“There’s some sort of fishy smell”, I say in the morning. “I thought that it might be coming from the harbour, but it’s stronger inside. Did you buy some fish yesterday?”
“Yes, I’ve smelt it too”, says the First Mate. “And no, I haven’t bought fish for a while. Hopefully it will disappear before our visitors come.”
We are in Nyköping, where we have arranged to meet my sister Joanne, and my brother-in-law Peter, in a couple of days’ time, and who are sailing with us for a week. We have been sailing with them on several occasions in Greece and New Zealand before, so they are not strangers to it.
We spend the day before they arrive cleaning and tidying the boat. The fishy smell stubbornly refuses to disappear, nor is it obvious where it comes from.
“I give up”, says the First Mate. “Let’s have a break and go and explore the town.”
“Good idea”, I agree.
We cycle into town and find a little café to have lunch.
“It says that Nyköping is a small town of about 32,000 people, and translates roughly as Newmarket”, reads the First Mate in the tourist information leaflet. “Ny means New, and köping is an old Swedish word for market place. It’s pronounced ‘sher-ping’ and is also the origin of several place names in Britain – Chipping Norton, Chipping Barnet, Chipping Campden, and so on. They are all market towns.”
“Interesting”, I say. “I didn’t know that before. I wonder if the word ‘shopping’ came from it too? People would go shopping in markets in the old days.”
It’s a possibility. Wikipedia tells me that ‘shopping’ derives from the Old French word eschoppe, which in turn comes from an Old Germanic word skupp for a lean-to shelter. The modern Swedish word köpa (pronounced sher-pa) means ‘to buy’, so I would be surprised if there is not a connection somehow. I resolve to follow it up when I get time.
We reach the Market Square, where there are a number of market stalls. As you would expect.
In one corner stands a church and the other, the town hall.
“I wonder what that is over there?”, says the First Mate, pointing to a red-painted structure on a rocky promontory. “It looks like it is a church, but I don’t think it is.”
As we walk up the narrow path to it, little windows on the side open automatically, and bells begin to toll. I look at my watch – it’s just on one o’clock.
“It’s got to be the clock tower”, I say.
We eventually come to the castle beside the river that runs through the town. Entry is free. We climb the tower to the first floor and lose ourselves for an hour or so in Swedish history.
The castle was originally built as a fortress in the late 1100s, and became the most powerful in Sweden for some time. The story goes that in the 14th century, the then king Birger and his brothers, Eric and Valdemar, had been feuding for years. Then the king hatched a cunning plan. More cunning than a cunning thing. He invited his two brothers to Nyköping Castle for Christmas dinner, pretending that it was time for making up. But halfway through the dinner, Birger had his two brothers seized and thrown into the dungeons. He then threw the key into the moat. Of course, without food and water, the two brothers soon died, and their bodies were found several years later. The whole event became known as the ‘Nyköping banquet’. Amazingly, in the 19th century, a local lad was fishing in the moat and brought up an old key, which may well have been the key of the dungeons.
“Mean thing to do to your brothers, wasn’t it?”, says the First Mate.
The castle was destroyed in the Swedish-Danish wars, but was rebuilt by our old friend Gustav Vasa whom we had met first in Kalmar. His son Charles turned it into a Renaissance palace, and to offset the costs of all this, built a laboratory for his alchemists to work on producing gold. History doesn’t record whether this was successful or not.
“It says that the restoration of the castle started in the early 20th century”, reads the First Mate from the little guide brochure. “What we see now is only about 100 years old.”
We make our way back to the boat.
“I think I have located the fish smell”, says the First Mate in the morning. “One of the herring fillet jars under the floor has leaked. We will have to clean it up before they arrive.”
Joanne & Peter arrive at lunch time. They have just completed a cycle ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats in Britain, and have flown from Inverness to Stockholm. From there, they have caught the train down to Nyköping.
It’s great to see them. The First Mate prepares lunch, and includes some prawn salad to disguise the fishy smell. As we eat, we hear all about their impressive achievement. They were part of a group of twelve, and completed it in 23 days.
“Trust us to choose the time that Britain has a heat-wave to do it”, says Joanne. “But actually, it wasn’t too bad. When you are cycling, there is always a bit of a breeze to keep you cool. And anyway, the hottest part seemed to be in London. Western England and Scotland were cooler.”
