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Kiel St Petersburg

Baltic Trip - Helsinki      10th - 18th May:

10th May
    I took over watch at 3am. It was still dark, but I enjoyed the challenge of sailing at night, deciphering the myriads of flashing buoys and ships steaming lights as we ploughed on through busy shipping lanes.
    The darkness was replaced by a pale blue, and then a faint wash of pink was painted over the eastern sea board. A bird followed the boat for quite a while. It glided by us in silhouette, keeping us company for some time before peeling off and moving on to pastures new. The pink gradually warmed into a delicate red, closely followed by orange, and then finally the glowing red sun plopped over the horizon behind a veritable forest of wind turbines off the Danish island of Lolland. It lazily got its breath back before beginning its long climb up into the heavens. For me, the early morning watch was always a delightful experience.
    We tracked the shipping lanes for quite some time.

11th May
    Day drifted into night and back again as we sailed around the southern tip of Sweden, the shipping lanes being very busy. The wind had died and we motored north east, the only obstructions to our course were numerous small fishing boats. By evening the wind was almost non-existent, and the barometer was now steadily falling indicating that a change in weather was imminent.
    Towards dusk the sea was flat calm, with storm clouds building up towards the west. The sea and sky merged into each other, and a beautiful golden path traced its way from the boat to the setting sun. This was idyllic, until we spotted a haze of brown smoke following us. We concluded we must be generating it, but decided to investigate it further in the morning in daylight. Serious brown smoke would indicate an engine problem!
    The Automatic Identification System (AIS) was beginning to function intermittently; rather a worry since we relied heavily upon the information it provided us on shipping movements and collision likelihoods. We rigged a temporary workaround by feeding it with the signal from the VHF feed. This improved the performance, though it was still far from perfect.
    Distant thunderstorms kept me company through the graveyard watch.

12th May
Alan Doing his Morning Exercise, or was it Rounds?
Rex Doing his Exercises
    Another morning of calm seas and still air. The brown smoke issue seemed to have vapourised, but evidence of the smoke was visible on a rope dangling over the stern. We connected the AIS aerial to the VHF receiver and now seemed to have a working VHF system again.
    We motored on, the monotony broken by the occasional ship appearing out of the hazy horizon and disappearing back into it again. Rex was now trying to drum up a fitness campaign by performing endless step-ups, push ups, and one arm lifts of the plastic water containers stacked near the bow. I didn't join him on these activities, and needless to say Alan just smiled and ignored it all. Rex managed to teach me cribbage, and we had a few games which I managed to win through beginners luck, or did he just let me win?

13th May
    I awoke at 2:30am ready to take the 3am watch, and paid an early visit to the heads. Horror of horrors, raw sewage was overflowing out of the toilet onto the floor. I quickly informed Alan who I was taking over from, and he immediately went to investigate. It transpired that the alarm light for the holding tank (the tank that holds the raw sewage), had failed, and the now completely full tank was siphoning back into the toilet. After over an hour of work, Alan had ascertained what valves were leaking, pumps not working etc, and it was decided to do a major repair once we reached Helsinki.
    I then set about my business of negotiating the boat through what seemed like the M25 of shipping lanes. The sea was calm, and the silvery blue join with the sky was indistinguishable. Ships passed by as if suspended in space.
    We were blessed with favourable winds towards evening, with accompanying grey skies and rain. However, it allowed us to set the sails and make excellent progress through the night.

14th May
    I took over the morning watch as we passed three miles away from the Estonian island of Hiiumaa. The seas were bouncy and the skies were a monotonous grey.
    In the afternoon, we were joined by a stowaway, a small bird with a yellow chest who looked cold, wet and tired. He had obviously been blown out to sea for some time and was seeking refuge. Our stowaway hopped around the boat, flew off, but always returned. Rex must have been desperate for fresh company by this time, and took a shine to this new passenger. He chatted to him, fed him bread (Rex fed the bird, not vice versa) and the small creature appreciated his company and took up residence.
    We plodded along surrounded by a grey world, visibility often obscured by mist. I hadn't been feeling all that well recently, a mixture of suppressed sea-sickness and lack of sleep. Going below wheelhouse level was to be avoided if at all possible. Towards evening the wind had dropped and we were dangerously low on fuel in the tank. Alan and Rex emptied the remaining 25 litres of diesel from a jerry can into the port tank, and we prayed that it would suffice till we got to Helsinki. Fuel may have been an impending problem, water was now an issue, we had run out.

