Åland Islands – Part 1

As I write these few notes we have been storm bound in Mariestad on Lake Vanern for 4 days. We have passed through the Göta Canal and are now in the middle of Sweden on our way to Göteborg and home.

Grace stern anchored with her bows to the jetty in Arholma’s natural harbour

The next step of our voyage sees Grace’s bows tied securely to a jetty and with our stern anchor, which we had used for the very first time, well dug into the mud in the natural harbour that forms the centre of the island Arholma. This is on the very extremity of the Stockholm Skargaard, there is nothing but the open sea beyond! This season we had been really lucky with the winds, boats had been known to wait weeks, sheltering in Arholma for a favourable wind to make the crossing to the Åland Islands but as a beautiful sunny dawn broke we had a lovely force 3 easterly but with a deep swell, nothing too disturbing though.

Leaving the shelter of Arholma

Crossing the Gulf of Bothnia towards the Åland Islands

We had a distance of about 35 miles to sail on a bearing of 060 to Marieham West, the major port and capital of the Islands. Marieham has two sides, an east and a west, they are only about 1km from one side to the other, essentially straddling a finger of land which means to sail from one side to the other is about 16nm! The ferries use the east side as the approach is less treacherous but not by much! The east side is so complex that there are large boards marked A, B, C, D and so on to help you keep track of the twists and turns in the channel!

Aland in sight! The Marhallan Light

As we left the shelter of Arholma the wind rose gradually to a F4 and with the deep swell Grace surged forward over the wave crests at 6 to 7 knots. We were on a broad reach, close to the point of reefing but holding off as long as was safe as we were really flying. Taking course plots every thirty minutes we tracked our progress across and very soon the low hills of Åland were in sight as those of Sweden vanished. For company we had a few ferries past us including Viking Grace again! By 1200 we had the Marhallan Light clearly visible and the characteristic big white pyramidal seamark at the the mouth of the southern channel at Marbaden.

Viking Grace – our namesake!

The seamark at Marbaden (its also a popular cafe during the summer!)

But just as we were on our approach to the channel two large ferries came out and two came in! It was chaos, with the ferries meeting in the narrowest point of the channel, we simply turned about and waited until we had a clear run in. It also gave us a bit of time to figure out the Finnish buoyage system. Cardinals are used as channel markers in preference to reds and greens so it takes a bit of time to get used to where the hazards are! However they are quite useful if you are colourblind!

In Marieham, raising the Aland courtesy flag – with the Pommern in the wrong place!

Lovely mid August evening in Marieham

We were slightly confused by the marina and to where it actually was! It should have been after the sailing ship Pommern, but the ship had been moved while a permanent dock is built for her. It caused us a bit of angst at the time as all our charts were wrong! The next day we moved to the east harbour, so we were in a good position to explore the other islands. This also meant that we could use the Lamshon Canal, which saves a sail of 30 nm around an unpleasantly rocky coast! Instead the canal is just 350 m long and passes through a swing bridge that deposits you almost directly into the Lumparn, a large open sea bounded by the islands of Jamaal, Lemland, Lumperland and Sund. With a westerly wind we headed towards Bomarsund, this would be our most easterly point on our travels at 20 14’ .05E.

The channel is so complex to Marieham East that they use letter markers!

Sailing up the Fjord to Mariehamn

Mariehamn East harbour – only about 1km from the West harbour in a straight line, but 16 nm to sail it!

Lamshorn Canal to the Lumparn

Bomarsund is approached down the Notviken Fjord and past a set of red and green marks, which are unusual for Åland, where cardinal marks are favoured. We became immediately alert to the possibility that this might not be as easy as we first thought! However once we were round into the Fjord it became very steeply wooded on either side with bare cliffs along its far southern end, there were supposed to be carvings and graffiti from the people who laboured there to build the forts. There were also huge big iron rings set in the rocks for large warships to moor up to, so parking 10m Grace to the pontoon and stern buoys at the bottom of the Fjord was going to be easy, right? No! Everything that could go wrong, did and we took 6 attempts, only just avoiding wrapping a line round our propeller in the process!

Sailing into Notviken Fjord, with the moorings at the head.

Part of the massive Russian fort complex on the island

We dropped the ‘Swedish’ hook out of the buoy, we missed the buoy altogether, our hook fell out again, our stern line was too short but eventually we made it in! Fortunately there was no one else there to watch us mess it up!

Grace peacefully lying in the Fjord

Bomarsund is the site of a massive but part built Russian fortress which was destroyed during the Crimean War by British and French forces. It was also the where the first Victoria Crosses were awarded! The biggest question however was why such a huge fortress complex was built here in the first place! There is no clear explanation as to why other than the Tzar really loved to sail in the area and that Notviken Fjord was his favourite anchorage!

Building work was started in the 1830’s, some 25 years before the attack and even after a quarter of century only a small part of the huge project had been completed. We walked around it on a wonderfully well signposted trail but even then it was difficult to grasp the scale of it. The remarkable geometric hexagonal shapes of the exterior stones creates a bit of space age feel to the buildings! The detail and workmanship is simply amazing! The gaps between the granite blocks are tiny and it all fits together perfectly – well as perfect as it can be after being battered by the British and French fleets!

The remarkable geometric effect of the granite walls – each carved using hand tools alone.

All over the massive walls you could see where the walls had been peppered with cannon balls and bullets, but like the fortress at Vaxholm it was technology that defeated this place. Steam powered ships, admiralty charts and skilled navigation meant that the Royal Navy could approach from an unexpected direction which was thought not possible for sailing ships of the line. They then landed a battery with new rifled barrel cannons and with packed with Nobel’s latest high explosives and promptly reduce the walls to rubble! Just 3 guns in a sandbagged embrasure turned the largest of the defence towers into smouldering ruins in just a few hours. It was the Russian defeat here that ultimately lead to Åland becoming a demilitarised zone and self governing with the exception of one or two Russian and Nazi incursions!

Fort walls were battered to bits by the new fangled rifle cannons of the British and French navies

Walls peppered with musket ball marks

The 4.5km walk around the island takes you to various piles of stones scattered about the place and explains that this pile is the granary, that pile is the hospital, another pile is the new town and so on!

Piles of rocks that were once semaphore towers……

Or the hospital, or the town or the granary…..

And all interconnected by superb military roads

And littered with cannons. They were never looted as they were ‘old fashioned’ smooth bore technology dating back to the earliest cannons

As it was hot, half way round, I found myself turning a bit Scandi, I ripped of my clothes off, dived into the crystal clear waters and then lay about naked in the sun on a big warm rock to dry off! On the shoreline was a large monument to the British VCs, it had been unveiled by Prince Edward in February. Late August was lovely and warm but February must have been cold and bleak.

A bit Scandi – clothes off and into the water

The monument to the first VC’s that were award here during the attack.

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