Swedish holidays, a Cold War relic, and a leaky schooner

“Have you seen the marmalade?”, I ask as I set the table for breakfast. “I can’t find it anywhere.”

“It should be in the Condiments section”, says the First Mate. “Where it always is.”

It’s not. I resign myself to a breakfast without marmalade. The universe feels a bit out of balance.

After breakfast, we weigh anchor, take the north channel from Paradiset, and thread our way gingerly through the rocks and skerries that litter the way. On several occasions it looks as if the obvious route should be straight ahead, but we put our trust in the GPS and the charts and make several dog-legs to skirt around the hazards lurking just below the surface.

Leaving Paradiset.

Our patience is rewarded when we eventually reach clearer water, where we take out the sails to catch the slight breeze that has sprung up and head northwards. Now out of the shelter of the islands, the breeze strengthens, and we skim along at a respectable five knots.

Heading north towards Arholma.

Soon we enter the narrow gap between the islands of Yxlan and Blidö. Elegant houses dot the shores, well-manicured gardens sloping gently to the water. The wind direction becomes more variable as it funnels along the waterway, but we manage to keep the sails full.

Elegant houses.

Soon we reach the end, and enter the main Söderarm fairway used by the ferries from Stockholm to Mariehamn and further.

“The guide books all say that we need to watch out for the numerous ferries that use the route”, warns the First Mate. “They travel fast and can come up behind you before you know it.”

One ferry passes us the whole time we are on the fairway.

“Well, that was a bit of an anti-climax”, says the First Mate, as we cross the fairway and head up a stretch of water call Tjockofjärdin. “Perhaps it’s just the time of day.”

A ferry passes us.

We eventually arrive at the Österhamn harbour on the island of Arholma. There is a small wooden staging against a rock promontory in the south-western part of the bay which requires a stern anchor to hold the boat at right angles to it. It’s time to test our new stern anchor setup that we had fitted in Paradiset. I drop the anchor as we approach and allow the line to pay out. Luckily there is one other boat already there to help us moor the bow. Everything appears to work as it should, and before long we are secured to the staging with the anchor tape holding the stern fast. So far so good. But strong northerly winds are forecast for tomorrow, so that will be the test.

Stern anchor, Scandinavian style.

“I still haven’t found the marmalade”, I say the next morning. “I am not sure I can go without my toast and marmalade.”

“It’ll be there somewhere”, says the First Mate. “Just keep looking.”

We set off to explore the island. There are no cars, and the main forms of transport appear to be unimogs, bicycles or feet. We choose the latter.

Lush fields.

A footpath leads through lush fields decorated with oversize dandelion flowers. Before long, we arrive at the small cluster of buildings on the western side of the island that constitutes the ‘capital’. Only the community-run general store is open. We buy some bread and spreads to make lunch. As we pay, I ask the till lady if there is anywhere else on the island that is open.

Arholma general store.

“They open on midsummer’s day”, she says brightly. “It’s only three weeks now. We are looking forward to it.”

“Why don’t they open earlier?”, I ask.

“There are so few people around, that it isn’t worth it”, she tells me.

We sit in the sun at one of the picnic tables near the small ferry quay, and make our lunch. The small ferry from the mainland arrives and two backpackers and a small family get off. I can see her point.

It has been a puzzle to me for some time now that even though the weather can be beautiful and sunny in May and September, the holiday season in Sweden is really only for the month of July, and shops, restaurants, cafés and museums are mostly closed outside that time, especially in the archipelago. Surely, I think, if they spread the season more, it would be to everyone’s advantage – local people on islands would have more of the year making an income from holiday-makers, and holiday-makers would have a more relaxed time without the intensity of crowds.

“Traditionally, it used to be that everyone had four weeks’ holiday in July with factories and offices closing for the whole period”, says Birgitta, our non-resident ‘go-to’ for information on matters Swedish. “And if you could, you would include the Midsommar weekend in your leave. Then schools start early to mid-August.”

“It does makes sense”, says the First Mate.

After lunch, we walk through the forests to the northern end of the island where the Arholma Battery is located. Preparations are underway for a wedding there the next day. We climb to the top of a rock outcrop to find the remnants of an early warning system to detect incoming missiles and a large 10.5 cm Bofors gun pointing eastwards out to sea.

Gun disguised as a rock.

We learn later that it was built in the 1930s as part of a chain of coastal fortifications to protect the approaches to Stockholm, and was in service throughout the Cold War. In the 1960s, a cavern was carved out of the rock underneath the battery to house a garrison of 110 soldiers. In the 1990s it was decommissioned, and in 2008 made into a museum and national monument.

“It’s such a beautiful view”, says the First Mate as we sit on a bench and take in the scene. “All this military stuff seems a bit out of place amongst it all.”

“And it always seems that the Russians are involved in some way”, I say. “I wonder if the Swedes are wishing they had kept the battery what with the current situation in Ukraine?”

We walk down the path again, and find the steel gates of the entrance to the underground cavern. At the end of a dimly lit tunnel two people dressed in Gothic style are setting up music equipment.

Entrance to the Arholma Battery bunker.

“We are getting married here tomorrow”, the girl explains.

Surely there must be nicer places to get married than in a dark musty cavern left over from the Cold War, I think to myself.

“It’s cool”, says the male, in response to the look on my face. “And the acoustics are amazing in the big room. Lots of people get married here.”

We wish them all the best for their big day. On the way out I say hello to one of the guests dressed in army uniform and wearing a gas mask. He doesn’t respond.

Wedding guest?

“Come on”, says the First Mate. “Can’t you see that it is only a model?”

“Is it?”, I say. “It’s very realistic.”

On the way back, we stop off at the church. Apparently, the islanders clamoured for one, so in 1920 a former mission house was moved from central Sweden to Arholma.

Inside Arholma church.

An interesting feature is the use of old mill-wheels as front door steps.

Old millwheels for doorsteps.

A little bit further on is the Arholma beacon. A man walking his two dogs stops to talk to us.

“It was built in the 1760s from stones from the castle on a nearby island called Lidö which the Russians had destroyed during their pillage in 1719”, he tells us. “Apparently Peter the Great wanted to end the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia, so he sent a fleet of ships to pillage the islands of the archipelago to force Sweden to capitulate. Many of the buildings on the islands up and down the archipelago were razed to the ground. But the Swedish resisted and actually managed to destroy 70% of the Russian fleet and stopped them from attacking Stockholm.”

One of the dogs jumps up on the First Mate, growling.

“He’s afraid of strangers”, he says, hauling the dog back with its leash. “But he won’t hurt you. Anyway, nowadays the beacon is an art gallery open during the summer months. You can get to it up that little path there.”

Arholma beacon.

“You get a real sense of the brooding menace of Russia here”, says the First Mate on the way up. “The Battery that we just saw was aimed towards them during the Cold War, that Dalarö Skans fortress that we saw last year, Vaxholm Castle, the effects of the Russian Pillage. And do you remember the Naval Museum in Karlskrona last year? It was very clear from that who the enemy of the Swedish Navy was. I am not surprised they want to join NATO now after the events in Ukraine. Russia always seems to be the enemy, never an ally.”

“Of course, all the European nations have fought and scrapped amongst themselves for centuries too”, I say. “But Russia seems to be the only European country that hasn’t really moved on from that. They still have delusions of empire in an age when empires are a bit passé. The rest of Europe has realised that it is better to have peace and the prosperity it brings, and to trade between sovereign countries rather than trying to conquer and rule them. It makes you wonder if Russia had had a functioning democracy rather than all the power concentrated in the hands of one man, whether the war in Ukraine would have ever happened. But there seems to be something in the Russian psyche that wants autocratic rulers.”

“Well, they didn’t have a very good experience with democracy in the 1990s”, says the First Mate. “So perhaps that explains it.”

That night the wind blows strongly, and the stern anchor drags a little. Luckily I had tied an extra line from the stern to the staging, so the boat doesn’t move much. But it seems that the anchor might be a little bit light. It was only a small one that had come off our previous boat. We’ll need to buy a larger one somewhere.

Extra lines to survive the strong winds.

The next day we decide to walk along the little lane to the top of the bay, where the remains of a wreck are marked on the charts.

The smell of grilled meat wafts over from one of the houses nearby. People are sitting around a table in the garden, while smoke drifts lazily from a barbecue in the corner. The owner of the house sees us and comes to talk to us.

Chatting with an islander.

“Where are you from?”, he asks.

We tell him we are from Scotland, and that we have sailed from there, but not all in one year.

“Ah, are you from that boat over there?”, he asks, pointing across to the other side of the inlet where Ruby Tuesday lies tied up to the jetty. “I saw you come in and tie up, and wondered where you might be from.”

Some of the people in the garden look more Middle-Eastern than Swedish.

“We are just having a barbecue for some friends of friends of ours who live on the island”, he explains, following our gaze. “They are from Afghanistan, and we thought it might be nice to show them a bit of what Swedish island life is like.”

“It must be different from life in Afghanistan”, I say.

“It certainly is”, he responds. “And they are finding it quite cold here.”

“We’ve come to see the wreck over there”, says the First Mate.

“Ah, that’s the wreck of the Apollonia”, he answers. “She was a square-sailed schooner that was built for one of the island residents back in the 1850s. In those days, Arholma was quite a centre for shipping, and they say that at one stage, there were so many schooners packed into the inlet that you could walk from one side to the other over the boats without getting your feet wet.”

“It’s hard to believe that now”, I say.

“Yes, it is, isn’t it?”, he says . “The Apollonia was 30 m long, made of pine, and carvel built, which means that the planking was butted edge to edge rather than clinker built with the planks overlapping. Caulk was used to seal the joints.”

All that’s left of the Apollonia.

“What sort of boat was she?”, I ask.

“During  her life she mostly carried timber products from Sweden to Germany. But eventually she started leaking through the gaps between the planks where the caulk had deteriorated. One solution to this in those days was to tip buckets of straw and sawdust underneath the boat where the leak was, and the flow of water through the leak would carry this mixture to block it. They could get a few more years of life out of boats in this way. But in 1883, the leaks became too large to plug and it was becoming dangerous to sail her, so they towed her into here to decide what to do with her, and she never sailed again.”

