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Sunday, July 22, 2007, somewhere in the archipelago between Sweden and Finland

Hi everyone. I’m writing this note while we’re underway in dead calm waters. I’m not sure when Art will send it, or whether we’ll still be in Finland or back in Sweden. We had a good week, filled with tourism and boat maintenance.

Last time I wrote, we had just finished our grueling motor back to Helsinki from Saint Petersburg. We went back to the marina we like in Helsinki, and arranged for a Volvo mechanic to do some required maintenance on our engine. Though I’m sure our guests would have liked to wander around Helsinki, as they’d only had a taste of it when they arrived, we all had laundry to do and errands to run. One of these errands was to buy ferry tickets for Estonia.

I’d really wanted for us to sail to Estonia on our way back from Saint Petersburg, but the weather wasn’t right for that (and apparently it wasn’t right for much of anything.) Estonia is only about 45 miles away from Helsinki. In any case, there we were in Helsinki, with commitments to move on. We realized that to visit Estonia on our own boat, we’d have to pick the right weather, clear out of Finland (surprisingly; it has to do with passports, not boat documents), clear into Estonia, get settled in a marina, and reverse all that to leave. Furthermore, the marina isn’t right in town, so it��s a bus ride to the Old Town of Tallinn, the place we’d want to visit.

Someone we’d met earlier in the season must have seen us pull into the anchorage at the end of our long trip and they hailed us on the VHF radio. They’d been doing essentially the same itinerary as we had, and they planned to take a day ferry to Estonia from Helsinki. We thought about it, and decided to join Sammie and Jack on the ferry. Theyd been planning on going there anyway, and then taking another ferry to Stockholm and their flight back. We’d stay over one night, and they’d stay an extra day, then head back to Stockholm on the overnight ferry.

Tallinn was founded in the 13th century, when it was a leading member of the Hanseatic League of trading partners. Its old wealth is apparent in the large public buildings and grand churches and the opulent homes of the successful merchants. The Estonian language is related to Finnish and Hungarian, and it’s one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. Most of the visitors are from Finland, though, so they wouldnt have the problems we would in getting around. But Estonias liquor laws are more lax than those in Finland, and their prices for alcohol quite low in comparison, so it’s quite common for ferry passengers to haul the maximum loads of spirits and beer back home from Tallinn. Rumor has it that since the ferry prices are duty-free when it’s in international waters, many of the passengers don’t even bother getting off. They just stock up, and stick around for the return trip to Helsinki.

The town’s official history begins in the 13th century under the Danish King Waldemar II, who had captured Estonia in 1219. During the battle, the Estonian settlement had put up significant resistance to Danish forces, who were just about ready to give up and retreat. But a white cross fell from the sky into a pool of blood on the ground (the story is told a few ways, of course.) Seeing this as a sign of God’s support, the Danes mobilized, went on to win, and adopted the white cross on a red background as their national flag. The name Tallinn comes from Taani linn, Estonian for “Danish castle (sometimes translated as �������������Danish town.) Tallinn seesawed from one or another sovereign overseer for centuries, (Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Russia) up until they achieved independence from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. A small country, Estonia is disproportionately wired. Estonian software developers were on the teams that created file-sharing software Kazaa and internet telephony provider Skype. Estonia was happy to set out on its own, and Tallinn is a World Heritage Site, a beautifully preserved medieval capital. At the time of our visit, about half or more of the town was restored, another quarter or more was in the process of restoration, and the rest left for another time. At least that was the case in the Old Town. Outside the walls, from our hotel room, we could see the Soviet-era flatness of the architecture, and on a walk in our neighborhood, feel the chill of poverty just outside the vibrancy of the city.

