Is the Baltic the new Mediterranean? Rachael Sprot takes a closer look at this underrated cruising ground
Sailing the Baltic Sea: where to go & the skills you need
‘Showers are destroyed,’ pronounced a workman, gesturing towards the dilapidated marina building at the Riga Yacht Club. I had no Latvian and he spoke very little English but valiantly explained the futility of my search.
We’d arrived in Riga at 0500. It was the end of April and according to the pilot charts the ice in the Gulf of Riga may have only just receded.
The generator, our main source of hot water, had packed up somewhere off Gdansk. So we were all a little crestfallen at the news. ‘WiFi?’ asked a crew member before hurriedly retracting it with, ‘just joking!’ as I glowered at him.
But I remember it now because it was the low point in an otherwise magical tour of the Baltic that inspired me to return and sail there again and again.
Sailing the Baltic Sea: Culture, history, wilderness
History and geography make the Baltic a rich and rewarding place to sail.
Hanseatic trade routes once crisscrossed the sea and a group of states grew around these maritime connections. As such it is uniquely suited to exploration by water.
The concentration of beautiful cities, many of them capitals, which you can sail right into is unrivalled.
It also played a pivotal role in some of the defining events of the 21st century: the first battle of the Second World War and the fall of the USSR began on its shores. But there’s wilderness too.
Sail out of Stockholm, Helsinki, Oslo or Gothenburg and you are soon surrounded by nature in tranquil archipelagos.
At its widest point it measures 150 miles across – far more compact the Mediterranean and a summer cruise could be done entirely day-sailing, especially since the days are so long.
At the height of the season there’s a festival atmosphere as everyone heads to the coast, but before July or by late August you’ll have it largely to yourself.
How to get to the Baltic Sea
The main challenge in sailing the Baltic Sea is getting there in the first place.
It’s 350 miles from Dover to Brunsbüttel, the start of the Kiel canal. There’s an Inshore Traffic Zone along the Dutch and German coasts keeping yachts clear of the busy shipping routes, but it’s a busy stretch of water and you’ll need to keep a careful lookout.
The Friesian islands make for lovely places to stop along the way, Vlieland has a good marina, easy access and picturesque scenery.
The duty-free island of Helgoland in the German Bight is also worth paying a visit if you need to top up on ‘essential’ supplies of the alcoholic kind.
The 53 miles of the Kiel or Nord-Ostsee canal is an event in itself. Sharing the narrow waterway with large ships is intimidating.
Yachts must keep clear by staying well to starboard and following instructions and light signals. Navigable during daylight hours only, the transit can be completed in a long summer day.
Alternatively spend a night in the marina at Rendsburg or one of several anchorages along the way and take a break from ship dodging.
Exiting the locks at Holtenau, you enter the large waterway of Kieler Förder, with excellent facilities and several good marinas.
From the north it’s just under 440 miles from Hartlepool to Skagen on the tip of Denmark. This route has different challenges.
Dense concentrations of shipping isn’t one of them, but there are wind farms to negotiate and oil rigs breathing fire into the night.
It can feel as though you’re crossing a construction site at times. Most rigs have a 500m exclusion zone and a patrol boat on standby.
Check the North Sea navigation warnings before departure and keep a listening watch on Channel 16.
For those with time, there are two alternatives to the Kiel canal: the Limfjord which cuts through the north of Denmark; and the much smaller Eider canal which runs north of the Kiel canal before joining it towards the end.
Both are lovely diversions if you have time.
Navigating the Baltic Sea
The Baltic is a straightforward cruising ground compared with British waters.
There’s no tide as the body of water is too small to generate the oscillations which fringe the major oceans.
Instead, there’s a steady outpouring of water through the Kattegat, powered by the net input of freshwater from rivers.
Streams can reach a couple of knots in pinch points such as the Øresund between Copenhagen and Malmö.
In other areas, there are noticeable wind-driven currents. These are most pronounced after prolonged periods of the strong wind from the same direction, and they have the effect of changing the water levels too.
Consistent NE winds can cause a SW setting current which ‘drains’ the Gulf of Bothnia and Gulf of Finland, reducing depths by more than 1m in extreme scenarios.
Further south a combination of high pressure and wind-driven currents causes fluctuations of 0.1 – 0.3m.
For shallow passages you’ll need to take account of recent weather patterns and ask for local advice before committing.
Weather conditions are generally more benign than on our tempestuous Atlantic shores. In many areas there’s little fetch for a seastate to develop, although when it does it can be short and sharp.
The climate feels more continental than maritime, with colder winters and slightly warmer summers than the UK.
At the height of the season temperatures often reach 30°, and sea temperatures can be 20° in the archipelagos.
You might be pleasantly surprised by the cost of sailing the Baltic Sea. Although alcohol is considerably more expensive in the Nordic countries, you can stock up in Germany and Poland en route.
