Published: September 2013 Sailing World
© 2014 Troy Gilbert
Moss strewn boulders and granite walls with birch trees towering above are close enough that we can hear the cries of nesting Ospreys. When we’re mere feet away from rocks, the countdown starts.
“Tre, två, ett, nu!”
The grey hulled Swedish TP52 tacks on a dime, its3Di sails sweep across the boat. A hulking grinder with short cropped blonde hair and who also trains in kickboxing, pushes the pedestal handles one final quarter turn.
In the cool summer air in Sweden and this close to the Arctic Circle, he’s not sweating. But as he catches his breath, his gaze never leaves the stone fortress that once defended this narrowest stretch of the Swedish archipelago 20 miles southeast of Stockholm. As soon as we tack, the other side of the channel is less than 25 yards away and closing at 6 knots. He waits again for the countdown. With the wind on the nose, he’ll do this a few more times in rapid succession to get through this short half-mile channel. All told, we will complete nearly 30 tacks over the first eight hours of racing, each one taking us closer to the open waters and clear air of the Baltic Sea where the 350-mile AF Offshore Race, the region’s biggest and most prestigious race, has played out since 1937
The 350nm ÅF Offshore Race was known as the Round Gotland Race or the Gotland Runt and with 200-300 entries historically, the regatta is trying something new to boost participation even higher – a full rebranding effort along with a start in Stockholm. Minnowed deep in the Swedish archipelago made up of nearly 30,000 islands and many narrow channels, the capital of Sweden is a maritime city perfectly situated to host an urban distance regatta start. With ÅF Consulting coming onboard as the primary sponsor, the regatta agreed that a start in Stockholm brought higher visibility to the event as opposed to the historic start on the remote island of Sandhamn. It also adds the challenge and complexity of racing through the archipelago.
Swedes have a long history and love affair with the water. Frozen in ice and snow for most of the year and with barely four hours of daylight during the winter, the entire country explodes in some sort of Scandinavian Spring Break during the mild summers and virtually 24 hours of daylight. They’re drawn to the coastline to lounge on the rocks, and the waterways are filled with boats and private boat clubs. The Royal Swedish Yacht Club, which hosts the regatta, runs a junior sailing program that hosts 2,000 children every summer.
In the shadow of the Royal Palace and Sweden’s parliamentary building, the race village in Stockholm’s old quarter has temporary floating docks built to handle 300 entries. Here sailors prepare their boats in the historic heart of a major European capital. The waterfront is lined with cafes filled by a populace of would-be supermodels and pale-skinned Scandinavians soaking up every available ray of sunshine. Electronic dance music floats over the harbor day and night. And befitting a major race start in its capital city nearly 10,000 people walk the race village on the eve of the start. Two days later, the volunteers with hand-counters tally nearly 180,000 more. The piers are lined with an amazing spectrum of boats, from the cruisers tackling the shorter inshore race to the 98-foot, Esimit Europa 2, with its 18 man crew donned in white gear and vests. Classic sailing yachts with their perfect teak are parked across from a row of TP52s, including the King Harald V of Norway’s own royal sled. There are nine individual classes, with a total fleet of 248 boats.
When start day arrives on the morning of June 30th, spectators line the waterfront and the rising city sloping to starboard. A press helicopter buzzes overhead and the roller coasters from the city’s theme park gives the scene a sort of NASCAR energy, even if the light early morning winds do not. Onboard the TP52 Blixt Pro Sailing, we stake our positions, preparing for the light winds, and the 350 nautical miles that lay ahead.
The course winds approximately 50 nautical miles through the heavily trafficked and deep-water routes of the Swedish archipelago before turning south in the Baltic Sea. Crews then make their way due south for Gotland, largest island in the Baltic, rounding it to port and then return north to finish at the small, rustic resort island of Sandhamn where the race historically started and finished. The fastest boats have been known to finish in 40+ hours, but for some of the slower offshore cruisers the race can take five days or more.
With Esimit Europa 2 making its own wind and leading the way, the remaining ORC A class fleet immediately engages in a series of dueling tacks, looking for clean air and open lanes. Onboard Blixt Pro Sailing, where I’ve secured a ride, Swedish is the language of racing, although the skipper, Thomas Blixt, rarely utters a word. His 14-member crew has raced with him on multiple European campaigns, many for decades. Other than brief consults with his sailing partner and friend, Stefan Winberg, the legendary sailmaker of North Sails, he doesn’t need to say anything at the helm. The boat and crew are finely tuned. I have been pretty lucky,” he tells me. “Since 1986, I have won this race nine times, four times overall. When I win ten, then I can quit.”
