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Sunday, July 19, 2009, in Gdańsk, Poland

Hi all. We’ve come out of our overnight sail and now we’re in Poland. Last Sunday, we were still in Latvia, and Dave and Patti had just left us for home.

On our own again, we spent the next several days closer to the boat, getting laundry done at the yacht center, and exploring shops for arcane parts. The shower and laundry block was right next to the boat and sparkly clean. Art was tempted to take a shower onshore, something we never do. On Sunday, we walked to the beachfront, something else we never do.

Our route took us past the leafy boulevard of large old mansions (one of them now serves as the town’s history museum) and through a more modern neighborhood of upscale holiday homes. The beach itself was long and surprisingly wide, at least as wide as Atlantic City’s is, or was, or seemed to me, when I was young and burned my feet endlessly as I ran on hot sand from the boardwalk to the sea. It was soft white and the beach was rather sparsely used, considering it was a hot July day.

Adjoining the beach was a large and stately park, with paths for meandering and a sprawling play center for the kids. This area was crowded with families, and its paths were a traffic jam of baby strollers.

A cat had apparently decided to use our cockpit as a hotel, arriving every night after we’d closed up the boat (and we needed to be vigilant to avoid visiting mosquitoes.) Cats wander the streets of Liepaja the way squirrels do in New York (and maybe there are no squirrels in Liepaja because of these hungry cats.) These cats look regal, even though they’re scruffy. I like cats a lot in general, and I always believe that stray cats in a harbor mean that there won’t be any rats (and we’ve seen rats in surprising places.) Art never actually saw the cat on board, but every morning he reported that there were paw indentations in our cockpit cushions and tufts of cat hair lying about.

We went to four industrial and home supply shops in search of a part for the propane that fuels the stove and oven. We’d been looking for this part, a Y-valve with a certain type of shutoff screw, for about as long as wed owned the boat. We found the proper part in Gothenburg at the end of the 2007 season, bought it, and left it by accident in our rental car. So for the last two years, it’s been a mission to find it. We weren’t successful in Liepaja either, and Art realized that we’ll be converting from propane to a different cooking fuel in a matter of months, and the part won’t be relevant anymore. But I think that any tourist should spend at least half a day looking through plumbing supply shops.

Our departure day was sunny and summery, and the light winds were just enough to sail for just about our entire trip from Latvia to Lithuania. There��s a flag dilemma that we have every time we leave one country and go to another. Sailors fly a small courtesy flag on a halyard that travels to the lower spreader when they’re in a country that isn’t their own. In theory, and still in fact in some of our travels, we fly a yellow “quarantine” flag when we arrive in a new place, which we replace with the courtesy flag when we’ve cleared Customs. But in the European Union, it���s like driving from Pennsylvania to Ohio, or it would be if you had to take down your Pittsburgh Steelers pennant and put up your Cleveland Browns pennant. But the dilemma is that the time you’re actually leaving one country’s waters in favor of another’s usually occurs at sea, when nobody wants to go up on deck and fiddle with flags. But if in the calm harbor of Latvia, we take down the flag and put up Lithuania’s, then we’re sailing around with the wrong flag. And if we wait until we’re in Lithuania, we insult the country where we’ve just arrived by flying someone else’s flag. And we’re just too lazy to take down Latvia’s flag when we’re still in Latvia and put up the Lithuanian one later.

So this time, we must have decided to leave the Latvian flag up until we were inside Lithuania’s harbor but not so far in that the old flag would be spotted. Art got the new flag out and it was sitting at the ready on the chart table. And that would have been fine if we hadn’t been stopped on arrival in Lithuanian waters by the Coast Guard. We’d already been called on the radio by the Lithuanian navy. The Coast Guard pulled up in a fine inflatable, asked a few questions about where we’d come from and where we were going, and told us to call the port when we got to Klaipėda harbor. Then, as an aside, they mentioned that we were still flying the Latvian flag. So we swapped them on the spot, at sea, in rather calm waters. As they pulled away, one of the sailors noted our new flag with a thumbs-up to me. We had a third contact with the Lithuanian authorities as we entered the harbor. An inflatable pulled up alongside and again asked questions, and let us go without further investigation.

Our first choice for docking was a port called Old Castle, which, unsurprisingly, is off of the old castle in town, or at least what’s left of the old castle. There wasn’t any space for us at all. We crossed the harbor to our second choice, the Yacht Club. This was much less desirable, as it was a ferry ride from town, and on the lovely but empty Curonian Spit. We’d need to take a ferry to town just to get Lithuanian money, but we wouldn’t be able to pay for the ferry.

It’s not unusual for a relatively ordinary marina to be called a yacht club. A yacht is simply a boat used for pleasure. It doesn’t have to be huge or glamorous. So yacht clubs do vary in their level of appeal. And this one was clearly on the lower end.

We found a place to tie up alongside. The docks were sound, though the ring cleats were rusty, and we had to shift position to find four that weren’t bent or otherwise unusable for our lines and springs. The electric hookup was nearby and worked immediately. We don’t need much more than that to have a pleasant stay.

