Grand tour of the Baltic

Cruising in the Baltic Sea is certainly a far cry from our recent adventures in the high North Atlantic and Arctic waters. There are no icebergs, no mountains, no tides, and almost no salt. There are lots of countries, lots of towns, lots of cell towers, lots of shipping, lots of history, and lots of shoals. But a tour of the Baltic region can nonetheless be an interesting and enjoyable undertaking.

For the summer of 2009 we set aside a total of about eight weeks for an ambitious, eight-nation, counterclockwise tour of the Baltic on our J-46 Cielita, starting and ending in Denmark and including Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Sweden, from mid-July to mid-September. We spent the previous winter months rounding up charts, books, and friends for crew; and in early July we headed for the Walsteds yard near Svendborg, Denmark, where the boat had spent the winter on the hard.

Avoiding St. Petersburg
We had originally contemplated the idea of sailing into St. Petersburg, Russia, at some point, but abandoned this plan for a variety of reasons. First of all, St. Petersburg is a long way up the Gulf of Finland, with nothing to see along the way and heavy shipping to avoid. But more importantly, visas are required to enter Russia, and these have to be applied for way in advance for all the crew that might happen to be aboard at the time, which wasn’t really known that far in advance. Furthermore, the boat itself has to have a special invitation from an authorized yacht club in order to enter Russian waters, and an agent has to be lined up in advance to arrange dockage. And on top of all that, we were told that security is a serious problem in St. Petersburg, requiring someone to stay on board at all times. So what was the point in going there!

After a day or two of cruising in eastern Denmark, we headed for the island of Rügen in the former East Germany, and from there we went north up the eastern Baltic with brief stops in Poland and Lithuania &mdash carefully avoiding crossing into Russian waters off Kaliningrad &mdash and several stops in Latvia and Estonia, before crossing the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki. There we left the boat for about 10 days for a brief return home to the United States, before continuing on to the west along the Finnish coast and through the Turku, Åland, and Stockholm archipelagos to Stockholm itself. The final two weeks were spent going south along the Swedish coast, out to Visby on the island of Gotland, to Öland Island, to Kalmar, out to Bornholm Island, and back to the yard in Denmark. We had a total of five scheduled crew changes along the way and covered a total of about 2,100 nautical miles as recorded by the GPS.

Thin waters
The eastern Baltic region is flat &mdash very flat. So there’s not much to look at along the comparatively straight eastern Baltic shores except for endless tree-lined beaches, which can only be seen at great distance, if at all, due to the shoal waters that extend quite far out. In fact, the entire Baltic Sea is remarkably shallow. The deepest water we saw anywhere was less than a hundred fathoms, and much of the time we were sailing in water less than thirty feet deep &mdash sometimes a lot less!

Much of the eastern Baltic is a giant repository of glacial till left over from the last ice age, including all the erratics or giant boulders deposited when the glaciers retreated. The result is that, in the eastern Baltic anyway, there are no natural harbors one can pull into and drop the hook. In Estonia, for example, what at first glance look like lots of nifty gunkholes turn out to be unapproachably shallow harbors full of rocks. Between Svendborg and the Finnish coast we never once dropped anchor. We had two nights at sea. All the other nights during our first three weeks were spent in towns and cities tied up to floats and jetties that passed for marinas &mdash and sometimes actually were.

But while visiting the former Soviet states along the eastern side of the Baltic, we were struck by how far these countries have apparently come since they gained their independence less than 20 years ago and kicked their Russian military rulers out. East Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have all done a remarkable job of rebuilding, renovating, modernizing, and developing their infrastructures. They all seem to have embraced entrepreneurship and modern technology, while both renewing their historic and cultural traditions and welcoming tourism and trade with the west. Considering how these countries were devastated by bombs and killings and deportations during WWII, and then suffered under the inefficiencies and repressions of communist rule, what they have accomplished in less than two decades is truly remarkable.

Little beareaucratic hassle
For the voyaging sailor moving from town to town along these eastern Baltic countries, this renewal is unexpectedly gratifying. For one thing, they are all now members of the European Union. Although none except for Germany have yet adopted the euro for their currency, goods and services seem to be moving freely between them. And we encountered surprisingly little bureaucratic hassle on entering and departing each country. Although there did seem to be some confusion in certain instances regarding who was actually in charge of customs and immigration concerning foreign yachts; in only two of the aforementioned Baltic states were we asked to even show our passports or submit a crew list. We were never asked to show our ship’s papers or any evidence of insurance, we were never boarded or searched, and we were never even asked if we had anything to declare. The only common interest seemed to be in where we had come from last and where we were going next. As a result, we developed a rather relaxed attitude about the whole matter of clearing in and clearing out.

Compared to the southeastern Baltic coasts, the Finnish and Swedish coasts are a very different matter. Here we found idyllic cruising grounds with many thousands of islands, smooth granite shores, lovely pine and deciduous forests, tidy summer homes, well-marked channels, well-maintained marinas, “guest harbors” with saunas, and endless gunkholes in which to drop anchor or tie up bow-in to rings on the shore. One can (and many do) spend a lifetime exploring these archipelagos. In many respects they look like Maine at high tide. It’s like weaving through the Merchants Row in mid-coast Maine, but one that’s hundreds of miles long with literally tens of thousands of islands that are only sparsely inhabited.

There are plenty of towns along both the Finnish and Swedish coasts, almost all of which have facilities for yachts, so getting provisions and fuel and water is a very easy matter. Propane to refill U.S. tanks is a different matter. It’s essentially impossible. Thus, it is wise to have one’s propane system refitted to accommodate Scandinavian propane tanks, which can be easily exchanged when empty.

