The First Mate wakes me in the night.
“The strong winds have started”, she says. “Do you think the anchor will hold?”
“I am sure it will”, I answer sleepily. “In any case, I have the anchor alarm on. It’ll tell us whether we are dragging or not.”
The anchor alarm is a natty little app on the phone that links to the AIS and emits a shrill beeping sound if the boat strays outside a prescribed radius of where the anchor was dropped.
We lie awake, not daring to sleep. Or able to, for that matter.
“There’s a lot of rubbing and screeching”, she says, after a few minutes. “Do you think there is a problem?”
“It’s just the anchor chain and the bridle rope moving up and down”, I say. “It’s to be expected.”
Nevertheless, I get up and walk forward with the torch to the bow to check everything. It’s wet, wild and windy, to be sure, and there is quite a swell, pushed by the wind. I had rigged a rope bridle to take the strain off the anchor windless – a hook holds one of the anchor chain links with a rope attached to it and to the forward cleats. The chain between the roller and the hook hangs free, the strain being taken up by the rope. Everything seems alright.
On the way back to bed, I check the windspeed: 25 knots. That’s quite strong. The anchor alarm shows that we are swinging in an arc but haven’t dragged the anchor.
“No problems”, I say. “There’s a lot of bouncing and swinging. But everything seems to be holding.”
We are anchored in the main bay of Tärnö, a tiny island in the Blekinge archipelago, with a Force 6 wind buffeting us. We had arrived a couple of days before, and had decided to anchor rather than competing for the few berths at the pier.
I had rigged the solar panels to help offset the power consumption of the fridge. These were two cheap-and-cheerful flexible 75 W solar panels I had brought from the UK, and hadn’t had time yet to try them. The idea was that we could put them anywhere on the boat to optimise their angle to the sun. If they worked well, we would consider more permanent panels and use these a backups.
In the afternoon we had inflated the rubber dinghy and dusted off the small engine, and had motored over to the landing stage. There we had tied up and had walked up to the lighthouse, and back along the eastern side of the island. We had had beautiful views out over the Hanöbukten and had seen Hanö shimmering in the distance.
“Can you imagine the dragon getting from here to there in two wingbeats?”, I had asked the First Mate. “It’s quite a way.”
“Perhaps he just gained height with the flaps, then glided the rest of the way”, she had said.
On the way back to the mothership, the First Mate had taken over to gain some practice in boat handling.
“I still find it difficult to remember to push the tiller to the right if I want the boat to turn to the left”, she had said. “It just seems so counter-intuitive.”
“Mind that rock!”, I had said. “You need to go to the right of it, so push the tiller to the left. Right?”
We weigh anchor the next morning after the strong winds and motor out of the little bay around the red buoys until we are clear of the island. The plan is to head for the Hyperion buoy marking the entrance to the rock-studded route through the islands to the south of Karlskrona. However, the wind direction is more easterly than predicted by the forecast, so we find ourselves heading almost directly into it. There’s nothing to do except take a large tack southwards for about five miles to get a better wind angle. We must be doing something right, as other boats coming from beyond Tärnö seem to have the same idea, and we join a stream of three or four boats heading in the same direction.
I look at the AIS.
“You’ll never guess who is following us”, I say to the First Mate. “It’s Luc and Marion, the Dutch folk that we met first in Simritshamn. I think they are coming from Karlshamn. They are about four miles behind us. It looks like they are also heading for Karlskrona.”
We enter the buoyed channel north of the island of Hasslö where a swinging bridge bars our way. It opens on the hour every hour for ten minutes. We have about forty minutes to kill until the next opening.
“I’ll make a cup of tea”, says the First Mate. “You can drive around in circles like the others. Be careful you don’t hit anyone.”
Several other boats gather, waiting for the same opening slot. Luc comes up behind us. He doesn’t seem to have seen us, so we call out to him. His face lights up.
“Well, well, well” he says. “I hadn’t seen you.”