We stand for a few moments looking at all that remains of the Apollonia. I try to imagine the hustle and bustle of the harbour that would have gone on in her heyday – horses and carts bringing sawn timber down from the forests, men loading the planks onto the boats, sailmakers mending the rips in the sails, others bringing the provisions from the farms to be stored below decks. It was poignant to think that all that was left of this busy way of life were a few spars slowly rotting away in this quiet part of the bay.

“I’ve found the marmalade”, I say in the morning. “It was hidden behind the coffee jar in the Beverages section. It’s not very logical to keep it there.”

“I must have put it there without thinking”, says the First Mate. “But I told you that you would find it if you just kept looking.”

The balance of the universe is restored.

Old Norse cosmology, Paradise, and a new mooring technique

Hagar, my elder brother, throws another log onto the fire in the middle of the room. The sparks fly upward and I shut my eyes against the swirling smoke. Outside, the snow falls gently in the long night, as it has been doing for the last two days now. But we are inside our hall, and have the fire to keep us warm and comfortable.

“Tell us again of the creation of the world, grandfather”, I say after we have eaten. “I never tire of hearing it.”

We gather round the fireplace in rapt anticipation.

“Well, the world was born out of the ice and snow of Nilfheim and the fire of Muspell, the two realms connected by Yggdrasil, the world tree”, intones the old man. “Where these two realms met, giants were formed. Two of these giants married and had three sons, whom they called Odin, Vili and Ve. First these three brothers created a home for themselves to live, which they call Asgard, the Home of the Gods, for they themselves were the first Gods, the Æsir and Vanir. When they had finished that, they created another land with flowing streams, fertile meadows, and many cattle, which they called Midgard. But they soon realised that there was something missing that could take care of this new land.”

“People”, interjects Hagar. “People were needed to look after it.”

“Yes, Hagar”, responds the old man. “People were needed. Then one day, Odin spotted two logs on the beach. He took them and stood them upright and breathed life into them. His brother Vili gave each log will and intelligence, while Ve gave them a shape. They had created the first humans, a man called Ask and a woman called Embla. At last Midgard had someone to care for it. All people are descended from them.”

“But aren’t there also other lands besides Asgard and Midgard?”, pipes in Helga, my sister.

“You are quite right, Helga”, says our grandfather. “There is Jotunheim, the land of the frost giants, Alfheim, the home of the elves, Nidavellir, where the dwarves lived, Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir, another tribe of Gods, and Hel, where people go if they don’t die bravely in battle. Those who do die bravely in battle are borne by the Valkyries to Valhalla, Odin’s hall in Asgard.”

“Don’t forget to tell them about Ragnarök”, calls our father Harald from the other side of the smoky room, where he is skinning a deer he had hunted earlier in the day.

“Ah, Ragnarök”, whispers the old man. “Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods. In times to come, when the World Serpent Jörmungandr releases its own tail from its mouth, there will be a mighty war between the Gods and the Frost Giants, the world will be destroyed by fire, then it will be covered by water, and all will die. Then, after some time, the Earth will be reborn.”

The fire dies down. Everyone is quiet, alone in their own thoughts of the doom to come. Perhaps we are already living through the last days. I shiver, then pull the furs around me tighter to keep warm and drift off into a deep sleep.

I am jolted back to the present by the sounds of children jostling to push buttons and parents trying to control their unruly offspring, while other adults look at the exhibits pensively and attendants maintain a watchful eye. I am in the Viking Room of the Swedish History Museum, and had let my mind drift trying to make sense of the complicated cosmology of the Old Norse religion. When we were growing up, our mother had brought a book on Norse myths and legends home from the library, and I had immersed myself in the world of Odin, Freya, Tyr, Thor and his hammer Mjollnir, Loki and the other gods – a terrifying world, yet rich in imagery from a people living in an environment very different to my own.

A graphic illustrating Norse cosmology in the Swedish History Museum.

I cycle back to the boat. We had sailed from Slagsta marina and Lake Mälaren the day before, and had travelled through the Hammarby canal and locks, and had tied up in Wasahamnen marina in the centre of Stockholm where we had stayed last year. It was nice to be back in the city again, this time with far fewer tourists.

Passing under the Danviksbron on the way to central Stockholm.

“How was the museum?”, asks Spencer that evening. “You were there most of the afternoon.”

“Great”, I say. “It was a trip back into the world view of the Vikings. It is fascinating how their concept of a god was quite different to that of Christianity here in the West. The old Norse gods were very human in many of their characteristics – they were born, they married, they had children, they farmed, they drank, they fought with each other, they tricked and lied, and eventually they died or were killed. They even kept cattle, fished and mined precious metals. In a sense, they were just more extreme Norsemen, with a few magical powers thrown in.”

“Yes, it is interesting how you humans manage to anthropomorphise your gods by attributing your own qualities and values to them”, he replies. “The Norsemen were basically farmers who engaged in a bit of raping and pillaging on the side, so their gods did all these things too, only more so. In fact it wasn’t really a religion in the sense that you think of it today – it was just part of their culture, totally integrated with all aspects of their lives.”

Spencer expresses his views on Norse cosmology.

“Yes, you can imagine how it would have developed”, he continues, warming to the theme. “Long boring winter nights, people huddled around fires in their long-houses, they must have loved to hear stories about beings like themselves who had experiences they could relate to, but were also stronger, faster, cleverer or nastier than themselves. It would have helped them to make sense of their universe. And then having the aspiration of reaching Valhalla by dying bravely in battle would have given them the mental attitude and sense of purpose to go out and pillage other lands during the long summer days. ”

“It must have required quite a change in mindset when Christianity came along”, I say. “A single eternal, omniscient, omnipresent and all-powerful God that transcends human limitations, instead of the line-up of imperfect, roistering, and sometimes unlikable, Norse gods that they had. Love one another, don’t kill, give all you have to the poor, that kind of thing. Quite different concepts.”

“I am not so sure about that”, says Spencer. “In many places the conversion to Christianity in Scandinavia was quite bloodthirsty in its own right. In the 1080s, for example, Inge the Elder, a king of Sweden, set fire to a hall where pagan rituals were being practised and killed anyone who managed to escape from it, including his own brother. That doesn’t sound to me to be a very ‘Christian’ thing to do. Or perhaps it was.”

He does have a point, I think afterwards.

We cast off the next morning, heading out of Stockholm to the archipelago. We need to be in the Åland Islands in a couple of weeks’ time, so our plan is to find some nice anchorages to chill out in after the pressures in the last couple of weeks of getting Ruby Tuesday back into the water.

“Our neighbours at the marina said that there is a beautiful place to visit called Paradiset”, the First Mate had said over breakfast. “It’s a large lagoon between the islands of Ingmarsö and Finnhamn, and means Paradise in English. During the summer season, it is supposed to be one of the most popular sailing stopovers, sometimes so full that boats arriving late have no chance of finding anywhere to anchor. But at this time of year it should be almost empty.”

On the way to Paradiset.

It’s a beautiful sunny day, but there isn’t a lot of wind, so we have to motor for the first hour. Then a light breeze starts, just enough to fill the sails on a close reach, and we make a sedate two knots, relishing the quietness without the engine. But not for long. Eventually we have to change course to pass between two islands, and head directly into the wind, little that it is. On with the engine again.

We arrive in Paradiset to find only two boats moored to the small jetty and no-one anchoring. We drop anchor in the southern bay, open a bottle of wine, and survey our surroundings.

We arrive in Paradiset.

It is indeed a beautiful place. In the centre of the lagoon is a small island with a red-painted holiday cottage partially hidden by trees. The story goes that the old woman who lives there over the summer will shout out angrily to chase off any boat who has the temerity to anchor too close to her island and intrude on her privacy. At the moment the house looks unoccupied. Not that we are close to the island anyway.

“Did you notice that that dead tree over there looks like a lizard creature trying to climb out of the water?”, says the First Mate.


One of the other boats leaves, and a peace descends. We cook dinner, finish our wine, and sleep the sleep of the innocent.

In the morning, I wake early, make a cup of tea, and sit in the cockpit. No-one else is up; I might be the only human in existence. The sun begins its rise above the trees behind me, casting a warm glow over the old woman’s island in front of me and the forest behind. The water is completely still, not a ripple disturbs its surface. The lizard hasn’t made much progress.

Paradiset lagoon.

It takes my mind back to my schooldays – Mr Empson, our English teacher, bringing Wordsworth to life with his deep, rich baritone – lines about the city of London, but somehow they seem apt for this beautiful corner of the natural world.

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

There is a sudden splash off to my left, and a few seconds later a grebe emerges triumphantly from the water, a small fish in its mouth, and shakes its head dry. Two swans fly overhead, their wings wheezing at every beat like a machine in need of oil. They make a turn over the little bay on the far side of the lagoon and come into land, their feet angled upwards to brake their speed on the water’s surface like a barefoot water-skier. They settle gracefully into the water, their tails bobbing and elegant necks turning from side to side as if seeking applause for a perfect landing. Two swimming scoter ducks oblige them by looking at them in awe.


I muse on what Mr Empson might be doing nowadays. He must be an old man by now – he was just fresh out from teacher training when he taught us. To how many other people over the years did he impart an appreciation of language, literature and ideas? Is he even still alive?

An angry buzzing sound wakes me from my reverie. Two bees have flown into the cockpit enclosure and are trying to find their way out again. I try to encourage them to leave with a towel, but it only serves to anger them more. Eventually they find their own way out and fly back to shore. But they are not the last – over the day many more arrive and duly leave, leaving us to wonder what it is about the boat or us that attracts them.

Later I Google Mr Empson and find that he died in 2013. Even though I have not seen or heard from him since my school days, somehow I feel sad. Another little piece of my own past has gone.

I spend the rest of the day doing boaty jobs that have accumulated. Out come the solar panels from the storeroom to be plugged into the cables to the voltage controller and batteries. It is another bright sunny day, and soon we are generating enough power to keep the fridge going and to charge the batteries.

Generating power.

