Sara Lohse and Xan Browne explore the Gothenburg Archipelago on their 24-foot yacht finding long days and dazzling scenery
Big seas, four-metre-high rolling waves, storms, fog, and squalls. We had anticipated all of it on our first Kattegat crossing, in our 50-year-old, 24-ft Spækhugger yacht Gaia.
We weren’t, however, expecting so much of the unexpected to happen. Upon reaching Aalborg, the first destination on our month-long trip, we had added three fairly substantial items to our infinite boat to-do list: fix the engine; fix the navigation lights; and replace the toilet. Thankfully, the toilet is just a bucket.
It was a typical summer’s day in Denmark: cloudy, unseasonably cold and with a constant threat of rain. The devastating heatwave that was raging through the rest of Europe felt like a distant rumour. We surveyed the horizon with trepidation and excitement, the forecast 25-knot winds confirmed by the landscape of whitecaps before us. Our schedule didn’t give us any opportunity to wait for a more favourable weather window. And so, clad head-to-toe in wet-weather gear, we left the comfort of the harbour and embarked on what was to become our toughest and most challenging sail to date.
A wet ride
The Helsingør-Grenå-Aalborg passage consisted of two intense days of beating to windward, broken up with one night in Grenå marina. Gaia, seemingly indifferent to the persistent hammering of waves against her hull, would sail 135 miles over the two days, her starboard gunwale barely surfacing for the duration of the passage. Whilst the Spækhugger is very seaworthy, she doesn’t score too highly on comfort. The combination of a low profile and lack of a sprayhood results in buckets of seawater cascading over the deck, repeatedly drenching the cockpit and anybody in it.
Sailing south of Hesselø, a small uninhabited island 15 miles north of Zealand, we were suddenly hit by a dense wall of cloud. The heavens opened and the wind shrieked, the fractional rig rattling in confusion. A wind shift forced us to change course, our previous heading now unattainable. With visibility down to
10 metres, the squall had turned the shallows of nearby land into an invisible threat.
By the time we arrived in Grenå, the cabin wasn’t much drier than the deck. At sea, we’d noticed a small leak through one of the deck bolts, but this couldn’t account for the deluge of water that was sloshing about in one of the lockers. Upon tasting the water we deduced that the 50-litre water tank had more or less emptied. We’d installed the tank ourselves and hadn’t considered that any heeling would cause the water to rise above the outlet. It became another item to add to the infinite to-do list.
Exhausted from the day’s sail, the full extent of the damage caused by the water tank would go unnoticed until the next day.
Faced with the choice of tacking up the Limfjord – the narrow and shallow channel upon which Aalborg is situated – or motoring, we opted for the latter. Down came the jib, on went the outboard.
We’d left the main up for stability, which turned out to be a wise decision. After a mere 30 minutes of gas guzzling, the engine cut out. Unable to determine the cause, let alone find a solution, we were forced to tack up the Limfjord, making just one knot of progress against the current and headwinds.
As the sun began its daily retreat beyond the horizon, we discovered the full consequences of the previous day’s water-tank mishap. The sustained electrical damage had destroyed our navigation lights, leaving us in the precarious position of having to tack up a shipping lane without nav lights. Now on constant lookout for other vessels, we sailed on, torch on standby. We arrived in Aalborg at 0200.
In the calm of the harbour we were able to easily fix the outboard: the spark-plug wire had pulled out. We also replaced the damaged electrical parts. A few days later we hoisted the sails once more, pointing Gaia’s bow towards the Gothenburg Archipelago.
At age 50, Gaia was the perfect boat for us. Her mature age put her in a price bracket that we, a couple in our mid-20s, could comfortably afford. The Spækhugger, translating as ‘killer whale’, began production in the 1970s and still enjoys great popularity in Denmark today. It’s fast for its class, with a very tall mast and a 60 per cent ballast ratio. Prior to buying Gaia, we had rented a Sunwind 26 in the Stockholm Archipelago. Three years later, it really was a dream come true to return to Swedish waters in our own boat.