All eyes are on the red light at the side of the bridge. Eventually it goes amber, and there is a surge of boats towards the narrow gap, jostling for position. A few minutes later, the light goes green and we’re off. Despite arriving in the waiting area almost first, we end up almost last through the bridge. We are obviously not skilled at this.
We have a fast sail up the channel until we reach the Godnatt fortification marking the entrance to Karlskrona naval base. There we furl the sails and motor the last little bit into the town marina.
Shortly after we tie up, Luc joins us for a coffee.
“The naval museum here is outstanding”, he tells us. “Well worth a visit. They also do an excellent buffet lunch in the restaurant there.”
“Come on”, says the First Mate after he leaves. “Let’s get the bikes out and explore the city. I have a map from the harbour office when we checked in.”
The centre is laid out in a grid pattern culminating in the vast central square with the Town Hall and two imposing looking churches.
It’s hot, so we decide to stop and have an ice-cream. Apparently this particular shop is world-renowned for the size of its ice-creams.
We come across the clock tower that was built to impress on foreigners in the 17th century that Sweden was a major power and as good culturally as anyone.
We follow the city wall around until we come to the Björkholmen area of the city where the early shipyard workers built their houses. Later artists and writers came to live there. The houses are cute and brightly coloured.
From there, we cross the bridges to reach the islands of Saltö and Dragsö.
In the morning, we are just making a cup of tea when there is a knock on the side of the boat. It’s a cheery-looking man in shorts and a pink-coloured T-shirt.
“Are you the harbourmaster?”, I say, poking my head out of the cabin.
“No, we are from Dundee in Scotland, and we saw that you are flying a Scottish flag”, he says. “We wondered if you are also from Scotland, by any chance? I’m Colin, and this is Joan.”
The other half of the ‘we’ comes along the pontoon to join her husband.
“We’ve been here for a few days”, they tell us, “but we are leaving the boat here for a couple of weeks and flying back to the UK for our daughter’s wedding. When we return, we’ll carry on sailing northwards from here.”
We invite them to join us for tea and biscuits. The talk turns to methods of tying up in box berths and rear buoys.
“Why don’t you go and get the hooky thing we bought to catch the buoys?”, says the First Mate. “It’s in the storage room.”
I go downstairs and clamber over the vegetables, bikes, tools and other paraphernalia that have accumulated in the storeroom. I dislodge an object which tips onto the floor, and step into something squishy. It’s the contents of the pan containing the leftovers from yesterday’s dinner.
“Hurry up”, calls the First Mate from the deck. “We haven’t got all day.”
“Coming”, I call, removing a mushroom from between my toes. “I am having trouble finding it.”
Quickly, I scoop up the food, flush it down the toilet, wipe the floor, and wash and dry the pan.
“Here it is”, I say triumphantly, emerging back on deck clutching the hooky thing. “I finally found it. Right at the back.”
Later on, we decide to take Luc’s advice and have the buffet lunch at the Naval Museum restaurant.
“That’s your third helping”, I say to the First Mate, as she returns to the table with her plate full. “Anyone would think you are hungry.”
“I read somewhere that a lot of Swedes do this”, she responds. “Because eating out is so expensive, many eat their main meal during the day by having a buffet somewhere where they can eat as much as they want, then have only a light meal or even nothing in the evening. I don’t know if it is true, but it sort of makes sense, what with the prices here.”
“It reminds me of that time in Kenya, just after we had met”, I say. “Do you remember that?”
“Of course”, she says. “Don’t remind me. How could I ever forget?”
When we had both worked in Central Africa, where many things were not available due to trade restrictions in place, we had decided to chill out for a few days over Christmas in Mombasa, so had booked a flight and hotel. On Christmas Day, the hotel had put on a buffet dinner on the lawn. Mesmerised by the sight of so much beautiful food on offer after months of nothing but the basics, we had loaded our plates as much as we could and staggered back to the table. It wasn’t long before we had both looked at each other at the same time and had had to make a run for our room. The food was too much and too rich for stomachs that had been accustomed to boiled maize meal for many months.
Lunch over, we enter the museum and start with the introductory video.
