A poisoned king, religious turmoil, and spilt tea

“Look, I can see the castle”, shouts the First Mate from the bow. “It looks stunning. Just like a fairy-tale one.”

We are arriving in Mariefred, a town on the shores of Lake Mälaren. We had left Birka around 1000 in the morning and for a while had caught the wind from the north, skimming along at a good speed on a comfortable beam reach. Then we had had to turn south into the long inlet leading to Mariefred, and the wind, now from behind, had dropped to a mere breeze. We had goose-winged by rigging the genoa to one side and the mainsail to the other, but it hadn’t made much difference and we had resigned ourselves to a sedate two knots for the duration. But we had been in no hurry, and had relaxed and read. Eventually the towers of Gripsholm Castle had come into view at the end of the inlet.

Coming into Mariefred, Gripsholm Castle on the left.

“Do a loop around it”, calls the First Mate. “So we can get some photos.”

I start the engine and we take in the sails. We make a loop around the bay to see the castle from the sunlit side. Cameras click furiously.

“I have always wanted to live in a place with a turret, ever since I was a little girl”, says the First Mate. “That’ll do me just fine.”

“You should have married a Prince”, I mutter.

“I can see a blue buoy just next to the marina”, calls the First Mate again. “I think it is one of those SXK buoys we are allowed to use. We could tie up there and save messing around berthing in the marina. We can go without shore power for another night.”

We motor in slowly, and slip the Heiks-hook into the ring of the buoy. It’s probably just my imagination, but I think I see one or two disapproving looks from the fishermen on the promenade, wondering whether we have the right to use the buoy. I fetch the Bojflagga sign from the cabin and display it prominently just to be sure.

Tied up to the SXK buoy in front of Gripsholm Castle.

“This is the life”, says the First Mate as she stretches out luxuriously, a cup of coffee in her hand and the sun streaming into the cockpit. “I can pretend that the turret is mine for the night.”

Refreshed, we decide to explore the town. We untie the dinghy and row ashore.

“I read that Mariefred means ‘Peace of Mary’ after the Charterhouse that used to be here”, says the First Mate on the way. “And that for historical reasons it is referred to as a city even though there are only 3000 people here. Normally a place would have to have 10,000 people to be classified as a city.”

We walk up to the station. A narrow gauge railway runs from Mariefred to Strängnäs, but because it is the end of the season and also a Sunday, everything is quiet.

Mariefred railway station.

Further on is the entrance to the castle. Outside is a runestone that was found when it was being renovated.

Runestone outside Gripsholm Castle.

We find ourselves back on the main street. Most of the shops are closed.

Mariefred main street.

We walk back past the picturesque old church, perched on a hill dominating the town.

Mariefred church.

That evening, I read the guide book on the history of the castle. It has belonged to the Royal Family since the days of our old friend Gustav Vasa I in the early 1500s, who had demolished a previous castle on the site and rebuilt it as a fortress, much the same as he had done at Kalmar, Bornholm and several other places. Gustav’s eldest son Erik, who had succeeded him as King of Sweden, had imprisoned his brother John in the castle, but later the tables were turned when John had imprisoned him. The Castle is now a museum and houses the National Portrait Gallery.

History from the mists of time?

“Interesting”, says the First Mate. “I would think that there are worst places to be imprisoned in. But I wonder why the two brothers imprisoned each other? Obviously they didn’t get on too well together?”

“It seems Eric had a mental illness and was a bit unstable”, I say, reading on. “At one stage he had a thing for Queen Elizabeth of England, but she turned him down. Then, after he became King, he convinced himself that his nobles were plotting against him, and had his brother John and his wife imprisoned in the castle. He then had members of one of the powerful families in Sweden massacred. This didn’t go down too well with the others, so all the nobles rose up against him. John took over as king and had Eric imprisoned in the castle.”

“Fair enough, I suppose”, says the First Mate.

“The story doesn’t end there”, I say. “Eric eventually died, apparently after eating a plate of pea soup.”

“Oh dear”, the First Mate interjects. “We had better throw away those tins of pea-and-ham soup in the storeroom. We don’t want stomach problems at this stage.”

“No, no”, I say. “It was deliberate. In the 1950s, they exhumed his body and discovered that it contained very high levels of arsenic. The pea soup had been poisoned to get rid of him.”

In the morning, I wake up early and make myself a cup of tea. I grab the milk carton from the fridge and pour it into the brewed tea. It isn’t the milk, but rather the apple juice. The cartons look almost the same. I sigh. It’s going to be one of those days.