We shared the harbor with many local boats, nearly all under thirty feet (not all that unusual for a northern location with a short summer) and several old steel working boats that looked like they were left over from the USSR. On the land side of the area where we were docked, there was a concrete structure that advertised “apartments” on one side and had spray-painted graffiti art on another. The typeface of the advertisement was faded and had the look of a 1920s postcard, and it was hard to tell if these garage-like units were the apartments on offer or if someone planned to tear them down and put lovely condos in their place. I learned later that this was a Soviet-era building whose units were now rented out for storage.

We walked around the rest of the harbor in search of the harbormaster. There was a two-story hotel overlooking the harbor. It looked its best from the distance of the boat and looked worse as you got closer. The sides appeared to be celebrating their tenth anniversary of needing to be painted. This building provided the office for the harbormaster in the form of a small room on the second floor with a lumpy bed and a folding table. The showers for the boats were on the first floor, as was a restaurant that was doing a brisk afternoon business. We learned later that the hotel rooms didn’t have in-room toilets or showers, and that the residents also used the facilities offered for the boats. A woman we met later had spent her childhood in this area, during the Soviet era. “I remember these places. They looked just like this, but new.”

I wondered if some former Communist was walking around here, muttering, “See. Those rotten capitalists don’t know how to take care of anything!”

We went in search of a harbormaster so that we could pay, and drew a small crowd of extremely helpful people. All of these people were guests of the hotel, and they varied in both their command of English and their level of inebriation. But they were actively ushering us around, and finally planted us in front of a man who was wearing a day-glo safety vest.

He gave us the daily rate for a berth, but it was well out of the range of what we’d paid anywhere else since we bought the boat. We asked him again and again, through tipsy interpreters, and the answer was always forty euros, nearly sixty dollars. To put this into perspective, this was more money than we’d paid at the sparkling new five-star hotel marina in Warnemünde, Germany, and was geometrically more than we’d paid in Latvia, with its shining facilities and copious Internet access. He insisted that the rate for a boat of our size would be about twenty dollars for a Lithuanian (which was about what we had expected to pay), but foreigners paid from a different rate table. We were told later that this practice is actually illegal within the European Union, although it’s hard to know whether it’s illegal to charge us this way, since the US isn’t in the EU. I’m sure that I’ve never been to a marina in the US that would charge a different rate to foreigners than to US-flagged vessels. A local sailor was aghast at this treatment, first complaining to the security guard, then calling his contact at the overseeing Tourist Office in town, and then promising to call his school chum, who just happens to be the Minister of Transportation.

We were stuck, at least for one night, unless we wanted to take the boat back across town, and take another chance on the marina that didn’t have space when we tried earlier, and which was run by the same pricing authority. In the end, one of our new friends took pity on us and gave us enough change to pay for our ferry ride to town, which we’d do in the morning. So thus far, instead of being tourists contributing to the local economy, we were the objects of charity.

Internet access was no easier. The for-pay Internet offered at the hotel wasn’t visible from the boat. We could bring a laptop to the restaurant and use it there (someone from the hotel gave us a username, even though we were unable to pay for it. We think that he bought a day’s worth from his phone and gave it to us.) So thus far, we’d arrived in Lithuania, penniless, and within an hour, people who didn’t have any obligation at all had rallied around us, miming and laughing at ourselves, and providing us with ferry fare, paid Internet access, and assistance in navigating a foreign bureaucracy.

With our new-found gift of Internet access, we did a modicum of email and other administrative tasks. One thing always on Art’s list: weather, and it didn’t look good for a long visit in Lithuania.

Our next voyage was an overnight sail to Poland. We could stay for the duration of the forecast and wait for perfect weather, but we couldn’t see paying so much for the terrible marina for a week or so. We could stay through the next day and into the next, but the forecast would bring us strong winds in our faces, and that makes for seas that I don’t handle well and a marathon overnight adventure for Art without help from any other crew. Or we could leave the next day and have a pleasant sail to Poland. We decided to visit the town in the morning, check out the other marina for a possible miracle that would keep us in Klaipėda, and if we found none, leave for our overnight sail in the afternoon.

A canal stood between us and town, and we grasped our donated ferry fare and walked up to the ferry dock at the top of Curonian Spit. The ferry was just leaving, and we hopped aboard like someone in the movies, and got off at Klaipėda town. I was already sorry that we’d only be in Lithuania for a day. I was sorry that we couldn’t change money and go out for coffee. And I was sorry that we’d have to dawdle considerably during the rest of our trip because we wouldn’t spend enough time in Lithuania to fill out our schedule.