Then the stern anchor. The practice in Scandinavia in remote anchorages is to nose the bow of the boat as close as possible to the rocks at the side, while paying out a webbing line from the stern which is attached to an anchor that has been dropped further back. The line is then tensioned to keep the bow just far enough away from the rocks to avoid damage. It is kept on a reel bolted to the rails of the boat, which allows it to be stored much more compactly than the same length of rope. Previously, we had always anchored off in deeper water which meant using the dinghy to go ashore, so hopefully this technique will allow us to step off the bow directly onto the land. At least that is the theory. We will see.

Fitting the stern anchor reel.

It is fiddly work as there are several small screws and fittings that would make life difficult if they were to fall overboard, but through the judicious use of buckets and towels I manage to prevent that from happening, and eventually the reel is attached. All we need to do now is to find somewhere to test it.

Tummy upsets, noisy brakes, and running out of fuel

“How do you feel?”, says the First Mate, holding a glass of water and looking down at me worriedly. “You don’t look too good.”

“Ggggrrrrrkkkcch”, I say to the bowl on the floor next to the bed. “Not bad. But I’ve been better.”

I give her my best spaniel eyes look, a careful mixture of pretending to be brave but needing compassion at the same time. On one of the branches of the copper beech tree outside the window, two wood-pigeons stop cooing over each other for a moment to look at me pityingly, then resume their love-making.

It is two days before we are due to leave to head over to Stockholm and re-join Ruby Tuesday for the next stage of our Baltic odyssey, but instead I am lying in bed feeling sorry for myself, dry retching every ten minutes. It must have been something I had eaten the night before, but as the First Mate had eaten much the same, we still haven’t pinpointed what it was.

“I hope you recover”, says the First Mate. “It would be terrible if we have to cancel everything.”

“Gggggrrrrrrkkkcch”, I say to the bowl again.

“Well, at least it’s one way to lose weight”, she says.

As it turns out, I feel much better later that day, and the next day I am more-or-less back to normal. Whatever it was seems to have worked its way through.

We have decided to drive over to Stockholm this year, as we want to stay a few days with the First Mate’s family in Germany on the way, and there are things that we need to take to and bring back from Ruby Tuesday. Even more importantly, our carbon emissions are about half of what they would have been if we had flown instead.

“It’ll be nice to have the car when we do our provisioning as well”, says the First Mate. “I was dreading getting all our food back from the supermarket to the boat on our bikes.”

“Ah yes”, I say. “The Big Shop we had in Flensburg. I’ll never forget it.”

On our way to Europe.

Not long after we leave, the car develops an intermittent rubbing noise in the port-side rear wheel.

“I didn’t realise that port and starboard could be used for cars as well”, says the First Mate. “I thought they are just for boats.”

“Well, they are really”, I say. “But I am just refreshing my boaty language again.”

When we get to Germany the man in the local garage looks at the wheel. We take him for a drive to show him what it sounds like, but true to form there is no noise.

“Well, without hearing it, I can’t really say what it is”, he says. “It’s probably just a bit of rust on the disk. Look, you can see it there. It’ll rub off shortly.”

I explain in my best German that we have already driven all the way from Scotland so it should have rubbed off my now, but he doesn’t seem to understand. I probably said something rude without meaning to.

That afternoon we visit some old friends of the First Mate, Peter and Katerina, for café und kuchen. The conversation turns to the war in Ukraine.

“Last year, there was a feeling in Germany that German support of Ukraine by supplying them with heavy weapons was wrong”, I say. “It was much better to all get round a table and sort out the issues diplomatically. Is that still the feeling?”

“I think that it has changed a bit since then”, says Peter. “Of course, we would all prefer the war to end and not escalate, but the feeling now is that Putin is so brutal that the only way forward is that he has to be beaten soundly.”

“But for that, Ukraine needs help from Germany and other western countries”, says Katerina. “So most people would agree now that supplying these weapons is necessary.”

“It’s hard to believe that people are thinking that way in Germany now”, says the First Mate. “When I was growing up, we were all taught that all problems could be solved diplomatically, and that there would never be a need for war in Europe again. How things have changed!”

Sorting out the world’s problems.

We push on the next day towards Stockholm. If anything, the rubbing noise seems to be getting worse. I am starting to worry if we will ever get there, let alone get back. She’s not a new car any more.

On the way, we stop off at Hans and Gisela in Denmark, friends we have known since our days in the Philippines. We had visited them two years ago when we had sailed Ruby Tuesday up the fjord where they live. Hans works in Hamburg in Germany while Gisela works from their home in Denmark. Their sons and our son were born around the same time, so it is always interesting to hear what they have got up to since. We sit outside in the warmth of the late afternoon sun and drink coffee.

Coffee in Denmark.

“We can’t make up our mind where to live when we retire”, says Gisela. ”I quite like it here in Denmark as I have a lot of friends here, but Hans is not so keen as his friends are mostly in Hamburg.”

“Perhaps you should find somewhere totally different to live”, say the First Mate. “Then you can both start afresh and make new friends together.”

“Maybe we should think about buying a boat and sailing around like you are doing”, say Hans. “Or a campervan, or something like that.”

“Why don’t you come and join us on the boat in Sweden this year?”, we say as we leave the next day. “We have plenty of room, and you would be most welcome. You can see whether you like the lifestyle or not.”

“It sounds like a good idea”, says Gisela. “We would love to. We’ll give it some serious thought.”

We catch the ferry at Helsingor in Denmark across to Helsingborg in Sweden and drive through miles and miles of endless forest. We find an AirBnB near Linköping and stop for the night.

Leaving Helsingor in Denmark.

“It’s funny”, says the First Mate. “I had this idea that southern Sweden was just farmland stretching off into the distance, but we’ve hardly seen any. It’s just trees, trees and more trees.”

“I think the north of the country is pretty much the same”, I say. “You’d better get to like them.”

We eventually arrive at the marina near Stockholm where we had left Ruby Tuesday. She looks in good shape, and the tarpaulins covering her against the snow are just as intact as when we put them on.

Arriving at the marina in Stockholm.

“Look, there’s Spencer”, I exclaim, as we take the covers off. “He looks happy to see us. I am looking forward to more deep meaningful conversations with him over the summer.”

Spencer says hello.

Rolf, who kept an eye on the boat over the winter for us, arrives along with his wife.

“She’s fine”, he says. “Your boat, that is. But you won’t believe that we had late snow just three weeks ago, and everything was covered to a depth of 80 cm. But your covers did the trick, except at the back where the snow tended to lie rather than sliding off. You need to make that bit steeper next time.”

The next day, I load the folding bike into the car and drive to the local garage. They take the car wheel off to see what they can find.

“Look, you can see that the brake shoes of the parking brake are not attached to the backing plate”, he explains to me. “The shoes are not positioned properly, so occasionally they rub against the brake drum when you are driving. Hence the intermittent rubbing noise. It probably happened if the car has been standing for a while with the handbrake on and was released suddenly. We’ll need to fix the attachment mechanism and replace the brake shoes as they are almost worn through. We’ll need it for a day.”

It’s exactly what had happened. About two years ago, the handbrake had seized over the winter, and had suddenly freed itself when I had reversed the car. I cycle back to the boat, and then back the next day to the garage to pick the car up.

“I think we have fixed it now”, says the man. “I took it for a run this morning, and there wasn’t a peep. It’ll be fine now. Just don’t leave the handbrake on if you are going to let the car stand for a while.”

We spend the next week preparing Ruby Tuesday for the voyage. We have arranged for the engineer at the marina to replace the rubber cutless bearing that the propeller shaft rotates in. There is a lot of play in the old one and we are worried that the propeller shaft vibration might damage the seal that prevents water from entering the boat. He’s had since October to work on it, but has allocated the last two days before we launch to do it.

“It’s cutting it pretty fine”, I say to the First Mate. “What if something goes wrong?”

As it turns out, something does go wrong. The zinc anode that attaches to the propeller has gone missing. I put a new one on last year, and was hardly worn, but the engineer says that they will fit a new one. The new one needs to be adapted, so we have to postpone the launch for four days.

Propeller with its new cutless bearing.

“At least it will give us a chance to wax and polish the boat”, says the First Mate.

We spend the next few days applying wax to the sides and polishing it with a machine. It does make a difference, but it is patchy.

Polishing and waxing.

One of our neighbours stops for a chat.

“I think that it needs a good clean first with a gel-coat restorer”, he says. “That will remove all the grime and grease and bring up the true colour again. Then you need to apply polish to seal the pores, and finally wax to give it a shine.”

There’s more science in cleaning a boat than either of us realised.

“Yours is looking good”, says the First Mate, admiring his hull that he has been working on for the last week. “But you have somehow managed to get some paint on your head. Here, let me try and get it off.”

Before he realises what is happening, she has a cleaning cloth soaked in white spirits and is rubbing his bald head furiously.

“There”, she says triumphantly. “That’s got it off.”

Cleaning up our neighbour.

He’s not sure whether to be happy that he can go home to his wife paint-free, or to be unhappy at the invasion of his personal space by an unknown woman. Luckily he goes for the former. The next day, he is still talking to us, but I notice that he is wearing a hat, and keeps a discrete distance from the First Mate.

The day for the launch arrives. We awake early and work our way through the list of small last-minute jobs that have to be done. The crane arrives, and Ruby Tuesday begins her ponderous journey to the slipway. I am reminded of the giant Saturn rockets moving to the launch pads at Cape Canaveral. Well, sort of.

Slowly but surely.

She is lowered into the water, and I jump aboard to make sure that there is no water coming in anywhere it shouldn’t be. All shipshape so far. I start the engine, the First Mate jumps aboard, the lines are thrown to us, and we reverse slowly out into open water. We head for the temporary berth on the other side of there marina where we have arranged to stay for a couple of days to finish the preparation work in the water.

As we approach the entrance, the engine stops.

“That’s funny”, I say. “It’s never done that before.”

I start it again. We motor slowly into the marina and head for the berth. The engine stops again. There is a strong cross wind, and Ruby Tuesday begins to drift, powerless.

“What are you doing?” calls the First Mate from the bow. “You almost hit that boat. Keep the engine running.”

“I am not doing it on purpose”, I call back. “There’s something wrong with the engine. I hope that it wasn’t damaged with the cold temperatures over the winter.”

