridge to start lowering on top of us, we keep going, and we are through. The bridge immediately starts to close behind us.

Danviksbron waiting for us to pass through.

We wave a cheery thanks in the direction of the bridge hoping that the cameras will pick us up. Most bridges do not have bridge operators on the bridge, but are operated remotely from a central location somewhere. The operators can see what is going on around the bridge through strategically placed video cameras. Not as personal, but it seems to work well.

We cruise slowly along the canal, following the red and green buoys. Soon we come to the Hammarbyslussen set of locks and have to wait for five minutes until they open. Another sailing boat is already waiting in front of us. Bells ring and the lights go green. We both motor into the lock.

The locks were built to maintain the level of the water in Lake Mälaren around a metre higher than that of the Baltic. The lake and the sea used to be level, but the land has risen due to isostatic rebound, the release of weight from the ice sheets, taking the lake with it.

Approaching the Hammarbyslussen.

The water level rises, the bells ring again, more lights go green, and we motor out of the lock.

We reach the penultimate bridge, the Liljeholmsbron.

“It looks like the boat in front of us is going to sail under it”, says the First Mate.

“He’ll have to be careful”, I say. “It’s not very high. He doesn’t look to be much lower than us. I thought we had to wait until it lifts.”

In fact, the bridge has a clearance of 15 m when it is closed. There is no way that we can get under it with our 18 m air draft, but the skipper of the other boat obviously knows what he is doing, and sails through safely.

“I really didn’t think that he was three metres less than us”, I say. “Perspective is deceiving from down here. But he must have been close.”

We circle a couple of loops in the waiting area to kill time. Ten minutes later, the bridge lifts and we sail through. The other boat has disappeared. We now have only one remaining bridge to go under, the Gröndalsbron, but with a height of 25 m, it poses no problem.

Passing through the Liljeholmsbron.

We are now in Late Malären proper. The wind is from the south, and there is enough of it, so we raise the sails, turn off the engine, and sail peacefully westwards. The sun is shining, the water is like a mirror, and the tree-covered islands seem greener than we have seen them before.

“This is my type of sailing”, says the First Mate, stretching out luxuriously on the sunny side of the cockpit. “Can you pass me my drink please, waiter?”

Entering Lake Malären.

We reach Slagsta Marina in the late afternoon, and tie up to the outer pontoon as we have been instructed by Maria, the harbourmaster.

“It’s no problem for you to stay here while you make up your mind about winter storage”, she says. “Have a look around the marina and the surrounding area. Then let us know what you decide.”

We have identified three possibilities for winter storage of Ruby Tuesday, one of which is Slagsta. The other two, which we have seen already, are further south, in Oxëlosund and Nyköping. All three have pros and cons. Once we have a feel for Stagsta, we will decide.

“It’s very pretty here, but it looks a bit out in the sticks”, says the First Mate, looking around. “All I can see are trees and islands. Leaving and returning to the boat might be a problem.”

“Let’s explore tomorrow”, I say.

Overnight the weather changes. A high pressure zone has arrived over Norway, bringing a chill wind down from the north. There is a definite autumnal feel to the air. Our mooring spot is more exposed to the north than the south, and the long fetch across the lake brings a continual lapping of the waves against the hull. We turn the boat around so that she faces more into the wind, but it doesn’t make much difference.

“This constant lapping is driving me crazy”, says the First Mate. “It goes on the whole day and keeps me awake at night.”

“Me too”, I say. “Try wearing your earplugs. That’s what I do. It doesn’t stop it entirely, but it helps.”

The next morning, we unload the bikes, and explore the area. We find that we are close to a motorway, there is a Lidl nearby, another supermarket and a large Bauhaus DIY store a little bit further away, and a Biltema car accessories shop with lots of reasonably-priced boaty bits too. There is also a well-stocked chandlery in the next town. It seems ideal.

Drive-in Bauhaus DIY store.

“It certainly isn’t out in the sticks like I thought at first”, says the First Mate. “I had no idea all this was here. I think we should leave her here over the winter. The other two places are quite a way back where we have come from.”

“Yes, what I like about it is that it is very close to Stockholm”, I say. “That should make it easy for travelling to and from home. And it is reasonably priced compared to some.”

“And we shouldn’t have any trouble getting bits and pieces for the boat and provisioning when the time comes”, says the First Mate. “They will also let us have power to the boat to keep the batteries charged and engine warm if we decide to do that. Some of the others wouldn’t.”

In the morning, we inform Maria.

“That’s great”, she says. “I’ll book you a lift-out date. You should also cover your boat to stop the snow lying on it. It can add quite a lot of weight to the supports and boats have been known to fall over if there is too much snow. A tarpaulin will allow the snow to slide off so that it doesn’t accumulate. It also should stop ice forming around the window seals and damaging them. You can buy good but reasonably-priced tarpaulins from Biltema. Go for the heaviest one you can get. And don’t forget to drain the water system completely and put glycol in the cooling system and toilet. You don’t want any burst pipes. It can get down to –20°C here. Some people also put pots of desiccant in their boats to dehumidify them and stop mould growing.”

Keeping a boat in Sweden over the winter is a whole new ballgame for us. I am glad that we didn’t decide to go any further north at this stage.

We spend the next couple of days buying bits and pieces to prepare her for winter – tarpaulins, oil and fuel filters, glycol for the cooling system, desiccant. As we are keeping the mast on this year, we need two tarpaulins draped over the boom and whisker pole to cover forward and aft.

Perusing boat tarpaulins for the winter.

“Now that we have our winter storage sorted out, why don’t we go for a cycle ride today?”, says the First Mate over breakfast the next morning. “I am curious to know what that island over there is like. We could take the bikes, catch the ferry across, and have a day exploring it.”

“Sounds good”, I say. “I’ll just check the tyres to see if they are pumped up enough. My rear one feels a bit flat.”

We cycle down to the ferry landing. There are two alternating ferries that run every 20 minutes or so, so we don’t have long to wait. Our ferry is called Vivi. Cyclists are instructed to board first, then the vehicles. There are quite a few of the latter, and Vivi is soon full. The remainder have to wait for Vivi’s counterpart, Pluto.

Crossing to Ekerö on Vivi.

It takes around five minutes to reach the other side, the island of Ekerö.

“Apparently the main town is called Ekerö Centrum”, says the First Mate, consulting her map. “It’s about 4 km away. It’s not too far to cycle. I don’t think that there is much to see here.”

“OK, lead the way”, I say. “I’ll follow you.”

We follow the bike path at the side of the road through a forested area, then open fields, newly harvested. Eventually we reach the small town of Ekerö Centrum. In the small square surrounded by shops are several brightly coloured booths, each manned by the respective local candidates for the upcoming national elections on September 11.

We sit and have an ice-cream and watch the goings on.

Candidates present their policies for the elections.

“It seems as all the parties like to call themselves democrats, at least”, says the First Mate. “Look, there are the Social Democrats, the Sweden Democrats, and the Christian Democrats. I wonder how they tell the difference?”

“The Social Democrats are the ruling party”, I say, consulting Mr Google. “And the Sweden Democrats are pretty right-wing. But there are quite a lot of others too. The Moderates are sort of centre right, there are the Greens, the Centre Party, the Christian Democrats, the Liberals, and the Left Party. The Left Party used to be the Communist Party. There are also a lot of regional and local parties, and smaller parties like the Alternative for Sweden, which are far-right, a bit like the Alternative fur Deutschland party in Germany. They even have a Donald Duck Party.”

“I hope they have a better voting system than the First Past the Post system in the UK”, says the First Mate. “It must be almost impossible to gain an overall majority with all those parties.”

“It’s a proportional representation system”, I say. “Governments are usually formed from coalitions. So even small parties have a chance of running government offices depending on the coalition deals they make. It seems to work quite well.”

I read later that there is concern that the right-wing Sweden Democrats party is gaining in popularity, despite its origins in the neo-nazism of the 1980s. They have since rebranded themselves by expelling all neo-nazis from the party and banning any overtly racist views. The Swedes as a nation have for a long time prided themselves on being welcoming to people seeking asylum from repressive governments worldwide, and have one of the highest immigration rates in Europe. However, since the huge influx of asylum-seekers into the country in 2015, there has been growing unease that the traditional Swedish way of life is being eroded. The Sweden Democrats have tapped into this feeling and have exploited the correlation between immigration and crime rates, striking a chord with lots of voters. So much so that they have grown from being a relatively minor party and may become the second largest party following these elections.

“Wow”, says the First Mate. “It will be interesting to see what the results of the election will be. We’ll still be here when it happens. It will be a bit worrying if former neo-nazis gain any power. After the German experience everyone thought that it would never happen again, and yet here we are. And it seems to be happening throughout the world, not just here.”

We cycle back the way we came. As luck would have it, we reach the ferry landing just as one of the ferries is docking.

Vivi arrives to take us back again.

It’s Vivi. Am I just imagining that she has a smile on her face to see familiar faces again?

We board and Vivi sets off. As we arrive at the other side, I have a feeling of déjà vu.

“I am sure we have been here before”, I say.

“Of course we have”, says the First Mate, looking at me worriedly. “This is where we left from this morning. Are you losing it?”

“No, I mean that we have been here before today”, I say. “Perhaps it was on the cycle ride we did with Joanne and Peter in 2017?”

That evening, I go through the photos of that trip on my computer. Sure enough, there is one of us on the ferry approaching the landing with the high-rise apartment blocks of Fittja in the background. It’s the same ferry.

