I like to try different things. Volunteering on the farm where they are building a boat was one of the first things. At the farm I was asked a few times if I’d ever sailed, I always had to disappoint them that I had never done so. After Norway, I spent three weeks packing my belongings to send them back home. After those three weeks I had lined up one week of sailing, to finally give it a try!
Now it wasn’t very easy to find an opportunity for this. My main goal was not to just pay up and go on some pleasure cruise, but rather join as an actual participant, preferably only paying for living costs. I spent some time on sites like crewseekers but wasn’t having much luck with my criteria of volunteering at little cost in the Baltic Sea during July.
An english gentleman whose trip seemed perfect, but had no more space for me, gave me a golden tip: I should try some German websites, as he saw German sailboats everywhere in the Baltic. Quite quickly I ended up on “Hand Gegen Koje”, which means “Hand for Berth”. The site is really quite good, and after a few more tries I managed to arrange a trip!
I took the train to Sundsvall, a town about 300km north of Stockholm. Incidentally this was also the furthest north I’d ever been in Sweden (and possibly ever)! The goal was to sail back to Stockholm over the course of a week, saving me having to fly or take a train back home.
I found the boat and met the owner, Tobias in the Sundsvall marina. Tobias had started 10 weeks ago in Germany, sailing around the complete Bothnian gulf. He was now on the return leg, with about 2-3 weeks left. The boat, Julius was a Bavaria 32 sailyacht that he’d chartered (rented) for 3 months. It made more sense for him to charter a boat than own his own, as he didn’t live near the sea in Germany.
He was dropping off his previous crew in Sundsvall and bringing me and an old sailing friend of his on board as replacement. There wasn’t always crew with him, at the top of the gulf he even sailed alone for 3 weeks. Most people joining him had found him through HandGegenKoje and stayed for a week or so, though a girl that was supposed to be there had opted to go home after her luggage was lost by the airline on the way there.
Since I arrived in the evening we’d only set sail the next morning. That meant 5 people would be sleeping on the boat for one night. Since there are 2 isolated berths with 2 beds each (well more like one and a half for the stern berth), me and Tim, the other new crew member, slept on the living area couches folded into beds.
Comfort on this boat was actually pretty good. It’s like a decent RV, just with some strange curves to it and a bit less space overall. There was a toilet onboard, a small desk with space for charts, a tiny kitchen and fridge and a large seating area with space for six people. Not bad!
The previous two crew members left for the airport the next morning, and we set sail. Well, we didn’t actually set off sailing since there was barely any wind. Tobias had to use the engine for the first few hours, which he said was a bit boring. I was excited to just get going but I could see what he meant.
Once the wind got better, the sails did come out. I have to say, it was quite a special moment to see the sails come out, flapping and then being blown tight, with the silence as a big contrast to the previous constant engine noise. Bringing the sails out had to be coordinated properly, but since all blocks are easily within reach in the stern area it just takes a few moments of focused, sequenced actions. As a total sailing noob I had imagined this to involve shouting unkown to me sailing terms, running around pulling and tying ropes all while trying to keep the boat under control. In reality you just work about two ropes per sail (there were two sails on the boat) and then mainly sit back and adjust a bit if the wind changes.
Tobias offered me the wheel after a while, which I wouldn’t pass up on of course! It’s interesting to steer the boat: waves, wind gusts and direction changes constantly affect the boats heading, which you then try to correct with steering that has a few seconds delay in response.
The boat was really well equipped, there were about 5 separate screens with instruments showing things like a map, heading, wind direction and speed, water speed (that one was broken though). The boat even has an autopilot where it steers itself to stay on course. I felt it did a much better job at that than I did, but Tobias said it can’t really handle (big) wind direction changes, so that requires human hands. On the other hand, since there wasn’t that much else to do while sailing smooth seas, I suspect steering the boat also just gives you something to do.
After some six hours on the boat we headed for a little fishing harbour called Mellanfjärden. Going into harbor means you go around preparing ropes, fenders and in my case I was always the one getting ready with the bouy hook, to attach the boat to a mooring bouy. Tobias had a bit of trouble maneuvering the boat into a mooring position and I could tell docking the boat was by far the hardest part of it all. He could use the engine and reverse, which had me thinking it must have been many times more difficult in an age when there were just sails…
Mellanfjärden was really lovely. I’d never been in a place like this before, or maybe it just felt much more special coming in from the sea. The seaside was lined with these fun little boathouse combined with summerhouses. People would dock and store their boats right underneath their bedrooms.
Unfortunately, the next day a big storm was passing over. We woke up to grey skies and incessant rain, a big difference with the previous evening. This meant we had to stay there and wait until the next day, it was just too dangerous to go out that day.
I took the opportunity to work on the blog and walk around photographing the town a bit. I also wanted to go see the waves you can see in the picture at the left. Tobias and Tim seemed quite unsettled by them.
