Off to our starboard, shimmering in the early morning sun, lies the fabled island of Blå Jungfrun, the Blue Maiden. Swedish folklore has it that all the witches gather there on Maundy Tuesday. As a reminder, children dress up on that day as witches and go from door-to-door trick-or-treating. We would have liked to have visited it, but weather conditions need to be settled to anchor and get ashore.
We are on our way to Västervik, having left Oskarshamn that morning with a stiff breeze from the south, following the same route that we had come in until we had reached the island of Furö. We had then continued north-east up Kalmarsund.
The wind drops to a gentle breeze and we coast along on a sea of silver. I lie on the foredeck in the warm sunshine and amuse myself by imagining cloud shapes. Memories of carefree childhood summers relive themselves. Lying on the beach looking upwards, the sand hollowed into a lumpy bed.
“Look, there’s a lion!”, we would shout excitedly.
“No, it looks more like an elephant”, would come the response. “See, there’s his trunk.”
“No I don’t mean that one. This one over there. It’s definitely a lion. And look at that porpoise!“
Days of innocence difficult to recapture. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. But it is still fun trying to recognise patterns in the world around us. Humans are good at that.
The wind changes direction and comes more from the southeast. We adjust the sails and continue northwards. Eventually we reach the buoy marking the entry to the route through the rocks and skerries to Västervik. I turn the boat into the wind while we furl the sails. There is a lot of twisting and turning on the route and our sail changes are not slick enough for delicate manoeuvres such as this yet. A boat behind us that has been following us for some way does the same.
The First Mate takes over the helm. We pass between two low-lying islands with red and green lights on their extremities, and follow the course marked on the charts. Rocks just breaking the surface glide pass mere metres away on each side, waiting for careless sailors to make an error and founder on their jagged points. Someone has done a lot of work over the years in identifying the way through the obstacle course.
In front of us, we see the conspicuous tower of Späro, one of the marks to guide us through. Eventually we reach the narrow cut between Späro and Grönö islands, perhaps 20 metres or so wide, enough for two boats to pass, but not by much. No room for error.
A beautiful wooden boat coming the other way under sail passes us with metres to spare, the skipper nonchalantly making fine adjustments to his sail trim to pass around us without danger. I can only admire his comfortable familiarity with the boat and skill in reading the wind behaviour so well through this unpredictable terrain.
Through the gap, we enter a wide basin full of yachts and turn to port to make the final approach into Västervik.
“Help”, shouts the First Mate. “There’s a huge ferry bearing down on us.” What shall I do?”
“Just follow the green buoys and keep as close to them as you can to let him pass”, I say. “It’ll be fine.”
The ferry passes leaving behind a small wake which gently rocks Ruby Tuesday from side to side. Not as bad as some we have had.
We reach the Västerviks Slottsholmen marina, where we are met by a small RIB with a studenty-looking employee with his long hair tied back into a ponytail.
“You can tie up anywhere over there”, he says with a grin, pointing to one corner of the marina with stern buoys. “Someone will be around later to collect the fee.”
His ponytail flicks from side to side.
Västervik translates as West Bay, and is a small industrial town. Nevertheless, there has been a concerted effort to enhance the harbour area and restore the town’s attractive buildings to their former glory. We unload the bikes and cycle past the castle ruins to cross over the small swinging bridge that opens to allow boats into the upper reaches of the fjord. We pass the quaint art-deco Warmbadhus that has been recently restored and is used as a well-being centre.
Across the water we see the old town area dominated by the St Gertrude church.
“Help!”, says the First Mate, as we sit in a nearby chair for a break. “I told you we shouldn’t have had such hot showers this morning!”
We reach the town centre with its market square and town hall.
On a small mound to the east sits the impressive neo-Gothic St Peter’s Church, constructed of red brick and sandstone.
We stay in Västervik for a couple of days to repair the splash hood frame which had somehow detached itself as we had arrived. I decide to use bolts rather than the original screws to repair it, but it does involve removing some of the lining inside.
Jobs done, we leave Västervik the next morning, full tanks of water, all batteries fully charged, and plenty of food. We plan to explore several islands in the Östergötland archipelago for the next week where there will be no marinas and therefore no shore power. We will need to be as self-sufficient as possible – the only source of energy will be our two solar panels and when we run the engine.
The First Mate has picked up a brochure in the Tourist Office.