“Amazing”, says the First Mate. “I would never have recognised it. But now that you have mentioned it …”

On the same ferry from Ekerö to Slagsta in 2017.

“You get quite a different perspective arriving by land compared to by water”, I say. “That’s my excuse for not recognising it anyway! What’s yours?”

A coastguard interrogation, a Bronze Age murder, and an anti-monument

“Let’s find a nice sheltered anchorage and chill out for a couple of days”, says the First Mate over breakfast. “The weather forecast for the next week is for high pressure with lots of sunshine and weak southerly winds, so it should be relaxing.”

“Good idea”, I says. “I’ll see if I can find somewhere in the online Harbour Guide out in the archipelago that is protected from southerly winds.”

“Storön looks nice”, says the First Mate, looking over my shoulder. “Why don’t we try that one?”

We leave Vaxholm and sail northwards back where we came the day before with Joanne and Peter. We eventually reach the tree-covered island of Storön, where there is a small bay on the northern side. With only one other boat there, there is plenty of room for us. We drop anchor, make lunch, and relax in the sunshine.

Anchored in Storön.

“Have you seen those huge cruise ships going past out in the fairway?”, says the First Mate. “They are obviously coming from Stockholm, but I wonder where they are heading for?”

“It looks like we are at a bit of a junction”, I say, consulting the charts. “The ones that turn northwards seem to be heading for Finland. The ones that go straight on might be heading for Gotland or even further south.”

“They certainly create quite a bit of swell”, she says, as we see a wave travelling towards us. “Even though they must be a good half-a mile away.”

Ruby Tuesday rocks violently as the wash reaches us. A few seconds later it reaches the shore and tosses the other small boat up and down mercilessly. The owners leap up from their sunbathing towels and run to protect it from being dashed on the rocks. Luckily it subsides quickly and calm is restored.

Cruise ship on the fairway.

In the morning I take the dinghy and row ashore. I tie up to one of the rocks and follow a small path into the forest. I had half thought that it might lead to the other side of the island, but before long it peters out. I sit on a lichen-covered rock and relax, absorbing my surroundings. It is quiet, hardly a sound. I close my eyes and listen. Deeper down there are other sounds – a slight breeze, the rustle of leaves, the crack of a pine-cone in the heat, the trickle of water over rocks. I try to imagine the trees themselves breathing in and out, providing oxygen for the rest of us to use. I smell the mustiness of the mulch of the forest floor, teeming with bacterial and fungal life. An ant runs over my foot, taking a short cut to her destination, disturbing my reverie. I contemplate flicking her off, but decide against it. In a few seconds she is gone, back into the dry leaves underfoot. On the fallen tree in front of me, two black beetles scurry into holes in the rotten wood. Overhead a bird calls, but then there is quiet again. It could be the dawn of time. Life was here before humans came. Life will continue after they have gone.

Lichen patterns on rock.
Forest tranquillity.

My peace is disturbed by the throb of a motorboat engine. Reluctantly, I stand up and retrace my steps through the forest. Day-trippers have arrived in the bay and are tying up to the rocks. I untie the dinghy and row back to the boat. Such forest interludes are restorative.

The days pass in a bliss of reading, writing and relaxing. The three R’s?

“I think that we should start making our way to Stockholm”, I say one evening. “We can have a few days in the city centre seeing things that we haven’t seen before, then head into Lake Mälaren to where there is a potential winter storage marina. We can see if it is suitable for us.”

“Good idea”, says the First Mate. “We could then spend a bit of time exploring Lake Mälaren itself. It is supposed to be very beautiful.”

We weigh anchor the next morning, join the fairway again, and sail towards Stockholm. The wind is still from the south, but at 14 knots there is enough now to make some progress. We sail on a comfortable beam reach for several miles.

“Why are you slowing down here?”, asks the First Mate, as we pass an island.

“I’m not doing it on purpose”, I say. “The wind has dropped right off behind this island. The topography interferes and makes it very difficult to predict which direction the wind will come from. But I am sure it will pick up again soon.”

Sure enough, the wind picks up after a short period of drifting in the current, but this time from the opposite direction, having circled around the island. We trim the sails and carry on. Eventually we see the building cranes on the skyline of central Stockholm. We furl the mainsail and let the genoa take us slowly into the centre of Stockholm.

Approaching Stockholm city centre.

Suddenly, a Coastguard vessel appears and passes us. Spotting our flag, it circles around and comes up behind us, only a few metres separating the two boats. Two officers ask us where we are from.

“Scotland”, we say, pointing to our flag.

“And the boat?”, they ask.

“She’s registered in the United Kingdom”, we say. “But is classified as European goods.”

“Where are you staying?”

“We are planning to stay in Vasahamnen for a few days”, we answer.

Seemingly satisfied, they pull back and then pass us, heading for the city centre. We see them later in Vasahamnen. We half-expect them to visit us to examine our documents, but they show no further interest in us.

The Coastguard interrogate us.

“Imagine being able to sail right to the centre of Stockholm in our boat”, says the First Mate that evening as we sip our glasses of wine in the cockpit. “Look, the Vasa Museum is just over there. Do you remember visiting it after our cycle ride with Joanne and Peter that time? At least we don’t need to see it now.”

We had done a week-long cycle trip with Joanne and Peter five years ago, starting and ending in Stockholm. The last day we had spent exploring some of the sights of the city.

The Vasa warship (photo taken in 2017).

In the morning, we unload the bikes and ride into town for lunch. It is the last day of the Stockholm Culture Festival, and music is being played wherever we go. We decide to have lunch at an outdoor café in the Kungsträdgården and listen to an impromptu group of musicians playing traditional Swedish folk music.

“They really love what they are doing, don’t they?”, says the First Mate. “Look at their faces. The whole atmosphere is great.”

Music-makers in Kungsträdgården.

After lunch, we cycle over the Strömbron bridge to the southern cliffs overlooking the Saltsjön, the body of water stretching from the archipelago to the city centre that we had come in on the day before.

“Look, there’s our marina, just beyond the funfair”, I say. “If you look hard enough, you can see Ruby Tuesday. And that’s where the Coastguard intercepted us down there.”

Looking over the Saltsjön towards Vasahamnen.

We cycle back the way we came.

“Oh, look”, says the First Mate on the way back. “There’s the OceanBus. I read about it in the guidebook. It takes tourists both on the land and on the water. You can see the sights of the city from both perspectives.”

The OceanBus waiting to depart.

We follow it and watch it drive into the water at the Djurgårdsbrunnsviken near the British Embassy.

“Cool”, says the First Mate. “But no need for us to do it. We have our own means of water transport.”

Seeing Stockholm from the water..


The man paddles his boat slowly amongst the reeds growing in the shallow water at the shoreline of the Great Lake. Ducks beat a retreat from this sudden disturbance to their quiet world. He lies his paddle athwart the gunwales of his boat for a moment and rubs his jaw, trying to relieve the aching pain of several months now, but it makes little difference. He grimaces, and picks up the paddle once more, using it to propel his boat around the reeds until the flat rocky landing area comes into view. It has been two weeks now since he left the familiarity of his home in the rich farming lands of Skåne to the south, and travelled north to sell some of his leather goods at the market in Köping. Already he is missing the succulent meat and creamy milk that his kinsmen produce.

He had made the journey several times now, and knew the way. There were stories of pirates on the Great Lake who would stop at nothing to rob and kill unwary travellers, but they were more to the east where the lake joined the sea. In any case, he had never met or seen any on his previous trips.

The craftsman beaches his small boat, takes the bag with his meagre belongings in it – his leather goods that he hopes to sell, his trusty flint skin scraper, his bronze awl, his cane, and his sandstone tool sharpener – and steps ashore. He pushes the boat into the reeds at the side of the rocks so that it can’t be seen. It will be safe there until he returns in a few days’ time.

There is a rustle from the trees beyond the flat rock. The craftsman turns quickly, fear in his eyes. Two roughly dressed men in animal skins and carrying bronze axes appear and clamber over the grassy bank. Pirates! He looks around, but there is no escape. Taking his shield and drawing his sword, he faces them. The men circle him, one on each side, and shout to him to drop his sword.

The craftsman says nothing. They come closer, the rancid smell of their skins searing his nostrils. One makes a rush, brandishing his axe above his head. The craftsman raises his shield to parry the attack. The stroke is deflected, but still cuts a glancing blow through the shield and into his arm. As the axeman struggles to regain his balance, the craftsman thrusts with his sword, piercing the skins and penetrating the chest of his assailant. As he tries to pull his sword out of the pirate’s body, he senses the approach of his companion, and turns. It is too late. The second pirate swings his axe from above – for a brief moment the craftsman is aware of acute pain on one side of his face, his vision clouds red momentarily, then there is nothing ….

The victor rifles though the craftsman’s bag, removes the leatherware goods for himself, and throws the bag into the lake. He then stoops to pick up the bodies one by one and drops them into the water.

Ursäkta mig, har du något emot att jag tar ett foto av mannens huvud?”, a voice says next to me. Excuse me, do you mind if I take a photo of the man’s head?”

Reconstruction of the head of the Bronze Age Man from Granhammar.