Our first official act of tourism was to take a walk in the Old Town for the afternoon, courtesy of Sammie’s guidebook. We began our visit at the main square, Town Hall Square, flanked by picturesque structures and dominated by the early 15th century Town Hall, the only surviving Gothic town hall in northern Europe. Though we didn’t visit the inside, we could see the irons hanging from the walls, where criminals could be shackled and humiliated. The tower on Town Hall looked like a steeple, and the legend is that it was modeled after a sketch made by a local explorer who had traveled to the Orient. Across the square is a pharmacy that has been in operation since 1422. The city walls themselves are well-preserved, with about 20 towers remaining from the original 66. Tallinn is a jewel of a place, filled with real medieval architecture, meticulously intact (as, thankfully, nobody bothered to modernize it under the centuries of occupation) and covering a fairly large area. Building façades were adorned with carvings, doorways with old wooden doors, and wooden cranes stuck out under roofs to hoist goods to second and third story windows. Here’s some trivia: Tallinn is probably the home of the first Christmas tree. In 1441, a group of unmarried merchants put up a tree, sang, drank and danced with girls, and then set fire to the tree.

The churches in town provided a collage of the various rulers. There was a large Russian Orthodox Church near the Danish Tall Hermann Tower and the Danish Gardens. A thirteenth-century Gothic church for Lutherans, called the Holy Spirit Church, boasts a tower bell from 1433 and a mesmerizing clock that is the oldest in Tallinn, with carvings from 1684. The Saint Olav Church was in its day the world’s tallest building. For some reason, the skyline is dotted with weathervanes, old and new. The one on the Town Hall is in the form of a guardsman who has stood watch since 1530.

It was thrilling to be among these moments in Tallinn’s revival. A reluctant Soviet to begin with, there is a bustling entrepreneurship and worldliness in the town. Restaurants representing dozens of world cuisines line the narrow streets radiating from the main square. The place is picture-perfect; every time you turn a corner, there’s another quaint shop or lovely panorama. We contented ourselves with identifying the buildings in town, and then reading the descriptive Lucite cards bolted to the building walls. Those cards often traced the history of a building for seven centuries, and identified the families who owned them and the businesses of those owners. One building even knew that its owner had been burned alive for passing forged documents. That must have been a pretty strict town.

It was our last night in company with our crew, and we went to a cellar restaurant called Grandma’s Place. We all chose local dishes, either pork with sauerkraut or lamb with blue cheese sauce, served to us by a friendly waitress. Pork is very important in Estonia, and they eat every last bit of the animal. Apparently there’s one pork dish that’s cured in the sauna, but we didn’t encounter it, either on a menu, or in a sauna.

Art and I shared an unusual dessert called kama. I suppose that every cuisine has the dish that people either love or hate. For Jews, it’s probably gefilte fish. For Turks, I’d have to guess it’s tripe soup. For Estonians, it’s kama. Kama is made from flour that’s a mixture of rough grain and peas. It’s combined with fresh or sour milk and sugar or salt (ours was dessert, so it was the sugared version.) There’s an Estonian expression that they use when something doesn’t matter a bit, “It’s kama to me.” When cocoa was hard to obtain during the Soviet era, candy bars made with kama flour instead became very popular. Our dessert tasted like a watery, sweet yogurt filled with wheat germ. Afterwards, we had coffee on the town square in twilight at about midnight.

On our way back to the hotel, we were accosted by a group of young women continuing the pre-bridal tradition we’d seen in Sweden. A bride and her friends, just before a wedding, go out on the town, armed with something very silly that they try to sell to strangers. In Gothenburg, we’d run into someone we knew (actually, the only person we knew) selling crayoned paper plates for her sister’s wedding fund. In Tallinn, the young women had a basket of shower caps. Art bought one, to their delight, and we all took photos of each other in our festive moment.

Our second day was a continuation of the first. We took a brief walk through our depressing neighborhood and went back into the Old Town. We tried to cover streets that we hadn’t explored the day before, and discovered carved walls, ancient tombstones, and finely crafted huge wooden doors. Jack and Sammie were staying an extra day, but we had to find our ferry after lunch, so we all bade farewell after a light lunch in Town Hall Square. Our ferry ride back was very bumpy, and we were grateful that we’d decided not to sail to Estonia on our own or even take the fast hydrofoil.

Now we were without guests aboard and ready to go back to Stockholm. We had about a week to do it, and we got ready to leave in the morning. It was Friday. We got the boat ready and were all set to take off the lines. The engine wouldn’t start. We’d had work done on it earlier in the week, but we had used the engine the next morning to get fuel and it was fine. Luckily, we had the name of the Volvo mechanic, and, as Art pointed out, if the spare parts we needed were anywhere in Finland, they’d be in Helsinki. We sat tight while the mechanic tried to figure out the problem. He isolated it to one of two electronic components and took them off to the Volvo facility, which just happened to be not far away in Helsinki. He returned at about one o’clock, replaced a faulty DC to DC converter, whatever that was, and we were off. He told us that we’d been lucky to catch him; his summer vacation was to start the next day and he had purposely left his schedule clear.