“The Östergötland archipelago consists of 8,888 islands, and is actually made up of three smaller archipelagos for administrative purposes: the Arkösund archipelago in the north, the Sankt Anna’s archipelago in the centre, and the Gryt archipelago in the south”, she reads. “The whole area is the product of the Ice Ages, when sheets of ice 1.5 km thick covered the land and ground and smoothed the rock underneath. As it retreated 10,000 years ago, it left behind the debris of these powerful forces, a landscape of shallow depressions and gentle hillocks. The sea-level rose due to the melting ice and filled the depressions leaving the hillocks to form the thousands of islands we see today. With the weight of the ice sheets gone, the land is also rebounding at a rate of 2-3 mm per year, with new skerries appearing in the east and islands in the west fusing with the mainland.”
“It’s amazing that there are exactly 8,888 islands”, I say. “Do you think they drew the boundaries on purpose just so they got a number that was easy to remember? When we were kids the height of Mount Cook in New Zealand was 12,349 feet, and I could never understand why they just didn’t go up there and lop four feet off it to make it nice and easy to remember. And then, in 1991, the ice did actually break off a piece of the top. Unfortunately, it was too much, and the height is now 12,218 feet, even more unmemorable.”
“A case of being careful what you wish for”, says the First Mate.
I wake up early and watch the dappled sunlight play on the cabin roof for a few moments before getting up and making myself a cup of tea. The First Mate slumbers on, so I sit in the cockpit and absorb the early morning buzz of activity of the natural world around me. The sea is as smooth as a mirror, there is not a puff of wind. Black-headed gulls bob on the water around us, their movements creating small ripples that spread out and gradually disappear. A heron stands patiently next to the guano-stained rocks at the end of the little island in the middle of the bay, a watchful eye on any unwary fish venturing too close. On the sliver of rock joining these rocks to the island, a number of cormorants face the wind to dry their wings. Two amorous dragonflies alight on our guard wires and continue their lovemaking seemingly unaware they are being observed. On the small spit to our left, a flock of grazing geese begin to honk, their calls strangely melodic. In the Scots Pines above them, pigeons coo in accompaniment.
We are anchored in Smagö, one of the 8,888 islands in the archipelago. We had sailed from Västervik up one of the long fiords with the wind behind us and on the genoa alone, passing many small islands and skerries before entering the narrow gap between the islands of Hultö and Björkö and negotiating our way around the rock-strewn entrance into the bay on the western side of Smagö. There we had dropped the anchor and chilled out for the rest of the day.
An idyllic scene, I think to myself, one that has remained unchanged since the dawn of time. And yet, it hasn’t – this landscape is relatively young, and didn’t even exist 10,000 years ago. And before the ice sheet, another landscape may have existed, with different vegetation and creatures populating it.
A fly smashes into the sprayhood behind me. Temporarily stunned, it falls to the deck before recovering and flying off. One of the cormorants takes to the air, its wingtips beating the water furiously to gain height. A fish splashes briefly in the water just behind the boat, but I am too slow in turning and miss it. A frenzied flapping of wings draws my attention to the other shore. It is a group of herons, perhaps 20 in number, some in the trees, some wheeling overhead. The single heron near the guano rocks has disappeared, seemingly having joined them. What are they doing?, I wonder. Normally herons are solitary individuals wading alone in the reeds along the waterline. A local community meeting?
“It’s nice here isn’t it?”, says a familiar voice. It’s Spencer, come out to mend the broken strands of his web. I had to confess that I myself was responsible for breaking some of them inadvertently grabbing the bimini frame for support the night before.
“The problem is that you humans as a species have forgotten how to appreciate nature. Back in prehistoric times when there were only a few of you, you realised that you were part of Mother Nature and that you depended on her for your survival. She fed you, clothed you, provided shelter for you. In return, you had reverence for her, your honoured the animals you killed for food and clothing, you respected the forests that provided the fruits you ate and the material for your clothing and warmth. Everything was in harmony.
“This is turning into quite a lecture”, I say.
“Yes, I suppose it is”, he replied, “But it doesn’t do any harm to remind you. The problems all started when your intelligence got the better of you, and you started to cultivate some of the plants you ate. You developed the feeling that you were in control of nature, not dependent on it. Then came your cities and many of you cut yourselves off from nature all together. Now you have the attitude that nature is just a resource for you to exploit and make money so that you can spend it on more things that exploit it to earn even more money. It’s an endless cycle. But you can’t keep it up – the Earth has its limits.”