We walked right to the Tourist Office by the main square. Our questions began with the simple ones: a request for a map of the town, if only for the morning’s walk, a question about the ferry price (the ferry didn’t actually charge for the direction we’d come from, but we’d have to buy tickets for the trip back to the boat.) Then we asked if anyone understood the pricing at the marina. A man came out to help us. “I know about your situation.” He was the man that our sailing friend had called the day before. I don’t remember much about the conversation, but somehow we ended up with a daily rate that matched what Lithuanians pay, in line with what we’d expect to pay for a berth. Thus we were already paid up for three nights, and subsequent nights would cost the local charge. We’d had our miracle. Our next stop was the ATM, a statement that we were staying. And then we went out for coffee.

The rest of the day in town was devoted to getting the lay of the land and getting ourselves some mobile phone-based Internet service. Though the wireless available at the hotel was inexpensive enough, it would be better to have service right from the boat, if we were staying for several days or a week. Unlike other cities we’ve visited, there wasn’t really a designated pedestrian shopping area, though some of the streets were barred to traffic. The downtown area we covered on our first day sprawled about the map, but we found an excellent supermarket and a cluster of cafés with outdoor umbrellas, and visited one of them for a Lithuanian lunch. Mine was a cepelinai (which is sometimes called a zeppelin and sinks like one after takeoff). This dish is a mound of potato dough, stuffed with, in this case, minced meat. It’s considered Lithuania’s national dish. Art got beetroot soup, which he can’t seem to get enough of, and a fish cake platter.

The return ferry was filled with people who were apparently on their way to the beaches of Curonian Spit. This UNESCO-protected peninsula is primarily a national park and is only half Lithuanian (and half Russian, as part of the small Russian coastline on the Baltic called Kalingrad,) It’s got some of the highest-drifting sand dunes in Europe, and about a quarter of the national park is forest, with elk, deer, wild boar, otters, and badgers, along with more than 200 types of bird and 460 kinds of butterflies.

The next day, we opted to take the walk around town that was suggested by the tourist office brochure. Art managed the map, and I read the descriptions. There were fifteen points of interest, though there’s not much of historical importance in Klaipėda. The brochure was clear and informative, and the town has invested in many pedestals with maps and multi-lingual historical descriptions. The points of interest, though, were less than inspirational: a mound that covered the remains of some fortifications (now a lovely park, though), houses from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries or restorations thereof, and a life-sized sculpture of a mouse, placed near the ground, where a life-sized mouse might actually be. But much of the reason to take these walks is simply to wander through the old streets of the town, and in this way, the route that we took was wildly successful.

The weather forecast foretold a rather long stay, so we bolstered our prepaid phone card for a huddle aboard, slurping up Internet service through the weekend. On the maiden surfing voyage of the top-up, Art saw a weather window for the next day that was ideal for an overnight trip to Poland, and then no further opportunity for many days after that. Our Internet purchase was a little like buying up a warehouse full of bottled water for a Y2K meltdown that never comes. If we took the opportunity, we’d forfeit about thirty dollars of phone time. If we stayed in to use it, we�����������������d have to stay in Klaipėda for an additional week and who knew how much longer than that. It’s never wise to use the term “sunk cost” in boating, but there we were. We decided to leave.

The weather window was a dream. For the 120 mile trip, we wouldn’t need to leave in the morning. We’d have time to go into town to visit the supermarket, have lunch out (yes!) and change our Lithuanian litas to Polish zloty. The afternoon would be almost calm, and wed loll about for several hours, including calm seas and light winds for dinnertime. Sometime around midnight, the wind behind us would roar and we’d fly through the sea to Gdańsk in time for a late lunch.

It took a few minutes to come to agreement with the marina guard that the money wed paid up front covered the three nights we’d stayed. He disagreed with us until we produced the name and phone number for the man in the Tourist Information Center in town. Then we all agreed that we were paid up, and we motored out of the marina and out into the Baltic. We were relieved that there were no questions about our being paid up, because we were contacted yet again by the Coast Guard as we left.

We sailed right away, making an impressive .8 knots of speed, with a .2 knot current in our favor, and sped along at a knot or so of progress for hours and hours. The wind came behind us and slowly increased to more than twenty knots. Sailboats going the other direction, into the wind, were undoubtedly having a much less enjoyable experience than I was. By the time I took a night watch at 3 AM, we were doing fine, and we were averaging at least nine knots during my morning watch, with seas of only about three feet and no wind blowing into the cockpit, thanks to the zipped cover.

We’d sailed the entire way to Gdańsk, and we motored several miles to the town marina, past imposing industrial yards, one after another. Cranes lined the quay like lampposts. One of these yards was no doubt the shipyard whose electrician Lech Walesa changed the country and much of the world only twenty years ago. We kept motoring in the channel, finally coming into a canal that led into a charming village of old buildings with umbrella-covered cafés. There was the turn for the marina. Art had called ahead with our intention to visit, and the woman who’d taken his call was waiting for us at the dock, assisting us with our lines. When we looked out the cockpit, we were facing a postcard view of the old town.

I’ll save Gdańsk for next week’s letter.

We love you and miss you and hope that you’re having a great time this summer. Please don’t forget to write to us.

Love, Karen (and Art)