We decide to set sail after lunch without delay. One of the islands, Broken, was recommended by our advisor Martin as very nice, so we aim for there. It’s only seven miles from Nyköping, and it’s a nice easy sail to get everyone used to it again.
We motor out of Nyköping along the narrow buoyed channel in the middle of the shallow estuary lined by reeds and forest.
Eventually we reach the Baltic Sea and turn north-eastwards. Cormorants packed onto an island watch us warily as we pass.
“This is beautiful”, says Joanne. “There’s something about Sweden I really like. So green, lots of water, the smell of pine trees and fish.”
The First Mate looks at me. I try to make my laugh sound like a cough.
We reach Broken a couple of hours later and enter the small bay to the south of the island. The island is owned by a sailing club, but they welcome visiting yachts. There appears to be no sign of life. We spot a small pontoon poking out from behind a promontory and motor towards it. Further around we are surprised to see that there are heaps of boats tied up and lots of people. The harbourmaster comes out in a RIB to greet us.
“Welcome to Broken”, he says with a friendly smile. “It’s deep enough on either side of the pontoon for you to tie up. You can either moor stern-to or bow-to. We have electricity on the island, but no fresh water. Toilets are over there, sauna and showers are over the hill. The showers are seawater. And before you ask, Broken is just a name, and doesn’t mean anything!”
The last sentence is spoken with some degree of world-weariness.
We choose stern-to mooring, as we are all practised in that from our sailing experiences in Greece. In any case, we haven’t really sorted out a stern anchor yet for tying up bow-to.
We walk along the boardwalk to the facilities. Club members are playing a game to build the highest tower from wooden blocks.
“We hope you enjoy it here”, they say. “We’ve built everything ourselves. This is just practice.”
“Did you see that they have an incinerating toilet here?”, says the First Mate, returning from the washing block. “You do your business, press a button, it disappears, there is a faint burning smell, and that’s it. All very high tech for a small island.”
“They have mains electricity but no fresh water, so I suppose it makes sense”, I say. “Something like Leibig’s Law of the Minimum, I suppose. I guess you just have to make sure you don’t press the button accidentally as you sit down.”
We cook dinner and sit in the cockpit watching the sun go down.
“You know”, says Peter. “I’ve been wondering why nobody does any research on population control to solve the world’s problems. We were in Kenya a few years ago, and we were talking to two conservationists. They were telling us that the population of Kenya has increased from 8 million in the 1960s to more than 50 million nowadays. So many of Kenya’s problems are related to overpopulation, so why don’t they try and do something about it?”
“Of course, population growth is a problem”, I say. “And people are working on it. But the subject of population control is fraught with political and moral problems, mainly because it was associated in the past with controlling specific sectors of a population, usually the poor, non-white sectors. It is now considered to be a bit amoral if rich white people come along and tell people in developing countries that they shouldn’t have too many children.”
“But you could say it’s also immoral to work on things such as health care, water supply and more food production to keep them alive”, says Peter. “It’s just building up problems for the future. More people, more hunger, greater environmental damage.”
“One has to think about why people have so many children in developing countries“, says the First Mate. “It’s only then you might be able to do something about it. One of the reasons is it’s a kind of insurance policy for their old age. The more children you have, the more you will be looked after when you get old and can’t work anymore. We are lucky to have a social security system and pensions in the West. It would be very risky not to have any children when you get old in Kenya.”
“Having small families is only a recent thing in the West as well”, I say. “Fifty to 100 years ago in Europe, they also had big families. Lots of people died young.”
“I read somewhere that the best way to reduce birth rates is to educate women”, says Joanne.
“And empower them”, says the First Mate.
“You could also argue that as every Western baby born will have ten times the environmental impact of an African baby, then they are the ones that should controlled”, I say. “Or that because it is spending the wealth they will accumulate in the lifetime that causes the environmental damage, then their wealth should be distributed more evenly. You can see that it is fraught with moral issues.”
“An interesting discussion you had tonight”, says Spencer to me after everyone else has gone to bed. “He does have a point, you know. Population growth is the big problem. You know, some of my close cousins eat their young if they are getting to stressed with no food. That helps to keep our numbers down when necessary. Perhaps you humans should try it!”
