“Did you see that they have put the Union Jack out this morning?”, says the First Mate over breakfast. “It’s there because of us. Apparently every morning they fly the national flags of the boats which have stayed overnight. It’s a nice touch. Look, there’s a Lithuanian one over there. At first I thought it was a Colombian one. They look quite similar.”
In fact, I had noticed the Union Jack flying from the row of flagpoles on the pontoons on my way to the shower block. Seeing it in this part of the world is a rare thing now that the United Kingdom has cut itself off from the rest of Europe.
We are in Arkösund, a small village on the edge of the Swedish archipelago. There isn’t a lot to it – just a harbour area, a hotel, a sailing club, a supermarket, a restaurant, and several craft stalls. It is mainly a holiday resort, but with the school holidays nearly over, it is fairly quiet. It is also used as a crew change location by visiting yachts.
After nearly a week anchoring in the remote islands of the archipelago and relying on the solar panels and occasional running of the engine to supply power, we are happy to be able to recharge our batteries and electronic devices, and refill our tanks with water.
On top of that we are meeting friends Steve and Mitzi there. We had met them on La Gomera in the Canaries two years previously, and had discovered a common interest in walking. Since then, we had kept in touch with each other, and when we heard that they were planning to holiday this year in Norway with their camper-van and we were to be in Sweden sailing, we both decided to meet up for a few days.
They arrive in the early evening. Over dinner, we plan our route. One of the places that Martin, our Swedish neighbour in Borgholm, had recommended that we must visit was Harstena, an island around 17 NM to the south of Arkösund. We had actually passed it on the way up, but had not had time to visit it.
We set off the next morning. It is a warm sunny day and the wind is from the north, directly behind us, but there is precious little of it. We use the genoa only, and sail along at the majestic rate of 2 knots. It’s lucky we have all day to get there. But it gives us a chance over a leisurely lunch to catch up with each other since we last met.
“Yes, we are still eco-warriors”, says Steve in response to my question. “But we are not so involved in the Extinction Rebellion now as we were then.”
They had both been involved in transporting provisions to the Extinction Rebellion protesters demonstrating against climate change inaction back in 2000. In fact, they had even been accosted by the police at one stage for aiding and abetting civil disturbances.
“It was preposterous”, says Mitzi. “All we were doing was taking food to the protesters. Nothing illegal about that.”
“So am I right in assuming that Priti Patel is not one of your favourite politicians then?”, I ask.
There is a prolonged coughing bout as Steve tries to dislodge a piece of cumin cheese from his throat.
“I take it that was a ‘no’, then?”, I say, as Mitzi thumps him on the back.
In the interests of communal boat harmony, I make a mental note not to mention the name of the British Home Secretary again.
We arrive at the main harbour in Harstena. Unfortunately, all the berths at the quay are full. The map shows that it is possible to anchor in an area just opposite the quay, but our anchor won’t set because of weed. After several attempts we give up, and decide to try Flisfjärden inlet further up the coast. Apparently it is good anchoring there, and it about one kilometre’s walk back to the Harstena village.
We motor up. Suddenly, there is a loud bang and Ruby Tuesday comes to an abrupt stop. Immediately I know that we have hit a rock with the keel. I reverse quickly back into deeper water to assess the situation. We check in the bilge. Nothing seems amiss – there is no water coming in and the keel bolts are intact. Hopefully it was a glancing blow. I check the chart – there is no rock marked, but we have just touched the edge of the blue area on the chart, the ‘risky zone’. Shaken, we motor into the inlet. I make a mental note to check underneath at the next opportunity.
The Flisfjärden inlet is busy, but there is space. We find a spot to anchor far enough away from the other boats so that we won’t touch them if we swing around. The First Mate drops the anchor, and I reverse to set it. It seems to hold well. I set the anchor alarm just to be sure.
In the evening, we sit in the cockpit and sip our glasses of wine. The conversation turns to world events. High on the list is the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s amazing how things can have unintended consequences”, says Steve. “Look at the EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas. The shortage globally has pushed up the prices, so that even though countries are buying less gas from Putin, his revenues are the same or even more so that he can go on funding his war machine.”
