Almost the last leg!
It was with rather mixed feelings that we moored up alongside the quay wall at Mem for the start of our homeward journey across the middle of Sweden. We were sad that our trip was coming to an end, but the weather was noticeably windier and cooler now and the days were definitely much shorter. Everywhere had now closed down for the season so it was time to go home!
Moored up at Mem waiting for the 0800 start and the first lock.
From September until mid October when the canal shuts completely for winter, only small convoys of 4 or 5 boats and accompanied by a lock keeper can travel the canal. This is a perfect way to go as you don’t have to wait for commercial craft (which always has priority!) and there are no queues at the locks and bridge – its just you a couple of other boats so you can complete the trip to Lake Varnen, covering 190 km, 58 locks and climbing to 93 metres above sea level in 5 days.
Plaque to mark the opening of the canal in 1826
It is a remarkable feat of engineering, commission by Balthazar Von Platten as chief engineer in 1810 but actually designed and built Thomas Telford, the great Scottish engineer whose roads, fences and bridges are all over the North Wales I know so well. It took 22 years and a lot of Swedish soldiers to dig it. There is only about 80 km of actual canal – the other 110 km are lakes and natural waterways that are all interconnected by the canals. The Gota canal takes you to the Lake Varnen, the biggest lake in the EU and pretty much in the centre of Sweden. Then you join the Trollhatte canal down to Gothenburg and the North Sea. This created a direct link to the Baltic, avoiding the need to pay the dues to Denmark that all ships had to pay when passing down the Oresund. However, it was a pretty short lived benefit as the ‘World Powers’ got together in the 1860’s and bought Denmark off (which was a bit strapped for cash at the time!) for about 12 billion Kronor – around £60m at the time…..a lot but not that much to allow unimpeded shipping to Russia, especially as the Kiel canal had not been built then.
At 0800 sharp the canal office (shed) opened and we were issued with our passes, tickets, toilet cards and instruction book on how to survive the locks! We met the other three boats that we would be doing the first part of the trip with, the lock keeper gave us our positions in the lock – very important as the locks are very tight and we had to fit together like a jigsaw. They also inspected our lines and fenders to make sure they were properly set up. This is because the the rise and fall on the locks is quite violent as the water surges in. Also the sides of the lock are rough hewn rock and your gelcoat would not survive much of a brush with it! The walls also curve inward at the bottom so in theory you have some fender low down on the wall side and some high up. The only problem was that our fenders float so the waterline ones did not do much good! The regular travellers seemed to have fenders part filled with water so they would hang below the waterline.
The mooring rings – just hook a line with a bowline loop over it so its quick to release.
Never pass the yellow line – the lock step can turn a good day into a bad one very quickly!
With only two of us onboard we were going to busy, Anne had to be ashore to loop the lines around the mooring rings, so I had a bow line running through a block back to our genoa winch and a stern line to the stern mooring cleat. The idea was that I could simply tighten the lines as we rose in the lock keeping Grace in position. Ha ha! Much easier said than done! You try to control a 7 tonne 10 m long boat bucking back and forward as the water surged into the lock dangling off two lines!! Our position in the lock was port side front and we were followed by a big motor boat from the Faroes. They had about 6 of them onboard and they spent the time arguing! Which was all very well except I would rather they didn’t when they were manoeuvring in the lock and heading straight for our stern! Our position was rather good as we had space to avoid fouling the lock step and we did not have to go too close to the lock gate with our bows!
First into the lock!
Our new friends!
The technique for the locks was quite simple – as we approached the lock gates, Anne would take the bow and stern lines and leap ashore as we touched the edge and take the lines and drop them over the mooring rings on the lock walls. I would then frantically winch in on the lines to try to keep Grace from bashing the walls or the boat next door!
Our first lock!
Its alright for some!
Our first stop was Berg where we were scheduled to spend a couple days and pick up the next convoy. We would drop out and be replaced by a yacht already waiting at Northolmen, on the other side of Lake Roxan.
By 1545 we had cover 50 km and completed 19 locks and reached Northolmen and bridge for the main Stockholm express train. It would open only at 1600 then not again until the morning. Also once open we had 30 seconds to clear the bridge, otherwise it was coming back down again come what may, as the trains would not wait. Here at last being first in the lock was an advantage as we would be definitely through although I did not give much hope for our arguing Faroese behind us, we were out and into the lake while they were still ‘discussing’ who should untie the boat!
