...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Swedish summer

(text on boat jargon and Allemansrätten added on July 24)

We're experiencing what is probably one of Sweden's worst summers right now. "Swedish summer" has even become an ironic remark to point out the real weather conditions here: the days are mostly cloudy, there are occasional warnings for local thunderstorms, the winds are cold and the nights even colder. Some weeks ago, it had even been raining all week long, and in southern Sweden where the rains hit the hardest, they had enough rainfall in one week to cover five months' usual rain levels. (Pictures of Skåne and Helsingborg in these links, c/o the tabloid Expressen) To think that last summer's temperatures here reached tropical levels! And... what's this?... in mainland Europe they're actually experiencing 30+ degree heat?

On the other hand, despite this "Swedish summer" weather -- the forecasters predict rain and storm this night although even they note that the weather can't seem to make its mind -- this definitely has been one of the best summers in my life. The few days of sun and warmth just weighs up for everything else, and the summer days are made even better when you're out with the boat and know you've just grabbed the chance to enjoy a sunny day. I must admit Juanita has a lot to do with making the summer exciting. The boat has given us a whole new dimension of experience -- the freedom of sailing and managing the boat in different winds, the breathtaking landscapes that open up as you float by, the feeling of speed in the water, and the peacefulness of being in an island on your own, with only the sound of the water and wind around you.

Boat jargon, and learning as we go

With only two pairs of hands at deck, I have to take an active part in sailing, which is harder than I first thought. Marcus had at least attended a children's sailing school, and he had been aboard with Göran since he was 3. For me, it has to be "learning as we go", usually in a hurry. I have to take the fenders up or down as we approach or leave a harbor, steer the boat against the wind when Marcus takes the sails up (I have to learn to know where the wind comes from in this case), act as the "trimmer" for the sails when Marcus is making is the helmsman, change the direction of the sails (with some muscle power), learn to determine if a ship on collision course will overtake or not based on his relative speed, etc. This is not to mention learning different kinds of knots, which Göran makes me practice on my spare time. Boat jargon is also a dictionary of its own to learn: every part of the boat, every direction and every action on deck seems to have a word of its own. Today over the radio, I heard that some these terms -- at least the most basic ones including boat (båt) and mast (also mast in Swedish) -- were vocabulary going back to the Viking age. The names for more complicated machinery are Dutch or German in origin, from their "big time" in seafaring. As for the words, at least I know that when someone says "Jip!", I should duck and watch my head for the swinging boom. All of this activity has got to explain why I don't have many pictures of us in transit -- unless we're sailing with the wind, which happens to be not as exciting and work-demanding as sailing against it.

Highway routes and island escapes

One thing I didn't know about lighthouses until this year was that they are located along boat "highways", the latter I previously didn't know even existed. Red and green bouys mark deep areas where big boats can sail in, usually in places with high boat traffic (e.g. from Norrköping to Stockholm). Lighthouses litter this sea route, so that boats can at night tell by the colored lights which areas of this route they are on. Since we sailed only when there was sun (which was anyway most of the day up here), I wasn't able to see lighthouse lights, but we did sail on the main routes like other boats. Like hundreds of other boats, that is. There was always at least 10 in close range ahead of us, and at least 10 approaching on the other "lane", and then from time to time a few more overtaking ones emerging from different sea routes or islands. You wouldn't believe how crowded these highways were during this "high summer" season, actually. We wave or raise a hand to a sailor (as the tradition goes) perhaps an average of twice in five minutes and even more in tight areas like straits. Local tourism booms every summer: most of the boats were Swedish (it's a tradition to show your country-of-origin flag), second at the top were Germans, followed by boats from other Scandinavian countries.

Even here there are rules to be followed. To avoid collisions, one must obviously show to the incoming boat if you are going to his left or to his right; he will take the "other" lane. Sailboats get right of way over motorboats since the latter are more agile; other types of sailboats get precedence over others.