“Yes”, I say. “I kind of expected that the demand for renewable energies would increase and that share prices of those would also increase. But that hasn’t really happened. The huge profits made by the oil companies have meant that they are paying high dividends to investors, which has meant that money is flowing in that direction rather than towards green investments.”
“An example of how the market can actually work against what is best for society”, says Mitzi. “But surely in the long-term, the world needs more renewable energy, so that investments in that will pay off?”
“One would hope so”, says Steve. “But we need to reduce society’s demand for oil and gas before that will happen. What the war in Ukraine has done has been to reduce supply. It needs to be accompanied by change in people’s attitudes to using fossil fuels. It’s only then it won’t be worth investing in. Society really needs to change fundamentally.”
“But what do you see it changing to?”, I ask. “We humans have tried all sorts of systems – monarchies, communism, fascism, democracy, neo-liberalism, populism – they have all shown to be deficient in certain aspects. What’s left to try? What sort of society do we want?”
“Well, for a start, it has to be more equal and fairer, consume less energy and resources, and allow everyone to develop to their potential and have a voice”, he says. “But I have to admit that I don’t really know what sort of system will give that. I’ll leave it to the philosophers to work that out.”
The next morning, we untie the rubber dinghy and row ashore. As the dinghy is small, we need to do it in two batches. Steve tries to work out the best way to do it if the fox and the chicken can’t be together, nor the chicken and the bag of corn. In the end, I promise to eat no one on the way over, and get the job of the farmer doing the rowing. We manage to get everyone to the shore intact with no bite marks.
The path through the woods is delightful, the sunshine filtering through the foliage and creating dappled patterns on the undergrowth.
We eventually reach the small village and the harbour where we attempted to find a berth the day before. There is a small shop selling ice creams and smoked fish, and further down overlooking the harbour, a restaurant. And a set of toilets for those in need. A sign points the way to a bakery some distance away. We start walking in that direction.
“Hej, var försiktig. Taket är ömtåligt”, shouts a man in the garden of one of the houses, as I step off the road to take a photo.
“So sorry”, I reply. “I don’t speak Swedish.”
“I said ‘be careful. The roof there is fragile’”, he says, in flawless English.
Without realising it, I am standing on the turfed roof of some sort of underground storeroom. I step off gingerly, trying not to fall through.
We continue on through the village. Every house is painted in the same shade of red.
“I read somewhere that the reason all the houses in Sweden are red is that they discovered in the 18th century that waste material from iron ore was very good as a wood preserver and didn’t fade in the sun”, says Steve. “Apparently it also allows the wood to breathe and release moisture easily. The only problem is that as it is a form of iron oxide, it only comes in red. They call it Falu Red.”
We pass a small museum showing what it was like in one of the traditional houses.
Eventually we reach the bakery and decide to have coffee and cakes.
“Wow”, says the First Mate. “Those cakes were good. I don’t really feel like any lunch now.”
We amble back to the boat. On the way, we come to a couple staring intently at something on the path.
“It’s a copper snake”, says the man. “I think they might be poisonous.”
I try to take a photo, but the snake slithers off into the grass.
“If you use your imagination, you can see it”, says the First Mate.
The next day, we sail back to Arkösund. Miraculously, the wind is from the southeast, and we make good speed on a broad reach.
“We’ve really enjoyed it”, say Steve and Mitzi, as we say our goodbyes. “And we would do it again. But we have decided that sailing in a boat of our own is not for us. We’ll stick with our camper van.”
“Maybe we will see you next year in Estonia?”, says the First Mate.
The next day we sail for Oxelösund. The wind is a south-easterly directly behind us to start with, and we sail with the genoa only, but we eventually turn north east, haul out the mainsail, and have a nice beam reach almost all the way into Oxelösund.
We are greeted by giant cranes, silos and cargo ships unloading.
“It doesn’t look very inviting”, says the First Mate. “It’s all a bit industrial. Look, there’s our marina just on the left.”
“This just the dock area”, I say optimistically. “Docks always look like that. I am sure that the actual town will be better.”