Sure enough, it doesn’t get better. As I put the tea caddy back into the cupboard, the lid springs open somehow and tea leaves go everywhere. Luckily the First Mate is still sleeping. Frantically I try and brush them up. As I open the lid to the fridge to clean the rubber seal where some of the leaves have fallen into, more leaves land on the cheese. Painstakingly, I pick them off. Ten minutes later I survey my efforts. Everything seems to be back to normal.

No use crying over spilt tea.

“I think that I would quite like to find Kurt Tucholsky’s grave”, says the First Mate over breakfast. “I didn’t know that it was here in Mariefred, but I read somewhere that he was buried in the main cemetery.”

“Excuse my ignorance”, I say, “but who was Kurt Tucholsky?”

“Do you mean to say that you’ve never heard of him?”, exclaims the First Mate. “He was a famous German author and satirist between the wars who stood up to the Nazis. Most people in Germany know of him. I used to enjoy reading some of his books when I was younger.”

“My education is ‘gravely’ deficient”, I say.

“Was that supposed to be a joke?”, she says. “If so, it wasn’t very funny.”

We find the location on Google Maps and walk over. The cemetery is huge.

“I wonder how we will find his grave amongst all the others?”, says the First Mate. “I don’t really want to go looking at every one. There must be hundreds.”

“We could always read this map”, I say, pointing to a large map of the cemetery pinned to the church’s notice board at the gate. “It says it is over here.”

We still manage to walk past the grave, but the First Mate eventually finds it.

“He is famous for warning of the dangers of National Socialism before they gained power”, she says. “He was a social democrat, and was against authoritarianism. When the Nazis eventually did gain power, his books and other writings were banned, and he had his German citizenship stripped from him. He moved to Sweden and lived close to Mariefred. We had to read some of his books in school. One of his books was actually a love story called Gripsholm Castle after the castle where we are moored.”

“Perhaps we should try and get hold of a copy”, I say, as we walk back to the town centre. “I would be quite interested in reading it too.”

“Put it on your Amazon wish-list”, says the First Mate. “It can be your Xmas present. As long as I can read it first.”

In the morning we set off for our next destination, Strängnäs. We retrace our track back along the inlet into Mariefred before turning west. It is sunny and the wind is from the north-west. We sail along on a close reach.

En route for Strängnäs.

We arrive at the Stallarholmsbron, the first of the two bridges we need to negotiate. It opens at 1430. As luck would have it, we have ten minutes to wait. I ring the bridge operator to tell him we are waiting, and also that we will be passing through the Tosteröbron further up as well.

Ruby Tuesday, Tosteröbron opens at 1510”, he says. “You’ll have to be quick if you want to get from Stallarholmsbron to there in that time. Its next opening after that is two hours later, at 1710.”

“How far is it?”, I ask.

“About five and a half miles”, he says.

I calculate quickly in my head that we will never make 5½ miles in 40 minutes. That would mean an average speed of more than eight knots. That would be really pushing it.

“I wonder why they don’t synchronise the bridges for sailing boats?”, says the First Mate.

“We might as well give it a go”, I say. “If we miss it, we’ll just have to find a place to anchor and wait a couple of hours.”

We set off following the red and green buoys through the channel. One after the other pass in a blur.

Will we make it in time?

I look at my watch. The bridge will open in ten minutes. I call the bridge operator again.

“We are just passing the island of Sogerön”, I say. “Is there any chance of you holding the bridge?”

“How long do you think you will take?”, he says.

“Probably about 20 minutes”, I say.

“The bridge will be open for ten minutes anyway”, he says. “But if there is a lot of traffic, I’ll have to close it promptly.”

We push on. It’s now 1510. The bridge will be opening, I think to myself.

Five minutes later, we round the point, and the skyline of Strängnäs comes into view.

“The bridge is still open”, shouts the First Mate from the bow. “We could be in with a chance.”

“I’m going as fast as I can”, I shout back. “Fingers crossed that he can keep it open for just a few more minutes.”

“Oh, no”, shouts back the First Mate looking deflated. “It’s closing again. We’re not going to make it.”

Sure enough, the bridge starts to close. My phone rings. It is the bridge operator.

Ruby Tuesday, sorry, I had to close it”, he says. “There was just too much traffic in each direction.”

“Don’t worry”, I say. “We’ll find a place to anchor until the next opening. But thanks for ringing.”

Just a few minutes late.

We drop anchor in a little bay to the side of the bridge. The First Mate brews some tea.

