I stand on the gently rocking bow and measure the distance with my eye, then jump onto a granite boulder covered in orange lichen and scramble up the rocks, using scrawny fir trees to pull myself into the forest.
Bright green moss swallows my footsteps and releases a musty, earthy scent I’ve never before smelled on a sailing trip. But then, I’ve never before sailed in Åland. Cruising these islands, sprinkled across the Archipelago Sea, between Finland and Sweden, is as much about exploring the land as it is about the sailing the waters.
The islands and skerries number 6,500 in all, according to Wikipedia. A look at my charts and a few days navigating a yacht through the Archipelago Sea lead me to concur. Rocky outcrops – some only breaking the surface of the water, others home to villages, marinas and forests of pine and silver birch – dot the horizon. On many stand quaint little summer homes, each with its own sauna shack near the water. If a pennant flies from the home’s flag pole you know the master is in residence.
The islands belong to Finland but war and history have turned this into an autonomous, demilitarised region with its own flag. The people speak a flat-sounding version of Swedish and eat a uniquely sweet black bread.
You don’t have to be a sailor to explore Åland. Huge ferries criss-cross the seas, taking passengers and cars between Sweden, Finland and Estonia. Smaller ferries serve the more remote islands, and the campers and adventurers touring them by bicycle.
I’m clambering ashore on the island of Saggö, our yacht, Valaska, tied bow-first to the rocks in a mooring system that is unique to the Baltic and frightening to the uninitiated visiting sailor for its proximity to the rocky land. But the shores are steep and there is no tide to speak of, so she is safe.
Plump bilberries and lingonberries colour the forest undergrowth – the former are tart and sweet and by the time I’ve picked enough to fill a small bag, my hands are stained blue. That evening, I and my yacht mates sit around a campfire on the rocks, sipping coffee and eating fresh berries with scones baked in Valaska’s oven.
In the morning, we hoist our sails and leave Saggö, escorted into open water by a pair of bright white swans and their cygnets. The national bird of Finland, the Whooper swan is featured on the country’s €1 coin and I take the presence of this family as a good omen, praying that the sunshine and steady breeze will hold.
We sail across the top of the main island of Åland, remote waters in which other boats and marinas are scarce, before turning south to Eckerö, a quiet resort town where holidaying Finns and Swedes fish from the docks and play on the beach as the summer season winds down.
It’s a short sail to Mariehamn, named for a Russian empress and the main port for international ferry traffic. Once an important shipbuilding centre, Åland’s capital is still home to several tall ships and a downtown that feels like a far-flung colonial outpost.
The wind has risen, waves break over the marina docks and the air is singing with the screech of rigging, so we jump ashore and rent bicycles, pedalling north along well-marked bike paths for 25km to Kastelholm, a medieval, Swedish-built castle the tall walls of which have held everything from grain to witches.
The 1809 Treaty of Fredrikshamn forced Sweden to give up control of Åland, along with Finland, to Imperial Russia. When, in 1917, Finland declared independence, it took Åland with it. Ålanders argued for self-determination, requesting annexation by Sweden, but there were concerns independence would make the territory vulnerable to the Soviet Union and, later, Nazi Germany.
In 1920, Finland granted far-reaching cultural and political autonomy to Åland, which gained its own postage stamps, police force and seat in the Nordic Council, in the process becoming a forerunner of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” model. Ratifying Åland’s autonomous status was one of the first big decisions made by the League of Nations, which would become the United Nations.
After three days, there are still whitecaps on the sea, but we slip out of the Mariehamn marina and sail for Föglö, a cluster of islands in the southeast of the region that constitute Åland’s second-largest population centre.
It’s blowing hard as we approach Föglö’s main village, which is little more than a store and a ferry landing wrapped around the marina, where sailors congregate annually for a popular summer music festival. The crew jump ashore and tie us to the steel rings in the dock, ensuring the wind doesn’t sweep us into other yachts. Once the sails are furled we take part in a ritual handed down by sailors through the centuries.
“Anchor drinks!” I call down to the crew. Out comes a bottle of rum and a set of glasses. I pour a round and then, before anyone takes a sip, dribble a little into the sea, as an offering to Neptune.
“May this harbour keep us safe and secure,” I say, raising my glass and downing the rum.
We pour a few more rounds to ward off the chill. I light a small kerosene heater and soon the boat is cosy with the smell of a stew bubbling on the stove.
On our return voyage to Mariehamn, we stop in the island port of Rödhamn. With a name that refers to the red of its rocky shores, Rödhamn has provided safe haven for seafarers crossing the Baltic for centuries. It was once also a base for the pilots who guided ships into Mariehamn, just 16km to the north. A reconstructed pilot house stands in the centre of the island and a white engine room that protected a radio beacon that went off-air in 1970 remains a landmark well known to sailors.
The island is blissfully quiet. There is no electricity or running water but what it does have is a friendly little marina, and a private wood-fired sauna that can be hired by the hour.
Late that night, we hike across the island with towels around our necks. The air has turned chilly and the clear light is of a type found only during summer nights at high latitude. The small hut housing the sauna is at the tip of a peninsula, its windows facing out to sea. Smoke puffs from its chimney. We strip and duck into the warm darkness, the smell of woodsmoke mixing with the tang of sea air within the sauna’s wood-panelled walls.
I lay my laudeliina, a small cloth, on the wooden bench before sitting down – a ritual I learned from locals in the first public sauna I visited. Soon my naked body is dripping with sweat. Conversation is muted.
“No talk of business, politics or religion in a sauna,” my Finnish friend instructs me.
After 15 minutes, the heat becomes too intense to bear and we run outside, naked and steaming, and across the smooth granite that slopes towards the water’s edge. We jump into the frigid Baltic Sea with a gasp, enjoying the cold sting safe in the knowledge that warmth is just a few steps away.