I manage to get it started one more time and enter the berth before it gives up completely. No amount of turning it over will start it again. But at least we are tied up safely.

Then it dawns on me. At the end of the previous season, I had turned the tap on the fuel tank off, and had forgotten to turn it on again this season. The engine had used all the fuel in the fuel line and filters, then had run out.

I need to use the manual fuel pump to bleed the system to get rid of any air that might have entered, and also to fill the filters and fuel lines back up again. Twenty minutes later the engine is running sweetly once more.

All engines need fuel.

“It’s lucky it didn’t run out a minute or two sooner than it did”, says the First Mate. “I wouldn’t fancy being blown all over the marina without any power. We didn’t even have the sails up.”

She has a point. It doesn’t bear thinking about. I make a mental note to add turning on the fuel tap to my ‘De-winterisation’ list. For some reason it wasn’t on there.

Meta-modernism, temporary imprisonment, and a homecoming

Back at Slagsta Marina, we spend the next few days preparing Ruby Tuesday for lifting out. Down come the sails, the bimini, splash hood, and the cockpit tent. The oil and fuel filters are replaced, and both engine and gearbox get new oil. Ropes are washed and stowed away. The fuel tank is topped up to avoid condensation and biocide added to prevent growth of diesel bug. The rubber dinghy is cleaned and stowed.

Cleaning the dinghy.

In the evening, we relax in the cockpit with our glasses of wine and watch the sun go down. Clouds scurry across the sky making patterns against the deepening blue.

“I really love this boat life”, says the First Mate. “What surprised me the most was realising how little you need to get by on, and yet still enjoy life. We have our home with us wherever we go, and really have not spent a lot, apart from buying food and from the occasional entry fee to go and see things like castles, museums and exhibitions.”

“And the winds were good too”, I say. “We used less fuel than in other years – we haven’t even used one tankful for the whole season. And we did a lot more anchoring this year too, so marina fees were less than normal. And we had friends and relations visit us, and made some new ones. What more can you ask for?”

I had read an article saying that during and since the pandemic and lockdowns, the number of people re-evaluating the narrative of their lives and giving up their jobs to go off and do something different has markedly increased. We had made that decision well before the pandemic – we have been sailing every summer now for five years and are still enjoying it – so much so that we see it more of a way of life than a summer holiday. Life takes on a different rhythm, governed by a combination of the great forces of nature – the weather systems far out into the Atlantic and the resulting winds and sea currents – and our own whims and fancies. The structured world of work seems a long time ago now. Life now is slower, deeper, more satisfying.

And yet, somehow we are both looking forward to getting home too. It is nearly six months that we have been away, but there is a feeling that the season is over. All the hopes and expectations that we had during the planning, and the excitements, worries and fears during the voyage, are now in the past. We feel full – of experiences and memories – but it is now time for a season of reflection to extract some meaning from all that we have seen and done.

There is a knock on the side of the boat. It’s Willie. Willie is Finnish, but has lived in Sweden for most of his life. He likes to chat. The conversation drifts to having Russia as a neighbour.

“Ah, it’s all western propaganda about how terrible they are”, he says. “”You can’t believe anything. It’s all down to your perspective. If you live in Russia you believe that the Ukraine war is justified, if you live in Sweden, you don’t. So what is truth? There is no such thing as absolute truth. Truth is just in our minds, a human construct.”

“I am not so sure”, I say. “I somehow feel that there is a reality out there, independent of the human mind. You can believe what things you like about that reality, but whether those beliefs are true or not depends on how well those beliefs correspond with it. It is the beliefs that are human constructs, not reality itself.”

“Maybe”, says Willie. “But we can never experience that reality because we can’t get outside our beliefs to do so. And because everyone’s individual perspective of the world is different – we all have different backgrounds, personalities, genetic makeup and life experiences – it is impossible to say that there is an absolute reality. So, we end up merely constructing our own personal realities. That’s what I meant when I said that truth is only in our minds.”

“I can see where you are coming from”, I say. “But if we were all just arbitrarily constructing our own realities, there would be total chaos. And some nasty accidents. For example, if my belief of reality says that there is a tree over there, I will avoid walking into it and hurting myself, whereas if your reality says there isn’t, you might just try and walk through it and knock your head. So there seems to be some sort of reality there which we all agree to call a tree. I would say that my belief that the tree is there is a more useful belief than yours that doesn’t, in that mine stops me from hurting myself. You can extend that to all of human science and knowledge – even though there may be a deeper reality we can’t experience directly, our scientific beliefs are close enough to that reality for us to make progress.”

“Ah, the modernist and post-modernist schools of thought”, says Willie. “But perhaps what we should be thinking about is meta-modernism. It tries to bring together modernist and post-modernist ideas, by focusing on complexity, holism, emergence, and links between the natural and social worlds. It sees the universe consisting of four planes of existence: Matter, Life, Mind and Culture. That might help us to understand the way that things work better.”

“Wow, that was all a bit intense”, says the First Mate after he has gone. “But you asked for it!”

“Interesting”, I say. “I will have to read up about it over the winter.”

“Apparently Willie used to be an economist”, another neighbour tells us. “Then he became fed up with the rat race and decided to build a boat and sail around the world to get away from it all. It’s taken him 37 years so far, and there’s still a lot of work to do on it. That’s it over there. You can judge for yourself if he will ever get it finished.”

He points to an object in the far corner of the marina that looks like a cross between a catamaran and an airplane fuselage. Planks and other building debris lie chaotically under the side pontoons. A wisp of smoke emerges from the stovepipe chimney. He has certainly constructed his own reality, I think. Good on him.

An alternative reality?

The day comes for Ruby Tuesday’s lift-out. It’s a dull grey day, signifying the end of summer. We motor over to the slipway, the giant straps of the crane are slipped underneath her, the crane engine revs up, the hydraulic rams extend. Out she comes.

Out for the winter.

Slowly and carefully she is transported over to the washing apron where she is given a high pressure wash. There is not much growth on her.

Cleaning Ruby Tuesday‘s bottom.

Eventually she is taken to her place for the winter. We spend the next few days covering her with tarpaulins to help the snow slide off. Apparently heavy snow that has accumulated has been known to add so much extra weight that the support cradles can buckle or break. I don’t know if that is true or not, but we decided that it is better to be safe than sorry.

Covered against the snow.

It is the last evening, and we have already drained the water system to protect any of the pipes from bursting from ice formation.

“We need some more water just for tonight”, says the First Mate, holding out the five litre bottle. “See if you can find a tap and fill it up, there’s a good chap.”

In the gathering dusk, I wander over to the tap on the small building next to lifting out pad. It’s quiet – all the marina staff have gone home. The handle on the tap has gone. I frown; it was definitely there earlier in the day. Not to worry – there are taps and hoses on each of the pontoons. I head towards the first one and press the key fob against the sensor. There is a click and I push the gate open. The gate closes behind me.

I fill up the bottle, put the screw top on, and press the fob against the sensor pad on the gate again. Nothing happens. I turn it over and try again. Again, nothing. I am stuck on the seaward side of the pontoon, not able to get back on land. And with no phone to call anyone. For a brief moment, I consider climbing over the gate or around the sides, but the builders have done a good job – curled razor wire puts paid to that idea.

Perhaps one of the boats has someone in it. I walk along the pontoon, but every one is empty. On the neighbouring pontoon, someone is working on their boat. I call out. He comes around to the gate.

“My key fob won’t work in that gate”, he says. “Each fob is specific to a pontoon.”

“Perhaps you could let my wife know that I am stuck?”, I ask.

He goes off. A few minutes later he reappears with the First Mate.

“Now I have got you where I want you”, she says, grinning. “I can do anything I want now.”

“It’s serious”, I say. “I might be stuck here for the night. And I am getting cold.”

The three of us stand looking at each other trying to think of a solution.

“What about getting one of those small dinghies over there?”, I say, somewhat desperately. “You could push it over to me, and I could paddle back to land in it.”

“I think they are all locked to the stack”, says our companion doubtfully.

They are. Suddenly, we see someone walking in the distant gloom.

“Maybe he has a key”, says our companion. “I’ll see if I can catch him.”

A few minutes later, he returns with a man. It’s the night watchman. He thinks that his key might work. He fishes into his pocket and unlocks the gate.

Relief floods over me. I am free again.

“Phew, that was lucky”, I say. “I really thought that I was stuck on the pontoon until the staff arrived in the morning. But at least we have our water.”

“There’s a tap out here”, says the night-watchman, pointing to a tap just outside the gate. “Why didn’t you use that one? No need to go on to the pontoon.”

I hadn’t seen it. I suddenly feel very silly, like the time I was late for school assembly and tripped over in front of the whole school in my haste. I was five years old then. Am I in my second childhood, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything, as Shakespeare might say?

“Come on”, says the First Mate, taking my arm, laughing. “Let’s get the old man home for the night.”

Accidental incarceration.

We have booked a taxi for the next morning to take us to the train station from where we will catch a train and then a bus to the airport. There are a lot of frantic last minute jobs to do before then, and we are running late.

“I’ll go over and meet the taxi”, says the First Mate. “You can just finish off the last few little things. I’ll ring you when he arrives.”

A few minutes later, my phone rings. It’s the First Mate.

“Hurry up”, she says. “The taxi is waiting. He’s charging us for it.”

Attending to the last minute jobs.

I take the ladder over to the shed where it came from, and run back to pick up my rucksack. As I do so, I notice that I have forgotten to close the stern gate. I can’t reach it, and there’s no time to rush back and grab the ladder again. Luckily Jan, our neighbour is on his boat.

“Jan, would you mind closing the stern gate for us?”, I ask. “The taxi is waiting and I don’t have time to get the ladder again.”

“Sure, no problem”, he says.

We make it to the station with minutes to spare, and settle into our seats in the train.

“That was a bit hectic”, says the First Mate. “At one stage there, I didn’t think that we were going to make it. But at least we can relax now.”

My phone rings. It’s Jan.

“I closed the back gate for you”, he says. “But while I was doing so, I noticed that you had left the keys in the starter panel. What shall I do with them?”

I sigh. There’s always something.