I am standing in front of the reconstructed head of the Bronze Age Man from Granhammar, one of the exhibits in the Prehistories section of the Swedish History Museum, trying to imagine the circumstances of his death around 825 BC. I am alone – the First Mate had decided to go to the Museum of Modern Art on Skepperholmen instead – so I had lost myself in a fascinating exposition of Swedish history from prehistoric to modern times. I had sympathised with the Woman of Barum, who had died in 7000 BC sitting upright in her grave; I had wondered at the relationship between the Man and Child of Skateholm from 5000-6000 years ago; and I had admired the Man and Woman of Gårdlösa in their Roman-inspired clothes. And now the Man from Granhammar. All real lives from the past.

The Woman of Barum, died c. 7000 BC

I move through to the Gotland Massacre room. I had never heard of this massacre before, but I learn that back in 1361, King Valdemar IV of Denmark decided that he wanted to add the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea to his Danish Empire. He sent his army to invade the island, but the farmers there weren’t keen on being ruled by the Danish. They put up a fierce resistance by luring the Danes to a marshy area, but the latter won that battle decisively. The Gotlanders retreated to the island’s capital, Visby, where they put up a spirited last stand, but unfortunately, again were soundly beaten.

The marshlands preserved the bodies of many of the soldiers who fought in the battle, along with their equipment.

Gotlander killed in the Gotland massacre by the Danish Army, 1361 AD.

In the basement of the museum, blasted out of the rock, I find the Gold Room, which holds 3000 gold objects from Sweden’s past. Symbols of power and wealth, most were found in large hordes buried by their owners in times of danger and never returned to. The earliest date as far back as 1500 BC, but the majority were made during Sweden’s Gold Age from 400-550 AD.

Gold bracelets and hair spirals.

These gold collars were made in the 5th century AD. No-one quite know what they were for, but possibly they were used to adorn wooden images of gods, or were worn by important political or religious leaders.

Gold collar made in the 5th century AD.

Reflecting its success as a Baltic trading centre, a large number of these objects were found on Gotland, treasure troves accumulated over several centuries and buried for safekeeping at the time of the Gotland Massacre.

Gold goblet and plate.

It’s time to go. I still haven’t seen the Vikings exhibition, but I’ll have to leave it for another day.

“How did you get on?”, I ask the First Mate when we meet up again.

“Well, I took the ferry across to Skepperholmen”, she says. “The Museum of Modern Art is not far from the ferry landing. The first thing you see are the huge sculptures produced by the Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar based on Picasso’s cardboard mockups, which in turn are based on the original painting Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe by the French painter Edouard Manet. Picasso, however, had both the men and the woman naked rather than just the woman, apparently to symbolise the shedding of their bourgeois conventions.”

Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe according to Picasso/Nesjar.

“I am not surprised”, I say. “The Scandinavians are pretty relaxed about nudity.”

“Inside there was an exhibition by Jeppe Hein, a Danish artist based in Berlin”, the First Mate continues. “Its purpose was to help you explore ‘Who are you really?’ in unconventional ways. It didn’t really do anything for me, but I liked the step-in water fountain he created just at the entrance. If you chose the right moment, you could step into the fountain and stay dry.”

Hein’s Fountain.

“There was lots of interesting contemporary art from Swedish and international artists, such as Sirgrid Hjertén, Salvador Dali, Paul Klee, Robert Rauschenberg and Henrik Kinski. I also enjoyed the sculptures, such as the colourful Fantastic Paradise from Niki de Saint Phalle & Jean Tinguely, and the ‘anti-monument’ by Björn Lövin called Lenin Monument April 13th, 1917, in which he uses a block of granite with an X painted onto it to represent Lenin’s visit to Stockholm without commemorating Lenin himself. The aim apparently was to challenge the power structures that determine who and what is commemorated. I found that quite an interesting concept at least, even if it does look rather drab.”

Anti-monument: Lövin’s Lenin Monument April 13th, 1917.

“I can see why it is called an anti-monument, at least”, I say.

“But what about yourself?”, she asks. “How was the History Museum?”

I tell her of my adventures there.

“What I found interesting was that at the end of the Prehistories section, there were a series of questions challenging our worldviews”, I say. “Questions like were their concept of families the same then as now, how large was their world compared to ours now, and who controlled their world then compared to now? You take it for granted that people then thought in much the same way as we do now, but it really made me wonder how true that is. Did you know, for example, that the concept of a nuclear family only dates from 1940s America?”

“No, I didn’t”, says the First Mate. “But thinking about it, our ancestors did tend to live in extended families, so I am not really surprised.”

“Then at the end, they made the point that history itself is a human construction, often with a political agenda in mind”, I continue. “Histories can change over time. One example is a bronze and iron helmet from 550-800 AD that was found in Uppland In the 19th century – it was taken as evidence of tall noble knights of the mythical kingdom of Svea that was supposed to be the forerunner of modern Sweden.”

Iron and bronze helmet used to construct the Svean kingdom myth.

“It makes you wonder what histories you are being told now that will be scoffed at as propaganda in a hundred years’ time or so”, chips in Spencer from the bimini. “Is anything really true, or is it all just a human construct?”

Redundant fortresses, dreaming spiders, and a quick dip

We set sail from Nynäshamn the next morning, still following Valdemar’s Way. The wind is from the southeast, and after we round the top end of Bedarön island, we have a close reach which gives us a good speed before we need to turn northwards again. Just as we do, the wind drops, and with it now almost directly behind us, we sail with the genoa only. Progress is sedate, to say the least, but it allows us to relax and enjoy the scenery.

On Valdemar’s fairway again.

We aim for a small island called Store Senholmen where there is a blue SXK buoy marked that we can tie up to. We eventually reach the small bay where the buoy is supposed to be, but there is no sign of it. We decide to anchor there anyway as it is sheltered from the southeast wind. Then, believe it or not, just as we drop the anchor the wind changes around to the north. Our spot suddenly becomes exposed.

“Why don’t we go around to the south side of the island?”, says the First Mate. “It might be more sheltered on that side”.

We motor around and find another small bay. A few expensive-looking houses line the shore. We drop the anchor into about 5 metres of water, and reverse Ruby Tuesday to make sure that it is set. The anchor bites into the seabed. We are safe for the evening.

Anchored for the evening.

From our anchorage, we see a fortress of some kind perched in a rocky promontory overlooking the main archipelago fairway.

“That must have a great view”, says Joanne. “I wonder what it is? It looks like some kind of castle.”

Dalarö Skans fortress.

Our Archipelago Guide tells us that it is the Dalarö Skans fortress originally built in 1623 to guard the southern approaches to Stockholm against any invaders coming along the fairway. It was rebuilt in 1656 and was further strengthened in 1698. Despite all this, it was never used in anger and was bypassed by the Russian forces during their pillages of 1719. The last commander of the fortress is supposed to have been buried on a neighbouring island.

“Perhaps that island with all the dead trees on it is where he was buried?”, says Peter.

Island of dead trees.

“I wonder why the Russians pillaged Sweden at that time?”, says the First Mate. “They seem to have a habit for doing that sort of thing.”

“I have no idea”, I answer. “I’ll look it up when I get a moment.”

We cook dinner, and sit in the cockpit watching the sun go down over Dalarö Skans. The conversation turns to politics.

“British politics seems to be in a bit of a state these days”, says Peter. “We used to admire Britain, but the government now seems to be the laughing stock of the world.”

“Yes, and the annoying thing is that the majority of people don’t want them”, I say. “The present government was elected with only 44% of the popular vote. More people didn’t want them than did. And yet they still end up with an 80-seat majority. Not to mention the current election for the next Prime Minister. It’s only the 160,000 or so paid-up members of the Tory party who are able to vote for the last two candidates, and yet their policies can have a major impact on us all. It doesn’t seem very democratic, does it? Some people call it an elected dictatorship.”

“But what other system could you have?”, asks Joanne.

“Perhaps what we need is more participatory democracy”, I say, only slightly tongue-in-cheek. “Surely in this information age we are in, we can come up with more imaginative ways of governing ourselves? I used to wonder if it would be possible to involve people more by having it so that when people turn their computers on in the morning up comes a list of issues that need to be voted on. Then while their coffee is on the go, people could just go through them and vote how they want on each one. The results would all then be collated by a central computer and votes counted. Everyone would be involved in making decisions and we could do away with all this party politics where MPs are ‘whipped’ to vote the way their leader wants rather than according to their consciences. All we would need is some sort of impartial body that would determine what sort of issues should be voted on each day.”

“It would never work”, says Peter. “People just wouldn’t have the time to get to know all the background to each issue. I know I wouldn’t. I am quite prepared to vote someone in for a set period of time to do all the legwork in making decisions and then judge them for it at the end. If they have done a good job, I’ll vote for them again. If not, then I won’t.”

“Perhaps people need to make more time to spend on such things if they want to live in a democracy, though”, says the First Mate. “After all, it affects their lives, so surely they would want to have a direct say in what is decided?”

“If they don’t have time, people needn’t vote for everything every day”, I continue, warming to the theme. “They could just vote for the things that they know something about and directly affect them. But at least they would have the choice. No one would be forced to vote, but if they didn’t then they couldn’t complain if the decision is not what they would have wanted.”

A motor boat approaches us at top speed. We brace ourselves to be rocked by the massive wake it leaves behind, but the driver slows down before he reaches us and cruises past us slowly. As soon as he is past us, he resumes his original speed again.

“At least he was considerate to us”, says the First Mate. “Most of them couldn’t care less and zoom past us, leaving us to rock violently from side to side. Things can fall and break.”

No consideration!

