Tom Cunliffe's January podcast: The Finnish Baltic may be strewn with rocks, but magical islands, and other attractions, make it a place of beauty...
“My luck ran out. I hit more rocks in the next half-hour than in the rest of my life to date”
Sitting in my saloon with the bogey stove glowing and New Year around the cor- ner always reminds me of cruising in Scandinavia. I’m wearing a cardigan I bought at the Salvation Army in Bergen and the buttons are – guess what? – pewter, stamped with a reindeer motif. Many’s the island anchorage I’ve enjoyed with the feeling that Father Christmas was lurking in the pines.
Shortly before the Comm- unist empire imploded, I sailed to Russia in my old pilot cut- ter. Homeward bound from Leningrad in heavy weather we sheltered in the Finnish archi- pelago just west of Karelia. There wasn’t much in the way of sea marks, so we piloted on island edges, low summits and the occasional fisherman’s pier. All went well until, finally rounding up to anchor in a perfect lee, we ran heavily aground. Pushed on by the inertia of 35 tons, our long, raking keel slid up onto a smooth, submerged boulder until we lost way with our stern two feet clear of its natural element.
With no tide to float us off, this was not a good scene, so it was tears all round until a powerful motorboat appeared from nowhere bearing a fisherman and his improbably beautiful daugh- ter. The unlikely duo came alongside, peering around the deck. Seeing our crew consisted only of my wife, ten-year-old daughter, our shipmate Mike and me, the girl, acting as interpreter in perfect American, asked where our pilot might be. On learning that we didn’t have one, her grey- haired dad’s jaw dropped. The chart, it turned out, was deliberately kept short of detail so as not to encourage incursions from an unfriendly east. Only the locals knew where the rocks were, and there were quarry-loads of them. We had cruised blithely in through an underwater wasteland of ‘stones’, avoiding disaster only by the undeserved mercy of the sea-god who looks out for innocents.
The fisherman pulled us off and we stayed for a few days. When we left after the ritual exchange of freshly hooked salmon and good Scotch whisky, he sketched the bricks on my chart, we hove up the main and waved farewell. That’s when my luck ran out. Our saviour had probably never used a chart and must have been guessing because I hit more rocks in the next
half-hour than in the rest of my life to date. Yet the antique boat stood it manfully. In her 75th year and unrestored, she wasn’t as strong as she once was, yet her underwater configuration allowed her to slide onto the dangers, rather than whacking into them, as a narrow fin keel would have done. There were no worries about damaging her keel bolts because she didn’t
have any. All her ballast was internal. My present boat is fibreglass, long-keeled and can also stand the odd contact with a hard bottom because she has heavy laminations and encapsu- lated ballast. When I was assessing Yachtmaster Instructors back around 1980, we used Contessa 32s with captive ballast and long fin keels. It wasn’t unusual to run onto the mud or even the gravel. Our view was that while anyone could make a mistake, only a seaman would extricate the boat without fuss. It was a far cry from my recent Yachtmaster Examiners’ update when we were advised by the RYA that, as a result of the number of yachts now fitted with bolt-on fin
keels, grounding was henceforth a total ‘no-no’. Having seen what can happen when these boats hit the bottom, I think the RYA is probably right, but it’s a sorry commentary on progress. It’s also a far cry from Finland, the fisherman’s beautiful daughter and Santa’s reindeer peering out from Christmas-card trees at my stranded yacht.