I managed to capture them quite well, and while they don’t seem docile at all, I remember thinking it didn’t seem that bad when watching those waves. I probably had something like The Perfect Storm in mind.
The next day however, when we set out, the sea was still swelling from the previous days storm. I never realized how these effects would last longer than the actual storm. The waves were smaller but still up to a meter, the boat could handle that fine. I had a bit more trouble with it and got a bit seasick. Not the heaving-over-the-railing type of seasick, but enough to make me feel really funny and taking my eyes off the horizon for even 5 seconds felt like it would lead to the really bad kind of seasick.
I found out that just lying down below deck and closing my eyes, even falling asleep, made me feel much better. It was strange how I’d lie down feeling quite bad, only to wake up feeling fine and then going back to feeling sick when I went back up on deck. It felt to me like the big issue for me is the disconnect between feeling motion, but not seeing motion. As soon as I close my eyes, I don’t see anything anymore and the feeling takes over; there’s no more conflicting information and things get better. The following days I also got better with handling it, but perhaps the sea was just calmer…
That day the sea got better and we decided to head for a natural harbor; a large bay on an island called Agö.
Agö was really amazing, the bay was big and surrounded by forest, there was a pier and on the island there were a lot of facilities, including a barbecue place that we made use of. I normally try to eat vegetarian these days, but being proper germans they mostly brought meat and sausages. They also explained to me how swedish “grillkorv” suasages are really terrible, but that luckily they had found a Lidl in Sundsvall which stocked proper German Bratwurst sausages!
There was also a wood fired sauna on the island. An older Finnish couple that had also docked went straight for the sauna as soon as they had tied up their boat. They said we should use it after them. I was a bit tired from being seasick most of the day and had a suspicion these Finns would be pretty hardcore, probably firing the sauna up to some hellish temperature, so I passed and went to bed. Tobias and Tim used it and told me it must have been 100 degrees Celsius in there!
I really liked i there, it all felt so pristine, the facilities were well maintained, there were only 2 other boats, one of which didn’t dock or go on land even and I was just amazed at this great place that could only ever be reached by boat. Tobias said it was the best place he had stayed since he started his whole trip, I could see why.
We sailed for a few more days, including one marathon day with 12 hours of non stop sailing. It wasn’t all technically sailing though, as we had a lack of wind at times. I never realized how weather-dependent this way of transport was. I knew you could sail into the wind by zig-zagging, but you kind of want to keep a minimum speed to ensure you even get anywhere and that’s not always possible. Things like too much wind, too little wind, wind from the wrong direction as well as waves can all mess up your plans!
Tim did explain to me the boat was a bit of a caravan; heavy and slow. I’d seen a lot of boats sail past us, all using the same wind as us. Smaller boats, older boats, bigger boats; they all had a reason for being faster such as better hull shape, better sails, bigger sails, etc.. There was even an old Finnish guy (who’d mostly be seen smoking a pipe) in an older, smaller, simpler boat that seemed to always pass us. He’d leave later and arrive sooner on several days! I thought it was pretty funny how every time our imagined rival, “Der Finne”, would sail past us they pulled out the binoculars and peered at his boat.
We docked at a harbor called Östergrund, and again the dilemma of weather came up. I can’t really remember it that well, but the problem was with waves, wind from the wrong direction and potential lighting (very bad for a sailboat in the open) meaning we couldn’t cover much distance or had to even stay in. It had become clear we wouldn’t make Stockholm by the time I had to be back, and the next day we would be in between the two spots where it was easy to take the bus or train home. Since I couldn’t get home from some uninhabited island, I opted to go home a bit earlier than anticipated.
So did I like it in the end? Yes, I’m pretty happy I tried it, but it’s not like the romantic notion I might of had of it. The dependence on natural factors and the already slow pace of sailing (5-6 knots, 12-15 km/h is a very good speed) coupled with not being able to stop or pause anywhere interesting, make the journeys a bit boring often. I couldn’t help thinking that traveling by motorcycle is much more exciting to me. There you’re actively doing something the whole time, you see more than just sea and you can stop and rest or look at something whenever you want.
On the other hand, the destinations really stood out to me. Like I mentioned before: coming in from the sea makes a town or harbor seem much more special compared to being on the road, and you really end up in places you might not normally visit as a land-dweller. I also really like the thought of traveling in a way where you’re powered just by nature, completely carbon-neutral, despite that not being the case all the time.
It wasn’t that cheap: I paid 250 euro for a week to help Tobias cover the charter costs; but then again, looking at commercial tours and cruise prices that really wasn’t bad and I’m sure Tobias paid triple or quadruple of that weekly for the boat. I would do it again in the future if I had the chance, but I’d really opt for a true volunteering arrangement then, with somebody who owns his own boat. Meanwhile I’ll keep riding my bike!