At 10:30pm, on the fifth night in the harbor of the medieval city of Visby, I dove into the cold, dark water in nothing but a Speedo and my triathlon wetsuit.
Over the previous four nights, the weather had deteriorated to the point that the harbor itself offered little respite. A southwest wind which had been building for days howled into the outer harbor, directing the accompanying swell through the narrow opening between the two enormous manmade breakwaters. For the ferries and commercial traffic in the outer harbor it was nothing but a nuisance. But for the half-dozen or so yachts further in, little Arcturus especially, life at the dock was miserable.
The surge from the storm - a deep depression situated well to the west over Norway, but spinning furiously and spanning hundreds of miles - found it's way into the inner guest harbor, lifting and lurching the floating docks and the floating sailboats, bounced off the three concrete walls surrounding the marina and caused more chaos on it's way back out. The docks moved in opposition to the boats. Several in the adjacent fishing harbor had their cleats torn out of their decks. We saw dented pulpits and ripped up toerails.
Aboard Arcturus, which was moored bow-to to the floating pontoon - a stern line fixed to a floating mooring and fenders out either side (though we had no neighbors - it was low season in August and the harbor was nearly deserted. For good reason perhaps?) - life was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.
We'd slowly been learning the local customs when it comes to cruising in Sweden since first arriving in 2011 - reels of nylon webbing, for example, to better control the stern anchor for mooring to the tideless cliffs in the archipelago. But we hadn't yet learned, from experience anyway, why the Baltic-flagged boats all had these black rubber shock absorbers (they look just like..well, you can use your imagination, but you know what I mean) incorporated into their dock lines. The reasons were obvious enough, but it hadn't, up to that point, been rough enough for us to feel the need for them on our own boat. Oh how I regretted my decision to leave them on the shelf at the last chandlery we visited in Stockholm.
I improvised. I found a coil of thick, new bungee cord in one of the rarely-visited lockers under the starboard settee. Stuff of the same type, sufficiently doubled and tripled, was strong enough for me to jump out of a cable car 500' above a ravine in New Zealand, feeling confident that I'd recoil gently before hitting the rocks below. So it should work for our dock lines, right?
Right! I made a quick lashing between a shackle I'd fixed to the metal ring on the dock and the dock line itself, one each side of the bow, reeving the bungee through 5-6 times and tying it off with several half-hitches. We lassoed another stern buoy, just in case, and now had four lines tying us in place, two astern and two off the bow, bungeed to the dock. I added two more bow lines, slack enough that they didn't come tight until the bungee reach it's stretching limit, just in case the bungee was stretched beyond this limit and decided to part. Arcturus again rode comfortably and quietly at the dock, while Mia and I traipsed around the 13th-century city admiring the architecture and drinking lots of coffee at the 'Bok & Musik Cafe'. We started a version of gin rummy that will continue until the end of our long holiday, and that I'm certain Mia will win.
We sailed south to the island of Gotland - once a major trading center practically smack in the middle of the Baltic, where traders brought good and services to and from Northern Europe via the Spice Road to Asia - because initially we'd thought this summer would be the first stage of our journey towards the Swedish west coast, then onto Norway and ultimately the Arctic. We sailed from Fjärdlång in the outer Stockholm archipelago late one evening, planning to make the 75-mile passage south to Lickershamn, on the northern end of Gotland, overnight. Neither Mia nor I were very enthusiastic about the trip, or the prospect of continuing south and west on a tight schedule. We had three weeks off from work. Why push so hard when we had just arrived in the Baltic, and had only scratched the surface of what's on offer here? Partly because we wanted one more grand adventure before starting a family, partly because since crossing the Atlantic in 2011/12 we've felt a little aimless in our sailing, and partly because, well, what else was there to do?
That first night cured us. Before we even got out of sight of land, south of Huvudskär, we both finally admitted to each other what we'd been thinking all along on the inside. That this idea is insanity, we travel so much throughout the year and wouldn't it be nice to just not follow a schedule and deadline for once? Doing nothing, literally nothing, on this vacation might actually do us some good and teach us a few things about patience and enjoying the moment (myself especially).