“A bit drastic”, I say. “Anyway, I read somewhere that at this stage not much will stop the human population trajectory from peaking at 10-12 billion then declining. If we had wanted to slow it, we should have done it years ago.”
The next few days are a dreamy meander through the island idyll of the Stockholm Archipelago. The days are sunny and warm, the winds are gentle and mainly from the south and west, perfect for our voyage north. We use the main fairway for the longer hops but leave it often to find delightfully remote and sometimes secluded anchorages for the night. Evenings are spent cooking and chatting about family, friends, and the problems of the world.
We stop off at Stendörran, where there is an archipelago museum. There is an SXK buoy there, but we find it occupied, so we anchor in a little bay opposite the entrance to the museum. We unload the dinghy, and again, I get the job of rowing everyone across in two stages.
We learn that the fairway that we are following was actually described in the Navigato Danica, a handbook for sailors commissioned by the Danish king Valdemar II back in 1231. The narrow channel between Aspnäset and the island of Krampö where the museum is situated was named Stendörran as it looks like stone gates guarding the entrance to the Stockholm archipelago from the Baltic Sea. I try to imagine the skill of the sailors then trying to navigate the twists and turns of the narrow pass through the stone gates without charts or GPS.
Other displays tell us that the Baltic is fragile, with few species and simple ecosystems, all under threat from the myriad of human activities around its shores. Its narrow inlets and their sills restrict water flushing in and out of it, so that it takes nearly 30 years for all its water to be replaced. The biggest problems are eutrophication from excess nutrients in water, the spread of chemicals from industry and agriculture, and overuse of its resources. All these are intensified by the impact of climate change.
“At least they are aware of it”, I say to the First Mate as we leave. “And are trying to do something about it.”
We eventually arrive in Nynäshamn and tie up alongside to the outer pier serving as a breakwater to the harbour marina. It’s not the best of berths as there is an occasional swell from the wash of passing ferries, but we decide to stay. We plug into shore power, fill the water tanks, and restock with provisions after several days of self-sufficiency in the islands.
Nynäshamn is not particularly inspiring in its own right, serving mainly as a port for ferries to Gotland and Poland. Occasional cruise ships call in if they are too big to enter Stockholm proper.
In the morning, we walk up past the red church perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the harbour and find ourselves in the main square.
“At least there is a Co-op”, says the First Mate. “You wait here while I just buy a few things.”
I stand in the shade of a tree and read the newspaper on my phone. It takes me a minute or two to realise that I am actually in some sort of queue waiting expectantly for something to open. Then I notice that it is the Systembolaget, the government-owned outlet for alcohol. It’s only 10 o’clock in the morning, and already the queue is substantial. I look at my watch and pretend that I have a bus to catch and walk briskly to the nearby bus-stop. No one seems to notice. The door of the Systembolaget opens on the dot of 10, and there is a surge forward. Living in Nynäshamn must create a desire for alcohol early in the day, I think.
In the afternoon, we have a visit from Lisa and Rainer. Lisa is the First Mate’s niece, Rainer is her husband. They live in Germany, but are travelling through Sweden on their holidays. They have just attended a heavy-metal music festival north of Stockholm and are on their way home. On the off-chance that we might be in the area, they had contacted the First Mate and had arranged a time and place to meet. Lisa is a doctor and currently working in a hospice, while Rainer is a forester, responsible for managing large areas of forest in Hessen.
“We’re in the process of building our own house”, they tell us. “We looked around for existing houses that had everything that we wanted, but couldn’t find one that fitted the bill. So we decided to design and build our own. But I have to say that it is quite stressful. We thought that the architects would know what should go into a house and where, but they don’t seem to. They keep asking us where we want the smallest details.”
“The Ukrainian War has made everything so expensive now”, says Rainer as we walk back to their car to say goodbye. “I really hope that the Ukrainians win. Russian imperialism can’t be allowed to triumph in this day and age. War over borders is the politics of the last century. Trade should link all countries together. Any differences should be sorted out around a table.”
The Merkel doctrine. War in Western countries was supposed to be obsolete, not least because of the cost involved – not only in terms of destruction but also loss of trade and subsequent trust. We are currently seeing the flaws in that particular doctrine. The optimist in me wants to agree with him, but the pessimist in me feels that human nature is such that there will always be wars over land and other scarce resources.