We learn that the Swedes and the Danes had been slugging it out for years, but the problem the Swedes had was that their navy was based in Stockholm, the capital, which was iced in for longer than the Danes, whose navy was based in Copenhagen further south. Consequently they could be ready and waiting for when the Swedes could finally move. King Karl XI of Sweden decided that a more southerly port was needed, so in 1680 the island of Trossö in Karlskrona was selected for the purpose. The city was marked out in a square pattern and grew rapidly as the Navy expanded, even becoming a model for other European countries of how to do it. In any case, it worked as Sweden grew to be a major European power with territory in northern Germany, Finland, Estonia and Latvia.
Next is the submarine hall, where an early submarine and a nuclear submarine from the 1960s are on display.
“This one is much bigger than the one that you went through in Sassnitz”, says the First Mate.
“But no less claustrophobic “, I say.
“Come and look at this”, says the First Mate. “That’s clever. They have built an underwater viewing room down to the sea floor in the harbour. Apparently there is a real wreck that you can see.”
We peer through the glass windows. I can’t see anything at all – there is too much sediment in the water.
“Look, here’s the wreck”, calls the First Mate from one of the windows.
Sure enough two timbers emerge from the gloom. They could be almost anything. I try hard to imagine that there is a whole shipwreck behind them, but it’s not easy.
“Well, it’s was a great idea at least”, she says. “It’s just a pity that the water is so cloudy.”
We arrive at a section on war in general in the far end of the museum. Up until this stage, although it has not been really explicit, it is fairly clear that the enemy that the Swedish Navy is defending the country against is its larger neighbour Russia. Here, however, it is explicit – the world is divided into two camps, the American side and the Russian side. There is no doubting which camp Sweden sees itself in, despite its deliberate policy of neutrality. And with some justification – in 1981 a nuclear-armed Russian submarine carrying out clandestine activities went aground near one of the islands just south of Karlskrona, leading to an international incident. And now Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine has shown just what can happen to neutral countries if large unpredictable neighbours have different ideas. No wonder Sweden has applied to join NATO.
As I digest the exhibits, I am reminded of the book i had read last year by Ian Morris, War: What is it Good For? In it, he puts forward the argument that war has actually been beneficial to the human race, as it has been the driver of the development of large political structures such as countries and nations that have in turn suppressed internal violence and made it safer for the vast majority of people to live and become prosperous. He gives as evidence that during prehistoric times, individuals had a relatively high chance (20%) of dying violently, as shown by unearthed skeletons, compared to in modern times. The emergence of global superpowers, such as Britain in the 1800s and the United States in the 20th century is a continuation of this process with a rules-based world order, which has ensured peace and prosperity for millions.
It’s an interesting way of looking at world history, but it is a tricky argument to agree with if you are one of the victims on the receiving end of colonialism or war, as the people of Ukraine are at the moment. This was, of course, all before the days of Trump, Johnson and Putin, so it is anyone’s guess where we go from here. Will China be the next global policeman with the West in disarray and decline? Or will it be a free-for-all with survival of the strongest?
In the evening, we wander along to the other end of the harbour and watch the giant charter yacht Sea Cloud Spirit leave to return to Gdansk. It was built in 2021 to cater for the rich and famous, and is so big that it needs a tug to tow it away from the dock.
From the rear deck, a well-dressed couple looks down condescendingly at us.
“Look at those commoners down there”, I imagine him saying to her. “I bet they have never done as exciting as us sailing around the Baltic.”
As we walk back, I put on my sailor’s cap and ask the First Mate loudly in a Devonshire accent if she has spliced the main-braces yet, to make them think I am an old seadog. She looks at me incredulously. The rich couple don’t seem to notice.
We arrive back at Ruby Tuesday.
“Have you seen the pan with the leftovers from yesterday?”, asks the First Mate. “I put it in the storage room to keep it out of the way.”
“I am sure it will be there somewhere”, I say, avoiding her gaze. “I know – why don’t we go out for something to eat tonight?”