“We are really getting through the tea”, she says. “We only filled the caddy up a few days ago.”

I mutter unintelligibly under my breath about sailing being thirsty work in this hot weather. Luckily, she doesn’t hear me.

Two hours later the bridge opens again, and we are through. Strängnäs marina is just on the other side. We find a berth with a stern buoy and tie up.

We eventually make it through Tosteröbron.

“It’s really pretty here”, says the First Mate. “That windmill up there looks beautiful. Let’s go and explore.”

Ruby Tuesday tied up in Strängnäs marina.

The windmill dates back to the 1630s.

Further on, we come to the cathedral. Around it are panels describing its history.

Strängnäs cathedral.

“Did you see the panel about the Reformation in Sweden?”, says the First Mate, as we leave the cathedral. “Strängnäs seems to have played quite a role in it.”

“No, I missed that”, I say. “What did it say?”

“Well, it seems that up until 1527, the country was dominated by the Catholic Church”, she responds. “But people all over Europe were getting fed up with its corruption, particularly with the luxury the top echelons were living in, and the indulgences where you paid money to obtain a certificate forgiving your sins so that you would go to heaven. The Church was also a powerful political force, and in the Swedish War of Independence from Denmark, the Bishop of Sweden sided with Denmark. Unfortunately for him, the Swedes won, our old friend Gustav Vasa became King, the Kalmar Union was dissolved, and the Bishop had to flee.”

“That’s the sort of thing that would happen to me”, I say. “Choosing the wrong side, I mean.”

“Anyway, Gustav had had enough of the Church meddling in national affairs and decided to break with Rome completely”, she continues. “Looking around, he quite liked what Martin Luther was saying at the time, so with the help of two reformers from Strängnäs, Laurentius Andreae and Olaus Petri, he decided to change the national religion of Sweden to Lutheranism.”

“Just like that?”, I say.

“Just like that”, says the First Mate. “But he didn’t stop there. To hobble the power of the Catholic Church even more, he made himself the head of the new religion rather than some distant Pope living in luxury, made the clergy economically dependent on the Crown rather than the church, insisted that only words from the Bible could be preached, and discouraged Catholic doctrines such as pilgrimages, veneration of saints, confessions and indulgences. He then confiscated all Church property in Sweden, and took it for the Crown. Of course, the fact that he was broke after the war with Denmark had nothing to do with it.”

Gustav Vasa I assumes headship of the Church of Sweden.

“So a pretty thorough make-over, then?”, I say. “One way or another, Gustav Vasa certainly had quite an influence on Sweden. We have bumped into him wherever we go.”

“Well, there were a few wobbles with the new religion – his son King Erik, who was imprisoned in Gripsholm Castle, continued his switch to Lutheranism, but when his brother John got into power, there was a bit of a Counter-Reformation as his wife was a Catholic. But that didn’t last long, and finally in 1593, Sweden proclaimed itself to be a Protestant country and abandoned Catholicism.”

We pass through the main square where the political parties are all out campaigning for the upcoming elections. The Sweden Democrats have a booth.

Sweden Democrats booth.

“I really hope that they don’t win”, whispers the First Mate. “I can’t believe that neo-Nazis can be so close to power in Europe again. What is the world coming to?”

“We will just have to wait and see”, I say, trying to sound philosophical.

We arrive back at the boat and prepare dinner. The First Mate opens the fridge to get the chicken pieces out.

“Yuck!”, she says. “There are a whole lot of tea leaves at the bottom of the fridge. Did you have an accident?”

Faced with the evidence, there is no point in denying it. I fess up.

“But I did try and clean everything up”, I say plaintively. “I must have missed some.”

Trying to change the subject, I turn on BBC Sounds to listen to the news.

“We are just getting news in that the Queen died a few minutes ago”, says Huw Edwards sombrely.

The tea leaves are forgotten.

A Viking trading centre, a mistaken identity, and the early Russians

“Come and see the most amazing sunset”, the First Mate calls from the front deck. “It’s stunning.”

I stop typing the blog and haul myself out of the cabin. She’s right, it is stunning. The small island at the entrance to the bay is silhouetted against the reds and yellows of the sun going down. Picture postcard stuff.

Sunset at Rastaholm.

We are in the small harbour of Rastaholm, on our way to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Birka, the Viking town on the island of Björkö. With about three weeks until the scheduled lift-out of Ruby Tuesday, we had decided to sail further and explore the inner reaches of Lake Mälaren. Rastaholm is on the western side of Ekerö, the same island we had caught the ferry to in the last episode, with about an hour to sail to Birka.