It’s not really. After lunch, we take the toy train into the city centre to explore. It drops us at a vast concreted square dominated by an ICA supermarket. An abstract stainless steel sculpture takes pride of place in the centre. Around it lounge a number of people looking as if they are in some other dimension. At their feet and on the wooden seats are a pile of beer cans.
“Can you tell us where the city centre is?”, the First Mate asks a passer-by.
She looks at us pityingly.
“This is it”, she replies.
“Look over there”, I say. “I can see a church spire. Perhaps that is more the city centre? It is in other cities, at least.”
We walk through the carpark behind the supermarket to the church positioned on a rocky outcrop. Even the church looks starkly functional, its open tower rising to an apex where the bells hang.
At least I won’t have to worry about parallax with this photo, I think. No-one will notice the difference. Even the doors are solid copper. But somehow the church seems to capture the essence of the place. Oxelösund is a no-frills, strictly functional industrial city, whose only purpose is to make things. Even the God it worships doesn’t care much for frivolous architecture of the soaring neo-Gothic sort that we saw in Västervik. But I find myself grudgingly admiring the stark elemental beauty of the place.
“I think we had better get back”, says the First Mate. “The toy train will be leaving soon. We don’t want to miss it.”
In the afternoon, we decide to motor to a pretty little anchorage on the north side of Hasselö-Bergö island not far from Oxelösund. There are two Swedish Cruising Club (SXK) buoys there which we are entitled to use by virtue of our membership of the UK-based Cruising Association. We moor with the ‘Heik’s Hook’, which snares the buoy perfectly, and sit back for the afternoon to enjoy the sun.
“This is beautiful”, says the First Mate, reaching for her Sudoku book. “It’s so quiet and peaceful, and we have it all to ourselves.”
I think back to the discussion that I had with Steve. The need for society to change and how to achieve it reminds me of a book I read over the winter “Radical Transformation: Oligarchy, Collapse, and the Crisis of Civilisation” by Kevin MacKay. His main argument is that centralised power, what he calls the ‘oligarchy’, is the root problem of dysfunction and collapse. This rich elite use their wealth and power to manipulate democracies to protect their own interests, which are often against the interests of ordinary people, or, for that matter, the planet. Societies with too much centralised power and high inequality are therefore more prone to collapse. But how do we achieve a ‘democratic, eco-socialist’ state, a sane, humane, sustainable world, as he says is the desirable end-point? Is the whole current system rotten to the core, needing a revolution to reorganise it? Or are there bits of it that are good that should be preserved such as universal healthcare, schools, and libraries, and other bits that are bad and need replacing with something better?
“I think you need a good revolution”, says Spencer from the bimini. “It’s always worked in the past. The French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, they all shook up society and brought about big changes. It’s high time you had another one. Very cathartic.”
“Hey, be careful what you say”, I respond. “You might get arrested for inciting social unrest. In any case, MacKay thinks it is unlikely there will be a violent revolution in western society as the current power structures are accepted as legitimate by much of population. They may complain about elements of it, or gripe about specific politicians, but overall they accept the basic structure of the system as it is. Therefore, no-one will be prepared to risk their lives to revolt.”
“Obviously written before the attempted coup on January 6th in Washington”, Spencer counters. “People involved in that were rioting to bring about change for the better, as they saw it.”
“True”, I say. “MacKay does say that people will rebel when they feel that their moral norms are being eroded. But I don’t think he remotely thought that this would go as far as trying to overturn the results of a legitimate election. And in the US of all places.”
“Well, you may not be as far off a full-blooded revolution as you think, particularly if the former President is re-elected”, he says. “But rather than trying to achieve a more progressive society, it seems to be moving in the opposite direction to a more repressive one.”
“It’s a distinct possibility”, I agree. “And it seems to be what a lot of people want.”
“I think that it’s time for a coffee”, says the First Mate, looking up from her Sudoku. “I can see that you are lost in thought again. By the way, have you told everyone that your sister and brother-in-law are joining us next week? The blog might be delayed.”
“No, I haven’t yet”, I respond. “Thanks for reminding me.”