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“Have you sailed all the way from Australia?”

We were asked this question many, many times on our cruise around Scandinavia. Australian-flagged boats are rare on the scenic coasts of Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea. Such a pity, it is one of the world’s best cruising grounds offering stunning scenery, great sailing, superb facilities and the nicest people you could meet.

Gintonix

Our journey began at the X-Yachts yard in Haderslev, Denmark on a sunny day in early June when we took delivery of our boat, Gintonix. It had to have an X in the name didn’t it?

Andrew Parkes, the Australian X-Yachts agent, came from Sydney and met us at the yard. His help was invaluable in setting up our new pride and joy. After months of anticipation, we were absolutely delighted with our new Xc45.

It all came together wonderfully well. A short trip into Germany for provisions and fellow Sandringham YC member Mark Jones on board, we were soon on our way.

The plan

Our plan was to head north up Denmark’s Little Belt, cross the Kattegat to Sweden and then up Sweden’s west coast into Norway. After a short spell in Norway, we would backtrack to Gothenburg and navigate the Gota Canal: a 210 mile network of rivers, lakes and canals that traverses central Sweden to the Baltic Sea.

On our way

The weather held glorious when we slipped our berth at X-Yachts and motored down the fjord. Southern Denmark has beautiful rural countryside with rolling hills, farmland and forests surrounding the waterways.

The water inside the Little Belt is flat and, after two easy days of nice breezes on the beam, we berthed in the medieval town of Ebeltoft.

This was our springboard to cross the Kattegat, the 90 mile bight that separates Denmark and Sweden.

We crossed the Kattegat over a two day sail, overnighting at the island of Anholt. On the way we passed through a huge wind farm, hundreds of turbines, as far as we could see. It was a little eerie to sail amongst these monstrous structures.

Anholt is a lovely island famed for its white sand beaches. It is very popular with yachts crossing the Kattegat and there was a fun atmosphere with boats from all of the neighbouring countries.

Needless to say we had several visitors to our boat: had we sailed from Australia? Were we sailing back to Australia? The forerunner to many an excellent conversation.

Sweden’s west coast

We made landfall in Sweden in the harbour town of Varberg. This is a day’s sail south of Gothenburg and marks the beginning of spectacular west coast scenery.

We berthed at the Royal Gothenburg Sailing Club, who hoisted an Australian flag in our honour.

We farewelled Mark in Gothenburg. It had been great to have an extra pair of hands on board while we set the boat up, learned how everything worked and grappled with the differing berthing systems we encountered.

Our journey up Sweden’s west coast from Gothenburg saw mixed weather. Alternatively blustery showers then lovely sunshine. The temperature was mild throughout, we did not need our thermals or gloves, nor did we need the heaters we had bought in Germany.

The entire coast up to Norway, known as the Bohuslan, is heavily indented and protected by rugged granite islands. On even the most remote islands there are beautiful timber cottages, often with boats bobbing at docks below. These summer cottages are mostly in traditional style, painted in ochre or yellow. All proudly flew Swedish colours on their flagpoles.

This coast can be exposed to swell and strong winds from the North Sea but the islands provide sheltered waters. Tides and currents are negligible.

Between the islands there are are well-marked fairways, which allow yachts to thread nearly all the way to Norway, sometimes through very tight channels where it seemed that the rocks on either side must surely reach out and molest our keel. The granite boulders are steep too but we found the channel marking and charts, both paper and electronic, very reliable.

Along the way north one can choose to berth in numerous harbour towns, such as Marstrand, the west coast racing mecca, or anchor in remote coves. On this wild and rugged coast you are never far from a safe harbour.

It is an area that could be cruised for years without fear of boredom. The Swedes and their neighbours make the most of the short season. It is said that one in ten Swede owns a boat and the facilities to support them are excellent.

There are several fjords north of Gothenburg that reach deep inland, such as those encircling the island of Orust another yachting mecca. It is home to three of Sweden’s legendary yacht builders: Hallberg Rassy, Najad and Malo yachts.

In June the harbours were not too busy but we passed many boats heading south from Norway, the summer peak was almost on us.

Norway

We crossed into Norwegian waters and entered the Oslo Fjord with its racing fleets enjoying a sunny Saturday and a fresh breeze. Our destination was Fredrikstad, a pleasant town a few miles up Norway’s longest river and the site of Scandinavia’s best historic fortified town.