“Jan, if you don’t mind, could you leave them with marina reception”, I say. “They can look after them for the winter. Thanks very much.”

We make it to the airport and climb aboard. Our plane taxies down the runway and claws for the sky like a giant cormorant.

Flying over Lake Mälaren as dusk falls.

“I reckon I can just about see Ruby Tuesday”, I say, looking out of the window as the dusk starts to fall over Lake Mälaren. “I feel a bit sad that we are leaving her behind. She’s been our home for nearly six months. I hope that she will survive the Swedish winter.”

“Me too”, says the First Mate. “We’ve had a great season. But I am sure she will be all right. She’ll be glad to see us again next year.”


A breeze stirs, bringing more leaves down with a rustle and stirring those already on the ground into a miniature whirlwind and dropping them against the dead grass at the bottom of the fence. We stop at the stone bridge and admire the reds, yellows and browns of autumn, the cold afternoon sunlight filtering through the sparse tree canopies, casting long shadows on the muddy path in front of us. Somewhere above us, a wood pigeon coos, while in the field next to the small brook a flock of crows swaggers its way between the lifeless stalks of the harvested barley, picking any juicy worm that has been foolish enough to stray too close to the soil surface.

Autumn colours.

The familiar and yet unfamiliar. A newly fallen tree. Broom pods shattered, empty of their seeds. Bracken leaves brown and withered. We had last been here half a year ago. A whole season of birth, life and death has passed us by while we were away.

Death in the woods.

A magpie croaks. A chill wind springs up. We wrap our fleeces tightly around us and continue our walk.

It’s nice to be home.

Familiar territory.

A Viking ‘thing’, a centre of learning, and a royal palace

“Västerås is supposed to be the second most ugly city in Sweden”, says the First Mate. ”Apparently they had a competition a year or so ago, where people had to vote on how beautiful they thought various cities were. Västerås came second from the bottom. Only Borlänge was worse.”

“I have to say that from my first impression I can see why”, I respond. “All I can see is great characterless high-rise apartments everywhere.”

Approaching Västerås from Lake Mälaren.

We are approaching the city of Västerås on the northern shore of Lake Mälaren. We had left Strängnäs in the morning, and had had a pleasant sail northwards driven by a south west wind.

“What do you think that little hut on the water over there is?”, says the First Mate pointing over to our starboard.

“Ah, that must be Västerås’s underwater hotel”, I say. “I was reading about it in the guide book. Let’s go and have a look at it.”

The Utter Inn, Västerås.

The Utter Inn, or Otter Inn in English, is an art project by artist Mikael Genberg. It has two storeys – the entrance and balcony above water and the bedroom below water. A boat is provided to row yourself out, and you can supposedly wake up to fish swimming past your window.

“Cool”, says the First Mate. “A hotel with a difference!”

We push on to the marina. There is supposed to be a gästhamn here, but we can’t see it. We turn right and motor gingerly up the fairway, but the depth drops alarmingly to 10 cm.

“It’s getting a bit shallow”, I say. “I don’t want to run aground. I’ll reverse, and perhaps we can ask that chap working on his boat over there where we should go.”

“You were on the right track”, the man says. “Just keep going. It is about two meters depth, but you will make it. The gästhamn is right at the end. These are all private berths here.”

We eventually find it, but the berths are too small for our length and beam. The only spare place is on the end of the pontoon. There is no one to help us catch our lines, so I allow the wind to blow us down into place. The depth shows zero on the display. The keel must be almost resting in the mud.

In the morning we unload the bikes and cycle into town. It’s the day of the Swedish elections, and there are election posters everywhere. People are queuing outside the town hall and other places to vote.

Voters queue outside the Västerås town hall in the national elections.

For several days, the freemen from the surrounding areas had been arriving at the sacred mounds of their forefathers to attend the Thing, tying up their boats in the small bay in front of the mounds or leaving their horses in the hands of their slaves to find grazing for. Normally they would come to the Thing to settle disputes, trade and socialise, but this one was different. A new king had been elected by the Swedes in Uppland, and they were there to discuss whether this man was worthy to be their king in Västra Aros. For two days now, they had been listening to the fine speeches and arguments as different views were put forward, and had been drinking and eating in small groups gathered around fires as they deliberated throughout the night.

Anundshög Viking burial mound.

Now on the third day, the king-elect will present himself and make his case for them to accept him as their king. In reality, they don’t have a choice, as the Westrogothic law states that the Swedes of Uppland have the right to elect kings, and the other tribes have to accept it.

There is an air of expectancy as the men take their places in the Thing building marked out in the shape of a Viking long-ship by large standing stone, the richest and most powerful in the front, the less well off towards the back. At noon, there is a clatter of hooves as a large group of richly-dressed men on horseback canter their way along the dusty road from where they had been staying nearby and make their way towards the mounds. They slow to a trot as they splash their way over the ford across the small brook to the east of the mound area. A shout goes up from the assembled crowd. It is the newly elected king and his heavily-armed retinue. They dismount in front of the rune-stone, and proceed up the path to the Thing building and take their places in front of the assembled gathering.

Remains of the ship-shaped Thing building.

The law-speaker stands and faces the assembly, lifting his arms into the air. The assembly falls silent.

“Men of Västra Aros”, he says in a loud voice. “As you know, the death of our beloved King Inge, poisoned by the treacherous Östergötlanders, has meant that we need a new king. After much deliberation, the men of Uppland have chosen one Ragnvald Knaphövde who is now on his Ericsgata to the provinces. May I present the king-elect.”

There is a fanfare of trumpets. Ragnvald Knaphövde stands.

“I am Ragnvald Knaphövde, son of Olof Näskonung”, he says, establishing his credentials. “I have been elected king by the nobles of Uppland at our sacred Stones of Mora for my prowess in battle. I will also now be your king. I promise to protect you from your enemies and make you prosper. In return I expect your loyalty. Will you have me as your king? Yea or nay?”

There is a silence for a few seconds, then an almighty roar.

“Yes, Ragnvald for our king”, shouts the crowd of assembled warriors, clashing their swords against their shields. “We swear allegiance to Ragnvald. Ragnvald! Ragnvald for king!”

I am at the Anundshög Viking burial mound site to the north-east of Västerås, the mounds supposedly the largest in Sweden. In addition to the mounds themselves, there are five ship structures traced out in standing stones. In front of the mounds and stone ships is a line of standing stones, supposedly marking out the edge of the Ericsgata road passing the site. A runestone in this line of stones tells us that ‘Folkvid raised all of these stones after his son Heden, Anund’s brother, and that Vred carved the runes’.

Rune stone at the edge of the Ericsgata.

I have been imagining the Ericsgata of one Ragnvald Knaphövde, who was elected King of Sweden around 1130. Unfortunately Ragnvald probably would have qualified for a Darwin Award if they had been around at the time. It was customary in those febrile times for the king-elect to travel with hostages from the noble families of each province to guarantee his own safety, but Ragnvald decided to dispense with his. Regrettably, when he got to the province of Västergötland, he was killed as the people there preferred their own king.

“It just shows that you shouldn’t take things for granted”, says the First Mate when I meet her later over a coffee in town. “King Charles the Third needs to be careful when he goes to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. There’s a lot of discussion about whether we need a monarch in this day and age.”

“At least the Vikings elected theirs”, I say. “Perhaps we should try that. It’s only later it became a hereditary affair. But how did you get on?”

“Well, I had a good look around the town”, she says. “It’s not as bad as I thought from the votes it got. The old town and the river is quite pretty. The castle is not as picturesque as some we have seen, but it is intact at least. Oh, and the museum and art gallery were interesting. It’s only when you get to the outskirts it looks a bit suburban.”

River Svartån, Västerås.
Västerås Castle.
‘Horse in six parts’, bronze, Västerås.
Office block, Västerås.

On the way back to the boat for dinner, we pass the water-sports facility and watch the wake-boarders doing their tricks.

Wake-boarding, Water-Sports Centre, Västerås.

The next morning, we slip the lines and edge our way out of the marina, heading for the small island of Gröneborg on the north shore of Lake Mälaren, 20 NM away, where we have decided to anchor for a day or two. The wind is variable, sometimes blowing 20 knots, other times just a light breeze.

Heading for Gröneborg.

We eventually reach the island and circle it looking for a good spot to stay. The wind is blowing from the north-west, so we find a smooth patch of water on the leeward side and drop the anchor.

“It’s lovely”, says the First Mate. “Good choice!”

Anchored off the island of Gröneborg.

There is hill fort on the southern tip of the small island, so I drop the dinghy from the stern and row over to a small sandy beach. A rather indistinct path leads from the beach up the side of the hill. From time to time I lose it and have to retrace my footsteps, but eventually make it to the top. Sure enough, there are the remains of some kind of fortification smothered in grass and bracken. No-one really knows much about who built it but it is strategically placed, guarding the entrance to Enköping. But the view is superb.

Hill fort remains, Gröneborg.
View from the hill fort, Gröneborg.

In the evening, we sit in the cockpit and sip our wine.

“Look at all the geese over there”, I say. “This must be one of their favourite spots. There are so many of them.”


“Isn’t that a sea-eagle coming towards us?”, exclaims the First Mate excitedly, pointing to the sky.

Sure enough it is. I reach for the camera and manage to squeeze off a couple of random shots. The giant bird flaps its way languidly over us and disappears behind the trees on the island.

“It reminds me of the time we saw that one off Soay Island on the west coast of Scotland”, I say.

White-tailed sea-eagle, Gröneborg.

We weigh anchor the next morning, and head eastwards towards Kungsängen.

“There are a whole lot of boats just coming down on the other side of the island”, shouts the First Mate from the bow. “I think it is some kind of race. We’ll need to watch out for them.”

Yacht race, Gröneborg.

Sure enough, clear of the island, we find ourselves with boats all around us. One looks as if it is going to ram us from behind, but at the last minute veers off to starboard with a cheery wave. We follow them for a while, but eventually we reach an island where we take the port side and they take the starboard side. We don’t see them again.

Eventually we reach the inlet leading to Kungsängen, and turn into it.

“There’s a big squall coming up behind us”, shouts the First Mate. “I think that we are going to get wet.”