“But it would be almost impossible to take into account the many different values that millions of people have”, says Peter, continuing the previous conversation.

“I am not so sure”, I say. “We did an exercise at my last place of work. It started off by getting everyone to write down what they thought the values of the organisation should be. All the answers were then grouped by facilitators into broad themes. These then went back to everyone for comment and modification if necessary. After a few iterations of this, they came up with something that everyone was happy with, despite all their diverse backgrounds and points of view. In the end there were about six or seven values. I would imagine that it might be similar for a country.”

“I agree”, says Joanne. “Most people, regardless of their cultural background, all want similar things – security, respect, fairness, prosperity, that sort of thing.”

“And all that could be done by a computer easily”, I say. “I am sure that there is software around already which can extract meaning from free text and categorise it into broad themes. In fact, taking it to its logical conclusion, we could let computers run the country completely. Would it really be such a bad thing? They could be programmed to achieve the greatest happiness for all. That, after all, was the basis of Utilitarianism in the 18th century.”

“The big challenge would be translating those broad values into actual policies, though”, says Peter. “That’s where people differ in their views of how to do it.”

“I know that there will be things to resolve”, I agree. “But we do need to think out of the box to address the problems of the current system.”

We anchor the next night in a beautiful little bay called Lerviken on the island of Skärpo, just off the main fairway. We are the only ones in it, but in the neighbouring inlet, there is another yacht anchored. It looks deserted.

Lerviken on the island of Skärpo.

“There seems to be someone on it”, says Peter, looking through the binoculars. “I can see a leg at least. A very pretty one too.”

“You men!”, says Joanne.

“Perhaps there’s been a murder, and they have cut up the body”, I say. “Or do you think they are filming the next episode of The Killing? There will probably be cameras or a film crew if you look hard enough.”

“I think that was Danish”, says the First Mate. “But they could be filming an episode in Sweden, I suppose. I wonder if we will see Sofie Gråbøl? Maybe we should go and anchor over there so that we can be in the background.”

The mystery is solved when the body that is attached to the leg sits up. It’s a woman in her 30s. We hastily hide the binoculars and pretend that we are polishing the boat. There’s no sign of Sofie Gråbøl or the camera crew.

In the evening after the others have gone to bed, I look up my trusty History of Europe book to find out more about Swedish history in the 17th and 18th centuries. It tells me that after the 30 Years’ War ended and the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, Sweden became a European great power, controlling territory all around the Baltic. Several other countries in the region weren’t particularly happy about this, so they formed an alliance, led by Russia under Peter the Great, which led to the Great Northern War from 1700-1723. Things didn’t go too well for the Swedes and they lost their Baltic provinces, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. In the ensuing peace negotiations, Sweden wanted its Baltic provinces back, but Peter the Great lost patience with all the arguing and decided to teach the Swedes a lesson. He had galleys made that could be rowed as well as sailed, and which could therefore negotiate the narrow rocky passages between the archipelago islands. The Swedish Navy wasn’t equipped for this type of warfare and had to leave the islands to their fate. Not restricted to the fairway any more, the Russians just bypassed the fortresses at Dalarö and Vaxholm and laid waste to the islands, burning towns and villages to the ground. Only churches were left intact. The islanders fled to mainland Sweden, with 20,000 people made homeless. It was only when the Russians tried to attack Stockholm that the Swedes managed to chase them off. Nevertheless, Swedish power was weakened, and Russia became the new dominant Baltic power. The Swedes decided they had had enough of all-powerful kings that waged disastrous wars, and moved to a parliamentary system to usher in the so-called ‘Age of Liberty’.

“It’s interesting how events of 300 years ago still have ripples nowadays”, says Spencer reading from behind my shoulder. “The Swedes now have had a respectable tradition of democracy and good governance, whereas the Russians have stuck with their autocratic system, which has essentially remained to this day apart from a brief dalliance with democracy in the 1990s. It must have a huge effect on the way they view the world. You are seeing the outcome of that mindset in Ukraine now. Now if you don’t mind, I would like to go to sleep and dream. Spiders do that, you know.”

Dreaming spiders?

“Ah yes”, I say. “I read that article in the paper this morning too. Scientists have discovered that spiders have rapid eye movements and limb twitching while they are sleeping, just like humans do. Well, happy dreams!”

I don’t sleep too well that night. For some reason, images of sticky webs, tasty flies, and buzzing wasps keep running through my mind.

“You were doing lots of twitching last night”, says the First Mate in the morning. “What on earth were you dreaming about?”

“You don’t want to know”, I say.

There is a splash. Peter and Joanne have decided to have a swim off the back of the boat before breakfast.

“It’s l-l-lovely”, says Joanne, as she bounces in and out in the space of a few seconds. “But a bit cold.”

This prompts me to try and have a look at the keel after our disagreement with the rock back in Harstena. I put on my wetsuit and grab the mask and snorkel, and climb in gingerly. I swim under the boat, but the water is cloudy and I can’t see very much. Nevertheless, it looks OK, except for a possible mark on the bottom of the keel where the antifouling has disappeared. Probably the point of impact, I think.

In I go!

We weigh anchor and re-join Valdemar’s Way heading west along the north coast of Vindö, making for Vaxholm. This time the wind is from the east, but again there isn’t much of it. We drift along at two to three knots, feeling elated when a stray puff of wind takes us to four knots for a few minutes before disappearing again. We don’t mind, as we have now settled into a languid mood where time hardly matters. We lunch on the boat, taking turns to eat our buttered sandwiches at the helm while keeping a watchful eye on other boats, islands and nasty rocks.

We take the fork that leads us north of Västerholmen to avoid the large cruise ships, through the narrow gap between Store Delh and Lille Delh, and re-join the main fairway again south of Värholma. As we get closer to Stockholm, the boat traffic increases exponentially, and soon we are surrounded by motorboats, ferries and other yachts on all sides, their wash making us pitch and rock wildly from side to side.

“They should have a speed limit in here”, says the First Mate, as a particularly fast motor launch roars past us. “There’s just no thought for slower boats like ourselves.”

Wave machine.

Once through the narrow gap between Hästholmen and Resarö, we spy Vaxholm Castle, and beyond that, Vaxholm itself.

Vaxholm castle was built at around the same time as the one we had seen earlier in Dalarö, and was one of three that King Gustav Vasa had built to protect Stockholm. It was rebuilt in the mid-1800s, but due to advances in military technology, was obsolete by the time it was finished. Today it is a museum and conference centre.

Vaxholm Castle.

The First Mate has phoned ahead to reserve an alongside berth at the marina to make it easy to unload the suitcases. It is the weekend, and the marina is a froth of activity as everyone in Stockholm, his wife and dog jostle for places. Ferries steam past, their wash rolling under the piles of the outer pier and making Ruby Tuesday buck wildly like a bronco.

Vaxholm harbour.

The town is a charming eclectic mix of old wooden houses and newer modern ones. It is an island, but is connected to the mainland by a number of bridges.

House in Vaxholm.
Old and new.
Kings Gambit?

It is also the kicking off point for ferries to various archipelago islands, notably neighbouring Rindö.

Passengers boarding a ferry for the islands.

It’s time to say farewell to Joanne and Peter. They are heading for the airport to catch a flight to Dublin, the next stage of their journey. It has been great to see them, and catch up with news about family and friends. But all good things come to an end.

Final farewells.

“It feels a bit flat without them, doesn’t it?”, says the First Mate, as we wave goodbye. “It was nice having them around.”

Köping with shopping, a foodless banquet, and stone gates to the archipelago

“There’s some sort of fishy smell”, I say in the morning. “I thought that it might be coming from the harbour, but it’s stronger inside. Did you buy some fish yesterday?”

“Yes, I’ve smelt it too”, says the First Mate. “And no, I haven’t bought fish for a while. Hopefully it will disappear before our visitors come.”

We are in Nyköping, where we have arranged to meet my sister Joanne, and my brother-in-law Peter, in a couple of days’ time, and who are sailing with us for a week. We have been sailing with them on several occasions in Greece and New Zealand before, so they are not strangers to it.

We spend the day before they arrive cleaning and tidying the boat. The fishy smell stubbornly refuses to disappear, nor is it obvious where it comes from.

“I give up”, says the First Mate. “Let’s have a break and go and explore the town.”

“Good idea”, I agree.

We cycle into town and find a little café to have lunch.

Lunch in Nyköping.

“It says that Nyköping is a small town of about 32,000 people, and translates roughly as Newmarket”, reads the First Mate in the tourist information leaflet. “Ny means New, and köping is an old Swedish word for market place. It’s pronounced ‘sher-ping’ and is also the origin of several place names in Britain – Chipping Norton, Chipping Barnet, Chipping Campden, and so on. They are all market towns.”

“Interesting”, I say. “I didn’t know that before. I wonder if the word ‘shopping’ came from it too? People would go shopping in markets in the old days.”

It’s a possibility. Wikipedia tells me that ‘shopping’ derives from the Old French word eschoppe, which in turn comes from an Old Germanic word skupp for a lean-to shelter. The modern Swedish word köpa (pronounced sher-pa) means ‘to buy’, so I would be surprised if there is not a connection somehow. I resolve to follow it up when I get time.

We reach the Market Square, where there are a number of market stalls. As you would expect.

Market in Nyköping market square.

In one corner stands a church and the other, the town hall.

Nyköping town hall.