Getting to Sweden would mean crossing the Kattegat once again, which turned out to be pleasantly uneventful. We’d already made it to Læsø, and had enjoyed a couple of peaceful days on the island. The Kattegat was unrecognisable on the morning of our departure – we could actually see it. We debated using the spinnaker, but there really was no need. A lively downwind breeze filled Gaia’s jib and main, as she gracefully goose-winged the 40 miles to Fotö, a small island on the outer archipelago.
Our arrival coincided with a sharp change in conditions. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but the day’s steady winds had morphed into a howling gale, consuming the efforts of the July sunshine.
These conditions bound us to Fotö for two days, which turned out to be an idyllic little harbour. As is often the case on these small island settlements, the harbour is the hub of the community. Fotö Hamn features two cafes, both offering fika (Sweden’s answer to the British tea-break, but with coffee and cinnamon buns), and a waterside sauna. We watched, from the artificial warmth of the sauna, as the waves continued their assault on the granite landscape.
Powerful winds would become the recurring theme of the summer, and we experienced further no-sail days over the course of our trip. Nevertheless, the Swedish west coast really is a fantastic place to sail. The scale of the archipelago – smaller than that of Stockholm’s – allows sailing vessels to easily dip between the open seas of the Skagerrak to the west, and the more protected waters of the inner archipelago to the east. The copious granite islands – a mixture of nature reserves, farmlands, and barren skerries – did a great job in deflecting the wildest of the wind’s howls, and we were able to enjoy many a night moored in a so-called ‘natural harbour’ avoiding harbour fees.
Aside from nature, the archipelago is also home to a few larger towns. Marstrand, with its towering castle and bustling high street, is definitely worth a visit. It’s also a great place to stock up on supplies, although the restaurants were a little overpriced.
Sailing or otherwise, good food will always be what makes a holiday for me. While the Gothenburg Archipelago definitely lacks the foodie scene we are used to in our normal lives, we were granted the culinary pleasure of stumbling across Åstols Rökeri,
a simple smokery and restaurant, on the island of Åstol. Åstol island is unique in appearance, seemingly urban with a dense landscape of housing. The harbour is long and narrow, slicing into the island’s topography and offering good protection from most wind directions.
Our arrival to Åstol was preceded by yet another upwind sail. We were relieved to arrive in the harbour where it was suddenly hot, our cheeks burning from the sun, rather than from the wind. We enjoyed a quick dip, then headed to the Rökeri for dinner. By now, the strong winds had all but disappeared. We sat on the terrace, watching the July sun go down, as we worked our way through plates of grilled fish and smoked shellfish reflecting on our trip. Gaia, and us, had sailed 600 miles in a month. At 58ºN, Bäckevik on the island of Lyr was the furthest north we made it, but it won’t be the furthest north we sail with Gaia.
Gothenburg Archipelago cruising tips
The summer months are the best time to sail in this area so you can make the most of magically long days and water that’s just about warm enough to swim in.
Make sure you bring at least a couple of skærgårdskilder, or ‘archipelago wedges’. These are crucial if you want to take advantage of the archipelago’s natural harbours and are widely available from chandlers across Scandinavia. Some natural harbours will have permanent hooks screwed into the rocks, but you don’t want to limit yourself. It’s also a good idea to bring a mallet to ensure that your skærgårdskilder is properly wedged in.
While there is good access to mobile phone coverage across the archipelago, the same cannot be said for supermarkets. Supermarkets or other convenience stores are only found in larger towns, such as Marstrand, or on the more populous islands of Hönö and Öckerö. Visitors to Sweden should know that alcohol cannot be bought in regular supermarkets. If you’re looking to get any booze that’s above 3.5%, you will have to go to a systembolaget, a government-owned liquor store. Similarly, filling up with fuel and refuse disposal tend to be limited to larger harbours.
While the archipelago is more or less cashless, there are a few places – usually cafes – which insist on either cash or Swish payments (a local payment app for which you need a Swedish bank account). It’s a good idea to always carry a bit of cash. It’s also wise to look up the opening/closing times of shops, cafes, or restaurants in advance. We were caught out a few times by early closing hours for restaurants – some as early as 2030 – even during the high season. Many hospitality venues may not be open at all during the colder months.
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