Five minutes later the squall hits us. Water pours off the cockpit tent and bimini in torrents. In minutes everything in the cockpit, including myself, is drenched. Visibility drops to almost zero.

“I’ll try and get into the lee of this island”, I shout. “Then we can chuck the anchor out and wait for it to go off. I am hoping it is only a shower.”

Waiting out the rain squall.

It is, but it lasts half-an-hour. Eventually, it eases off, the sun comes out, and we continue into Kungsängen. The marina looks deserted. Luckily a couple appear from somewhere and help us tie up.

“You’re lucky to have caught us”, they say. “We are just off for a couple of weeks, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone else here at the marina. Here’s the code for the toilets and showers. Enjoy Kungsängen!”

They disappear. It starts to rain again, this time setting in for the evening. There’s nothing for us to do except read and watch videos while the rain pelts down outside. At least we are dry and cosy.

Tied up in Kungsängen marina.

“I would quite like to see Uppsala”, says the First Mate in the morning. “I know that our mast is too high to get under the bridge at Stäket, so why don’t we go by train up there for a day? I looked it up last night – we can get one into Stockholm, then another out to Uppsala.”

“Sounds like a good idea”, I say.

We arrive in Uppsala at lunchtime. We find a place on the main street that does a mean mushroom soup and freshly-baked bread rolls. While we eat, the First Mate reads the tourist guide that she picked up at the station.

Looking for somewhere for lunch in Uppsala.

“Uppsala is the fourth largest city in Sweden”, she tells me. “Since the 1100s, it has been the ecclesiastical centre of Sweden, and has a cathedral, castle and university. The university is the oldest centre of higher learning in Scandinavia. The city is also a thriving biotechnology centre.”

“Mmmm, that was good”, I say, finally catching the last mushroom slice as it slithers around the bowl. “Now let’s go and explore.”

Towards the end of the main street, several people are entering and leaving a gate in a wall.

“It’s Linnaeus’s house and garden”, I read on the notice outside. “We have to have a look. Linnaeus was a famous Swedish botanist and best known for coming up with the way to name living things. It’s called the binomial system of nomenclature, to be technical. Everything has a genus name and a species name. You know, like us humans are called Homo sapiens or some of the dinosaurs were called Tyrannosaurus rex.”

Linnaeus’s garden, Uppsala.

We reach the end of the main street, and take the road leading up to the cathedral. It was built in the 1200s and is supposed to be the tallest church in Scandinavia. The Archbishop of the Church of Sweden has his seat there, and for a long time it was where the kings and queens of Sweden were crowned.

Church of Sweden, Uppsala.

We continue on to the main university building.

“Look you can see the names of some of the famous people who worked at he University”, I say, pointing to high up on the façade. ”Linnaeus we have already seen, but there’s also Celsius who developed the temperature scale, and Arrhenius, who was one of the fathers of climate science and worked out the relationship between CO2 and temperature.”

Main university building, Uppsala.

High on a hill overlooking the city is the castle. It was built in the 16th century by none other than our old friend Gustav Vasa. Since then, it has been burnt down a couple of times, reconstructed and added to, to give the structure that we see today.

Uppsala Castle.

These days it is used as the official residence of the County Governor of Uppsala County, the regional archives, and the Art Museum.

The First Mate enjoying the Art Gallery, Uppsala.

“Well, that was an interesting day”, says the First Mate on the way back. “I am glad we did that.”

“I agree”, I say. “It’s just a pity that we couldn’t have sailed up the river to there. That would have been pretty cool.”

We slip the lines the next morning and sail southwards, heading back to Slagsta where Ruby Tuesday will stay for the winter.

“We’ll pass close to Drottningholm Palace on the way”, I say. “Shall we anchor in front of it and have a cup of tea?”

“Sounds a good idea”, says the First Mate.

Drottningholm Palace is the official residence of the Swedish Royal family. It was built in 1580, replacing an earlier royal residence. In the 1660s it was destroyed by fire, but was rebuilt in the present form.

We turn off the main fairway and wend our way between several small islands to the Palace, approaching it from the south. Before long, it appears from behind one of the islands. We furl the sails and motor into the small bay in front of it and drop the anchor in five metres of water. Just at that moment, the sun comes out.

Anchored in front of Drottningholm Palace.

“It’s beautiful”, says the First Mate. “I wouldn’t mind living here.”

“Yes, but think of the cleaning”, I say. “Keeping something the size of Ruby Tuesday clean is bad enough – that would be hundreds of times worse!”

“Hmm, you have a point there”, she says. “OK, take a few pictures while I put the kettle on, then we had better get going. We need to get Slagsta before it gets too late.”

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?”

A coastguard interrogation, a Bronze Age murder, and an anti-monument

“Let’s find a nice sheltered anchorage and chill out for a couple of days”, says the First Mate over breakfast. “The weather forecast for the next week is for high pressure with lots of sunshine and weak southerly winds, so it should be relaxing.”

“Good idea”, I says. “I’ll see if I can find somewhere in the online Harbour Guide out in the archipelago that is protected from southerly winds.”

“Storön looks nice”, says the First Mate, looking over my shoulder. “Why don’t we try that one?”

We leave Vaxholm and sail northwards back where we came the day before with Joanne and Peter. We eventually reach the tree-covered island of Storön, where there is a small bay on the northern side. With only one other boat there, there is plenty of room for us. We drop anchor, make lunch, and relax in the sunshine.

Anchored in Storön.

“Have you seen those huge cruise ships going past out in the fairway?”, says the First Mate. “They are obviously coming from Stockholm, but I wonder where they are heading for?”

“It looks like we are at a bit of a junction”, I say, consulting the charts. “The ones that turn northwards seem to be heading for Finland. The ones that go straight on might be heading for Gotland or even further south.”

“They certainly create quite a bit of swell”, she says, as we see a wave travelling towards us. “Even though they must be a good half-a mile away.”

Ruby Tuesday rocks violently as the wash reaches us. A few seconds later it reaches the shore and tosses the other small boat up and down mercilessly. The owners leap up from their sunbathing towels and run to protect it from being dashed on the rocks. Luckily it subsides quickly and calm is restored.

Cruise ship on the fairway.

In the morning I take the dinghy and row ashore. I tie up to one of the rocks and follow a small path into the forest. I had half thought that it might lead to the other side of the island, but before long it peters out. I sit on a lichen-covered rock and relax, absorbing my surroundings. It is quiet, hardly a sound. I close my eyes and listen. Deeper down there are other sounds – a slight breeze, the rustle of leaves, the crack of a pine-cone in the heat, the trickle of water over rocks. I try to imagine the trees themselves breathing in and out, providing oxygen for the rest of us to use. I smell the mustiness of the mulch of the forest floor, teeming with bacterial and fungal life. An ant runs over my foot, taking a short cut to her destination, disturbing my reverie. I contemplate flicking her off, but decide against it. In a few seconds she is gone, back into the dry leaves underfoot. On the fallen tree in front of me, two black beetles scurry into holes in the rotten wood. Overhead a bird calls, but then there is quiet again. It could be the dawn of time. Life was here before humans came. Life will continue after they have gone.

Lichen patterns on rock.
Forest tranquillity.

My peace is disturbed by the throb of a motorboat engine. Reluctantly, I stand up and retrace my steps through the forest. Day-trippers have arrived in the bay and are tying up to the rocks. I untie the dinghy and row back to the boat. Such forest interludes are restorative.

The days pass in a bliss of reading, writing and relaxing. The three R’s?

“I think that we should start making our way to Stockholm”, I say one evening. “We can have a few days in the city centre seeing things that we haven’t seen before, then head into Lake Mälaren to where there is a potential winter storage marina. We can see if it is suitable for us.”

“Good idea”, says the First Mate. “We could then spend a bit of time exploring Lake Mälaren itself. It is supposed to be very beautiful.”

We weigh anchor the next morning, join the fairway again, and sail towards Stockholm. The wind is still from the south, but at 14 knots there is enough now to make some progress. We sail on a comfortable beam reach for several miles.

“Why are you slowing down here?”, asks the First Mate, as we pass an island.

“I’m not doing it on purpose”, I say. “The wind has dropped right off behind this island. The topography interferes and makes it very difficult to predict which direction the wind will come from. But I am sure it will pick up again soon.”

Sure enough, the wind picks up after a short period of drifting in the current, but this time from the opposite direction, having circled around the island. We trim the sails and carry on. Eventually we see the building cranes on the skyline of central Stockholm. We furl the mainsail and let the genoa take us slowly into the centre of Stockholm.

Approaching Stockholm city centre.

Suddenly, a Coastguard vessel appears and passes us. Spotting our flag, it circles around and comes up behind us, only a few metres separating the two boats. Two officers ask us where we are from.

“Scotland”, we say, pointing to our flag.

“And the boat?”, they ask.

“She’s registered in the United Kingdom”, we say. “But is classified as European goods.”

“Where are you staying?”

“We are planning to stay in Vasahamnen for a few days”, we answer.

Seemingly satisfied, they pull back and then pass us, heading for the city centre. We see them later in Vasahamnen. We half-expect them to visit us to examine our documents, but they show no further interest in us.

The Coastguard interrogate us.

“Imagine being able to sail right to the centre of Stockholm in our boat”, says the First Mate that evening as we sip our glasses of wine in the cockpit. “Look, the Vasa Museum is just over there. Do you remember visiting it after our cycle ride with Joanne and Peter that time? At least we don’t need to see it now.”

We had done a week-long cycle trip with Joanne and Peter five years ago, starting and ending in Stockholm. The last day we had spent exploring some of the sights of the city.

The Vasa warship (photo taken in 2017).

In the morning, we unload the bikes and ride into town for lunch. It is the last day of the Stockholm Culture Festival, and music is being played wherever we go. We decide to have lunch at an outdoor café in the Kungsträdgården and listen to an impromptu group of musicians playing traditional Swedish folk music.

“They really love what they are doing, don’t they?”, says the First Mate. “Look at their faces. The whole atmosphere is great.”

Music-makers in Kungsträdgården.

After lunch, we cycle over the Strömbron bridge to the southern cliffs overlooking the Saltsjön, the body of water stretching from the archipelago to the city centre that we had come in on the day before.