Fredrikstad is a customs clearing port. Norway is not a member of the EU so we needed Norwegian Customs stamps on our papers to comply with EU export rules. The Customs officers were a little bemused that we called in to see them and did not want to see our passports or any other paperwork; nor did they wish to inspect the boat. They kindly stamped the forms enabling us to buy the boat free of VAT and we left much impressed by the friendly Scandinavian bureaucracy.

This duty taken care of, we elected to visit Oslo by train as time was slipping away. Then, after a day or two doing boat jobs, Fredrikstad’s three bridges were opened for us and we headed south again, bound for Stromberg in Sweden and a rendezvous with our younger son Alistair and his mate Mitch.

By the end of June the daylight seemed endless. At midnight in Fredrikstad, a little higher than 59 degrees latitude, there was a soft twilight and no real darkness.

Into the Gota Canal system

After a few days we sailed into the Gota Alv river, right through busy Gothenburg.

In the city centre there is a large bridge carrying arterial roads, which was soon followed by a busy rail bridge. Our boat’s air draft exceeded the bridges' clearance of 18 metres. Within a few minutes of our call on VHF09, road traffic was stopped and the bridges were raised. So impressive for just one yacht.

As we made our way upstream, industrial suburbs gave way to green farmland. We anchored for our first night up-river.

The next day we encountered the first of six big locks that serve the Trollhattan canal. These were the first locks we had ever tackled and they seemed huge! They each rise about 8m and are large enough to carry seagoing freighters.

We were prepared and successfully attached ourselves to the smoother port side wall of each lock. When locking upstream, the starboard walls are very rough and rocky and you would be lucky to avoid damage if forced to that side.

The water fills these locks gently but you rise quickly and the major task when ascending is to move your lines progressively up the series of iron horns built into the walls. We were pleased to have the boys managing our lines.

Plenty of fenders are required and we found a fender board to be invaluable. We particularly enjoyed our cocktail hour!

After the Trollhattan Canal we reached Lake Vanern. This lake is one of Europe’s largest, 35 miles wide and offers terrific sailing and scenery. There is an archipelago midway across the lake with some of the loveliest natural anchorages we saw on the cruise. There is a reliable summer land breeze, we got 25 knots to 30 knots over two days crossing to Mariestad and surfed along under headsail alone.

We loved lake sailing: fresh water, lively breezes and nice scenery. We spent a couple of days enjoying lakeside Mariestad, which had a nice summer holiday buzz. We berthed along the boardwalk promenade.

Had we sailed all the way from Australia, asked many a passerby? Others simply called out: “welcome to Sweden!”

Thus far in the trip our experience with Swedish restaurants had been a mixed bag. In Mariestad we were more adventurous, going to a modern Indian fusion restaurant. We were rather startled to see curried kangaroo on the menu, which the proprietor assured us was a popular choice. We enjoyed our meal, sans roo.

We farewelled Alistair and Mitch in Mariestad; for them the bright lights of Prague and Venice beckoned. One of the positives about cruising this region is the ease of arranging crew changes, the rail and bus network is excellent.

Now Ann and I were on our own and the 58 locks of the Gota Canal proper awaited!

The first of these locks was at Sjotorp. From here the locks are much smaller, they rise or fall approximately 3m each and fit a maximum of four boats. The water rushes in the front gates forcefully, so it is essential to be able to hold the bow of the boat close to the wall when ascending.

Our first lock went well and Ann was mightily relieved. She had worried that she would struggle without help, but she handled it with aplomb.

We had seven fenders on board but, if we did it again, we would take more as fenders are needed both at the waterline and the gunwale. The fender board we had scavenged was especially useful.

The Gota Canal proper is the section that runs eastwards from Sjotorp. It was built after the Napoleonic wars, largely by hand and was an amazing feat of engineering for its time. These days it is purely a summer tourist facility. Apart from private boats it is plied by historic tourist ferries who have right of way.

The canal is sometimes barely wide enough for two boats to pass so, when encountering a ferry around a tight bend, quick reactions to its sound signals are required. It is said to have a minimum depth of 2.5m at its centre, but can be less at the sides. We drew 2.2m and had no problems.

When entering the Gota Canal at Sjotorp, a fee of almost AU$1,400 was payable for a 45 footer, which is not cheap but it includes the use of all of the canal’s 21 marinas for up to five days each.

After Sjotorp there were two more lakes: stunning Lake Vikken with its wild alpine scenery and Lake Vattern. After 16 ascending locks in one day – busy – we passed the highest point at 92m above sea level.

