It’s six in the evening and the large cruise ships are starting to weave their way out through the archipelago waters from Stockholm to Helsinki and the Baltic States and are tossing up mountainous waves in their wake. We hold on tight to the side of our boat, trying to steer out of their way. At the same time, we keep a sharp eye out for rocks as we battle to master the sails on our 27-foot sailing boat. And we glance every two minutes at the chart to make sure we don’t get lost in the labyrinth of the 24,000 or so islands that make up Stockholm’s archipelago.
Neither my boyfriend nor I have a sailing license, we have never had a sailing lesson or read a book about how to use a sea chart. One of us even used to get seasick. But the beauty in Sweden is that we have the opportunity to buy our own sailing boat and enjoy what the locals do during the long, summer days … a spot of sailing in the beauty of the archipelago.
Buying a sailing boat in Sweden is quite easy. Just look on Blocket (www.blocket.se) and you’ll find hundreds for sale ranging from 10,000 to one million kronor. But then, the main challenge comes … finding a slot in a nearby marina.
We bought a boat on Blocket for under 50,000 kronor in April and were lucky enough to find (with the help of the previous owner) a mooring slot on the picturesque island of Resarö, close to Vaxholm and just a 25-minute drive from downtown Stockholm. Once we purchased the boat, we needed to learn how to sail so I approached KSSS (the Royal Swedish Yacht Club) at their booth at the Volvo Ocean Race – surprisingly, even though they had a large promotional booth and plenty of staff, the only help they could give me about a sailing course was to scribble down their website address and tell me to check it out. Great, I could have figured that out myself! In the end, we decided to arm ourselves with a book and a few friends who had some basic sailing skills. And then it was learning by practice.
Which hasn’t been without a few near misses – like almost being washed by a strong current on to the rocks at Grinda’s harbour when our engine wouldn’t start – our own fault for leaving it too late to take down our sails before entering the harbour. Another time we crashed full-speed into our harbour, having mixed up the “forward” and the “reverse” gears. Even tanking at the gas station at busy Vaxholm felt like a major task and something to save for “off peak” times. But the last two months have been pretty uneventful and we’ve started to feel like real seafarers, anchoring and enjoying picnics in remote spots, barbeques on Grinda’s rocky cliffs, overnight stays at Gällnö and weekend trips to Möja.
The Stockholm archipelago is probably one of the easiest places in the world to learn to sail and you don’t need a license for a boat as long as it is smaller than 12 x 4 meters (give or take a bit on the length and width).
Sailing in Sweden is very affordable. A decent boat costs half of what it costs in some other European countries, insurance for a 30-year-old sailing boat like ours will cost around 2,000 kronor per year, a slot in a marina around 8,000 kronor for the year. And then expect to pay a fee to take the boat out of, and put it into, the water and a winter storage fee – neither of which will break the bank account.
Aside from that, the other plus factors are that you’re never far from land, there is always plenty of traffic to help out if you run into trouble, the waters never get too rough and there’s quite an established bunch of hostels, petrol stations, stores and facilities on many islands.
But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a piece of cake! Rocks abound in the archipelago’s waters so you need to watch out for the warning sticks and keep a close eye on your navigation charts. The weather can get pretty chilly in the mornings and evenings; and during peak summer times (like July) there can be a lot of traffic on the water so like driving, you need to stay alert. It’s not uncommon to glance over your shoulder and see a large Waxholmsbolaget passenger ferry hot on your tail. If this happens, don’t panic, observe which way they are going and move accordingly.
Alex Corovic, a Serbian-born, US-bred expat who’s lived in Stockholm for several years took a four-day sailing course back in 2002, organized by Båtägarsskolan at the Bullandö Marina in Värmdö. His group consisted of around seven international people and one instructor who taught the basics – like tacking, jibing, sail trimming, right-of-way rules, man overboard routine, safety, general info, chart reading, docking, and touched on other stuff like learning different knots, what different lights meant (from lighthouses) – in English for them.
“Afterwards, I felt confident enough to go out on a sailing boat together with someone else, or to sail alone in the open sea,” Alex recalls. “This was the first of three courses recommended to get a license that can be used Europe-wide, or so we were told. The first two are on practical sailing, and the third on navigation.” Since then, he’s put his sailing skills to the test with a couple of friends in the archipelago and Lake Mälaren.