Berthing fees are generally fairly modest: even in Scandinavia they tend to be cheaper than those charged in the south coast of the UK, so the increased cost of other things tends to even itself out.
Berthing is often paid on an app and reserved in advance, which is a good idea in the height of season (July – mid-August).
It’s rare to see the harbour master doing rounds: they tend to rely on an honesty system. Many of the marinas are on a much smaller scale than the UK.
Facilities are admittedly much simpler but spotlessly clean.
It’s a breath of fresh air compared to more commercialised cruising grounds that are so popular elsewhere.
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Southern Denmark, Copenhagen and SW Sweden
Denmark and southern Sweden are easy to access and make an excellent introduction to Baltic cruising.
Many people pass through quickly on the way to the archipelagos further north, but gentle landscapes and pretty towns reward those hopping along the coast.
Copenhagen is the jewel in the crown of the southern Baltic. Tie up in the bustling old Nyhavn and be part of the action or one of the large marinas further north for a quiet night.
Though Danish, the island of Bornholm actually lies closer to Sweden. It’s known for its picturesque harbours, pristine beaches, round churches and traditional smokehouses.
But it’s the tiny, fortified island of Christiansø, just east of Bornholm, which is a truly special spot.
The harbour feels as though it’s barely changed since the 1600s. The Swedish coast is low-lying here, with long stretches of beach flanked by some of the country’s best farmland.
There are few anchorages until you reach the SE corner, but the gorgeous town of Ystad, with its medieval timber houses, and Karlskrona, the UNESCO listed naval port, more than make up for it.
The ultimate stopping off point when heading to or from the east coast is Utklippen, a tiny fishing station formed by blasting a gap between two rocky islets.
North Denmark, Bohuslän Coast and Southern Norway
Heading north from Copenhagen into the Kattegat, most yachts have their eyes on Sweden’s Bohuslän coast.
The Skärgård, a tapestry of pink granite islands, fringes the mainland coast from Gothenburg up to the Norwegian border creating an inexhaustible cruising ground.
It’s a place where the locals moor alongside the rocks and cook crayfish on the BBQ.
There are lots of natural harbours, many of them former fishing stations, with timber huts painted in distinctive rust-red paint.
Navigation is intricate and challenging, but you’ll be rewarded with exhilarating passages in flat water.
Keep heading north and you’ll cross the border into Norway and eventually arrive in Oslo.
The skärgård continues but there’s added interest as we enter the land of the fjords. Although less dramatic than the deep fjords of the west coast, Oslofjord has lots of good cruising and it’s a great introduction to a country with the most spectacular coastline in Europe.
The topography of the Danish side means that harbours tend to be man-made, with sleepy fishing ports and rural landscapes.
The islands of Anholt and Læsø are both worth a stop for their beautiful beaches and Læsø’s seaweed-roofed huts.
The windswept dunes of Skagen form the northern tip of the country. It has a strong artistic heritage and is a busy holiday destination for the Danes, who often gather on the sandy strip where land turns imperceptibly to sea.
The coastline may not hold the same intrigue as the Swedish and Norwegian side, but you might find the elusive quality of hygge and decide to stay put instead, which would certainly save a few miles on the summer cruise!
Eastern Sweden and Finland
For me, the big decision is whether to aim for the east or west coast of Sweden. Both routes have beautiful archipelagos, lots of interest en route and wonderful cities.
If there were no real-life variables, Stockholm and the coastline south of it would clinch it for me. Stockholm is a waterside city in the truest sense.
The perfectly preserved wreck of the Vasa, a 17th-century warship which sank in the harbour on its maiden voyage, is now a museum on one of the city’s many islands.
The incredible story of how it was painstakingly raised and preserved is as astounding as the ship itself.
The surrounding archipelago is equally gorgeous and unlike the west coast the islands are clad in pine trees whose scent wafts out to sea.
The large offshore islands of Gotland and Oland are fascinating places to stop en route. Both feature on the UNESCO list, Oland for its ancient agricultural landscape and Gotland for Visby, the hub of the Hanseatic League in medieval times and its 13th-century walled town.
Visby’s ramparts and winding lanes certainly rival Tuscany for atmosphere.
Before arriving in the Stockholm archipelago, the Blå Kusten or Blue Coast could easily distract you from your target.
It’s another long skärgård with wild islands, narrow sounds and total serenity. Often overlooked, it is just as beautiful as the better-known archipelagos.
The autonomous Åland archipelago between Sweden and Finland is a hallowed cruising ground for locals and visitors alike.
However, the fringe of skerries continues right along the coast of Finland to the Russian border, with Helsinki as a useful and attractive stopping point along the way.
Most islands are privately owned, so beware of encroaching on people’s privacy. A respectful crew are normally warmly received and often invited to use the sauna.