“I wonder what that is over there?”, says the First Mate, pointing to a red-painted structure on a rocky promontory. “It looks like it is a church, but I don’t think it is.”

Nyköping clock tower.

As we walk up the narrow path to it, little windows on the side open automatically, and bells begin to toll. I look at my watch – it’s just on one o’clock.

“It’s got to be the clock tower”, I say.

We eventually come to the castle beside the river that runs through the town. Entry is free. We climb the tower to the first floor and lose ourselves for an hour or so in Swedish history.

Nyköping castle.

The castle was originally built as a fortress in the late 1100s, and became the most powerful in Sweden for some time. The story goes that in the 14th century, the then king Birger and his brothers, Eric and Valdemar, had been feuding for years. Then the king hatched a cunning plan. More cunning than a cunning thing. He invited his two brothers to Nyköping Castle for Christmas dinner, pretending that it was time for making up. But halfway through the dinner, Birger had his two brothers seized and thrown into the dungeons. He then threw the key into the moat. Of course, without food and water, the two brothers soon died, and their bodies were found several years later. The whole event became known as the ‘Nyköping banquet’. Amazingly, in the 19th century, a local lad was fishing in the moat and brought up an old key, which may well have been the key of the dungeons.

Key found in Nyköping castle moat. For the dungeons?

“Mean thing to do to your brothers, wasn’t it?”, says the First Mate.

The castle was destroyed in the Swedish-Danish wars, but was rebuilt by our old friend Gustav Vasa whom we had met first in Kalmar. His son Charles turned it into a Renaissance palace, and to offset the costs of all this, built a laboratory for his alchemists to work on producing gold. History doesn’t record whether this was successful or not.

Gustav Vasa.

“It says that the restoration of the castle started in the early 20th century”, reads the First Mate from the little guide brochure. “What we see now is only about 100 years old.”

We make our way back to the boat.

“I think I have located the fish smell”, says the First Mate in the morning. “One of the herring fillet jars under the floor has leaked. We will have to clean it up before they arrive.”

Joanne & Peter arrive at lunch time. They have just completed a cycle ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats in Britain, and have flown from Inverness to Stockholm. From there, they have caught the train down to Nyköping.

It’s great to see them. The First Mate prepares lunch, and includes some prawn salad to disguise the fishy smell. As we eat, we hear all about their impressive achievement. They were part of a group of twelve, and completed it in 23 days.

Hearing about the great cycle ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

“Trust us to choose the time that Britain has a heat-wave to do it”, says Joanne. “But actually, it wasn’t too bad. When you are cycling, there is always a bit of a breeze to keep you cool. And anyway, the hottest part seemed to be in London. Western England and Scotland were cooler.”

We decide to set sail after lunch without delay. One of the islands, Broken, was recommended by our advisor Martin as very nice, so we aim for there. It’s only seven miles from Nyköping, and it’s a nice easy sail to get everyone used to it again.

We motor out of Nyköping along the narrow buoyed channel in the middle of the shallow estuary lined by reeds and forest.

Following the buoyed channel out of Nyköping.

Eventually we reach the Baltic Sea and turn north-eastwards. Cormorants packed onto an island watch us warily as we pass.

Cormorant island.

“This is beautiful”, says Joanne. “There’s something about Sweden I really like. So green, lots of water, the smell of pine trees and fish.”

The First Mate looks at me. I try to make my laugh sound like a cough.

We reach Broken a couple of hours later and enter the small bay to the south of the island. The island is owned by a sailing club, but they welcome visiting yachts. There appears to be no sign of life. We spot a small pontoon poking out from behind a promontory and motor towards it. Further around we are surprised to see that there are heaps of boats tied up and lots of people. The harbourmaster comes out in a RIB to greet us.

“Welcome to Broken”, he says with a friendly smile. “It’s deep enough on either side of the pontoon for you to tie up. You can either moor stern-to or bow-to. We have electricity on the island, but no fresh water. Toilets are over there, sauna and showers are over the hill. The showers are seawater. And before you ask, Broken is just a name, and doesn’t mean anything!”

The last sentence is spoken with some degree of world-weariness.

“Welcome to Broken. Bliss.”

We choose stern-to mooring, as we are all practised in that from our sailing experiences in Greece. In any case, we haven’t really sorted out a stern anchor yet for tying up bow-to.

We anchor stern-to on Broken island.

We walk along the boardwalk to the facilities. Club members are playing a game to build the highest tower from wooden blocks.

“We hope you enjoy it here”, they say. “We’ve built everything ourselves. This is just practice.”

Tower building.

“Did you see that they have an incinerating toilet here?”, says the First Mate, returning from the washing block. “You do your business, press a button, it disappears, there is a faint burning smell, and that’s it. All very high tech for a small island.”

“They have mains electricity but no fresh water, so I suppose it makes sense”, I say. “Something like Leibig’s Law of the Minimum, I suppose. I guess you just have to make sure you don’t press the button accidentally as you sit down.”

The incinerating toilet.

We cook dinner and sit in the cockpit watching the sun go down.

Sunset over Broken island.

“You know”, says Peter. “I’ve been wondering why nobody does any research on population control to solve the world’s problems. We were in Kenya a few years ago, and we were talking to two conservationists. They were telling us that the population of Kenya has increased from 8 million in the 1960s to more than 50 million nowadays. So many of Kenya’s problems are related to overpopulation, so why don’t they try and do something about it?”

“Of course, population growth is a problem”, I say. “And people are working on it. But the subject of population control is fraught with political and moral problems, mainly because it was associated in the past with controlling specific sectors of a population, usually the poor, non-white sectors. It is now considered to be a bit amoral if rich white people come along and tell people in developing countries that they shouldn’t have too many children.”

“But you could say it’s also immoral to work on things such as health care, water supply and more food production to keep them alive”, says Peter. “It’s just building up problems for the future. More people, more hunger, greater environmental damage.”

Too many people?

“One has to think about why people have so many children in developing countries“, says the First Mate. “It’s only then you might be able to do something about it. One of the reasons is it’s a kind of insurance policy for their old age. The more children you have, the more you will be looked after when you get old and can’t work anymore. We are lucky to have a social security system and pensions in the West. It would be very risky not to have any children when you get old in Kenya.”

“Having small families is only a recent thing in the West as well”, I say. “Fifty to 100 years ago in Europe, they also had big families. Lots of people died young.”

“I read somewhere that the best way to reduce birth rates is to educate women”, says Joanne.

“And empower them”, says the First Mate.

“You could also argue that as every Western baby born will have ten times the environmental impact of an African baby, then they are the ones that should controlled”, I say. “Or that because it is spending the wealth they will accumulate in the lifetime that causes the environmental damage, then their wealth should be distributed more evenly. You can see that it is fraught with moral issues.”

“An interesting discussion you had tonight”, says Spencer to me after everyone else has gone to bed. “He does have a point, you know. Population growth is the big problem. You know, some of my close cousins eat their young if they are getting to stressed with no food. That helps to keep our numbers down when necessary. Perhaps you humans should try it!”

“A bit drastic”, I say. “Anyway, I read somewhere that at this stage not much will stop the human population trajectory from peaking at 10-12 billion then declining. If we had wanted to slow it, we should have done it years ago.”

Spencer airs his views on population growth.

The next few days are a dreamy meander through the island idyll of the Stockholm Archipelago. The days are sunny and warm, the winds are gentle and mainly from the south and west, perfect for our voyage north. We use the main fairway for the longer hops but leave it often to find delightfully remote and sometimes secluded anchorages for the night. Evenings are spent cooking and chatting about family, friends, and the problems of the world.

Cooking, eating, drinking, talking …

We stop off at Stendörran, where there is an archipelago museum. There is an SXK buoy there, but we find it occupied, so we anchor in a little bay opposite the entrance to the museum. We unload the dinghy, and again, I get the job of rowing everyone across in two stages.

Archipelago Museum at Stendörran.

We learn that the fairway that we are following was actually described in the Navigato Danica, a handbook for sailors commissioned by the Danish king Valdemar II back in 1231. The narrow channel between Aspnäset and the island of Krampö where the museum is situated was named Stendörran as it looks like stone gates guarding the entrance to the Stockholm archipelago from the Baltic Sea. I try to imagine the skill of the sailors then trying to navigate the twists and turns of the narrow pass through the stone gates without charts or GPS.

Other displays tell us that the Baltic is fragile, with few species and simple ecosystems, all under threat from the myriad of human activities around its shores. Its narrow inlets and their sills restrict water flushing in and out of it, so that it takes nearly 30 years for all its water to be replaced. The biggest problems are eutrophication from excess nutrients in water, the spread of chemicals from industry and agriculture, and overuse of its resources. All these are intensified by the impact of climate change.

Under threat.

“At least they are aware of it”, I say to the First Mate as we leave. “And are trying to do something about it.”

We eventually arrive in Nynäshamn and tie up alongside to the outer pier serving as a breakwater to the harbour marina. It’s not the best of berths as there is an occasional swell from the wash of passing ferries, but we decide to stay. We plug into shore power, fill the water tanks, and restock with provisions after several days of self-sufficiency in the islands.

Nynäshamn is not particularly inspiring in its own right, serving mainly as a port for ferries to Gotland and Poland. Occasional cruise ships call in if they are too big to enter Stockholm proper.

In the morning, we walk up past the red church perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the harbour and find ourselves in the main square.

Nynäshamn church.

“At least there is a Co-op”, says the First Mate. “You wait here while I just buy a few things.”

