Niklas Sandström grew up next to the Baltic Sea and has witnessed how it has changed. His article was runner up in the 2022 Brian Black Memorial Award

When I was a young boy, barely having learnt how to swim, I would stand by the sea in my speedos with goggles tightly strapped around my head and I would stare at the ice that was clinging onto the rocks on the shore, willing it to disappear. It would have been late March or early April, which typically signifies the end of winter on the south coast of Finland.

While both the air and the sea were barely above freezing, the spring sun would have by now begun working its magic and slowly the ice would let go of its hold.

Memories seem to grow warmer with time, because I cannot recall feeling the slightest bit cold. I would wade in between gigantic chunks of ice, pretending they were dangerous icebergs, navigating my self-made miniature bark ships – with branches for masts and thin pieces of cardboard for sails – through what I imagined were treacherous Arctic waters.

A stunning sunset in the Baltic. Photo: Niklas Sandström & Jorma Rautaperää

This imaginative game would go on until my skin turned blue and, eventually, my mother would order me to run back to the sauna. There, my father would throw water on the stones stacked on top of the fire-heated stove. As the hot steam circled the room and gently burned my back, all I could think of was running back to the sea to continue my epic adventure.

While the Baltic Sea pales in comparison in both width and depth to any of the great oceans of the world, it is still just as vast as any other sea once you are far enough out to lose sight of land. There it doesn’t matter if the closest shore is 10 or 1,000 miles away.

I am reminded of this fact one very early morning near midsummer. I have just crawled out of my bunk and up onto deck to begin my watch, and what I see makes me suspect I might still be dreaming. The sun hasn’t set at all, and it now hovers above the horizon in a completely cloudless sky that is saturated in colours from blue through orange to red, and the sea is fully becalmed, perfectly mirroring the view above. There isn’t a sign of land or anything else in sight. And as the sea stands still, so too does the wind – yet somehow, completely irrationally, our 40ft wooden sloop Pam is gliding along effortlessly at nearly seven knots, pulled by a beautifully shaped spinnaker.

Iconic boat sheds on the island of Utö. Photo: Niklas Sandström & Jorma Rautaperää

We are racing in an offshore short-handed event taking us across the sea from Helsinki around Gotland and back, and as I relieve the other crew, I begin what might very well be the most amazing watch I’ve ever experienced. For the next six hours I am completely transfixed by the overwhelming beauty of my surroundings.

With the sails trimmed to perfection, I have just two fingers on the wheel, and I only gently give it a nudge every now and then. There is no need to look at the instruments – I can feel the boat in my bones and she is as happy as I am. The blindingly bright sun bounces off her meticulously varnished hull, making her own wake glisten as we soar through time and space. I have torn sails in violent winds and been sick as a dog in never-ending rolling swells, but just then I have a minute of clarity and remember why I choose to be out here time and time again. This is what it’s all about.

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Out of this world

While I could somehow vaguely try to explain how a boat can move so gracefully in a non-existent breeze, what truly has me at a loss for words is the beauty of the sea that morning.

It looked and felt otherworldly. If I could, I would go back and stay in that moment forever. For all the hours and miles I have sailed on it, the Baltic Sea has never looked quite like that before or since. In fact, the Baltic Sea usually looks very different. Being so shallow and restricted, its lack of water volume and brackish quali, paired with the heavy traffic it sees – not to mention the unsustainable amounts of pollution by its bordering nations – makes it an unhappy sea rapidly deteriorating in health.

More boat sheds. Photo: Niklas Sandström & Jorma Rautaperää

As a boy I chose to swim in freezing water not only because I was impatient, but because I knew that the warmth of the summer would eventually put a stop to my favourite pastime. For when the sun stays up longer and the temperature of the sea rises, so too rises the toxic cyanobacteria or the blue-green algae from the bottom of the sea, eventually blooming on the surface.

While it never happens as a surprise – we know it is only getting worse every year – each time it is just as disappointing. As a child it felt unfair that in the hottest weeks of the summer holiday I was not allowed in the water because it could poison me. Now, as an adult, it just makes me sad, because I know now what I couldn’t fathom then: it is our fault.