Tied up at Rastaholm marina.

“I told you this was a beautiful place to stop”, says the First Mate. “Let’s get some wine and watch the sun go down.”

“It’s a pity that the restaurant isn’t open”, I say. “It would have been amazing having dinner there overlooking the lake with Björkö in the background. But it seems that last week it closed for the winter. I don’t know why they don’t extend the season to the end of September at least, what with all this beautiful weather we’ve been having.”

Rastaholm restaurant closed for the season.

“I heard from our neighbours over there that the harbourmaster here has had to go in to hospital for a serious operation”, says the First Mate. “Perhaps that is the reason why the restaurant is closed. At least it explains why no-one answered the phone when I rang. I was trying for about three days to see if there was space for us.”

In the morning, I fill the front water tank with water before we leave. As I do so, our neighbour comes over. We start chatting.

“We’ve just got back from a trip to the Caribbean a couple of days ago”, he tells me. “We’ve been away for six months, and are still unpacking. But we found it all quite stressful. I think what you are doing going round Europe is much more relaxing. You can go as far or as little as you like each day and find nice places like here to stay for however long you like. I think we’ll do something like that next. We’ve had enough of these long-distance voyages.”

“Nevertheless, it’s a great achievement to travel cross the Atlantic and back”, I say. “I’ve been following the blog of some of your compatriots on YouTube, RAN Sailing. They’ve been out to the Caribbean too.”

“Ah yes”, he says. “We met them when we were out there. In fact, we are in one of their videos for a few moments. But they’ve sold their boat now and have come back to Sweden as they had some family matters to attend to. And they plan to build their own boat in the meantime.”

“A very ambitious project”, I say, as I screw the water tank lid back on. “I wonder how long that will take? It’ll be interesting to see if they ever get it finished.”

“I agree”, he says. “Time will tell.”

We cast off. There is a light wind, and we arrive at Birka and tie up to the small pontoon that protrudes out into the bay. One other sailing boat is already there. The guided tour starts at 1215 after the tourist boat from Stockholm arrives, and we have enough time for a cup of tea before then.

Tied up in Birka harbour.

“Look, I can see the tourist boat coming”, says the First Mate. “We should go and buy our tickets for the tour before it gets here. It looks pretty full. We don’t want to get stuck in the queue.”

Sure enough, a boat full of tourists is rounding the point. It has come from Stockholm bringing people out on a package tour to the Viking island. The museum and restaurant open specially for it, and close again after they leave. During the off season, the boat, museum and restaurant are only open at weekends.

A group starts to form around a bearded, Viking-looking individual. We join it, making sure that our little stickers are displayed prominently so they know that we have paid.

“Good morning everyone”, says the Viking. “Welcome to Birka. My name is Björn, and I am your guide for the day. I am an archaeologist by training. The tour will take about an hour, then you can have lunch at the restaurant or look through the museum, or both. The boat will leave at 1500. Now if you will just follow me.”

Björn the Viking introduces himself.

We follow him along a track, and past a small cluster of thatched huts. A Viking boat lies tied up to a small jetty at the water’s edge.

“These are just reconstructions to give you an idea of what a Viking village would have looked like”, says Björn the Viking.

Reconstructed Viking village.

We reach a fork in the track where the ground begins to rise.

“The first thing to appreciate is that the coastline has changed considerably since Viking times”, says Björn the Viking. “I have been careful to stand where the land was, but where you are standing now would have all been under water at that time. The land has been rising since the end of the Ice Ages, when the weight of the ice sheets disappeared. It’s called isostatic uplift.”

Björn the Viking explains all about sea levels.

“Let me tell you something of the history of Birka”, he continues. “It was founded around 750 AD, and was Sweden’s first real town. The King at the time wanted to control and benefit from the trade of furs, skins, iron and slaves in return for luxury goods such as gold, silver, glass, silk, wine, and weapons that was starting. At first it was mainly trade around the Baltic Sea, but eventually it extended down the Russian rivers as far as the Islamic world and the Byzantine Christian capital Constantinople, which the Vikings called Miklagård. It also included the west to Dublin, Iceland and the Faroes. It was a vast trading network, and people from all over Europe and Asia came here to trade. It would have been a hive of activity with large merchant houses and smaller craftsmen’s quarters along the water front, boats coming and going in the harbour. Then around 975 AD it all collapsed. No-one really knows why, but it might have been due to the rise of competing trading centres elsewhere on Lake Mälaren, such as the Christian settlement of Sigtuna.”