Racing past the Royal family’s summer castle and other mansions, eventually the shoreline picnickers give way to the more remote, water-locked islands and an unending array of boats weaving through them. The course’s larger bays and channels are filled with summer cruisers, power or sail, and are joined by the errant cruise ship returning from Finland or Russia. These are deep waters, and the rocky shorelines can be approached within several feet. But hazards abound, including a few sandy shoals amongst the outer islands, as the crew of Esimit Europa 2 learns when they hit an unmarked hazard and come to a full stop. Without sustaining any serious damage, however, they continue on and enter the Baltic Sea.
Even with the disconcerting view of mastheads peeking over on the lee side of islands and the curiosity of having many of the larger classes potentially bottlenecking in the racecourse’s narrowest channels, the open water is the race’s primary draw.
The Baltic Sea has always been a huge, brackish inland lake upon which the Russian Navy occasionally provokes the fleets of its smaller Baltic neighbors —the Swedes always standing up to the challenge. And while the vast majority of the boats race from the host country, many do come from Germany, Norway, and Russia and with the echoes of children serenading the locals with the Swedish national anthem from passing boats, there is a certain patriotic energy onboard. Quietly, but fiercely proud, and possessing a great sense of humor, there is a sense of national honor at stake in this largest and most historic of the Swedish regattas, but the crew jokes how the SI’s allow for the taking of time for whaling or seal hunting opportunities.
At night, the few lights of the steep northern shores of Gotland are easily visible in the distance by the dark outline of the land, and we enjoy the perpetual sunset at this northern latitude. Dusk sets in around 10:00pm and never leaves. The light tricks you into thinking you aren’t making progress through time, except you know the crew is exhausted from the long day. Onboard the TP52, all is quiet as we settle in on the long tack for a dinner serving of shrimp and cream cheese paste squeezed from a tube and slathered on dark, beautiful Swedish breads – only then do you realize you were starving. If it weren’t for our watches it would be nearly impossible to know the precise time, but in the light winds and cold of the night, I can only hear the hull slapping through the water and the light snores of the crew bundled up and asleep on the rail.
For only a couple of the crewmembers, this is their first rounding of Gotland, the majority have many under their belts. This and all of the other islands are normally bathed in mountains of snow and ice, but you see in all of their faces the enthusiasm of the warm weather and their heavy compact racing season. On the rail, they speak of past and upcoming regattas all bookending this distance race and all ask whether I enjoyed the pickled herring – yes.
As the sun rises past the medieval church spires of the town of Visby on the western coast of Gotland feels much like a continuation of the evening’s sunset, but in reverse and with something important missing – oddly it doesn’t feel unnatural. Our competitors on Progressiva, an Angermark 55, have snuck up on us in the morning light and word begins to trickle up from the nav station below as to standings and positions. An excitement rises in hurried Swedish, sails are re-checked and a few hours later the turn north for the final leg to Sandhamn is underway with Progressiva sliding further arrears.
Under a building northeasterly wind of 12 knots, we hold our position in the fleet. Down below at the nav station, the technical tactician constantly scans the weather reports for wind tweaks in the quiet dark as the winch’s drive shaft cranks briefly above his head. There are few serious currents in the Baltic to contend with. But on the computer screens, the fleet’s positions are reassuring with Blixt Pro Sailing vying with the few leaders and a blob of hundreds of boats still streaming down the western coast of Gotland.
The skipper comes below and provides a tactical update, pointing out on the screen the competitors sailing between the smaller islands that jut out of the sea on the eastern coast of Gotland, “Right now we are contending with Wolfpack, the King of Norway’s old TP52, and the Landmark 43, Datacom, which are behind us and sailed by a bunch of good guys. We need to gain some time on them. Esimit Europa though is close to the turn and drinking beer in Sandhamn, nothing we can do about that. We need to catch Wolfpack. To be the first TP52 can be quite important.”
The iconic image for this regatta is that of the ORC-A boats as they finish the 120-mile leg up the eastern coast of Gotland on the second morning and make the final turn at the towering sea buoy marking the entrance into the archipelago and with the NE wind now at the stern, the TP52 flies through the short stretch to Sandhamn. Onshore, a small hut and the press boats mark the finish and the crew has that excitement of finishing and the mixed chatter as to their final standings.
For days after we finish, spinnakers flow into this small island from the blue waters of the Baltic, providing an amazing backdrop to an already stunning landscape. Finishing boats raft up one by one and all of the energy of Stockholm returns with each crew re-energizing the party. The Royal Swedish YC hosts a massive semi-formal regatta dinner, and we enjoy a jumble of tablemates that includes the Royal fleet surgeon and the first Swede to climb Mount Everest. With small glasses of aquavit, toasts are unending, as are traditional Swedish drinking songs.
Outside, the sandy streets of Sandhamn, a village of maybe 500 residents, are easily overwhelmed by the sailors, and with the sun never setting on the celebration, the Swedish blue and yellow flag proudly flies above every house. Used as a means to let friends and neighbors know they are home, it’s easy to feel the 76-year history of sailors coming home to this island.
More images from the Gotland Runt can be found HERE.