15th May
Finnish Archipelago Islands
    I took over the 3am watch, still a grey world outside and the fuel down to vapours. We traversed an endless series of small islands, many just bare rocks (some were lurking just below the surface), some clad in vegetation, and as we neared Helsinki, several islands had a few wooden buildings mounted on them, presumably holiday homes. We sailed where we could, but had to resort to motor power during tricky passages between islands where the wind was not in a favourable direction.
    Seven miles out from Helsinki we had a hiccup, the starboard tank ran dry. We switched to the port tank which had a few drops of fuel left, but air had got into the fuel system, so we bled the system and got the motor going again. To conserve whatever little fuel we had left for harbour manoeuvres, we proceeded gingerly under sail again between the islands, taking care to avoid the numerous ferries sailing into or from Helsinki. When we were forced to start the engine again, disaster struck - it stopped. We bled the entire fuel system but could not restart the engine. Helsinki was in sight, but we had that helpless feeling that we couldn't quite reach it.
    Alan concluded that there was a problem with the fuel injector. In desperation, he tried to call Barry, the marine engineer at Tollesbury, but sadly Barry was in Holland. He then called another sea-salt, Billy, who asked us to talk through everything we had done so far. We had acted correctly to the letter. Then the final question: was the engine kill switch up? No, it was down. While he was still on the phone, we flipped the switch back up, bled the system again, and hey presto the engine restarted. Alan shrunk to an inch tall and he knew he was sure to get a ribbing when he returned back to home base, but such events add to the grand experience.
Pohjoissatama Norra Hamnen - our Marina
    We then made our way into the Pohjoissatama Norra Hamnen, our marina near the centre of Helsinki and tied up to the diesel berth to ensure we got an early refill in the morning.
    This charming city was founded by Sweden's King Gustavus, at the mouth of the Vantaanjoki River in 1550, to compete with Tallinn for Baltic Sea trade. In 1748 Sweden began construction of the Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress off the coast of Helsinki to counter the growing threat from Russia. Hmmm... , it seems like the Russians have been a threat all round the Baltic for centuries. As a result of the war between Sweden and Russia, Finland became an autonomous grand duchy of Russia in 1809. Helsinki was made the new capital in 1812, and a monumental Empire-style city plan was drawn up to reflect the power of Russia and the Tsar. Finland gained its independence in 1917.
    It had been a long day. Showers were taken and then Rex and I tracked down a pizza takeaway place; that was our meal tonight, plus a few Finnish beers of course.