Artist’s impression of the Viking town of Birka.

We walk up the hill to where there are numerous mounds covered in grass.

Viking burial mounds on Birka.

“These are some of the burial mounds of Birka”, Björn the Viking tells us. “Don’t be squeamish about standing on them. The Vikings had no problems about people standing on their graves – they actually quite liked it and saw it as a mark of respect that you were interacting with them. Many of them were excavated by one of our famous archaeologists, Hjalmar Stolpe, in the late 1800s. There’s a whole lot more of them on that ridge over there.”

He points to a rocky ridge on the north side of a fertile area with grazing cows.

“Who did the graves belong to?”, asks a woman.

“We don’t really know”, says Björn the Viking. “There are around 2300 of them. We assume they must have belonged to influential people of the town or wealthy merchants, as quite a bit of effort has gone in to building them. Someone would have to pay for them. But if you look in the museum later, you will see that they have tried to recreate the lives of some of them from the grave goods that were found lying with them. You can use your own imagination too.”

“Now if you look down there where the cows are grazing”, he continues. “That is where the town itself was located. All the waste was just left to rot where it fell, and over time the soil became very black in colour. It’s very fertile. That’s why the current farmer is grazing his cows there. The archaeologists have also found it a treasure trove of every day objects. Now, come with me. I want to show you perhaps the most interesting grave on the whole island.”

The Black Earth area where Birka town once stood.

We follow him along a small path and climb up to near the wall of the hillfort ruins. We gather round four white stones laid in a rectangle on the grass.

Björn the Viking tells us of the Unknown Warrior’s grave.

“When Hjalmar Stolpe first excavated this grave”, Björn the Viking tells us, “he found a body that had been sitting upright, a sword, spear, axe, fighting knife, arrows, battle knife, two shields, and two horses – a stallion and a mare. Now, if you were an archaeologist, who do you think might have been buried there?”

“A warrior of royal blood?”, says one of the women tourists. “A fighting man.”

“And so did Hjalmar Stolpe, and generations of archaeologists after that”, says Björn the Viking. “So you would be in good company. And you would be partly right. But let me tell you a little story.”

He pauses for effect.

“In the 1970s, one of the archaeologists working on the site, a woman, was examining the warrior’s skeleton, and thought that the pelvic bone looked like it might have come from a woman rather than a man”, he continues. “Of course, that idea didn’t go down too well with the archaeological establishment, mainly male. The controversy raged for several years, but most people believed it to be a male. After all, it’s men who do the fighting, and the woman looks after the babies, right?”

There are several sharp intakes of breath.

“Anyway, when DNA testing came along, they decided to test the DNA in the bones, and lo-and-behold, it turned out to be a woman”, he says with a smile, relishing the moment. “It was quite a shock in the archaeological world, but eventually most people accepted the idea when they saw the evidence. But there are still a few die-hards, including my own professor¸ who refuse to believe it and are searching for alternative explanations. So far they have been totally unsuccessful. So what we have is a female warrior of high status, possibly a commander. She was probably around 35-40 years old when she died. And isotope analysis showed that she was from southern Sweden and moved around a lot.”

Artist’s impression of the Viking Warrior Woman.

“You men are all the same”, whispers the First Mate in my ear. “You can’t accept that women can do the same things as men. Anyway, I find it absolutely amazing how they can work all that out just from her bones. I wonder what they will think if they analyse my bones in a thousand years’ time?”

“They’ll find so much salt in them, they’ll conclude you were a great sailor”, I say.

“What’s that cross up there”, asks one of the tourists, pointing up the hill behind us.

“That cross?”, responds Björn the Viking. “Well, it was built in the 18th century to commemorate St Ansgar who introduced Christianity to Birka in 830 AD. He was from Germany, but was invited by the King of the Swedes to come and preach. He built a church here, but overall wasn’t very successful. A few of the townspeople converted to Christianity, but most stayed with their old gods, the Æsir.”

St Ansgar’s Cross.

The tour is over. We walk back down the track towards the museum.

“I found that really interesting”, says the First Mate. “He did a good job of bringing it alive.”

“As much as you can with burial mounds”, I say. “Let’s go and have some lunch on the boat. Then we can have a look through the museum. There may be less people around then.”

Most of the archaeological finds from Birka are in the National History Museum in Stockholm, with only replicas on display in the small museum here. I had visited the National History Museum when we were in Stockholm, but much to my regret had not had enough time to see the Viking Room.