“Yes, I agree with all that”, I say. “But now there are too many of us, and it’s difficult to go back to those primitive times. We are where we are. We have to find solutions that are relevant to what there is now, not thousands of years ago.”
There are sounds of stirring down below and the First Mate’s head appears in the companionway.
“Who were you talking to?”, she asks.
“Just Spencer”, I say. “But he’s just going now. Aren’t you Spencer?”
In the afternoon, we pack up and sail for another island, that of Kolmosö. It has been recommended to us as a nice quiet, well-sheltered anchorage.
We drop anchor, untie the rubber dinghy, and row ashore. There is a picnic table, a barbecue, a pile of firewood, and a small toilet hut amongst the trees.
“Look, there’s a sign”, says the First Mate. “I think there is a walking path here. This must be one of the stops on it. Let’s explore it.”
We follow the orange marks painted on the trees and rocks. Eventually we join a small gravel road. Two other people are walking along it.
“Yes, I am originally from Glasgow”, says the man, in response to my query on his accent. “And my wife is from France. We did live in France, but we live in Sweden now. We are here for the weekend to do some walking. You can walk with us if you like. My name is Fraser and this is Agnes.”
“I have French residency status”, Fraser tells us. “So Brexit doesn’t bother me at all. There’s no way I will go back to the UK to live. I am absolutely fed up with the politicians there. I haven’t got time for any of them, no matter what party they belong to. They are all as bad as each other. I hardly follow what is going on there anymore.”
We cross a bridge to the neighbouring island and find ourselves at a tiny harbour with a small jetty and a crane. No one is around, and the few fishing huts are locked.
“There is nothing we can do as individuals”, he continues. “I have found that the only way that I can stay sane is to keep my head down, mind my own business, and do the things that I enjoy doing. Following politics is a mugs’ game.”
Further on, we pass close to more summer cottages, and are joined by a small pug who greets us as long-lost friends.
“There’s a good dog”, says Agnes, giving it a good scratch around the ears. “Now go home to your owners.”
The dog doesn’t want to leave. It follows us, and an hour later it is still with us.
“I don’t know how we’ll get it back home”, says the First Mate. “I don’t want to walk all the way back to that cottage again.”
As we reach the bridge again, a man appears.
“Thank you so much for looking after my dog”, he says. “She’s only six months old and loves being with people, but follows them and then gets lost.”
“He deserves to lose it”, says Fraser after he has gone. “If he knows it’s a problem he should keep it on a lead.”
We reach the point where we originally met Fraser and Agnes, and go our different ways.
“I just want to pop in here before we go back to the boat”, says the First Mate, as we reach the toilet hut where we had landed the dinghy. “Just wait here.”
While I wait, I sit on the rocks where we beached the dinghy, and notice the swirling patterns in the gneiss and granite. What story could they tell if they could talk?, I wonder. Later I read that the original rocks were part of Baltica, a continent formed around two billion years ago by the collision of three smaller land masses in what is now the South Pacific. Eventually, carried by convection currents in the Earth’s molten core like bubbles in boiling water, it moved northwards, first towards the North American plate, Laurentia, then towards Northern Europe coming to rest against the Caledonian and Siberian plates where it is now.
What a journey! I think of the almost incomprehensible time periods involved. The whole of human history is less than one twenty-thousandth of the life of these rocks. How many seas and oceans had lapped against them, yet hardly changed them? How many other creatures had walked across them, and how many had sat down and considered their age, just as I was doing. Not many of the latter, apart from humans, no doubt. Yet the rocks too have their own dynamics – what will they be and where will they be in another two billion years’ time? At the bottom of a lake or sea, covered in sediment perhaps? Or part of another continent even? Humans in their present form will be unlikely to be around. But will we have disappeared completely or will we have evolved into some other form of life with properties beyond intelligence and consciousness? Or will we have escaped to the stars, leaving behind the Earth as a scarred wreck, mined of anything useful and polluted beyond recovery?
“Ok, I’m ready”, calls the First Mate. “Let’s get the dinghy back in the water. I’ll row.”
She looks at me closer. “You’re looking a bit depressed. Is anything wrong?”
“I think Spencer has that effect on me”, I say.