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Sunday, June 24, 2007, in Degerby, Åland, Finland

Hi all. We’ve made it to Finland, though we’re not on the mainland yet. Last week, we were still just outside of Stockholm, in Saltsjöbaden. On Monday, we left and sailed into the archipelago. We didn’t plan to get up really early, but we did anyway. It’s hard to stay asleep when the sun is up at about 2AM.

Depending how you count, there are anywhere between 14,000 and 100,000 islands outside of Stockholm (the most accepted number is about 24,000. Suffice it to say that there are a lot of islands.) Each island is pretty as a picture, with lots of trees and little red cottages tucked in here and there. There wasn’t any wind, so we had to motor. That wasn’t so bad when we went through two or three channels that had three meters of depth (our boat is about two and a half, and you really, really don’t want to hit any rocks). Then there was that 30-meter bridge and our 25-meter mast. When you��re going under a bridge, it’s an optical illusion and it always looks as though you’re going to hit it, even when there’s a large gap between you and the bridge itself. But when there����s a 15-foot gap, it does make for an exciting moment, and not in a good way.

Our destination was Vaxholm, about an hour’s bus ride or ferry from Stockholm. The harbor is a hub of ferry activity among the islands of the archipelago, including Stockholm itself. Vaxholm is guarded by a fortress that nearly covers its barrier island, only about swimming distance away.

There’s a ferry that goes back and forth between Vaxholm and its former fortress. We took it across, the only passengers on a boat that could easily accommodate 100 people. The fort began as a defense tower built in 1548 by Gustav Vasa. He’d filled in all the channels except one, and put a gate across that one, for collecting tolls. The fort helped to protect Stockholm from the Danish fleet in 1612, but it became obsolete and was closed in 1833.

That’s about all there was to look at in Vaxholm.

When we left Vaxholm, the winds were good for sailing. We decided that we’d sail as far as the winds took us, and simply stop when we lost the wind or daylight ended. My money was on the wind, since daylight never seemed to go anywhere. The sea was flat in the protection of the islands, and we sailed along at a respectable speed. Our route was also the route of many cruise ships and ferries the size of cruise ships from Stockholm to points east, though. The cruising guide was very clear that we were to yield to ferries, even though in theory a boat under sail has right-of-way. But Art has always believed in what he calls the rule of bigness.” When a boat is really big, never mind who is right, get out of his way. And we had to, several times. Ferries look really, really big when they’re passing you within a quarter of a mile. But we never let them get any closer than that.

As it turned out, the winds were good to us, and we made it all the way to Finland that day. Well, officially, we were in Finland, but the Åland archipelago isn’t quite independent, isn’t quite Finland, and isn’t quite Sweden. The people speak Swedish and many don’t know how to speak Finnish. The Åland flag is flown everywhere and Finland’s flag is flown only a little bit more than Sweden’s, or for that matter, ours. Boats fly an Åland courtesy flag. We flew both Åland and Finland. Signs on the street and menus in restaurants are in Swedish only, or Swedish and English, or rarely, Swedish, English and Finnish. Åland issues its own stamps and doesnt accept Finnish postage. All that said, there doesn’t appear to be any hard feelings one direction or another.

For me, Åland is a decompression chamber between Sweden and Finland. By now, I can decipher most menu and supermarket items in Swedish. The language of Finland is completely indecipherable, so I’m grateful that I don’t have to worry about that yet.

Our port was Mariehamn, the largest town in Åland. Though we were able to sail all the way into the harbor, we stumbled into a race of small sailboats. Apparently the spot that we intended to dock was right on the finish line, so we were waved away by some people on land as little boats with their spinnakers flying swarmed around us like butterflies. We managed to get out of their way by a nose, crossing the finish line first, aided by our 180 horsepower engine.

The marina would be a good place to stay through the Midsommar holiday (one of the nice things about Swedish is that you can be sure that the word “Midsommar” means “midsummer.”) This holiday takes place on the third weekend in June (which makes it “early sommar”, but that doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it) around the time of the longest day of the year.

