A Baltic Breeze – high summer cruising

If you keep your boat in the UK then high summer is the time to undertake a trip to the Baltic. Neil Matson had that exact plan…

The idea of heading for the Baltic started while cruising the Rias of NW Spain in 2016 where we met Frank and Tine from Hamburg who said, “You must sail the Baltic, it’s beautiful”. In 2017 we met Bert from Amsterdam who said exactly the same hing. So, at the beginning of May I set off sailing solo on my Dufour 34 Performance, allowing myself plenty of time to get to Lubeck in the Baltic before meeting my wife, Liz, who would fly into Hamburg to join me. In 24 years of solo/shorthanded offshore racing and cruising from my home in the West Country I had never sailed beyond the Straits of Dover.

I had a number of options for sailing to the Baltic. One was to sail along the south coast, across the Thames Estuary, then cross the North Sea to the Netherlands and take the Staandemast Route from Ijmuiden or Den Helder to Delfzijl, thereby avoiding a good part of the (sometimes difficult) North Sea, and then into the Baltic via the Kiel Canal. Another was to cross to Ijmuiden or Den Helder, outside the Frisian Islands to Cuxhaven, then the Baltic via the Kiel Canal. A third was to cross the Channel before the Thames Estuary, coastal sail along France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and then the Kiel Canal again. After careful study, I ruled out the Staandemast Route due to inconsistencies in advice as to whether, with my 2.1m draft, I could get through – I later found out that part of the route was closed for bridge repairs for nearly three months that summer, always check! Which of the other two routes to take I wasn’t sure when I set off, but I was prepared for both.

Crossing the channel

Keeping an eye on shipping as we cross the channel

After brief stops in Cowes and Brighton I started tacking along the coast in a pleasant NE3, planning to reach Dover and consider options there. However, a tack out of Rye Bay opened up the opportunity of an excellent reach across the Channel to Boulogne, so I took it. Arriving off Boulogne in the early evening, with a pleasant though dying breeze, I continued through the night, taking care through the shoals off Northern France. By the following late afternoon, with a mixture of sailing and motor sailing, I had passed France and Belgium and came into Breskens in the Netherlands and the pleasant marina there. All had gone well and it felt that I had made some good progress.

A Baltic tall ship

A couple of days in Breskens and then a good sail past Europort, checking in with the port authorities as required before crossing the port entrance, and on to Scheveningen near Den Haag. From there a day sail past Ijmuiden and Den Helder to Oudeschild on Texel island, the start of the Frisian Island chain. With my draft of 2.1m I had intended to continue sailing outside the Frisian Islands rather than take the inland waters. However, a chance encounter with a very helpful Dutch couple moored next to me in Oudeschild, together with a poor forecast in the North Sea, tempted me to take the inshore passage to Vlieland. This was via the Scheurrak passage and my new Dutch friends emphasised the need to be at buoys 47 and 48 at high water to ensure a safe passage. Stronger than expected headwinds and a consequent boat-slowing chop delayed my arrival at these buoys by 20 minutes and this was enough to give me some anxious minutes with little water under the keel. The lessons were: be very careful with tides in Dutch waters, and follow the buoys and not the charts – there is so much silting and shifting of sand in Dutch waters that charts are out of date almost as soon as they are published whereas the coastguard are regularly checking and moving buoys to give the best passage (if in doubt, call the coastguard – they are extremely helpful).

Dutch delights

With my folding bike deployed, Vlieland and its marina were a delight. I was getting used to the sheer intensity of local sailing and the variety of craft, with the Dutch barges particularly impressive. The next stop was Lauwersoog where a long entrance and a badly silted “new” marina caused some difficulties. From there, via a brisk overnight sail, I timed my entrance to the Elbe on a flood tide and put into Cuxhaven, poised for the Kiel Canal.

With another flood tide I locked into the Kiel Canal (negotiating the extremely low pontoon that you have to tie onto in the lock) and spent the night in Brunsbuttel next to the locks. The Kiel Canal was fascinating, what a piece of engineering! I had already been impressed by the sheer amount of shipping in the North Sea and could hardly believe the size and number of ships passing through the Canal in both directions (nor how close they pass you!). Exiting the Canal, I made my way to Laboe at the entrance to Kiel, then onto Orth on Fehmann Island, Travelmunde and then inland to Lubeck where, having completed nearly 780nm, Liz joined me.

Into the Baltic

Lubeck, with a marina close to the city centre, was very pleasant. Leaving there we headed north via Kuhlungsborn and into Stralsund next to Rugen Island. An old Hansa town, Stralsund was friendly and full of fascinating history. The main marina was a short walk into town and there were pleasant beaches nearby. After a few days we continued to Sassnitz on the east coast of Rugen Island and there congratulated ourselves on managing our first box berth (doing better than some fully crewed local boats!).

The next stop was a 70nm beam reach across to Sveneka, a small harbour on the Danish island of Bonholm. Bonholm is advertised as the Baltic Island with the most sunshine. Unfortunately it rained for one of the two days we were there! We crossed to the nearby small island of Christianso with its natural harbour and peaceful setting, though in the past it had been a place of exile and one of its reluctant inhabitants included the Danish theologian, scholar and political activist J.J. Dampe from 1826 to 1841.