16th May
Lithurian Cathedral
    First thing in the morning we topped up with diesel and water, and then took our place on a pontoon in the harbour. Then it was laundry chores. The laundry facilities around this part of the world are classified as "green". What this seems to mean is that the wash cycles last at least 3 hours, and the drying requires at least two cycles, each lasting an hour.
    Whilst all this was going on, a neighbouring yachtsman walked over to greet us. He was a German chap, Ingo, from Travem´┐Żnde. He informed us over a coffee that he was undertaking a solo 6 month tour around the Baltic and Scandinavia, and had a wealth of information about the area. His yacht was very small, but he assured us it was fast; it would certainly leave Kiitaja stranded in its wake. He enlightened us of the protocols for entering and leaving the various Baltic states. He also showed us on his laptop a recent chart from a German hydrographic site, which displayed the iced up areas within the Gulf of Finland a week earlier. East, in the direction of St Petersburg, there had been appreciable solid ice up to 10cm thick and a large amount of loose ice. We were amazed, we thought the ice would have long gone. In a way it was fortunate the way things had turned out; if we hadn't spent a week detouring via Holland, we could have been caught up in it. Fortunately the ice had now gone.
    He enlightened us further when he pointed out the military areas peppering the stretch of Russian coast from St Petersburg to Estonia. These areas were strictly out of bounds, and were enforced by minefields! We thought this might have been a windup, but later on when Alan did the detailed planning of the Helsinki to St Petersburg stage, the charts did highlight the prohibited areas, and mines actually appeared on the charts, together with words to the effect that it would be highly dangerous to drop anchor in these areas.
    Ingo was an interesting chap, with a sense of humour and an excellent command of English. He had worked for O2 in Germany, and when it was taken over by Telefonica, he took the golden handshake. With that he decided to undertake the trip of a lifetime, with his wife's blessing. He missed his wife and two children, but this was something he just had to do, and his wife wanted him to get it out of his system. His plan was to write a book about it after the voyage.
    The aim for the rest of the day was for Alan to have a go at fitting new valves (the boat is fully of every conceivable spare) into the holding tank system, a one man job due to the minute space available to work in, while Rex and I reconnoitered shops for food and other "ship" items that Alan had requested.
Finland's Ice Hockey World Champions Showing Off their Cup
    As we headed along the harbour, a few sights prompted my mind to wind back by over 30 years, when I made a business trip here. I snapped out of those distant memories as we entered Senate Square, whose surroundings formed a unique and cohesive example of Neoclassical architecture. The square was dominated by four buildings designed by Carl Ludvig Engel between 1822 and 1852. In prime place in the square was Helsinki Lithurian Catherdral at the top of a long flight of steps. Outside it was wrapped in beautiful, imposing, white walls, but its interior was plain and austere. Not one stained glass window existed inside the cathedral. The other major buildings around the square included the University of Helsinki, the National Library of Finland and the Government Palace.
    We wandered through various pedestrianised and main shopping streets, including the central commercial street of the city, Aleksanterinkatu, making enquiries regarding our shopping requirements at various stores. The sales assistants had lovely smiles, and some spoke impeccable English; they were a delight. One of the items that Alan requested was a brand of sterilising solution that is used in the UK for steralising babies' bottles; he wanted some of this solution to add to our water tanks to kill any bugs that might be lurking. We searched high and low for anything that resembled this, until one lady explained to us, "In Finland, we don't use chemicals to steralise baby equipment, we steralise by boiling". That put us in our place, and we gave up searching after that.
    Like a pair of tin soldiers, a couple of starched, motionless soldiers stood guard outside the Presidential Palace; crikey, how do they do that for hours on end? In the green areas of the city daffodils, tulips and blue bells were in abundance, flowering weeks later than their British comrades.
Standing Room Only in the Crowds
    Making our way back to the boat, we came across a large gathering by one of the city harbours, and an area was being cordoned off around a stage under construction. An event was obviously due to take place imminently. We got chatting to a young Finnish guy who had learnt his excellent English at the International School. He explained to us that on the previous day, Finland had beaten Sweden in the World Ice Hockey final, and the victorious team was due to parade the cup through the city and around the harbour front in the evening. Wow, what a time for us to turn up in Helsinki.
Rex, Ingo and Me in Senate Square
    Later in the evening, Rex and I had completed what jobs we could do on the boat, but the repairs on the holding tank valves were taking much longer than anticipated. Due to the space restrictions, it was a one-man job. Alan wanted to press on with the repairs and decided to forego venturing along the harbour front, so Rex, Ingo and I strolled off to witness the mass celebrations taking place in the city. Finland is a country of 5M people, and most of them seemed to be crammed into the streets leading to the harbour. By sheer coincidence we saw the open top bus arriving with the national team and cup. The atmosphere was euphoric, with cheering, horn blowing, singing, chanting and bon homie. Folk were perched on balconies, ledges, lamp posts and whatever they could balance on in their endeavours to get a commanding view of the proceedings. I wondered if the Palace guards managed to relax from their stiff poses for the occasion. Helicopters buzzed overhead and TV cameras were everywhere. This was a spectacular occasion, and I was pleased to be part of the happy throng despite not understanding a word of Finnish or having the faintest clue about ice hockey.
    We were getting nowhere in the milling crowd, so we headed back along side streets, but they were heaving with frenzied crowds too. As we passed the Lithurian Cathedral, all the steps leading up to it were crammed with Finns celebrating their national victory.
    We eventually arrived at a bar that Ingo knew of, and settled down for some beers and a bite to eat. The bar was also heaving with a jubilant crowd, and ordering drinks was a 20 minute affair. What struck me was that none of the young crowd paid cash, every transaction was paid for by card. Television screens were showing a live broadcast of the celebrations on the harbour, and a tremendous cheer went up when the Finnish President took the stage and made her speech.
Ice Breakers
    It was hard to make out the barrier between outside and inside. Young folk were everywhere: merry, singing, shouting, faces painted blue and white, and a host of waving Finnish flags. The kids were very merry, but there was no sign of drunkenness or trouble; just as it should be. The noise was incredible and maintaining a conversation was difficult. I had to visit the restroom, which was a novel experience. As I was standing at the urinal, a couple of girls came out of the cubicle and chatted as they washed their hands in the basin next to me. Then another girl quickly dashed past me in a desperate bid for the cubicle; all totally oblivious to me. It was a fun evening, and as we walked back to our boats, cars drove by tooting their horns, full of young folk inside and on top of the bonnets, roofs and open boots, all excitably celebrating. When we got back, Alan wanted me to finish fixing the shower outlet pump, which I somehow managed to do despite the beers I had enjoyed. I slept well that night.