Tideless mooring

Yachting in both Finland and Sweden is extremely popular, although the season is very short. Most sailors apparently stop cruising by mid-August, which is when the schools start. Nonetheless, there are a huge number of sailboats, almost all of which are in the 35- to 40-foot range. The standard means for docking is to pick up a mooring or drop an anchor off the stern and tie up bow-in to a float or a dock or the granite shore. Mooring buoys for doing this are prolific and easy to use, particularly if one has a “mooring hook” to snare the nicely elevated ring as it goes by, and to which is attached a long line for securing the stern. Of course this system works only because there is no tide. The water level is always essentially the same, so one can tie up to the shore or a fixed pier with tight lines and a snug mooring astern without difficulty. And everyone does. Thus, a large number of boats can be tightly parked head-on. It is therefore customary and prudent to deploy plenty of fenders on both sides, whether you are the first to arrive or the last.

When crossing almost any section of the Baltic Sea, one encounters major shipping lanes, and heavy shipping can be a real hazard. Huge containerships and tankers and ferries are on the move in large numbers at high speeds day and night. An automatic identification system (AIS) receiver is invaluable for helping to keep track of all the commercial traffic and to avoid getting run over. We wished we had our own AIS transponder to let them know we were out there too, but at least we had a receiver linked to our electronic chart on the computer which worked beautifully. Shipping in the entire Baltic region is carefully monitored by all nine nations, and the big ships stick to the appropriate lanes for the most part. Nonetheless, it is critical to keep a careful lookout when anywhere near the lanes and especially when crossing them.

Lack of marine life
One of the great disappointments of the Baltic Sea is the lack of marine life. It is essentially dead. It has been fished out. As a result, the fishing industry is virtually dead as well. There are a few fish farms, but no shell fish of any kind. And there are very few sea birds. There are a few cormorants, fewer ducks, and even fewer seagulls. The only birds one sees in great numbers are swans, lots of swans. But we didn’t see a single sea mammal on the entire voyage: no whales, no dolphins, and no seals &mdash a sad state of affairs.

The winds are quite variable. In the open Baltic there can be strong winds, or occasionally none at all. Sailing in the intricate passages of the various archipelagos on the Finnish and Swedish coasts can be very fluky and often requires a power assist. There is no real prevailing wind, although we probably encountered more southwesterlies than anything else. The weather, and hence the wind, is influenced primarily by the series of lows that come across the North Atlantic at about 60 degrees north latitude and crash into the northern British Isles and southern Norway. If there is a high over northern Europe, these lows are pushed north. If not, they enter the Baltic. However, from early July to mid-September, we encountered very few gale force winds and no true storms. On the other hand, the weather predictions often seemed to under estimate the amount of wind, and we frequently experienced winds of 25 to 30 knots.

Relying on Navtex, Skymate and fax
Being able to download GRIB files predicting winds is certainly an advantage, but requires Internet access. For our purposes, we relied mainly on Navtex reports, SkyMate weather predictions, and weather faxes from Northwood (England) via SSB. There is an extensive network of VHF stations throughout the Baltic region, and these broadcast twice-daily weather forecasts in English, but for the most part these merely duplicated what we could read on the Navtex. At the end of the day, there’s nothing like going on deck and making your own weather prediction.

For the experienced voyager, navigation is pretty straightforward, provided one has good detailed charts. But keeping track of where you are in the vast and complex archipelagos of Finland and Sweden can be a real challenge. And many harbors and anchorages would be difficult or impossible with a boat drawing much more than six and a half feet. We relied heavily on electronic charts, although having good paper charts on board is obviously wise. There are good chart books for all the Finnish and Swedish archipelagos, as well as paper charts published by all the various Baltic countries and by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. But we found our electronic charts to be highly accurate and extremely helpful. The C-Map vector chips for our Furuno plotter were excellent.

In addition, we had both vector and raster charts downloaded for our Nobeltec VNS software to read on the computer. Interestingly, the vector charts from Passport World Charts were far more detailed than the raster charts for most of the Baltic, but oddly enough the reverse was true for Denmark. However, since this is a rapidly changing technology, anyone contemplating a cruise in the Baltic will need to adjust accordingly.

No significant fog
Visibility was generally very good. We encountered no significant fog anywhere in the Baltic. Since we had an AIS receiver for tracking the shipping, we rarely had any need to use our radar, although having a radar overlay on the GPS plotter can be a reassuring way of checking the accuracy of the GPS data. Temperatures in July and August were generally quite mild, between 60° and 70° F most of the time. And the water temperature varied between a low of 61° F and a high of 72° F, so one of the joys of anchorages in the archipelagos is a swim off the boat or off one of the docks in the outer “guest harbors,” especially after a sauna. We had no prolonged periods of rain, although brief showers were not uncommon, and thunderstorms can be an occasional threat. We had only one lay day due to strong headwinds, and we encountered no significant gales.

All in all, our tour of the Baltic was a great success. The people are friendly, the history is fascinating, there are many aids to navigation, and there are many facilities for yachts. The two sides of the Baltic are certainly very different from one another. The southeastern coastline is flat and shoal with only limited harbors, but the opportunity to visit these former Soviet states by sea is well worth the trouble. The northern (Finnish) and western (Swedish) Baltic are idyllic cruising grounds with limitless islands and gunkholes and some truly beautiful cities. As with all sailing adventures, careful planning ahead of time pays big dividends. For the yachtsman with the time and interest, our eight-nation tour is highly recommended.

Ned Cabot, a retired surgeon from the Boston area, sails aboard is J46 Cielita.

By Ocean Navigator