Though sleeply after going forward, twice, in the dark to change headsails, we had a fantastic sail south under a full moon (for the brief period that it was actually dark - the sun made it's return in the northeast shortly after 0300). Arcturus close-reached under her heavy 100% jib and double-reefed mainsail, crashing and banging south in the short, steep Baltic Sea chop, but making fast headway. The northwest coast of Gotland emerged shortly after 0700 on my watch, and we sailed in under the high limestone cliffs and into the idyllic fishing village that is Lickershamn. With our schedule abandoned, we ran through the forest tracks on the cliffs, hired bicycles to explore 50km of inland farm roads (and all the coffee shops on the route) and waited for reasonable weather rather than sail the 15 miles south to Visby in the rain. We felt liberated.
We left Lickershamn after three days on a fresh southwesterly breeze, knowing full-well we'd be in for a dead beat to Visby. We were getting bored of the sleepy fisherman's village, so it was time to move again. Motoring clear of the reefs outside the manmade breakwater (there are no natural harbors on Gotland, and yes indeed the reefs - millennia ago when Gotland was situated near the equator - were actual coral reefs at one point in geological history), we set the full mainsail and the small jib, lowered the 400-pound bronze centerboard and set off into the sunshine to the south and Visby. Arcturus made a cool six knots through the water, but our poor tacking angles in our nearly 50-year-old boat gave us a VMG of a much slower three. 15 miles took 6 hours. By the end of it, my hangover was in full-force (I'd gotten a little too enthusiastic listening to Radiohead the night before and drinking red wine in the cozy cabin down below). Mia and I traded helming duties, depending on which tack we were on, and during her stints I was horizontal in the cockpit. I never barfed, but also didn't get the respite I longed for once we hit the dock. I slept for two hours before I felt human again and could explore the cobbled streets with my wife. She was amused. I haven't had a drink since (and that was twelve days ago).
Five days in Visby and that southwesterly never let up. Rather just the opposite happened. In hindsight, had we waited any longer in Lickershamn, we'd never have made it south at all. Though the sky was clear and sunny, the wind never relented, blowing even harder in the inner harbor as it funneled between the large ferries berthed on the outside.
We visited some friends-of-friends who owned the nearby Visby Hotell. Over coffee and baguettes, they told us the humorous story of the cruise ship captain who, after dropping his guests off ashore in the ship's tenders (this particular liner was too large to even enter the outer harbor, remaining instead on the outside in a holding pattern), couldn't get them back aboard when a different southwesterly blew up. The guests were stranded ashore and had to find accommodation for the night (which pleased our new friends, the hotel proprietors, who were happy to oblige), while the captain wound up severely delayed on the liner's itinerary, which had already been running late before the incident.
It was later that same night that I wound up in the harbor. By then the wind and swell had built to the point where we couldn't stand up inside the boat. The shock loads, despite my bungee cord solution, jerked the boat so hard at times when the dock decided to float in the opposite direction, that you easily lost your footing. The noise was awful. It felt as though any minute the bow cleats would rip right out.
I'd had a thought the day before that we ought to string long bow lines right across the dock and over to the moorings on the far side. Though these would normally be reserved as stern buoys for the boat's laying opposite us, being that it was low season, there were none. We were berthed facing south, more or less in the direction of the funneling wind, and I thought that if we laid on the moorings rather than the dock, the boat would ride more easily. The harbor was too small to anchor out or lay to a mooring in the middle, but this seemed an exciting solution.
So late in the evening, in the midst of a southwesterly gale (there were Level 3 warnings throughout Sweden's southern coastal areas), I donned my black Speedo and my black tri wetsuit, grabbed a long three-strand anchor rode and dove in. Adrenaline pumping (I felt like James Bond!) I swam out to the first buoy, looped the line through, and swam back. Mia, now accompanied by our neighbor who had emerged from his Dufour 40 to see what all the commotion was about (and who, incidentally, had encouraged me not to dive into the dark water - he, after all, was a lifeboat captain, and knew how quickly things could deteriorate in situations like these) handed me a second long line, which I swam back out to another buoy before finally returning and clambering back onto the dock with the help of our lifeboat driver friend. I felt invigorated.