Our late start meant that we couldn’t go a full day, but we found our way to an anchorage on our route, at Barosund. We’d made up a little of the lost time by going further than the nearest anchorage we originally thought we’d stop. Then we awoke early to do it again. We had lots of choices, with a few days in hand before we had to be back in Stockholm. Sailing itineraries are imprecise. We’d left Saint Petersburg on a day when we knew we’d have to motor, with what we thought would be light winds in our face. But if we’d had a more accurate forecast, we’d have stayed two more days. We could take a lay day or two on our way across the archipelago. How to decide? We always had a pretty dependable forecast for the next day or two, but then after that it was a mystery. Did we avoid calm days so that we could sail? Should we avoid windy days because the winds might be too strong? How do we avoid arriving in Stockholm much too early and having to sit there for a week? Art gets forecasts several times a day and often from more than one source, and then we talk about our options. And they often change enroute.

On the second day, we decided to go back to Kasnas and take a lay day on Sunday. We could do the three loads of laundry awaiting us, take a sauna, and eat a lovely lunch at the only restaurant around. But the winds were a bit strong for docking in the little marina once we got to the area. So we decided to anchor nearby for the night and dock early in the morning before the winds came up. Then we got closer to Kasnas and decided to go a little farther, to Gullkrona. But by the time we got to Gullkrona, we saw that a gale was coming to the southern Baltic, and that we’d need to cross to the Swedish archipelago either on the next day, or, with good winds, on the day after that. We’d only have these choices if we continued on to Korpostrom, where we’d anchored before. So instead of being tucked in somewhere by late afternoon, it was after nine when we finally dropped our anchor. It was still daytime, though finally darkening, and the boathouse on the nearest land was entertaining a bunch of naked children, who were swimming and enjoying summer as we zipped up our parkas.

We pulled up the anchor at about six AM. It was a lovely day. Well, it was a lovely late fall day, with fog settled over the water and 48 degrees showing on our thermometer. Summer was good while it lasted, and I wondered if July 22 would be the end of it for us. I fumbled a bit with the anchor. We’d had some additional technical problems since leaving Helsinki. The anchor line counter wasn’t working. Art discovered that it had lost the setting that told it how big the windlass (the winch that pulls it up) was, so the counter was measuring at an infinitely high rate as it let out the line. Art had fixed the setting after we were anchored, but it wasn’t calibrated yet, and, thinking it was at zero for a distance of thirty meters of chain, pulsed its way up into the anchor locker. Somehow, the anchor didn’t turn itself right side up and I got it caught upside down in the chock. Art fixed it by stomping on it, which worked, however inelegant.

We were also having trouble with our wind display instrument. When the winds went to zero, the display went to dashes, but it never came back when the wind picked up again. Art replaced it with the spare, but that meter showed winds from the wrong direction, misreading the data that it got from the vane at the top of the mast. So while we were anchored, he had replaced it again with the one he’d taken out.

After motoring for about fifteen minutes, we got a “serious error” message from our highly computerized engine. Art turned it off immediately, and we just drifted in the channel, evaluating our options. He turned it on again, and there were no alarms or other signs of trouble, and we decided that we’d motor back to our anchorage. We weren’t optimistic about getting help. Our Helsinki Volvo guy was probably not the only mechanic on vacation. It was Sunday. And we were out in the middle of an archipelago which stretched close to a hundred miles in both directions, on a day that would have no wind.

So, without any additional messages of alarm, we turned back around and continued. As I write this, we’ve had no additional messages and the engine seems to be working fine. But Art’s had a new forecast, and it looks like another long day for us, to try to get on the Swedish side of the archipelago before bad weather is nearby. Luckily, now that the sun is out, it’s actually pretty warm out here. I’ll be taking off the long underwear again soon.

That’s it for now. Hope you’re all having a great time.

Love, Karen and Art