I stand in the shade of a tree and read the newspaper on my phone. It takes me a minute or two to realise that I am actually in some sort of queue waiting expectantly for something to open. Then I notice that it is the Systembolaget, the government-owned outlet for alcohol. It’s only 10 o’clock in the morning, and already the queue is substantial. I look at my watch and pretend that I have a bus to catch and walk briskly to the nearby bus-stop. No one seems to notice. The door of the Systembolaget opens on the dot of 10, and there is a surge forward. Living in Nynäshamn must create a desire for alcohol early in the day, I think.

Waiting for the alcohol shop to open.

In the afternoon, we have a visit from Lisa and Rainer. Lisa is the First Mate’s niece, Rainer is her husband. They live in Germany, but are travelling through Sweden on their holidays. They have just attended a heavy-metal music festival north of Stockholm and are on their way home. On the off-chance that we might be in the area, they had contacted the First Mate and had arranged a time and place to meet. Lisa is a doctor and currently working in a hospice, while Rainer is a forester, responsible for managing large areas of forest in Hessen.

First Mate, Rainer & Lisa.

“We’re in the process of building our own house”, they tell us. “We looked around for existing houses that had everything that we wanted, but couldn’t find one that fitted the bill. So we decided to design and build our own. But I have to say that it is quite stressful. We thought that the architects would know what should go into a house and where, but they don’t seem to. They keep asking us where we want the smallest details.”

“The Ukrainian War has made everything so expensive now”, says Rainer as we walk back to their car to say goodbye. “I really hope that the Ukrainians win. Russian imperialism can’t be allowed to triumph in this day and age. War over borders is the politics of the last century. Trade should link all countries together. Any differences should be sorted out around a table.”

The Merkel doctrine. War in Western countries was supposed to be obsolete, not least because of the cost involved – not only in terms of destruction but also loss of trade and subsequent trust. We are currently seeing the flaws in that particular doctrine. The optimist in me wants to agree with him, but the pessimist in me feels that human nature is such that there will always be wars over land and other scarce resources.

A visit from friends, industrial architecture, and a new society

“Did you see that they have put the Union Jack out this morning?”, says the First Mate over breakfast. “It’s there because of us. Apparently every morning they fly the national flags of the boats which have stayed overnight. It’s a nice touch. Look, there’s a Lithuanian one over there. At first I thought it was a Colombian one. They look quite similar.”

In fact, I had noticed the Union Jack flying from the row of flagpoles on the pontoons on my way to the shower block. Seeing it in this part of the world is a rare thing now that the United Kingdom has cut itself off from the rest of Europe.

A rare sight in this part of the world.

We are in Arkösund, a small village on the edge of the Swedish archipelago. There isn’t a lot to it – just a harbour area, a hotel, a sailing club, a supermarket, a restaurant, and several craft stalls. It is mainly a holiday resort, but with the school holidays nearly over, it is fairly quiet. It is also used as a crew change location by visiting yachts.

The impressive Sailing Club building overlooking Arkösund harbour.

After nearly a week anchoring in the remote islands of the archipelago and relying on the solar panels and occasional running of the engine to supply power, we are happy to be able to recharge our batteries and electronic devices, and refill our tanks with water.

On top of that we are meeting friends Steve and Mitzi there. We had met them on La Gomera in the Canaries two years previously, and had discovered a common interest in walking. Since then, we had kept in touch with each other, and when we heard that they were planning to holiday this year in Norway with their camper-van and we were to be in Sweden sailing, we both decided to meet up for a few days.

They arrive in the early evening. Over dinner, we plan our route. One of the places that Martin, our Swedish neighbour in Borgholm, had recommended that we must visit was Harstena, an island around 17 NM to the south of Arkösund. We had actually passed it on the way up, but had not had time to visit it.

The island of Harstena.

We set off the next morning. It is a warm sunny day and the wind is from the north, directly behind us, but there is precious little of it. We use the genoa only, and sail along at the majestic rate of 2 knots. It’s lucky we have all day to get there. But it gives us a chance over a leisurely lunch to catch up with each other since we last met.

“Yes, we are still eco-warriors”, says Steve in response to my question. “But we are not so involved in the Extinction Rebellion now as we were then.”

They had both been involved in transporting provisions to the Extinction Rebellion protesters demonstrating against climate change inaction back in 2000. In fact, they had even been accosted by the police at one stage for aiding and abetting civil disturbances.

“It was preposterous”, says Mitzi. “All we were doing was taking food to the protesters. Nothing illegal about that.”

“So am I right in assuming that Priti Patel is not one of your favourite politicians then?”, I ask.

There is a prolonged coughing bout as Steve tries to dislodge a piece of cumin cheese from his throat.

“I take it that was a ‘no’, then?”, I say, as Mitzi thumps him on the back.

In the interests of communal boat harmony, I make a mental note not to mention the name of the British Home Secretary again.

We arrive at the main harbour in Harstena. Unfortunately, all the berths at the quay are full. The map shows that it is possible to anchor in an area just opposite the quay, but our anchor won’t set because of weed. After several attempts we give up, and decide to try Flisfjärden inlet further up the coast. Apparently it is good anchoring there, and it about one kilometre’s walk back to the Harstena village.

Full up at Harstena harbour.

We motor up. Suddenly, there is a loud bang and Ruby Tuesday comes to an abrupt stop. Immediately I know that we have hit a rock with the keel. I reverse quickly back into deeper water to assess the situation. We check in the bilge. Nothing seems amiss – there is no water coming in and the keel bolts are intact. Hopefully it was a glancing blow. I check the chart – there is no rock marked, but we have just touched the edge of the blue area on the chart, the ‘risky zone’. Shaken, we motor into the inlet. I make a mental note to check underneath at the next opportunity.

The Flisfjärden inlet is busy, but there is space. We find a spot to anchor far enough away from the other boats so that we won’t touch them if we swing around. The First Mate drops the anchor, and I reverse to set it. It seems to hold well. I set the anchor alarm just to be sure.

In the evening, we sit in the cockpit and sip our glasses of wine. The conversation turns to world events. High on the list is the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“It’s amazing how things can have unintended consequences”, says Steve. “Look at the EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas. The shortage globally has pushed up the prices, so that even though countries are buying less gas from Putin, his revenues are the same or even more so that he can go on funding his war machine.”

“Yes”, I say. “I kind of expected that the demand for renewable energies would increase and that share prices of those would also increase. But that hasn’t really happened. The huge profits made by the oil companies have meant that they are paying high dividends to investors, which has meant that money is flowing in that direction rather than towards green investments.”

“An example of how the market can actually work against what is best for society”, says Mitzi. “But surely in the long-term, the world needs more renewable energy, so that investments in that will pay off?”

“One would hope so”, says Steve. “But we need to reduce society’s demand for oil and gas before that will happen. What the war in Ukraine has done has been to reduce supply. It needs to be accompanied by change in people’s attitudes to using fossil fuels. It’s only then it won’t be worth investing in. Society really needs to change fundamentally.”

“But what do you see it changing to?”, I ask. “We humans have tried all sorts of systems – monarchies, communism, fascism, democracy, neo-liberalism, populism – they have all shown to be deficient in certain aspects. What’s left to try? What sort of society do we want?”

“Well, for a start, it has to be more equal and fairer, consume less energy and resources, and allow everyone to develop to their potential and have a voice”, he says. “But I have to admit that I don’t really know what sort of system will give that. I’ll leave it to the philosophers to work that out.”

Solving the world’s problems.

The next morning, we untie the rubber dinghy and row ashore. As the dinghy is small, we need to do it in two batches. Steve tries to work out the best way to do it if the fox and the chicken can’t be together, nor the chicken and the bag of corn. In the end, I promise to eat no one on the way over, and get the job of the farmer doing the rowing. We manage to get everyone to the shore intact with no bite marks.

Getting everyone ashore.

The path through the woods is delightful, the sunshine filtering through the foliage and creating dappled patterns on the undergrowth.

A pleasant forest walk.

We eventually reach the small village and the harbour where we attempted to find a berth the day before. There is a small shop selling ice creams and smoked fish, and further down overlooking the harbour, a restaurant. And a set of toilets for those in need. A sign points the way to a bakery some distance away. We start walking in that direction.

The restaurant and harbour area at Harstena.

Hej, var försiktig. Taket är ömtåligt”, shouts a man in the garden of one of the houses, as I step off the road to take a photo.

“So sorry”, I reply. “I don’t speak Swedish.”

“I said ‘be careful. The roof there is fragile’”, he says, in flawless English.

Without realising it, I am standing on the turfed roof of some sort of underground storeroom. I step off gingerly, trying not to fall through.

Mind where you step!

We continue on through the village. Every house is painted in the same shade of red.

Red, red and more red.

“I read somewhere that the reason all the houses in Sweden are red is that they discovered in the 18th century that waste material from iron ore was very good as a wood preserver and didn’t fade in the sun”, says Steve. “Apparently it also allows the wood to breathe and release moisture easily. The only problem is that as it is a form of iron oxide, it only comes in red. They call it Falu Red.”

We pass a small museum showing what it was like in one of the traditional houses.

Traditional fisherman’s cottage, Harstena.

Eventually we reach the bakery and decide to have coffee and cakes.

Enjoying cakes at Harstena bakery.

“Wow”, says the First Mate. “Those cakes were good. I don’t really feel like any lunch now.”