Nevertheless, we spend an interesting hour looking at the models of what the town might have looked like during Viking times, the lives of some of the people who lived there, and learning of the impacts of the Viking trading networks on Eastern Europe.

Model of Birka harbour in Viking times.

“Fascinating”, says the First Mate afterwards. “I never realised before that the Vikings were the ancestors of the Russians.”

“Well, sort of”, I say, trying to remember what I had read. “Although they were more hybrids. At first the Vikings went up and down the Dneiper and Volga rivers trading, but many of them also settled down, particularly in Kyiv, in modern day Ukraine. Because of their warrior prowess, they ended up as the elite there, ruling over the local Slav population. They became known as the Rus’, which derives from the Viking word for ‘rowers’, referring to their rowing their long-ships along the rivers. Over time they intermarried with the Slavs, and also with the Finns and Baltic people, and adopted the common language of Old Slavic. Their name Rus’ gave rise to the names of both Russia and Belarus. The Ukrainians are also descended from them.”

Viking trade routes and the origins of the Rus’ (from Wikimedia Commons)

“So that is what Putin means when he says his war is to reunite the people of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine”, she says. “Seems a strange way to go about it though, by carrying out a brutal war against his so-called brothers.”

“Perhaps there was something lost in the translation of his copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People”, I say.

Winter storage preparations, a forthcoming election, and déjà vu

“You know, I think I wouldn’t mind living in Stockholm”, says the First Mate, as we sit in the cockpit that evening sipping our wine. “It’s a beautiful city, and so much to do. And the Archipelago just on your doorstep to explore. Magic.”

“Of course, we are seeing it at its best”, I say. “The weather has been warm and sunny the whole time we’ve been here. I would imagine it would be quite bleak here in the winter with snow and ice everywhere.”

“Look”, she says. “There’s a balloon coming over the marina. I wonder where it has come from?”

The brightly-coloured balloon passes right over Ruby Tuesday. There is a burst of flame overhead as the balloonists try to gain more height. They disappear over the trees.

Hot-air balloon passes over Wasahamnen marina.

Night begins to fall. It is noticeable now that the days are becoming shorter. We watch the sun go down behind the Stockholm skyline in a blaze of red, yellow and orange.

“That is spectacular”, I say, finishing my wine. “It’s almost as if the city was on fire.”

“I reckon we get just as good sunsets in Scotland”, the First Mate replies. “But I agree. It was spectacular.”

Sunset over Stockholm.

We cast off the next morning and motor around to the entrance of the Hammarbyleden that will take us through to Lake Mälaren. The route was constructed in the 1920s by blasting through rock to join the Sältsjön, the main fairway into Stockholm, with the Årstasjön, a bay of Lake Mälaren. For a sailboat it is the only way through Stockholm into Lake Mälaren.

We have already phoned the bridge operator to tell him we are coming for the 1130 opening, but we are a few minutes late, and it is touch-and-go whether we will make it, even at near-full throttle. I call him on the VHF to tell him that we are in sight of it.

“How long do you think that you will be?”, he asks.

“About three minutes”, I respond.

“OK, I will keep it open for you, but if you are not here in three minutes, I will have to close it”, he says. “There ‘s already a large queue of traffic building up.”

I increase the throttle to its maximum, and we surge a full 0.1 knots ahead. We round the Viking Lines terminal, and there is the bridge, the Danviksbron, waiting open for us. I look at my watch. It is already four minutes. Half expecting the bridge to start lowering on top of us, we keep going, and we are through. The bridge immediately starts to close behind us.

Danviksbron waiting for us to pass through.

We wave a cheery thanks in the direction of the bridge hoping that the cameras will pick us up. Most bridges do not have bridge operators on the bridge, but are operated remotely from a central location somewhere. The operators can see what is going on around the bridge through strategically placed video cameras. Not as personal, but it seems to work well.

We cruise slowly along the canal, following the red and green buoys. Soon we come to the Hammarbyslussen set of locks and have to wait for five minutes until they open. Another sailing boat is already waiting in front of us. Bells ring and the lights go green. We both motor into the lock.

The locks were built to maintain the level of the water in Lake Mälaren around a metre higher than that of the Baltic. The lake and the sea used to be level, but the land has risen due to isostatic rebound, the release of weight from the ice sheets, taking the lake with it.

Approaching the Hammarbyslussen.

The water level rises, the bells ring again, more lights go green, and we motor out of the lock.

