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

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

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

A tall ship looms out of the mist and rain.

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

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

Tied up in Ærøskøbing marina.

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

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

Street in Ærøskøbing.
House in Ærøskøbing.

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

Fairy-tale town?

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

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

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

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

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

Carpenters’ planes in Ærø Museum.

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

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

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

Ærøskøbing – a popular tourist destination.

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

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

Urban garden at the rear of the museum.

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

Wedding in Ærøskøbing.

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

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

Colourful door in Ærøskøbing.
And another one …

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

And a third …

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

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

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

The only place open in Søby on a Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Søby Volde, fortification from the 12th century.

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

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

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

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

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

Søbygaard manor house.

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

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

The ticket woman smiles.

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

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

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

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

Llama waiting at the bus-stop for Ærøskøbing.

We arrive back in Ærøskøbing without the llamas.

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

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

Colourful beach huts on Vesterstrand.

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

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

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

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

Our route from Ærøskøbing to Marstal through the Mørkedyb Channel.

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

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

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

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

We set off to explore the town.

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

Cottages in Marstal.

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

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

Traditional ship in Marstal harbour.
Boats in Marstal harbour.

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

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

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

Tall dark stranger?

“They probably think that already”, I say.

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

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

Luckily, there is a boathook close to hand.

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

Man shoe overboard!

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

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

Leaving Årø for Lyø.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map of Lyø showing Lyø By village in the centre.

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

Reunification memorial stone, Lyø.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I order and pay.

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

We return to the bikes and explore the village.

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

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

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

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

Church in Lyø.

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

Mill on Lyø.

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

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

Klokkestenen dolmen on Lyø.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking across to the island of Avernakø.

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

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

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

Working out where we are.

Sure enough it does.

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

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

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

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

Chaos at the harbour entrance.

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

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

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

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

Freshly-baked oat bread.

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

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

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

Learning about Valdemar the Victorious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the morning, I set the table for breakfast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunrise near Lænkevig.

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

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

It’s Spencer the know-all. Who else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Porpoise in the Lillebælt.

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

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

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

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

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

The First Mate waits outside the Tourist Information Office.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Årø lighthouse overlooking Årøsund.

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

South Beach, Årø.

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

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

Rose-hips for the picking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cows grazing.

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

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

View out over the Lillebælt from the bird observation tower.

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

The ‘Christmas Church’, Årø.

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

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

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

House in Årø.

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

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

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

The smallest fire-station in the world?

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

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

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

Fleeting trails.

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

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

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

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

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

She doesn’t hear me.

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

The New Lillebælt Bridge, Middelfart.

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

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

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

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

Followed by a navy patrol vessel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We sit and have an ice cream opposite the church.

St Nicholas’ Church, Middelfart.

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

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

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

Middelfart harbour.

The next day it is bright and sunny.

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

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

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

The shutter clicks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking out over Fænø Sund towards Lænkevig.

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

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

We push on. The track becomes narrower and rougher.

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

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

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

Checking the sand quality.

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

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

The path gets rougher and rougher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courteous bikers.

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

Anchored in Lænkevig in Fænø Sund.

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

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

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

I tell her.

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

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

Fellow mariners, a picturesque trade town, and a reflection

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

Leaving Kerteminde.

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, the wind picks up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See you at Kolby Kås”, we text back.

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

Sailing between Kerteminde and Samsø island.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moored up against the tyres.

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

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

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

“Give it time”, I say.

We invite Axel and Claudia over for coffee.

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

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

Axel & Claudia join us for coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset from Samsø island.

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

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

Ruby Tuesday leaving Kolby Kås .

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

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

Tied up nicely in Bogense marina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Medieval houses, Bogense.

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

Sankt Nikolaj Kirke, Bogense.

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

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

Bogense Radhus.

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

Door in Bogense.
No. 19, Bogense.

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

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

The Manneken Pis, Bogense.

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

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

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

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

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

Any service today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is he coming?”, says the First Mate.

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

Running aground, meeting friends, and a Viking ship burial

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

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

Tacking up Siø Sund towards Lundeborg.

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

Lundeborg harbour.

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

Our track from Svendborg to Skælskør.

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

Trying to keep within the buoyed channel.

Shortly after the entrance we come to a sudden stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stirring up the mud to free ourselves.

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

See what I mean?

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

We arrive in Skælskør harbour.

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

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

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

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

Old steam mill in Skælskør.
Swimming pier at Skælskør.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Freddie’s dinner is a buffet.

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

Dinner at the Skælskør Sailing Club.

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

Keeping to the channel as we leave Skælskør.

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

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

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

Approaching the Store Bælt bridge.

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

Kerteminde harbour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ladby Viking ship burial.

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

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

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

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

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

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