“Look, there’s our marina, just beyond the funfair”, I say. “If you look hard enough, you can see Ruby Tuesday. And that’s where the Coastguard intercepted us down there.”

Looking over the Saltsjön towards Vasahamnen.

We cycle back the way we came.

“Oh, look”, says the First Mate on the way back. “There’s the OceanBus. I read about it in the guidebook. It takes tourists both on the land and on the water. You can see the sights of the city from both perspectives.”

The OceanBus waiting to depart.

We follow it and watch it drive into the water at the Djurgårdsbrunnsviken near the British Embassy.

“Cool”, says the First Mate. “But no need for us to do it. We have our own means of water transport.”

Seeing Stockholm from the water..


The man paddles his boat slowly amongst the reeds growing in the shallow water at the shoreline of the Great Lake. Ducks beat a retreat from this sudden disturbance to their quiet world. He lies his paddle athwart the gunwales of his boat for a moment and rubs his jaw, trying to relieve the aching pain of several months now, but it makes little difference. He grimaces, and picks up the paddle once more, using it to propel his boat around the reeds until the flat rocky landing area comes into view. It has been two weeks now since he left the familiarity of his home in the rich farming lands of Skåne to the south, and travelled north to sell some of his leather goods at the market in Köping. Already he is missing the succulent meat and creamy milk that his kinsmen produce.

He had made the journey several times now, and knew the way. There were stories of pirates on the Great Lake who would stop at nothing to rob and kill unwary travellers, but they were more to the east where the lake joined the sea. In any case, he had never met or seen any on his previous trips.

The craftsman beaches his small boat, takes the bag with his meagre belongings in it – his leather goods that he hopes to sell, his trusty flint skin scraper, his bronze awl, his cane, and his sandstone tool sharpener – and steps ashore. He pushes the boat into the reeds at the side of the rocks so that it can’t be seen. It will be safe there until he returns in a few days’ time.

There is a rustle from the trees beyond the flat rock. The craftsman turns quickly, fear in his eyes. Two roughly dressed men in animal skins and carrying bronze axes appear and clamber over the grassy bank. Pirates! He looks around, but there is no escape. Taking his shield and drawing his sword, he faces them. The men circle him, one on each side, and shout to him to drop his sword.

The craftsman says nothing. They come closer, the rancid smell of their skins searing his nostrils. One makes a rush, brandishing his axe above his head. The craftsman raises his shield to parry the attack. The stroke is deflected, but still cuts a glancing blow through the shield and into his arm. As the axeman struggles to regain his balance, the craftsman thrusts with his sword, piercing the skins and penetrating the chest of his assailant. As he tries to pull his sword out of the pirate’s body, he senses the approach of his companion, and turns. It is too late. The second pirate swings his axe from above – for a brief moment the craftsman is aware of acute pain on one side of his face, his vision clouds red momentarily, then there is nothing ….

The victor rifles though the craftsman’s bag, removes the leatherware goods for himself, and throws the bag into the lake. He then stoops to pick up the bodies one by one and drops them into the water.

Ursäkta mig, har du något emot att jag tar ett foto av mannens huvud?”, a voice says next to me. Excuse me, do you mind if I take a photo of the man’s head?”

Reconstruction of the head of the Bronze Age Man from Granhammar.

I am standing in front of the reconstructed head of the Bronze Age Man from Granhammar, one of the exhibits in the Prehistories section of the Swedish History Museum, trying to imagine the circumstances of his death around 825 BC. I am alone – the First Mate had decided to go to the Museum of Modern Art on Skepperholmen instead – so I had lost myself in a fascinating exposition of Swedish history from prehistoric to modern times. I had sympathised with the Woman of Barum, who had died in 7000 BC sitting upright in her grave; I had wondered at the relationship between the Man and Child of Skateholm from 5000-6000 years ago; and I had admired the Man and Woman of Gårdlösa in their Roman-inspired clothes. And now the Man from Granhammar. All real lives from the past.

The Woman of Barum, died c. 7000 BC

I move through to the Gotland Massacre room. I had never heard of this massacre before, but I learn that back in 1361, King Valdemar IV of Denmark decided that he wanted to add the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea to his Danish Empire. He sent his army to invade the island, but the farmers there weren’t keen on being ruled by the Danish. They put up a fierce resistance by luring the Danes to a marshy area, but the latter won that battle decisively. The Gotlanders retreated to the island’s capital, Visby, where they put up a spirited last stand, but unfortunately, again were soundly beaten.

The marshlands preserved the bodies of many of the soldiers who fought in the battle, along with their equipment.

Gotlander killed in the Gotland massacre by the Danish Army, 1361 AD.

In the basement of the museum, blasted out of the rock, I find the Gold Room, which holds 3000 gold objects from Sweden’s past. Symbols of power and wealth, most were found in large hordes buried by their owners in times of danger and never returned to. The earliest date as far back as 1500 BC, but the majority were made during Sweden’s Gold Age from 400-550 AD.

Gold bracelets and hair spirals.

These gold collars were made in the 5th century AD. No-one quite know what they were for, but possibly they were used to adorn wooden images of gods, or were worn by important political or religious leaders.

Gold collar made in the 5th century AD.

Reflecting its success as a Baltic trading centre, a large number of these objects were found on Gotland, treasure troves accumulated over several centuries and buried for safekeeping at the time of the Gotland Massacre.

Gold goblet and plate.

It’s time to go. I still haven’t seen the Vikings exhibition, but I’ll have to leave it for another day.

“How did you get on?”, I ask the First Mate when we meet up again.

“Well, I took the ferry across to Skepperholmen”, she says. “The Museum of Modern Art is not far from the ferry landing. The first thing you see are the huge sculptures produced by the Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar based on Picasso’s cardboard mockups, which in turn are based on the original painting Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe by the French painter Edouard Manet. Picasso, however, had both the men and the woman naked rather than just the woman, apparently to symbolise the shedding of their bourgeois conventions.”

Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe according to Picasso/Nesjar.

“I am not surprised”, I say. “The Scandinavians are pretty relaxed about nudity.”

“Inside there was an exhibition by Jeppe Hein, a Danish artist based in Berlin”, the First Mate continues. “Its purpose was to help you explore ‘Who are you really?’ in unconventional ways. It didn’t really do anything for me, but I liked the step-in water fountain he created just at the entrance. If you chose the right moment, you could step into the fountain and stay dry.”

Hein’s Fountain.

“There was lots of interesting contemporary art from Swedish and international artists, such as Sirgrid Hjertén, Salvador Dali, Paul Klee, Robert Rauschenberg and Henrik Kinski. I also enjoyed the sculptures, such as the colourful Fantastic Paradise from Niki de Saint Phalle & Jean Tinguely, and the ‘anti-monument’ by Björn Lövin called Lenin Monument April 13th, 1917, in which he uses a block of granite with an X painted onto it to represent Lenin’s visit to Stockholm without commemorating Lenin himself. The aim apparently was to challenge the power structures that determine who and what is commemorated. I found that quite an interesting concept at least, even if it does look rather drab.”

Anti-monument: Lövin’s Lenin Monument April 13th, 1917.

“I can see why it is called an anti-monument, at least”, I say.

“But what about yourself?”, she asks. “How was the History Museum?”

I tell her of my adventures there.

“What I found interesting was that at the end of the Prehistories section, there were a series of questions challenging our worldviews”, I say. “Questions like were their concept of families the same then as now, how large was their world compared to ours now, and who controlled their world then compared to now? You take it for granted that people then thought in much the same way as we do now, but it really made me wonder how true that is. Did you know, for example, that the concept of a nuclear family only dates from 1940s America?”

“No, I didn’t”, says the First Mate. “But thinking about it, our ancestors did tend to live in extended families, so I am not really surprised.”

“Then at the end, they made the point that history itself is a human construction, often with a political agenda in mind”, I continue. “Histories can change over time. One example is a bronze and iron helmet from 550-800 AD that was found in Uppland In the 19th century – it was taken as evidence of tall noble knights of the mythical kingdom of Svea that was supposed to be the forerunner of modern Sweden.”

Iron and bronze helmet used to construct the Svean kingdom myth.

“It makes you wonder what histories you are being told now that will be scoffed at as propaganda in a hundred years’ time or so”, chips in Spencer from the bimini. “Is anything really true, or is it all just a human construct?”

Redundant fortresses, dreaming spiders, and a quick dip

We set sail from Nynäshamn the next morning, still following Valdemar’s Way. The wind is from the southeast, and after we round the top end of Bedarön island, we have a close reach which gives us a good speed before we need to turn northwards again. Just as we do, the wind drops, and with it now almost directly behind us, we sail with the genoa only. Progress is sedate, to say the least, but it allows us to relax and enjoy the scenery.

On Valdemar’s fairway again.

We aim for a small island called Store Senholmen where there is a blue SXK buoy marked that we can tie up to. We eventually reach the small bay where the buoy is supposed to be, but there is no sign of it. We decide to anchor there anyway as it is sheltered from the southeast wind. Then, believe it or not, just as we drop the anchor the wind changes around to the north. Our spot suddenly becomes exposed.

“Why don’t we go around to the south side of the island?”, says the First Mate. “It might be more sheltered on that side”.

We motor around and find another small bay. A few expensive-looking houses line the shore. We drop the anchor into about 5 metres of water, and reverse Ruby Tuesday to make sure that it is set. The anchor bites into the seabed. We are safe for the evening.

Anchored for the evening.

From our anchorage, we see a fortress of some kind perched in a rocky promontory overlooking the main archipelago fairway.

“That must have a great view”, says Joanne. “I wonder what it is? It looks like some kind of castle.”

Dalarö Skans fortress.

Our Archipelago Guide tells us that it is the Dalarö Skans fortress originally built in 1623 to guard the southern approaches to Stockholm against any invaders coming along the fairway. It was rebuilt in 1656 and was further strengthened in 1698. Despite all this, it was never used in anger and was bypassed by the Russian forces during their pillages of 1719. The last commander of the fortress is supposed to have been buried on a neighbouring island.