This brought us to our next challenge: a fixed bridge with a charted clearance of 22m. Our air draft is 21.65m before masthead gear, 22.3m all up. Did I need to climb the mast to remove the gear? How accurate was the stated clearance?

Before the trip we had joined the UK based Cruising Association, which we highly recommend. E-mails from their local representative had given me confidence that there was sufficient margin in the stated bridge heights for us to safely pass underneath and so it proved. We passed unscathed in calm conditions, moving very slowly, holding our breath and not daring to look up!

Once through the lakes there are three castles to visit as the Gota Canal meanders through idyllic countryside. The scenery is gorgeous with the canalside path plied by cyclists and hikers. Many of whom wanted to know: “had we sailed all the way from Australia?”

The locks are all staffed by young lock keepers, mostly students doing summer jobs who were, without exception, friendly, helpful and proficient.

There were 58 locks and lots more low bridges, all of which opened on demand. On the canal and its approaches the bridges are remotely controlled. You motor slowly up to the bridge so that you can be seen on the CCTV, a white light will illuminate when you have been seen and, shortly thereafter, the bridge will open.

Along the way there are numerous canalside harbours all with good facilities, restaurants, shops and a fun atmosphere. A floating sauna enjoyed with new Swedish friends was a highlight.

14 days and 210 miles after passing through Gothenburg we left the canal at Mem and entered the Baltic Sea proper. The canal system, river, lakes and canals, was a wonderful experience that we thoroughly recommend.

The Blue Coast

Mem to Stockholm is approximately 60 miles as the crow flies but this section of the Baltic, known as the Blue Coast, contains much to see. It too is heavily indented, with a myriad of small islands and gorgeous scenery.

Sweden goes on vacation en-masse from early July until mid-August and boating is immensely popular, so the marinas were very busy. But there are so many sheltered natural anchorages if you prefer.

The safe natural anchorages are well-identified in local pilot guides and many of them have composting toilets and garbage disposal. Entry into these delightful spots requires slow and careful pilotage as rocks are an ever-present danger. If you have a grounding in northern Sweden, it will not be sand you hit!

Most locals like to moor to the shore, dropping a stern anchor a few boat lengths out then tie the bow to rocks or trees. With a 45 foot boat and only two of us, we preferred to drop the bower anchor and swing. The holding was good in heavy mud.

We found the local boaters in these anchorages very considerate and respectful of the surroundings, there was no loud music or raucous behaviour. The water was clean and warm enough to enjoy swimming, the boat instrument said 21° Celsius with low salinity.

Stockholm and its archipelago

We made our way up to Stockholm and berthed at the Royal Swedish Yacht Club’s marina in suburban Saltsjobaden. This was a busy spot, but a berth was found for us and we tied up for four nights.

The marina had a nice dockside bar and grill and, with perfect summer weather, everyone was relaxed and happy. The marina adjoins a light rail terminal, for easy trips into Stockholm.

Stockholm’s Gamla Stan (old town) is lovely and there are many attractions to visit. A highlight was the wreck of the Wasa, a royal galleon that sunk when launched almost 400 years ago, with a size and beauty that cannot fail to impress.

Stockholm sits to the west of a big archipelago, containing literally thousands of islands with wild, unspoilt scenery. Safe, sheltered sailing and great facilities are just on the doorstep of the lucky Stockholmers and they make the most of it.

There are well-marked fairways on the main routes, but look out for large ferries who have right of way. However the best places are ‘off piste’, demanding careful pilotage. Again, local pilot guides are essential. Some have English text but most do not. The chartlets and aerial photos are perfectly clear without the text, showing the hazards and recommended tracks.

We had no fixed plan for the archipelago, we spent about ten days in this region, mostly at anchor in a variety of lovely spots.

Heading south

We picked up our friend Pat O’Brien at Kalmar after meandering down the Blue Coast, stopping at places such as Nynashamn, Vastervik and the island of Oland. By now it was late summer, the weather continued fine although we were plagued by fresh breezes right on the nose. We did a lot of motoring on this trip!

With Pat on board we headed south. Beyond Kalmar the topography changed to open coastline with fewer harbours or anchorages. The rocky islands gave way to sandy shores and deciduous vegetation.

The harbours now tended to combine fishing fleets and leisure sailors and some of them were quite quirky. We had some terrific fish dinners: rich seafood soups and stews and a variety of both smoked and fresh fish.