We amble back to the boat. On the way, we come to a couple staring intently at something on the path.

“It’s a copper snake”, says the man. “I think they might be poisonous.”

I try to take a photo, but the snake slithers off into the grass.

“If you use your imagination, you can see it”, says the First Mate.

‘Copper’ snake, if you look hard enough.

The next day, we sail back to Arkösund. Miraculously, the wind is from the southeast, and we make good speed on a broad reach.

“We’ve really enjoyed it”, say Steve and Mitzi, as we say our goodbyes. “And we would do it again. But we have decided that sailing in a boat of our own is not for us. We’ll stick with our camper van.”

“Maybe we will see you next year in Estonia?”, says the First Mate.

Steve and Mitzi on their way to Norway.

The next day we sail for Oxelösund. The wind is a south-easterly directly behind us to start with, and we sail with the genoa only, but we eventually turn north east, haul out the mainsail, and have a nice beam reach almost all the way into Oxelösund.

We are greeted by giant cranes, silos and cargo ships unloading.

Approaching Oxelösund.

“It doesn’t look very inviting”, says the First Mate. “It’s all a bit industrial. Look, there’s our marina just on the left.”

“This just the dock area”, I say optimistically. “Docks always look like that. I am sure that the actual town will be better.”

It’s not really. After lunch, we take the toy train into the city centre to explore. It drops us at a vast concreted square dominated by an ICA supermarket. An abstract stainless steel sculpture takes pride of place in the centre. Around it lounge a number of people looking as if they are in some other dimension. At their feet and on the wooden seats are a pile of beer cans.

Oxelösund city centre.

“Can you tell us where the city centre is?”, the First Mate asks a passer-by.

She looks at us pityingly.

“This is it”, she replies.

“Look over there”, I say. “I can see a church spire. Perhaps that is more the city centre? It is in other cities, at least.”

We walk through the carpark behind the supermarket to the church positioned on a rocky outcrop. Even the church looks starkly functional, its open tower rising to an apex where the bells hang.

Oxelösund church.

At least I won’t have to worry about parallax with this photo, I think. No-one will notice the difference. Even the doors are solid copper. But somehow the church seems to capture the essence of the place. Oxelösund is a no-frills, strictly functional industrial city, whose only purpose is to make things. Even the God it worships doesn’t care much for frivolous architecture of the soaring neo-Gothic sort that we saw in Västervik. But I find myself grudgingly admiring the stark elemental beauty of the place.

Doors to Oxelösund church.

“I think we had better get back”, says the First Mate. “The toy train will be leaving soon. We don’t want to miss it.”

The toy train that takes us to and from the marina.

In the afternoon, we decide to motor to a pretty little anchorage on the north side of Hasselö-Bergö island not far from Oxelösund. There are two Swedish Cruising Club (SXK) buoys there which we are entitled to use by virtue of our membership of the UK-based Cruising Association. We moor with the ‘Heik’s Hook’, which snares the buoy perfectly, and sit back for the afternoon to enjoy the sun.

Tied up to the SKX buoy.

“This is beautiful”, says the First Mate, reaching for her Sudoku book. “It’s so quiet and peaceful, and we have it all to ourselves.”

Just us and nature.

I think back to the discussion that I had with Steve. The need for society to change and how to achieve it reminds me of a book I read over the winter “Radical Transformation: Oligarchy, Collapse, and the Crisis of Civilisation” by Kevin MacKay. His main argument is that centralised power, what he calls the ‘oligarchy’, is the root problem of dysfunction and collapse. This rich elite use their wealth and power to manipulate democracies to protect their own interests, which are often against the interests of ordinary people, or, for that matter, the planet. Societies with too much centralised power and high inequality are therefore more prone to collapse. But how do we achieve a ‘democratic, eco-socialist’ state, a sane, humane, sustainable world, as he says is the desirable end-point? Is the whole current system rotten to the core, needing a revolution to reorganise it? Or are there bits of it that are good that should be preserved such as  universal healthcare, schools, and libraries, and other bits that are bad and need replacing with something better?

“I think you need a good revolution”, says Spencer from the bimini. “It’s always worked in the past. The French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, they all shook up society and brought about big changes. It’s high time you had another one. Very cathartic.”

“Hey, be careful what you say”, I respond. “You might get arrested for inciting social unrest. In any case, MacKay thinks it is unlikely there will be a violent revolution in western society as the current power structures are accepted as legitimate by much of population. They may complain about elements of it, or gripe about specific politicians, but overall they accept the basic structure of the system as it is. Therefore, no-one will be prepared to risk their lives to revolt.”

“Obviously written before the attempted coup on January 6th in Washington”, Spencer counters. “People involved in that were rioting to bring about change for the better, as they saw it.”

“True”, I say. “MacKay does say that people will rebel when they feel that their moral norms are being eroded. But I don’t think he remotely thought that this would go as far as trying to overturn the results of a legitimate election. And in the US of all places.”

“Well, you may not be as far off a full-blooded revolution as you think, particularly if the former President is re-elected”, he says. “But rather than trying to achieve a more progressive society, it seems to be moving in the opposite direction to a more repressive one.”

“It’s a distinct possibility”, I agree. “And it seems to be what a lot of people want.”

“I think that it’s time for a coffee”, says the First Mate, looking up from her Sudoku. “I can see that you are lost in thought again. By the way, have you told everyone that your sister and brother-in-law are joining us next week? The blog might be delayed.”

“No, I haven’t yet”, I respond. “Thanks for reminding me.”

8,888 islands, a lost dog, and some very old rocks

Off to our starboard, shimmering in the early morning sun, lies the fabled island of Blå Jungfrun, the Blue Maiden. Swedish folklore has it that all the witches gather there on Maundy Tuesday. As a reminder, children dress up on that day as witches and go from door-to-door trick-or-treating. We would have liked to have visited it, but weather conditions need to be settled to anchor and get ashore.

The fabled island of Blå Jungfrun, the Blue Maiden.

We are on our way to Västervik, having left Oskarshamn that morning with a stiff breeze from the south, following the same route that we had come in until we had reached the island of Furö. We had then continued north-east up Kalmarsund.

On our way to Västervik.

The wind drops to a gentle breeze and we coast along on a sea of silver. I lie on the foredeck in the warm sunshine and amuse myself by imagining cloud shapes. Memories of carefree childhood summers relive themselves. Lying on the beach looking upwards, the sand hollowed into a lumpy bed.

“Look, there’s a lion!”, we would shout excitedly.

“No, it looks more like an elephant”, would come the response. “See, there’s his trunk.”

“No I don’t mean that one. This one over there. It’s definitely a lion. And look at that porpoise!

Days of innocence difficult to recapture. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. But it is still fun trying to recognise patterns in the world around us. Humans are good at that.

Flying porpoise.

The wind changes direction and comes more from the southeast. We adjust the sails and continue northwards. Eventually we reach the buoy marking the entry to the route through the rocks and skerries to Västervik. I turn the boat into the wind while we furl the sails. There is a lot of twisting and turning on the route and our sail changes are not slick enough for delicate manoeuvres such as this yet. A boat behind us that has been following us for some way does the same.

The First Mate takes over the helm. We pass between two low-lying islands with red and green lights on their extremities, and follow the course marked on the charts. Rocks just breaking the surface glide pass mere metres away on each side, waiting for careless sailors to make an error and founder on their jagged points. Someone has done a lot of work over the years in identifying the way through the obstacle course.

Entering the archipelago.

In front of us, we see the conspicuous tower of Späro, one of the marks to guide us through. Eventually we reach the narrow cut between Späro and Grönö islands, perhaps 20 metres or so wide, enough for two boats to pass, but not by much. No room for error.

Entering the narrow gap between Späro and Grönö islands.

A beautiful wooden boat coming the other way under sail passes us with metres to spare, the skipper nonchalantly making fine adjustments to his sail trim to pass around us without danger. I can only admire his comfortable familiarity with the boat and skill in reading the wind behaviour so well through this unpredictable terrain.

Through the gap, we enter a wide basin full of yachts and turn to port to make the final approach into Västervik.

“Help”, shouts the First Mate. “There’s a huge ferry bearing down on us.” What shall I do?”

“Just follow the green buoys and keep as close to them as you can to let him pass”, I say. “It’ll be fine.”

The ferry passes leaving behind a small wake which gently rocks Ruby Tuesday from side to side. Not as bad as some we have had.

A ferry passes us.

We reach the Västerviks Slottsholmen marina, where we are met by a small RIB with a studenty-looking employee with his long hair tied back into a ponytail.

“You can tie up anywhere over there”, he says with a grin, pointing to one corner of the marina with stern buoys. “Someone will be around later to collect the fee.”

His ponytail flicks from side to side.

Västervik translates as West Bay, and is a small industrial town. Nevertheless, there has been a concerted effort to enhance the harbour area and restore the town’s attractive buildings to their former glory. We unload the bikes and cycle past the castle ruins to cross over the small swinging bridge that opens to allow boats into the upper reaches of the fjord. We pass the quaint art-deco Warmbadhus that has been recently restored and is used as a well-being centre.

The Warmbadhus in Västervik.

Across the water we see the old town area dominated by the St Gertrude church.


“Help!”, says the First Mate, as we sit in a nearby chair for a break. “I told you we shouldn’t have had such hot showers this morning!”

Shrunken dwarves.

We reach the town centre with its market square and town hall.

Market square and town hall, Västervik.