We didn’t do it on purpose, but we’d be at the highest point of latitude of our summer on the first day of summer, slightly above the 60th parallel. So we’d get a chance to experience the longest day of the year in the longest possible amount of time. The 60th parallel is pretty far north. Philadelphia is on the 40th parallel. Miami is on the 26th, fourteen degrees less than Philadelphia. So we’re north of Philadelphia by about a third more than the distance between Philadelphia and Miami. We’re further north than the southern tip of Greenland.

Mariehamn is known as the “town of a thousand linden trees.” I can’t corroborate that, because I don’t know what a linden tree looks like. The architecture isn’t medieval or cute; the town was founded by Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1861, who named it after his wife, Tsarina Maria. It’s quite flat, though, and we rented bikes for a day to explore the area.

The most interesting attraction, though, was the Pommern, a four-masted merchant ship docked right next to our marina. Built in Glasgow, Scotland in 1903, the Pommern was bought by a Mariehamn shipper in 1923 and sailed until WWII broke out in 1939. During that time, the Pommern visited her home port only five times, and mostly traveled back and forth between England and Australia bearing a cargo of wheat. It’s the only ship of its kind that is preserved in its original condition. It’s well-maintained and the documentation on strategically-placed cards on deck and below explained how the ship functioned as well as a tour might have done. We watched footage of its last circumnavigation, including a terrifying clip from its voyage around Cape Horn.

Midsommar is a big holiday everywhere in Sweden (for all intents and purposes, Åland is Sweden when it comes to Midsommar) but it’s especially festive in Åland, because summer is the only time mostly anyone is there. Of course, that doesn’t mean any of the shops are open. Normally, they’re closed on Saturday and Sunday, even during the summer. For Midsommar, the holiday is Saturday, so they close early on Friday and don’t reopen until Monday.

At six o’clock PM sharp on Friday, the festivities began at English Park just above the marina. Every town has a Midsommar pole, similar to a Maypole. The pole is laid on its side and decorated with garlands and ribbons in bright colors. There are mobiles of ribbons from crossties on the poles. People hang replicas of these mobiles outside their houses. There were some speeches, and the local band played what appeared to be ragtime music. Then a dozen or so men, equipped with mast stepping hooks, began to hoist the pole. It appeared to be a daunting manual task, but there were two middle-aged guys at the bottom of the pole, using a ratcheted lever on a hydraulic jack, and doing what appeared to be the real heavy lifting. But the weather was still beautiful, and the whole town was out, it appeared.

Little girls wore wreaths of flowers on their heads, and some of the town women wore traditional costumes. One woman I met told me that she had embroidered her shawl herself. After the pole was raised, a woman sang while another woman played an accordion, and the kids danced around the Midsommar pole. The pole will stay up, rotting, for the next year, when it is replaced by another pole. The Midsommar celebration was originally a pagan fertility rite, but the Church knew a crowd-pleaser when it saw one, and now it has religious overtones. But Finland has one of the lowest churchgoing rates in the world, so if there was religion about, it wasn’t apparent. The little girls wear the wreath and sleep with a combination of certain flowers under their pillow. If they do that, the legend states, then they will dream of their future husband. I had this mental image of the dream of an eight-year-old involving a creepy guy in his undershirt growling “Get me a beer, wouldja?"

Saturday was a lazy day, because everything in town was closed for the holiday. And today we left Mariehamn to continue our way through Åland. We were able to sail the whole way, in calm waters, until we arrived here at Degerby. We knew that there was a recommended restaurant here, so we held off having lunch until we arrived at about two o’clock. The place we chose was having a fiskbord, which is like a smorgasbord, I presume, but with fish. There were about half a dozen types of herring in various sauces: mustard sauce, cream sauce, garlic sauce. There were slices of smoked salmon and smoked trout and poached salmon and baked trout (okay, maybe it was mackerel, but you get my drift.) There were some salads and bread and the ubiquitous boiled new potato. And there were potatoes gratin and chicken and meatballs for the anti-fish set. After lunch, we walked around the small town, which took about a minute. There’s an old church about two or three miles down the road and on the next island, but it was already four o’clock when we would have been ready to go. And you don’t want to be embarking on a long walk when there’s only about eleven hours of daylight left.

We’re still having a great time, and the weather has been alternating between absolutely gorgeous and weather you can dress for. I can handle this. Hope you guys are having fun, too.

Love, Art and Karen