And rather pleased with myself. Instantly the boat rode better at the dock, the long (about 50') mooring lines now easily taking the swell without any of the shock loads from the short dock lines. We tied two more bow lines to the dock, loosely, just in case, and tightened up on the two stern buoys. I got to bed before midnight, and managed to fall asleep despite the howl of the wind in the rigging.
At 3am, I woke again, this time to a harsh thud. I knew instinctively, almost before I was fully awake, that the bow had been banging the dock, and that one of our spiderwebs had parted. Wind still howling, I leapt on deck to discover a frayed stern line, the one taking most of the load on the starboard stern buoy, which now floated happily unencumbered about 15' behind Arcturus. The slack had allowed the boat to inch forward, and it was now bumping the dock with each passing swell.
Mia emerged to help lasso the buoy (for a second time), and this time with plenty of chafe guard (some things only happen once), we re-secured the stern buoy and again tried to get some sleep. My iPhone was set to go off at 6:30, only two-and-a-half hours later, so we could try and get out of the harbor for good, and ride the (hopefully) diminishing southwesterly back north and into the Stockholm archipelago again.
Sleep did manage to find me, but all too soon that damned alarm rang. It was sunny and clear, but the wind kept right on blowing, still from the southwest and still very hard. Mia and I executed to perfection our plan of extricating ourselves from our dock line spiderweb and tentatively motored towards the harbor entrance, halyards attached and anchor ready to run.
The closer we got to the narrow passage between breakwaters, the harder the wind blew and the bigger the swell. Arcturus' new Beta engine was at it's (admittedly low) limit, the bow plunging in each wave trough. I nervously glanced at the seawall and back at the knot meter, getting very nervous when our speed dropped below 1 knot, and downright ready to abort the whole plan when I saw 0.2 on the screen. Keeping the bow into the wind and our momentum up was critical. Mia, harnessed in, sat ready at the mast to hoist the jib (though she was by now soaked). My bailout plan was to slam the boat in reverse, let the wind blow the bow around and sail under bare poles back into the harbor and re-establish our position in our secure little spiderweb at the dock.
It was never necessary. All 16 horses in the little Beta mobilized against the wind and seas and we agonizingly made enough headway to windward to hoist the small jib and bear away towards the north. We were safe again on the open sea.
Arcturus took flight ahead of the southwesterly. We broad-reached to the north, aiming more or less towards Lansort, Sune-the-driver, our Cape Horn wind vane handling the helming duties without a complaint. I wasn't satisfied sailing 5 knots, so we hoisted the reefed mainsail and immediately gained 2.5 knots of boat speed, though the added weather helm made life difficult for Sune (still, he never complained).
We covered 85 miles in 13 hours, averaging Arcturus' hull speed, and arrived round the corner in Nåttarö to drop the hook just before it got very dark. We found ourselves a calm place to sleep for the first time in nearly a week.
Upon reflection, our abandoning hopes of heading towards the west coast of Norway was the best thing that happened to us this summer. Still yearning for adventure, I realized on that sail north in the windy southerly, that we are currently having an adventure. For many Swedes, just sailing to Gotland from the mainland is a feat unto itself. It's a longer trip than crossing the Gulf Stream from Florida to the Bahamas, something I recall our cruising friends making a very big deal about when I was a kid aboard Sojourner with my mom and dad, and certainly a colder one. The fact that Mia and I handled the boat in that kind of wind and sea state like it was second nature (it was), makes me very proud of the both of us. Less than eight years ago, Mia had never even set foot on a sailing boat. Now's she's crossed the Atlantic more times than I have, and knows, in her bones, how to drive a boat in an 8' quartering sea with 30 knots of wind blowing over the deck while I sleep soundly on the settee down below.
Now, at last, we'll enjoy the last seven days of our holiday (Norway now far from our minds) and will be shortly hauling Arcturus for another long winter. We've spent the past eight years learning how to thrive on the high seas. Now we've got to learn how to relax.