We crossed the Hano Bugt (bight) to the small island of Hano on our way to Sweden’s south east cape. The small harbour was full when we arrived so we rafted to a Dutch boat of similar size to ours. We enjoyed post-dinner drinks with our neighbours.

We may have been a bad influence as they had never previously tried single malt. Oops.

Rounding Sweden’s south east cape, we came to the town of Ystad and met our Dutch friends again. This time we enjoyed their malt! While there, a journalist from the local paper arrived to interview us about our voyage from Australia. He left disappointed.

Back in Denmark

We left Ystad for Denmark’s Klintholm and, after a pleasant day’s sail, the dramatic chalk cliffs of Denmark’s island of Mon hove into view. We were on our last lap now.

Klintholm was followed by Gedser and Bagenkop, both nice harbours next to beaches and, with the weather still hot and sunny, swimming in Baltic water of 21° was surprisingly pleasant.

From Bagenkop we had a 35 mile run to Sonderborg, after a brief foray into German waters. Sonderborg has a lovely historic waterfront. There was a short thunderstorm and, as we were chatting to a passerby (“had we sailed from Australia?”) there was a really close lightning strike. A near miss thankfully.

We were now close to the home of X-Yachts and decided to spend the last night of our cruise at anchor, what a time and place to finish!

Dyvig was host to a regatta for historic 12m yachts. After sailing past the Danish Royal Yacht we were treated to the sight of these lovely former Americas Cup class yachts returning to harbour. A more graceful sight is hard to imagine.

So, after three months afloat, 1700 miles on the log and a lifetime of wonderful memories, we motored back up the fjord to the X-Yachts yard in Haderslev to prepare the boat for her winter haulout, with Pat’s help. Gintonix is now tucked up in a shed at the factory, awaiting next year’s voyage.

Scandinavian berthing

If you cruise Scandinavia you will encounter a variety of berthing.

In Denmark and Germany, stern-to berthing in box berths is usual. Sometimes the boxes are narrow but the posts usually have a bit of ‘give’; there is a reason Scandinavian boats all have rubbing strips!

In Sweden, space is at a premium and boats usually moor bows-to. Mooring buoys are often laid a couple of boat lengths from the berth.

Occasionally we found Med-style lazy lines, while at other times it was necessary to drop a kedge anchor on the approach to the dock. This is also the method used when mooring bows-to against rocks on shore.

For larger boats, alongside-mooring is often available. In the canals, along-side is the norm.

Everyone helps each other. We were two up most of the time on a 45 footer and whenever we needed a helping hand it was always freely offered. But how we love our bow thruster!

Most marinas have clearly signposted guest sections. Some private marinas show a green plaque where an owner has made the berth available to visitors. Conversely a red plaque signifies you may not enter.

What’s to like about Scandinavia?

It is a glorious cruising ground. It offers safe sailing, good breezes, no tide, no ocean swell, minimal salinity, pleasant temperature, excellent navigation aids, courteous and friendly fellow boaters and first class facilities.

The scenery is spectacular. The choice and beauty of anchorages is without compare.

The weather was mostly sunny and mild. In three months, we did not experience winds higher than 30 knots, seldom exceeding 20kt.

You are never far from a safe harbour. The marinas and town harbours are prolific with secure docking, good showers, toilets and laundries, convivial restaurants and bars, close to shopping and transport facilities.

Harbour dues were generally around AU$60 per night for a boat between 12m and 15m, a few kroner more if you choose shore power, usually including wifi.

In the most popular harbours closer to Stockholm at the peak of summer, the cost was closer to AU$90 per night. Still much cheaper than the Med!

Everyone speaks English. Your fellow sailors will be friendly, helpful and courteous.

There is no red tape. You do not need to buy cruising permits or pay cruising tax. No officials are waiting to look at your passports or boat papers.

We were never asked for our insurance documents or qualifications. Scandinavian sailors are sensible and competent and they assume others are too.

Shopping for food and drink is easy, of good quality and reasonably priced relative to Australia.

Diesel is readily available, costing almost AU$2 per litre but pristine in cleanliness. Changing empty gas cylinders is easy.

Any downside?

  • In the Stockholm environs: lots of powerboats!
  • Marine trades are not easy to find during the peak holiday season. Everyone is on holiday on their boat!
  • The availability and quality of chandlers was a little disappointing, except for Germany where they were excellent.
  • Dining out in Norway and Sweden can be expensive at night.
  • That is about the extent of the downside!
Colin Nicol
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