We reach the penultimate bridge, the Liljeholmsbron.

“It looks like the boat in front of us is going to sail under it”, says the First Mate.

“He’ll have to be careful”, I say. “It’s not very high. He doesn’t look to be much lower than us. I thought we had to wait until it lifts.”

In fact, the bridge has a clearance of 15 m when it is closed. There is no way that we can get under it with our 18 m air draft, but the skipper of the other boat obviously knows what he is doing, and sails through safely.

“I really didn’t think that he was three metres less than us”, I say. “Perspective is deceiving from down here. But he must have been close.”

We circle a couple of loops in the waiting area to kill time. Ten minutes later, the bridge lifts and we sail through. The other boat has disappeared. We now have only one remaining bridge to go under, the Gröndalsbron, but with a height of 25 m, it poses no problem.

Passing through the Liljeholmsbron.

We are now in Late Malären proper. The wind is from the south, and there is enough of it, so we raise the sails, turn off the engine, and sail peacefully westwards. The sun is shining, the water is like a mirror, and the tree-covered islands seem greener than we have seen them before.

“This is my type of sailing”, says the First Mate, stretching out luxuriously on the sunny side of the cockpit. “Can you pass me my drink please, waiter?”

Entering Lake Malären.

We reach Slagsta Marina in the late afternoon, and tie up to the outer pontoon as we have been instructed by Maria, the harbourmaster.

“It’s no problem for you to stay here while you make up your mind about winter storage”, she says. “Have a look around the marina and the surrounding area. Then let us know what you decide.”

We have identified three possibilities for winter storage of Ruby Tuesday, one of which is Slagsta. The other two, which we have seen already, are further south, in Oxëlosund and Nyköping. All three have pros and cons. Once we have a feel for Stagsta, we will decide.

“It’s very pretty here, but it looks a bit out in the sticks”, says the First Mate, looking around. “All I can see are trees and islands. Leaving and returning to the boat might be a problem.”

“Let’s explore tomorrow”, I say.

Overnight the weather changes. A high pressure zone has arrived over Norway, bringing a chill wind down from the north. There is a definite autumnal feel to the air. Our mooring spot is more exposed to the north than the south, and the long fetch across the lake brings a continual lapping of the waves against the hull. We turn the boat around so that she faces more into the wind, but it doesn’t make much difference.

“This constant lapping is driving me crazy”, says the First Mate. “It goes on the whole day and keeps me awake at night.”

“Me too”, I say. “Try wearing your earplugs. That’s what I do. It doesn’t stop it entirely, but it helps.”

The next morning, we unload the bikes, and explore the area. We find that we are close to a motorway, there is a Lidl nearby, another supermarket and a large Bauhaus DIY store a little bit further away, and a Biltema car accessories shop with lots of reasonably-priced boaty bits too. There is also a well-stocked chandlery in the next town. It seems ideal.

Drive-in Bauhaus DIY store.

“It certainly isn’t out in the sticks like I thought at first”, says the First Mate. “I had no idea all this was here. I think we should leave her here over the winter. The other two places are quite a way back where we have come from.”

“Yes, what I like about it is that it is very close to Stockholm”, I say. “That should make it easy for travelling to and from home. And it is reasonably priced compared to some.”

“And we shouldn’t have any trouble getting bits and pieces for the boat and provisioning when the time comes”, says the First Mate. “They will also let us have power to the boat to keep the batteries charged and engine warm if we decide to do that. Some of the others wouldn’t.”

In the morning, we inform Maria.

“That’s great”, she says. “I’ll book you a lift-out date. You should also cover your boat to stop the snow lying on it. It can add quite a lot of weight to the supports and boats have been known to fall over if there is too much snow. A tarpaulin will allow the snow to slide off so that it doesn’t accumulate. It also should stop ice forming around the window seals and damaging them. You can buy good but reasonably-priced tarpaulins from Biltema. Go for the heaviest one you can get. And don’t forget to drain the water system completely and put glycol in the cooling system and toilet. You don’t want any burst pipes. It can get down to –20°C here. Some people also put pots of desiccant in their boats to dehumidify them and stop mould growing.”

Keeping a boat in Sweden over the winter is a whole new ballgame for us. I am glad that we didn’t decide to go any further north at this stage.

We spend the next couple of days buying bits and pieces to prepare her for winter – tarpaulins, oil and fuel filters, glycol for the cooling system, desiccant. As we are keeping the mast on this year, we need two tarpaulins draped over the boom and whisker pole to cover forward and aft.