The Crane, part of the Polish Maritime Museum in Gdańsk

An overnight motorsail east brought us to Poland and the peninsula of Hel. This was fascinating with, like much of the eastern Baltic, a mixture of long beaches, historical buildings, and relics of its Soviet era. We had a short sail from Hel to Gdansk, past the memorial at Westerplatte (ensign duly dipped in respect) and mile upon mile of busy shipyards. The marina was right in the heart of this vibrant city, 80% of which had been destroyed during WWII. Large areas of historical buildings had been painstakingly restored, others were still being restored, and these stood alongside modern buildings and redevelopments. There was history throughout the city, along with a sense of tragedy from its near destruction during WWII and as exemplified by the imposing and impressive WWII museum. There was also a sense of energy and purpose as it continues to strive to rebuild and develop itself. We were impressed. From Gdansk we sailed a short distance to the very different fashionable town of Sopot and sat out a couple of days of strong winds.

The sea area off the Russian enclave of Kalingrad sits across the direct route between Sopot and Lithuania. We had heard many tales of difficulty in crossing this area due to it being frequently closed off for Russian naval manoeuvres – and being firmly patrolled during such times. The Swedish Navtex service was invaluable in giving up to date information on times of closure – dates and duration of closure can change at very short notice. We made it through but it entailed an unpleasant overnight sail with strong headwinds and an uncomfortable sea. Arriving at the port of Klaipeda in Lithuania, we had a berth in the Castle Marina and were made welcome by the harbourmaster there. A daytrip, by local ferry and bus, to the sands at Nida was excellent.

The isolated island of Utklippan, Sweden

Wanted, a southerly wind

Next stop, another country – Latvia, with a brief stop in Liepaja and then on to Ventspils. Since leaving Sopot, we had been experiencing increasingly stronger and cooler northerly headwinds. The summer of 2018 was unusual throughout Europe, and the Baltic was no exception: during the summer the winds are usually south westerly so the consistent northerly winds were not expected. In Ventspils we were weather bound for six days as the northerly winds reached gale force with rain. We took the opportunity to travel inland a short distance to Kuldiga, a peaceful small medieval town boasting the widest waterfall in Europe. At the first weather opportunity, however, with the wind continuing to be northerly and with an eye on how much time we had left, we left Ventspils and reluctantly turned west rather than pushing on to Estonia. As if to validate our decision the sun began to shine and we enjoyed a glorious 80nm reach across to the Swedish island of Gotland, arriving in the Farosund at 03.00 the following morning – we were so far north that it now barely became dark. We moored on a rickety pontoon in a small marina and enjoyed the spectacular scenery.

Homeward bound

In a way, we were now heading “home” although there was still plenty to see and do as we sailed from Faro to Lickershamn and then onto the island of Oland and a superb quiet anchorage and abandoned quay at Grankulla-viken. From there we sailed across and into the famous Swedish Archipelago – a myriad of small islands, anchorages, and harbours. The local saying is that, “There are two types of sailors in the Baltic. Those who have hit rocks and those who haven’t hit rocks … yet!” Fortunately we were travelling very slowly under engine (looking for a transit line!) when we nudged our submerged rock – it was not on the charts (paper or electronic) but it would be extraordinarily difficult for every rock to be mapped (there are “safe passages” shown on charts and used by ferries, commercial craft and leisure boats, and we used these, but in such surroundings it’s almost a “must” to do a little exploring!). As a precaution we were lifted out in Kalmar and a visual inspection showed superficial scratches on the bottom of the keel. Suitably chastened but reassured, we resumed our travels.

Kalmar was impressive, especially the Castle. There were more islands to (carefully!) explore as we rounded the south of Sweden and headed west. The small isolated island of Utiklapan, at first used as a place of refuge by fishermen and then fortified, was very atmospheric with its natural harbour and lighthouse.

We continued west through small islands with stops on Aspo near Karlskrona, Tarno, Hano, Simrishamn, and Ystad before passing through the canal at Hollviken and entering Danish waters. Dragor was a very pleasant harbour, a short bus ride from Copenhagen. Then heading SSW along the Danish coast via Rodvig, Klintholm, the Femo Sund, and Bagenkop to Kappeln in Germany. Kappeln is inside the entrance to the River Schlei, and breathes boat building, especially wooden boats. The river and its towns were very pleasant and peaceful, the scenery stunning. From there it was a day sail to Kiel. Liz returned home and two friends, Steve and Rachel, joined me for the journey home.

We left Kiel towards the latter half of August and there was already a sense that the Baltic summer was coming to an end with more variable weather conditions. Making full use of weather windows, we reached Vlieland where we sat out some bad weather and then, with further poor weather predicted, we cut inland, sailing from Vlieland to Harlingen and locking into the remarkable inland waters of the Ijsselmeer and, after a brief stop in Enkhuizen, the Markermeer. We sailed through Amsterdam, exited into the North Sea at Ijmuiden and stopped at Scheveningen. A superb sail from Scheveningen along the coasts of Belgium and Northern France, continuing through the night to the following day, brought us to Brighton and recovery time. From there, via Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, we continued to my mooring in Devon.

The cruise had started at the beginning of May and was completed at the beginning of September, covered some 2900nm including 1400nm of Baltic sailing, and involved stays in seven countries. The Baltic is steeped in history, has spectacular scenery, wonderful people, different cultures and has a real pride in its maritime traditions with opportunities for ships/boats of all shapes and sizes. From busy city marinas to isolated anchorages there is much to appreciate and enjoy. Just be careful of perhaps more shallow waters than we are used to (unless you are an East coast sailor) and … rocks!

This Article was originally sourced from Sailing Today and can be directly viewed here.