17th May
Uspensky Cathedral
Kluuvi Gloet
    Rex and I began the day in search of provisions. As we strolled along the harbour front we were amazed to find that all the broken glass and rubbish left from the previous night had long been swept away, and the stage for the festivities had magically disappeared too. One would never have known a huge national celebration had taken place here just hours earlier. Later we visited the Uspensky Cathedral, the largest orthodox church in Western Europe. This place of worship was completed in 1868 in the Katajanokka district of Helsinki, when Finland was part of the Grand Duchy of Russia. With its golden cupolas and redbrick facade, the church was one of the clearest symbols of the Russian impact on Finnish history. The interior was a total contrast to that of the Lithurian Cathedral; here grand paintings and icons adorned walls, and ornate brass, silver and marble abounded, very much a colourful sight. However, once again all windows were plain.
    Later, I took a hike across to Kasisaniemenlahti and the Kluuvi Gloet, a beautiful park laid out with endless rows of beds full of labeled plants and grasses, and a magnificent glass house.
Government Palace
Glass House in Kluuvi Gloet
    To satisfy my thirst for art, I headed across to the Helsinki Art Exhibition Hall, only to find it featured 50s and 60s fashion, not quite my taste, so I left and made my way to the Amos Anderson Art Museum. I eventually found the area it was in, but it took me ages to find the gallery. To gain entrance, I had to walk through a coffee shop to a door at the back. When I did, I was greeted by the sign, "Only open on Wednesday". Odd opening times seemed to be the norm for public buildings and restaurants in this city. I strolled back past the Palace of Nobility to the boat in glorious sunshine, admiring on the way how the city planners had managed to combine road traffic, cycles and pedestrians into their own lanes.
    In the evening we took Alan sightseeing and had an excellent meal in a Finnish restaurant (surprisingly hard to find!). It was a delightful ending to our stay in Helsinki.

18th May
Farewell to the Two Cathedrals
    It was a bright, fresh morning with an invigorating breeze when we got the boat ship-shape. Alan made a call to the Finnish border control to find out where we would have to check out of the European Union. He was informed that the order of the day was to check out at customs on the island of Suomenlinna, but only after noon. We had time to kill so I volunteered to climb an awkwardly leaning ladder to inspect the AIS VHF connection on top of the mizzen mast. The connection appeared sound, which left us with the uneasy feeling that the AIS problems lay elsewhere.
Suomenlinna Fortress
Suomenlinna Church Peering Above the Fortress
    Suomenlinna was a small historic island where a maritime fortress was built by the Swedes in 1748 to counter the growing threat from Russia. As well as being recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and a popular tourist attraction, it also possessed a customs and border patrol unit. Two burly customs officials boarded our vessel, asking if we had anything to declare, and on our negative response, took our passports and crew inventory and disappeared. Twenty minutes later a border official came aboard, and after numerous checks of our passports (including corrections) he stamped our crew inventory sheets - four for Russian officials and one for our entry back into the European Union at Tallinn. Thus concluding the formalities, he chatted to us, mentioning that he knew London well since his wife once worked near Buckingham Palace. He was a very helpful and friendly chap, and explained some of the formalities that we would have to go through on entering Russian waters and on entering Tallinn.
    Soon, we were on our way weaving between thousands of islands, some fairly large, others just clumps of rocks sitting below water level. There was a myriad of buoys to aid navigation around the submerged areas; hitting one of those at speed would have had tragic consequences. Most of these buoys were unlit, so a night passage through them without GPS would have been suicidal. Many of the larger islands contained properties; the Finns took great exception to anyone getting near their private domain.
One of Many Inhabited Islands
    The wind favoured us, reaching speeds in excess of 30 knots at times, and we made exceptional speed, occasionally just short of 7 knots.
    We eventually escaped the archipelago on the south Finnish coast, and ploughed on through open seas heading towards the shipping channels that we were obliged to follow on our final leg into St Petersburg.
    Around 10pm we were still well over 100 miles from St Petersburg when we crossed the Russian border, and Alan went through the formality of contacting the Russian coastguard to advise them who we were, boat description and destination. The border officials spoke good English, and seemed happy enough with the information provided to them. They requested that they be contacted again once we reached a buoy much further along our route.

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Kiel St Petersburg
Last updated 2.1.2013