The Finnish archipelago consists of thousands of islands in various sizes and shapes. Combine that with nearly nightless days in the summer, and you get what I regard as one of the more unique sailing grounds in the world. I have sailed here for years, yet I don’t think I’ve seen half of it, such is the quantity of unique islands and anchorages.

Every year between regattas and vexing professional duties, I make sure to take time off to simply go sailing here. I fill my trusty old yacht to the brim with provisions, cameras and fishing gear, and cast off from our home port in Helsinki. Then I sail west as fast as possible, which – in my 33ft fractional rigged sloop with a minimalist approach to everything on and under the deck – isn’t very fast at all. I’ve named her Lykke, which is Norwegian for happiness, because that is exactly what she gives me. As we sail further away from the sounds and smells of the city, it’s as if we’re cruising straight into a time machine.

The combination of hotter summers, boating traffic and shallow depths have led to an overgrowth in toxic blue-green algae, which turns the Baltic a murky shade of green
each summer. Photo: Niklas Sandström & Jorma Rautaperää

Tainted waters

Once we reach the outer archipelago, grand marinas and smoking factory chimneys are exchanged for small fishing villages, old lighthouses and iconic boat sheds, painted bright red and yellow, poking out here and there along the shores of sparsely inhabited islands. The settlements here go back
many generations and the locals take great pride in maintaining and respecting their heritage. Here things are like they always have been – in a good way.

Although one thing has changed over time: the sea. My parents’ generation tell stories about how, in their childhood, the water was crystal clear and clean, but today you will struggle to see your arms in front of you as you dive in. And come summer heat, the blue hues you see on the sea are often not the sky reflecting off its surface, but a thick sheet of porridge-like algae covering it, not unlike sheets of ice in the winter. If its disgusting appearance isn’t enough to put you off, its musty smell certainly is.

Every year I find myself sailing Lykke further away from the coastline, hunting for a suitable spot to swim in, wondering if this is how it’s meant to be. Imagine if the Mediterranean was like this; its beaches rendered useless by poison fed by humans. Would we simply accept it?

Niklas’s race crew raise awareness for the #OurSea campaign, which has raised over €1m for research

Understanding the eco-system

I have witnessed first hand how our actions and decisions, both as individuals and as nations, are taking their toll on the delicate body of water that is the Baltic Sea. It sounds overdramatic but it’s true: it’s dying in front of our eyes.

The release of agricultural nutrients, commercial ships offloading waste and global warming all work together to make the situation worse. The root issues are mostly political and guided by economics, which understandably makes solving the problems seem out of reach for us without the powers at hand, but I still believe every little action matters. Forward-thinking waste management, understanding how a delicate ecosystem works and committing to phosphate-free products are all things we can easily do to encourage and maintain sustainable biodiversity. If we agree there is a problem and that we want to solve it, we can.

The rocky shore of Källskär. Photo: Photo: Niklas Sandström & Jorma Rautaperää

A healthy sea is a crucial component for an overall thriving environment, but the consequences of poor decisions on land aren’t necessarily obvious to people who have no connection to the sea, be it for geographical or hereditary reasons.

This is why I wish to share my appreciation of the sea, especially with those who feel disconnected from it. The more we collectively educate ourselves, the better armed we are to fight the battle. Motivation is fed by passion, but it is hard to feel passionate about something you’ve never truly experienced. The sea is ours to be shared and cared for, together and respectfully.

The Baltic is still magical, particularly in midsummer when there are days the sun, quite literally, never sets. Photo: Niklas Sandström & Jorma Rautaperää

I still eagerly wait

for the ice to melt as it means I can sail again. Tiny bark boats have evolved over the years to increasingly larger yachts, matching my growing appetite for adventure, but that first splash of the season still feels just as exciting to me as ever. Little did I know as a boy that those dreams of sailing big seas would follow me to this day.

The more time I have spent at sea, the more time I want to spend at sea. It’s funny like that, isn’t it – the sea? It casts an inexplicable spell on you. Thus far it has treated me well, and I have dedicated my life to treating it well too. It’s that whole thing about scratching each other’s backs. I have expanded my sailing grounds to cover all the seas of the planet, but the Baltic will always be my home and the place I return to. One day I want to take my children sailing there and proudly show them how beautiful it is.

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