“Perhaps that island with all the dead trees on it is where he was buried?”, says Peter.

Island of dead trees.

“I wonder why the Russians pillaged Sweden at that time?”, says the First Mate. “They seem to have a habit for doing that sort of thing.”

“I have no idea”, I answer. “I’ll look it up when I get a moment.”

We cook dinner, and sit in the cockpit watching the sun go down over Dalarö Skans. The conversation turns to politics.

“British politics seems to be in a bit of a state these days”, says Peter. “We used to admire Britain, but the government now seems to be the laughing stock of the world.”

“Yes, and the annoying thing is that the majority of people don’t want them”, I say. “The present government was elected with only 44% of the popular vote. More people didn’t want them than did. And yet they still end up with an 80-seat majority. Not to mention the current election for the next Prime Minister. It’s only the 160,000 or so paid-up members of the Tory party who are able to vote for the last two candidates, and yet their policies can have a major impact on us all. It doesn’t seem very democratic, does it? Some people call it an elected dictatorship.”

“But what other system could you have?”, asks Joanne.

“Perhaps what we need is more participatory democracy”, I say, only slightly tongue-in-cheek. “Surely in this information age we are in, we can come up with more imaginative ways of governing ourselves? I used to wonder if it would be possible to involve people more by having it so that when people turn their computers on in the morning up comes a list of issues that need to be voted on. Then while their coffee is on the go, people could just go through them and vote how they want on each one. The results would all then be collated by a central computer and votes counted. Everyone would be involved in making decisions and we could do away with all this party politics where MPs are ‘whipped’ to vote the way their leader wants rather than according to their consciences. All we would need is some sort of impartial body that would determine what sort of issues should be voted on each day.”

“It would never work”, says Peter. “People just wouldn’t have the time to get to know all the background to each issue. I know I wouldn’t. I am quite prepared to vote someone in for a set period of time to do all the legwork in making decisions and then judge them for it at the end. If they have done a good job, I’ll vote for them again. If not, then I won’t.”

“Perhaps people need to make more time to spend on such things if they want to live in a democracy, though”, says the First Mate. “After all, it affects their lives, so surely they would want to have a direct say in what is decided?”

“If they don’t have time, people needn’t vote for everything every day”, I continue, warming to the theme. “They could just vote for the things that they know something about and directly affect them. But at least they would have the choice. No one would be forced to vote, but if they didn’t then they couldn’t complain if the decision is not what they would have wanted.”

A motor boat approaches us at top speed. We brace ourselves to be rocked by the massive wake it leaves behind, but the driver slows down before he reaches us and cruises past us slowly. As soon as he is past us, he resumes his original speed again.

“At least he was considerate to us”, says the First Mate. “Most of them couldn’t care less and zoom past us, leaving us to rock violently from side to side. Things can fall and break.”

No consideration!

“But it would be almost impossible to take into account the many different values that millions of people have”, says Peter, continuing the previous conversation.

“I am not so sure”, I say. “We did an exercise at my last place of work. It started off by getting everyone to write down what they thought the values of the organisation should be. All the answers were then grouped by facilitators into broad themes. These then went back to everyone for comment and modification if necessary. After a few iterations of this, they came up with something that everyone was happy with, despite all their diverse backgrounds and points of view. In the end there were about six or seven values. I would imagine that it might be similar for a country.”

“I agree”, says Joanne. “Most people, regardless of their cultural background, all want similar things – security, respect, fairness, prosperity, that sort of thing.”

“And all that could be done by a computer easily”, I say. “I am sure that there is software around already which can extract meaning from free text and categorise it into broad themes. In fact, taking it to its logical conclusion, we could let computers run the country completely. Would it really be such a bad thing? They could be programmed to achieve the greatest happiness for all. That, after all, was the basis of Utilitarianism in the 18th century.”

“The big challenge would be translating those broad values into actual policies, though”, says Peter. “That’s where people differ in their views of how to do it.”

“I know that there will be things to resolve”, I agree. “But we do need to think out of the box to address the problems of the current system.”

We anchor the next night in a beautiful little bay called Lerviken on the island of Skärpo, just off the main fairway. We are the only ones in it, but in the neighbouring inlet, there is another yacht anchored. It looks deserted.

Lerviken on the island of Skärpo.

“There seems to be someone on it”, says Peter, looking through the binoculars. “I can see a leg at least. A very pretty one too.”

“You men!”, says Joanne.

“Perhaps there’s been a murder, and they have cut up the body”, I say. “Or do you think they are filming the next episode of The Killing? There will probably be cameras or a film crew if you look hard enough.”

“I think that was Danish”, says the First Mate. “But they could be filming an episode in Sweden, I suppose. I wonder if we will see Sofie Gråbøl? Maybe we should go and anchor over there so that we can be in the background.”

The mystery is solved when the body that is attached to the leg sits up. It’s a woman in her 30s. We hastily hide the binoculars and pretend that we are polishing the boat. There’s no sign of Sofie Gråbøl or the camera crew.

In the evening after the others have gone to bed, I look up my trusty History of Europe book to find out more about Swedish history in the 17th and 18th centuries. It tells me that after the 30 Years’ War ended and the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, Sweden became a European great power, controlling territory all around the Baltic. Several other countries in the region weren’t particularly happy about this, so they formed an alliance, led by Russia under Peter the Great, which led to the Great Northern War from 1700-1723. Things didn’t go too well for the Swedes and they lost their Baltic provinces, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. In the ensuing peace negotiations, Sweden wanted its Baltic provinces back, but Peter the Great lost patience with all the arguing and decided to teach the Swedes a lesson. He had galleys made that could be rowed as well as sailed, and which could therefore negotiate the narrow rocky passages between the archipelago islands. The Swedish Navy wasn’t equipped for this type of warfare and had to leave the islands to their fate. Not restricted to the fairway any more, the Russians just bypassed the fortresses at Dalarö and Vaxholm and laid waste to the islands, burning towns and villages to the ground. Only churches were left intact. The islanders fled to mainland Sweden, with 20,000 people made homeless. It was only when the Russians tried to attack Stockholm that the Swedes managed to chase them off. Nevertheless, Swedish power was weakened, and Russia became the new dominant Baltic power. The Swedes decided they had had enough of all-powerful kings that waged disastrous wars, and moved to a parliamentary system to usher in the so-called ‘Age of Liberty’.

“It’s interesting how events of 300 years ago still have ripples nowadays”, says Spencer reading from behind my shoulder. “The Swedes now have had a respectable tradition of democracy and good governance, whereas the Russians have stuck with their autocratic system, which has essentially remained to this day apart from a brief dalliance with democracy in the 1990s. It must have a huge effect on the way they view the world. You are seeing the outcome of that mindset in Ukraine now. Now if you don’t mind, I would like to go to sleep and dream. Spiders do that, you know.”

Dreaming spiders?

“Ah yes”, I say. “I read that article in the paper this morning too. Scientists have discovered that spiders have rapid eye movements and limb twitching while they are sleeping, just like humans do. Well, happy dreams!”

I don’t sleep too well that night. For some reason, images of sticky webs, tasty flies, and buzzing wasps keep running through my mind.

“You were doing lots of twitching last night”, says the First Mate in the morning. “What on earth were you dreaming about?”

“You don’t want to know”, I say.

There is a splash. Peter and Joanne have decided to have a swim off the back of the boat before breakfast.

“It’s l-l-lovely”, says Joanne, as she bounces in and out in the space of a few seconds. “But a bit cold.”

This prompts me to try and have a look at the keel after our disagreement with the rock back in Harstena. I put on my wetsuit and grab the mask and snorkel, and climb in gingerly. I swim under the boat, but the water is cloudy and I can’t see very much. Nevertheless, it looks OK, except for a possible mark on the bottom of the keel where the antifouling has disappeared. Probably the point of impact, I think.

In I go!

We weigh anchor and re-join Valdemar’s Way heading west along the north coast of Vindö, making for Vaxholm. This time the wind is from the east, but again there isn’t much of it. We drift along at two to three knots, feeling elated when a stray puff of wind takes us to four knots for a few minutes before disappearing again. We don’t mind, as we have now settled into a languid mood where time hardly matters. We lunch on the boat, taking turns to eat our buttered sandwiches at the helm while keeping a watchful eye on other boats, islands and nasty rocks.

We take the fork that leads us north of Västerholmen to avoid the large cruise ships, through the narrow gap between Store Delh and Lille Delh, and re-join the main fairway again south of Värholma. As we get closer to Stockholm, the boat traffic increases exponentially, and soon we are surrounded by motorboats, ferries and other yachts on all sides, their wash making us pitch and rock wildly from side to side.

“They should have a speed limit in here”, says the First Mate, as a particularly fast motor launch roars past us. “There’s just no thought for slower boats like ourselves.”

Wave machine.

Once through the narrow gap between Hästholmen and Resarö, we spy Vaxholm Castle, and beyond that, Vaxholm itself.

Vaxholm castle was built at around the same time as the one we had seen earlier in Dalarö, and was one of three that King Gustav Vasa had built to protect Stockholm. It was rebuilt in the mid-1800s, but due to advances in military technology, was obsolete by the time it was finished. Today it is a museum and conference centre.

Vaxholm Castle.

The First Mate has phoned ahead to reserve an alongside berth at the marina to make it easy to unload the suitcases. It is the weekend, and the marina is a froth of activity as everyone in Stockholm, his wife and dog jostle for places. Ferries steam past, their wash rolling under the piles of the outer pier and making Ruby Tuesday buck wildly like a bronco.

Vaxholm harbour.

The town is a charming eclectic mix of old wooden houses and newer modern ones. It is an island, but is connected to the mainland by a number of bridges.

House in Vaxholm.
Old and new.
Kings Gambit?

It is also the kicking off point for ferries to various archipelago islands, notably neighbouring Rindö.

Passengers boarding a ferry for the islands.

It’s time to say farewell to Joanne and Peter. They are heading for the airport to catch a flight to Dublin, the next stage of their journey. It has been great to see them, and catch up with news about family and friends. But all good things come to an end.

Final farewells.

“It feels a bit flat without them, doesn’t it?”, says the First Mate, as we wave goodbye. “It was nice having them around.”