Lasse Lindmark started exploring the Stockholm archipelago in 1982 by motorboat, changing to a sailing boat seven years ago. Nowadays, he and his wife spend around five weeks a year on their Dufour 36 sailing in the outer archipelago. “We have planned to sail to Finland but so far we have stayed in the archipelago. Because it is so vast, there is so much to explore and also to return to,” he says, adding that the best thing about having his own sailing boat is the freedom, “and it’s so easy to forget things and just relax.”
His words of advice: “Watch out! Because sometimes there are a lot of boats around you and many are not skilled – especially motorboat owners who think it’s almost like driving a car. Some even use the map in the telephone book. Invest in a GPS with navigation chart!” Some of his personal favourites include Huvudskär in the south of the archipelago, and Storö Bockö, north of Sandhamn, which has plenty of natural harbours.
The sad thing about sailing in Stockholm is that for six months of the year your beloved boat will be put into “winter hibernation” from around October 1 until May 1 when she can finally be put back in the water again. You’ll also have to turn a blind eye to the fact that the waters are not turquoise and lined with white sandy beaches and palm trees and that we can’t bask in 30 degree heat.
The best thing about having our own boat is using it to entertain friends and visitors to give them a personal tour of the Stockholm archipelago. Just two weeks ago we took out two friends from London, who said that seeing the archipelago from a small sailing boat was the highlight of their entire trip to Stockholm. After overcoming the initial shock of having to balance on a small wooden plank to hoist her way on the boat, Rhona Brown said, “Somehow a boat trip down to the Thames barrier just doesn’t cut it like the archipelago. Of course there are boat trips on the Thames with amazing views of London but they are big public boats and not as intimate as a little sailing boat like yours.” In the meantime her boyfriend Ben enjoyed the practical things like fixing the sails and steering the boat.
A more pricey option but for those who don’t fancy committing to their own boat, is to rent one. Sailmarine ( www.sailmarine.com ), Midnight Sun Sailing (www.rentaboat.se) and RTC Båtkontakten (www.rtc.se) offer rentals and a crewed charter fleet.
But having your own sailing boat is definitely a great way to get around the archipelago and it’s a transportable summer house as you can change location every so often and enjoy the sunset on a different island every evening. And if you get really lucky you might just spot an elk swimming from one island to the next.
KSSS, the Royal Swedish Sailing Society: www.ksss.se
About the Skärgården (archipelago): www.skargardsstiftelsen.se
Some islands worth a visit
Located between the northern and southern Värmdö Ljusterö. Around the island are a lot of fine bathing spots with rocks or sandy beaches and kayaks for hire. You can also learn to climb in the mountains and shoot longbow.
If you visit Grinda by boat there are two landing stages, north and south -with a nice walk across the island linking the two piers.
A classical island metropolis, described by August Strindberg in 1873 as: “Scenic Sandhamn on three sides surrounded by water and on the fourth by the sea”. It has about 100 permanent residents who are visited each year by several thousand tourists who visit Sandhamn to swim, shop, party, fill fresh water, fuel tank or just to enjoy the idyllic society with the idyllic nature. There’s a Sand Harbour Museum, piloting bridge, customs house, chapel, cemetery and Trouville – a sandy beach – facilities and infrastructure which make it feel like a metropolis in the archipelago.
A typical central archipelago island with green rolling fields, a sandy beach, and around 40 permanent residents. The hostel on the island is a converted schoolhouse and there’s a visitor pier, store and cafe. It’s possible to row or kayak in the calm waters around Gallnö’s bays and cafes.
Making the most of your boat:
A personalized tour for friends, family and visitors
Get out of the city in the evening or weekends with a picnic and relax on the water
A cheap overnight or weekend getaway from it all
Barbeque on a remote rocky island on a day trip
If you like fishing, invest in a rod and go fish pike, perch, herring etc
Take your bike or hiking shoes on board and explore the islands
Make a week of it and plan your route including hostel or cabin (stuga) accommodation en route if you think a week on board is too claustrophobic. Or bring your own tent.
Get together a group of friends and a few bottles of alcohol and card games.
If you invest in a bigger boat, you can go further afield to the Åland Islands, Gotland or Öland.
Learn some sailing skills – it’s a useful hobby that will stand to you anywhere in the world.