Waiting for the train to pass before we can get into Lake Roxan.
The floating sign post.
Lake Roxan was lovely and it was great to get the engine off and the sails up. We had a couple of very pleasant hours sailing to Berg. Strangely the lake has a floating sign post on it giving bearings and mileages for the local ports! Berg is famous for the flight of locks – there are seven of them and the only one on the canal. As we headed for the basin at the foot of the locks to moor up, we had to dodge some big banks of weed. If that got caught in the stern gear then we could have problems! Weaving our way in we avoided the worse of it and moored up to a stern buoy. Being first in, we found the spot with the least weed! The Norwegian motor boat that followed us in ploughed straight into a bank of weed and came to a juddering halt, its propellers jammed up and unable to move. The current then started to drift them away toward a bank of rocks that formed a breakwater. We quickly threw him a long line and hauled him in and out of harms way. There was no way he could get clear without a diver. Trying not to show too much schadenfreude we realised that this might mean that he could not join the convoy tomorrow and we could take his place. Surely he was going to be stuck there for days!!!!
The flight of locks at Berg.
Stuck in the weed!
You can imagine my disappointment when at 0730 a canal company diver arrived and after exchanging a considerable amount of cash, got in the water and freed our Norwegian friend’s propellers and rudder. Putting on a brave face we wished them well and a safe trip…….draht and double draht!
The diver freeing our Norwegian friends propellers.
After a morning spent fighting off weedburgs it became apparent that we could not stay in the basin and would have to anchor off or go back to Northolmen. I rang the canal company to ask for help and they said that there was a ‘warship’ coming through at 1500 with two lockkeepers who would see up the the flight of locks into the very nice and weed free basin at the top of the locks. Great news!!
At 1445 the whole air around us started to vibrate and our mast rattled. It was like a mini earthquake! Looking around, we saw that the noise came from a very large and well camouflaged patrol boat at the top of the locks. She came flying down the locks in a couple of minutes (a journey that normally takes about 90 minutes), fitting almost exactly she did not tie up and was soon out of the bottom, into the basin and then out into the lake in a roar and flurry of spray at 50 knots toward Soderkoping for its final fitout and arming at the SAAB factory.
Waiting for the patrol boat to clear the locks.
Once the navy boat had gone we had two lock keepers to ourselves and they whisked us up the locks in double quick time! We were soon able to moor up in a lovely weed free basin, with toilets, shower, cafe and lock gate museum near to hand!
Safely out of the weed.
Writing about it now,it all seems a bit weird but the lock gate museum was really quite interesting! The designs were rather clever, including a suction operated gate to stop the canal draining if breached and a clever pump free arrangement for a dry dock in Motala. They also had original Thomas Telford gates which they replaced with ‘superior’ modern ones in the 1990s. However these new ‘superior’ ones now have to be replaced after less than 30 years. They are now returning to the the original Telford specification as many of these are still in use after 180 years! Even going to the foundry that cast them in the first place!
Thomas Telford’s original design – still the best after 180 years!
SAAB Aerospace is based around the nearby Linköping and Soderkoping. Industry here is all about weapons and planes. They also sponsor an amazing flight museum that charts Sweden’s entire history of aviation from the very first planes to the latest SAAB. What they also have tucked away in the basement is the wreck of a Dakota DC3 that was equipped in the 1950s as a spy plane to check out Russian radar and response times. It had the latest British and American kit but was flown by Swedish aircrew. It was shot down by the Russians but no one said anything about it until 2003 despite all of the 8 crew were killed. There families were rather disgracefully fobbed off. In addition the Russians also shot down a Catalina flying boat that was searching for the missing plane! Although the aircrew survived in some rather heroic flying. Everyone was so tense that this could be the tipping point that turned the Cold War hot! The plane was only recovered in 2015 and was all a bit moving to see the relics of the crewmen.
The history of Swedish aviation! (The blue swastika was the emblem of the Finnish airforce – these planes were supplied in 1940 to the Finns in their fight against the Russians in the ‘Winter War’.
DC3 spy plane wreck
The other Catalina that was not shot down!
The other thing it had was an impressive display on the SAAB Viggen, taking off and landing on a road and being rearmed and refuelled at a petrol station! I have a soft spot for the Viggen as it was the first Airfix model I made. I remember it well as I really wanted a Spitfire!
The Viggen wings and tail plane!