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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?”