Obviously, when one gets the chance to stray from the main highway and into the little islands that litter the archipelago, it's quite a change. The tempo changes and you can have more time to look around for a suitable place to park, the noise of motorboats diminishes, and then you start to feel quite alone.

As we had our lunch on an island near Aspöja (southwards), there were only our voices to be heard for a long stretch away. The only other sounds were the water splashing on rocks, birds screeching, and the wind blowing. I commented that there could be islands as beautiful as this in the Philippines -- there certainly are -- but probably not so many places where one feels really alone. As soon as you're traveling as a tourist there, villagers come from nowhere and try to sell things or services, ask if you're comfortable or try to suggest ways to improve your vacation. There in our little island on the Swedish archipelago, nobody really cared. In fact the experience would have been ruined if somebody did. If one could learn words by feeling them, this was how "peaceful" and "privacy" felt like. It was as if I learned them for the first time.


An interesting (and unique) aspect of Swedish tourism by the way, is "every man's right" to roam, or Allemansrätten (translated as Right of Public Access). According to the book Culture Shock Sweden, it stems from the basic tenet of equality of all, and -- as a consequence of this -- any person can camp, anchor, or roam anywhere in Sweden, even in privately owned lands (where one can stay for a day). The privilege comes with a responsibility of course, which roughly is: "do not disturb, do not destroy". Special regulations in protected areas must be respected, dogs must be kept on leashes, fires put out, and trash picked up. Owners of privately owned lands must be shown courtesy by not intruding in their privacy, keeping the surroundings as they found them and asking their permission if camping in large groups. Wild berries, mushrooms and fruits (unless they have protected status) can be picked by anyone, but plants must not be plucked from their roots nor trees and other flora and fauna destroyed.

When Kristine was here, she asked us whether we feel constrained by high costs of living in Sweden. On the contrary, we said, even though many things here might be expensive, there are a lot of things for a more-than-good quality of life that one can enjoy for free: parks with sports and recreation activities, outdoor hobbies like trekking (perhaps in a nature reserve 5 to 15 minutes away!), some cultural activities and museums, the school bus which I take 2 times a week, books from the city- or school library. Some things that need to be paid for are possible to have with little expenditure: rent (in comparison to the student apartment I rented in Holland) is relatively cheap here --even though this is our biggest expenditure-- and a bike can take you everywhere within the city. But back to Allemansrätten, I said to Marcus how finely situated some summer houses were along the archipelago, and what a view the owners must wake up to. But we had that view then too, Marcus said, and reflecting on it I realized that this priceless experience we had only for the price of two cans of boat varnish, a bagful of screws, cleaning materials, and cloth.

Lundarna, an island overlooking the Baltic

On the last two days of our sailing, we anchored in a little bay on a popular island called Lundarna, a medium-sized island that lure tourists to its sheltered little bays and a rock height overlooking the Baltic. There are some more islands in the Baltic too, but they look different from the ones on the other side of Lundarna. Closer to the mainland, the islands have trees and grass. On the "sea side", the islands are small, flat, and lifeless. No plants grow in those small islands, for anything except algae are swept away by the waves. A 10-hour journey into that sea would take us to Sweden's biggest island, Gotland where a very old town Visby lies. Not a destination for this summer, though. We just lay on the flat rocks and let the surroundings take over us in wonder.

Back to the other side of the island, some boats joined us in the bay to spend a night sheltered from the winds. We showered on deck behind a wall of tarp because the others were too close for comfort even by alleged Swedish standards of body exposure -- of course even here you only expose your body at right times. It's hard to believe we managed to wash ourselves everyday despite being in the wild. Kudos to the so called "Camp Shower" which is a black bag that heats up sea water on deck under the sun. The portable gas stove was also a wonder of wonders that cooked us bacon sandwiches, sausages, and pasta and meat sauce even in the middle of nowhere.

Since we're expecting bad weather tonight (and we have to be cat watch at Mats and Margareta's tomorrow), we had to say bye to the islands for now. And here we are already planning our next outing... of course, if the Swedish summer weather allows.

Pictures and descriptions are posted at the Cheese Cutter (click on this link).


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