On a small mound to the east sits the impressive neo-Gothic St Peter’s Church, constructed of red brick and sandstone.

St Peter’s Church, Västervik.

We stay in Västervik for a couple of days to repair the splash hood frame which had somehow detached itself as we had arrived. I decide to use bolts rather than the original screws to repair it, but it does involve removing some of the lining inside.

Jobs done, we leave Västervik the next morning, full tanks of water, all batteries fully charged, and plenty of food. We plan to explore several islands in the Östergötland archipelago for the next week where there will be no marinas and therefore no shore power. We will need to be as self-sufficient as possible – the only source of energy will be our two solar panels and when we run the engine.

The First Mate has picked up a brochure in the Tourist Office.

“The Östergötland archipelago consists of 8,888 islands, and is actually made up of three smaller archipelagos for administrative purposes: the Arkösund archipelago in the north, the Sankt Anna’s archipelago in the centre, and the Gryt archipelago in the south”, she reads. “The whole area is the product of the Ice Ages, when sheets of ice 1.5 km thick covered the land and ground and smoothed the rock underneath. As it retreated 10,000 years ago, it left behind the debris of these powerful forces, a landscape of shallow depressions and gentle hillocks. The sea-level rose due to the melting ice and filled the depressions leaving the hillocks to form the thousands of islands we see today. With the weight of the ice sheets gone, the land is also rebounding at a rate of 2-3 mm per year, with new skerries appearing in the east and islands in the west fusing with the mainland.”

“It’s amazing that there are exactly 8,888 islands”, I say. “Do you think they drew the boundaries on purpose just so they got a number that was easy to remember? When we were kids the height of Mount Cook in New Zealand was 12,349 feet, and I could never understand why they just didn’t go up there and lop four feet off it to make it nice and easy to remember. And then, in 1991, the ice did actually break off a piece of the top. Unfortunately, it was too much, and the height is now 12,218 feet, even more unmemorable.”

“A case of being careful what you wish for”, says the First Mate.

Mount Cook: easy to remember?

I wake up early and watch the dappled sunlight play on the cabin roof for a few moments before getting up and making myself a cup of tea. The First Mate slumbers on, so I sit in the cockpit and absorb the early morning buzz of activity of the natural world around me. The sea is as smooth as a mirror, there is not a puff of wind. Black-headed gulls bob on the water around us, their movements creating small ripples that spread out and gradually disappear. A heron stands patiently next to the guano-stained rocks at the end of the little island in the middle of the bay, a watchful eye on any unwary fish venturing too close. On the sliver of rock joining these rocks to the island, a number of cormorants face the wind to dry their wings. Two amorous dragonflies alight on our guard wires and continue their lovemaking seemingly unaware they are being observed. On the small spit to our left, a flock of grazing geese begin to honk, their calls strangely melodic. In the Scots Pines above them, pigeons coo in accompaniment.


We are anchored in Smagö, one of the 8,888 islands in the archipelago. We had sailed from Västervik up one of the long fiords with the wind behind us and on the genoa alone, passing many small islands and skerries before entering the narrow gap between the islands of Hultö and Björkö and negotiating our way around the rock-strewn entrance into the bay on the western side of Smagö. There we had dropped the anchor and chilled out for the rest of the day.

An idyllic scene, I think to myself, one that has remained unchanged since the dawn of time. And yet, it hasn’t – this landscape is relatively young, and didn’t even exist 10,000 years ago. And before the ice sheet, another landscape may have existed, with different vegetation and creatures populating it.

Timeless idyll?

A fly smashes into the sprayhood behind me. Temporarily stunned, it falls to the deck before recovering and flying off. One of the cormorants takes to the air, its wingtips beating the water furiously to gain height. A fish splashes briefly in the water just behind the boat, but I am too slow in turning and miss it. A frenzied flapping of wings draws my attention to the other shore. It is a group of herons, perhaps 20 in number, some in the trees, some wheeling overhead. The single heron near the guano rocks has disappeared, seemingly having joined them. What are they doing?, I wonder. Normally herons are solitary individuals wading alone in the reeds along the waterline. A local community meeting?

Just us, nature, and the sunset.

“It’s nice here isn’t it?”, says a familiar voice. It’s Spencer, come out to mend the broken strands of his web. I had to confess that I myself was responsible for breaking some of them inadvertently grabbing the bimini frame for support the night before.

Spencer mends his web.

“The problem is that you humans as a species have forgotten how to appreciate nature. Back in prehistoric times when there were only a few of you, you realised that you were part of Mother Nature and that you depended on her for your survival. She fed you, clothed you, provided shelter for you. In return, you had reverence for her, your honoured the animals you killed for food and clothing, you respected the forests that provided the fruits you ate and the material for your clothing and warmth. Everything was in harmony.

“This is turning into quite a lecture”, I say.

“Yes, I suppose it is”, he replied, “But it doesn’t do any harm to remind you. The problems all started when your intelligence got the better of you, and you started to cultivate some of the plants you ate. You developed the feeling that you were in control of nature, not dependent on it. Then came your cities and many of you cut yourselves off from nature all together. Now you have the attitude that nature is just a resource for you to exploit and make money so that you can spend it on more things that exploit it to earn even more money. It’s an endless cycle. But you can’t keep it up – the Earth has its limits.”

“Yes, I agree with all that”, I say. “But now there are too many of us, and it’s difficult to go back to those primitive times. We are where we are. We have to find solutions that are relevant to what there is now, not thousands of years ago.”

There are sounds of stirring down below and the First Mate’s head appears in the companionway.

“Who were you talking to?”, she asks.

“Just Spencer”, I say. “But he’s just going now. Aren’t you Spencer?”

In the afternoon, we pack up and sail for another island, that of Kolmosö. It has been recommended to us as a nice quiet, well-sheltered anchorage.

We drop anchor, untie the rubber dinghy, and row ashore. There is a picnic table, a barbecue, a pile of firewood, and a small toilet hut amongst the trees.

Venturing ashore.

“Look, there’s a sign”, says the First Mate. “I think there is a walking path here. This must be one of the stops on it. Let’s explore it.”

We follow the orange marks painted on the trees and rocks. Eventually we join a small gravel road. Two other people are walking along it.

“Yes, I am originally from Glasgow”, says the man, in response to my query on his accent. “And my wife is from France. We did live in France, but we live in Sweden now. We are here for the weekend to do some walking. You can walk with us if you like. My name is Fraser and this is Agnes.”

Fraser and Agnes and the First Mate.

“I have French residency status”, Fraser tells us. “So Brexit doesn’t bother me at all. There’s no way I will go back to the UK to live. I am absolutely fed up with the politicians there. I haven’t got time for any of them, no matter what party they belong to. They are all as bad as each other. I hardly follow what is going on there anymore.”

We cross a bridge to the neighbouring island and find ourselves at a tiny harbour with a small jetty and a crane. No one is around, and the few fishing huts are locked.

Empty harbour.

“There is nothing we can do as individuals”, he continues. “I have found that the only way that I can stay sane is to keep my head down, mind my own business, and do the things that I enjoy doing. Following politics is a mugs’ game.”

Further on, we pass close to more summer cottages, and are joined by a small pug who greets us as long-lost friends.

“There’s a good dog”, says Agnes, giving it a good scratch around the ears. “Now go home to your owners.”

The dog doesn’t want to leave. It follows us, and an hour later it is still with us.

“I don’t know how we’ll get it back home”, says the First Mate. “I don’t want to walk all the way back to that cottage again.”

As we reach the bridge again, a man appears.

“Thank you so much for looking after my dog”, he says. “She’s only six months old and loves being with people, but follows them and then gets lost.”

“He deserves to lose it”, says Fraser after he has gone. “If he knows it’s a problem he should keep it on a lead.”

We reach the point where we originally met Fraser and Agnes, and go our different ways.

“I just want to pop in here before we go back to the boat”, says the First Mate, as we reach the toilet hut where we had landed the dinghy. “Just wait here.”

While I wait, I sit on the rocks where we beached the dinghy, and notice the swirling patterns in the gneiss and granite. What story could they tell if they could talk?, I wonder. Later I read that the original rocks were part of Baltica, a continent formed around two billion years ago by the collision of three smaller land masses in what is now the South Pacific. Eventually, carried by convection currents in the Earth’s molten core like bubbles in boiling water, it moved northwards, first towards the North American plate, Laurentia, then towards Northern Europe coming to rest against the Caledonian and Siberian plates where it is now.

Ancient rock patterns.

What a journey! I think of the almost incomprehensible time periods involved. The whole of human history is less than one twenty-thousandth of the life of these rocks. How many seas and oceans had lapped against them, yet hardly changed them? How many other creatures had walked across them, and how many had sat down and considered their age, just as I was doing. Not many of the latter, apart from humans, no doubt. Yet the rocks too have their own dynamics – what will they be and where will they be in another two billion years’ time? At the bottom of a lake or sea, covered in sediment perhaps? Or part of another continent even? Humans in their present form will be unlikely to be around. But will we have disappeared completely or will we have evolved into some other form of life with properties beyond intelligence and consciousness? Or will we have escaped to the stars, leaving behind the Earth as a scarred wreck, mined of anything useful and polluted beyond recovery?

“Ok, I’m ready”, calls the First Mate. “Let’s get the dinghy back in the water. I’ll row.”

She looks at me closer. “You’re looking a bit depressed. Is anything wrong?”

“I think Spencer has that effect on me”, I say.