After a few days in Finland you realise the Swedish archipelagos were merely a warm-up act.
In some areas the islands are so densely packed that there’s more land than sea. By the end of a two-week cruise you’ll have an advanced diploma in rock-dodging, and much shorter fingernails.
The Gulf of Bothnia is a rather long cul-de-sac for foreign yachts, although the Finns, Swedes and Germans head up there to get away from it all.
It’s 350 miles to the top, which is also the border between Finland and Sweden. Head up there for solitude and wilderness.
Germany & Poland
If the Scandi-chic of the northern Baltic is a bit too much, or the price of beer has begun to wear thin, don’t miss a trip to the southern Baltic.
Many of the former Hanseatic towns along this coast have been painstakingly restored after damage in the Second World War.
Lubeck, Wismar and Stralsund all have UNESCO world heritage status.
With inexpensive marinas close to the centre of town, cobbled streets and town squares, you could easily while away a fortnight on this beautiful coastline.
Inside the beech-forested island of Rügen are the intriguing waterways of the Boddensee.
Take a detour through the reeds to Peenemünde, the factory where the V1 and V2 rockets were developed. It’s now a museum with a poignant message about the relationship between science and war.
The Polish coast is challenging, with long sandy stretches and ports which are often inaccessible in onshore winds.
Cruising takes the shape of long passages, followed by a few days in port to explore the surrounding area, rather than the island hopping of the north.
It’s worth taking the time to explore though, whether heading inshore to the extensive national parks, or beachcombing for nuggets of amber which wash up after gales.
Although out on a limb, Gdansk is unmissable.
The approach takes you past the Westerplatte, the peninsula that was attacked by the German warship Schleswig-Holstein on 1 September 1939, initiating the Second World War.
The route continues for a further 4 miles up through the shipyards, some derelict, some in use, which were the birthplace of the Solidarity Movement that was pivotal in the fall of the USSR.
In the heart of the city though, it’s the imposing medieval wooden crane which dominates the harbour.
Once the largest cargo crane in Europe, it was damaged in 1945 when 80 per cent of the city was destroyed in the final throes of the war.
Now restored, it’s a spectacular sight and a reminder that the city’s identity stretches much further than recent history.
A very different kind of adventure can be found on the coasts of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Riga and Tallinn are beautiful cities with UNESCO status and good marinas.
Cruising is cheaper here than it is in Scandinavia but English is not as widely spoken.
Despite this, foreign yachts are given a warm welcome and most people will generously engage in marina charades as you try to act out a washing machine.
The main cruising ground is the Estonian islands at the northern end of the Gulf of Riga. It provides plenty of opportunities for intricate pilotage and there’s often a sauna ashore for weary sailors.
Latvia has several commercial ports which are accessible to yachts, including Ventspils and Liepāja, both of which are about 90nm from Gotland.
Lithuania’s coastline is dominated by the Curonian Spit.
Stretching for over 60nm, the tree-clad sand dunes don’t offer much shelter to sailors but Klaipėda, Lithuania’s main port, is a pleasant town.
There are two Russian coasts in the Baltic: the Gulf of Finland from about 27°E, and Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania.
Even before this year they had a strong military presence.
In happier times, St Petersburg was the adventurer’s ultimate prize. Each year a few dozen yachts would apply for visas and make the approach via the TSS to this mesmerising city.
For now it is probably best given a wide berth.
Itineraries for sailing the Baltic Sea from Kiel
Germany, Bornhom and southern Sweden
Copenhagen & western Sweden
Denmark & western Sweden, exit via the Limfjord
Germany, Gdansk, Gotland & Sweden’s Blue Coast
Circumnavigate Sweden by cutting through the Göte Kanal
Denmark > Gothenburg > Bohuslän Coast – Oslofjord – Exit via the Skagerrak
Germany > Poland > Tallinn > Helsinki > Åland archipelago > Stockholm archipelago
Charts & Pilot books for sailing the Baltic Sea
The RCCPF Baltic Sea Pilot guide is a good place to start when researching a trip. It gives a good overview of each area and is perfectly adequate if passing through. In the archipelagos though, a local pilot guide is essential.
The Swedish Hamnguiden are superb, with aerial photographs of every harbour and anchorage, showing what kind or berth or mooring is to be found, where to do a rock mooring, and where to drop the hook for a ‘normal’ anchorage.
Electronic chart coverage can be excellent, but it’s hard work passage planning on electronic charts, especially in intricate waters.
Most countries have their own leisure charts in easy-to-use format so that you can flip through as you follow a lead in the skerries.
They often have the recommended routes drawn on, including an indication of the maximum draught and are worth investing in if you’re planning to explore beyond the main ports.
German company NV produces inexpensive coverage of the southern Baltic. Chart packs are accompanied by a pilot book with harbour details.
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