Perusing boat tarpaulins for the winter.

“Now that we have our winter storage sorted out, why don’t we go for a cycle ride today?”, says the First Mate over breakfast the next morning. “I am curious to know what that island over there is like. We could take the bikes, catch the ferry across, and have a day exploring it.”

“Sounds good”, I say. “I’ll just check the tyres to see if they are pumped up enough. My rear one feels a bit flat.”

We cycle down to the ferry landing. There are two alternating ferries that run every 20 minutes or so, so we don’t have long to wait. Our ferry is called Vivi. Cyclists are instructed to board first, then the vehicles. There are quite a few of the latter, and Vivi is soon full. The remainder have to wait for Vivi’s counterpart, Pluto.

Crossing to Ekerö on Vivi.

It takes around five minutes to reach the other side, the island of Ekerö.

“Apparently the main town is called Ekerö Centrum”, says the First Mate, consulting her map. “It’s about 4 km away. It’s not too far to cycle. I don’t think that there is much to see here.”

“OK, lead the way”, I say. “I’ll follow you.”

We follow the bike path at the side of the road through a forested area, then open fields, newly harvested. Eventually we reach the small town of Ekerö Centrum. In the small square surrounded by shops are several brightly coloured booths, each manned by the respective local candidates for the upcoming national elections on September 11.

We sit and have an ice-cream and watch the goings on.

Candidates present their policies for the elections.

“It seems as all the parties like to call themselves democrats, at least”, says the First Mate. “Look, there are the Social Democrats, the Sweden Democrats, and the Christian Democrats. I wonder how they tell the difference?”

“The Social Democrats are the ruling party”, I say, consulting Mr Google. “And the Sweden Democrats are pretty right-wing. But there are quite a lot of others too. The Moderates are sort of centre right, there are the Greens, the Centre Party, the Christian Democrats, the Liberals, and the Left Party. The Left Party used to be the Communist Party. There are also a lot of regional and local parties, and smaller parties like the Alternative for Sweden, which are far-right, a bit like the Alternative fur Deutschland party in Germany. They even have a Donald Duck Party.”

“I hope they have a better voting system than the First Past the Post system in the UK”, says the First Mate. “It must be almost impossible to gain an overall majority with all those parties.”

“It’s a proportional representation system”, I say. “Governments are usually formed from coalitions. So even small parties have a chance of running government offices depending on the coalition deals they make. It seems to work quite well.”

I read later that there is concern that the right-wing Sweden Democrats party is gaining in popularity, despite its origins in the neo-nazism of the 1980s. They have since rebranded themselves by expelling all neo-nazis from the party and banning any overtly racist views. The Swedes as a nation have for a long time prided themselves on being welcoming to people seeking asylum from repressive governments worldwide, and have one of the highest immigration rates in Europe. However, since the huge influx of asylum-seekers into the country in 2015, there has been growing unease that the traditional Swedish way of life is being eroded. The Sweden Democrats have tapped into this feeling and have exploited the correlation between immigration and crime rates, striking a chord with lots of voters. So much so that they have grown from being a relatively minor party and may become the second largest party following these elections.

“Wow”, says the First Mate. “It will be interesting to see what the results of the election will be. We’ll still be here when it happens. It will be a bit worrying if former neo-nazis gain any power. After the German experience everyone thought that it would never happen again, and yet here we are. And it seems to be happening throughout the world, not just here.”

We cycle back the way we came. As luck would have it, we reach the ferry landing just as one of the ferries is docking.

Vivi arrives to take us back again.

It’s Vivi. Am I just imagining that she has a smile on her face to see familiar faces again?

We board and Vivi sets off. As we arrive at the other side, I have a feeling of déjà vu.

“I am sure we have been here before”, I say.

“Of course we have”, says the First Mate, looking at me worriedly. “This is where we left from this morning. Are you losing it?”

“No, I mean that we have been here before today”, I say. “Perhaps it was on the cycle ride we did with Joanne and Peter in 2017?”

That evening, I go through the photos of that trip on my computer. Sure enough, there is one of us on the ferry approaching the landing with the high-rise apartment blocks of Fittja in the background. It’s the same ferry.

“Amazing”, says the First Mate. “I would never have recognised it. But now that you have mentioned it …”

On the same ferry from Ekerö to Slagsta in 2017.

“You get quite a different perspective arriving by land compared to by water”, I say. “That’s my excuse for not recognising it anyway! What’s yours?”